BRIAN: In Memoriam (1910). Festal Dance (1908). Symphony No. 17 (1961).
Symphony No. 32 (1968).
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper.
Naxos 8.572020 TT: 59:37.
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Powerful, elusive, idiosyncratic. Naxos has released a spate of Brian,
mainly re-issues from their Marco Polo label. I've heard disquieting rumors
that they have no plans for more. Still, this constitutes a significant
milestone in the progress of Brian's reputation. Dutton, at significantly
higher cost, has also issued more Brian, with few, if any, duplications
of what's currently available.
British composers labored under a disadvantage in the 20th century because
there were simply too many good ones, even great ones, to compete against.
In his long life and career, Brian strove for recognition against Elgar,
Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett. A country where Gustav
Holst becomes an afterthought should indeed count its blessings, but Holst
did not suffer alone. I wish I could propose Havergal Brian as The Great
Unsung, but I know at least two others. Perhaps one day we will be learn
to hold more than one or two great artists in our heads at a time.
Most consider Havergal Brian's 32 symphonies central to his achievement
as a composer. I'd agree, but only because I know so few of his non-symphonies.
Since the chance of my hearing a Brian work in the concert hall rapidly
approaches zero, I will likely depend on recordings. For many years,
I heard Brian in less-than-professional performances, often on pirated
Even this didn't put me off Brian, although it gave me such a poor sense
of his music. For one thing, I didn't realize how contrapuntal it is.
Brian expert Malcolm McDonald quotes the composer in his liner notes: "the
greatest of modern composers are those who have shown the greatest talent
in continuous contrapuntal writing." Yet Brian never falls into
the trap of equating counterpoint with goodness. After all, plenty of
fugues have numbed our ears. The trick is to make music with the counterpoint.
In Memoriam, the earliest work here, comes from Brian's mid-30s.
Written in three movements -- or, as the composer puts it, three "scenes" --
it consists essentially of three slow marches, the second and third in
triple time: a solemn, somber procession; beautifully restrained consolation
a meditation, using the rhythm of the opening horn solo in Brahms's second
piano concerto, which reaches a blazing climax early on and slowly fades
out. To some extent, the music stems from an Elgarian base, particularly
in its virtuoso treatment of the orchestra, but the differences from
Elgar take on greater importance. In his Pomp and Circumstance Marches,
Elgar speaks largely publically, with the personal more or less "between
the notes." Brian's mind pursues paths too quirky ever to be called "public." If
Elgar is Tennyson, Brian is Browning.
Brian wrote the Festal Dance as part of a Fantastic Symphony. He decided
to break up the movements, the first becoming his Fantastic Variations
on an Old Rhyme ("Three Blind Mice"). Festal Dance,
the scherzo, had to do with the farmer's wife, and you can hear ghosts
of the tune flitting
through Brian's original material. The dance begins with a killer percussion
section, years ahead of its time, leading to a fandango. Apparently,
the farmer's wife lives in Andalucía. A goofy fugue (marked "misterioso")
follows, with hints of "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May" rising
to prominence, before the fandango returns.
The two symphonies come from Brian's late period. In three continuous movements,
Symphony No. 17 runs a bit over 13 minutes, and the proportions are weird
-- roughly 8 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes. The overall impression it gives
is less a symphony than a fantasia, although you can argue the point. The
design stands among Brian's most eccentric -- which is saying something
-- three larger sections joined together with transitional passages which
may or may not have anything to do with the movements they join. The symphony
opens with a meditation from the solo violin. This gives way to a highly
contrapuntal march. Throughout his composing career, marches obsessed Brian,
just as they obsessed Mahler, although Brian, I think, writes more kinds
of marches. Toward the end, the solo violin sneaks back in, helping to
dial down the activity and to lead to the slow second movement, mostly
a slow march. Toward the end, a skirling passage for winds and percussion,
thematically related to nothing in particular, breaks in, and we find ourselves
in an allegro finale, a waltz whose rhythms stem mainly from the counterpoint
of independent lines -- a true tour-de-force. Once again, Brian's handling
of percussion is both arresting and unique. A march coda brings us to a
savage conclusion, brutally chopped off. In this score, Brian to me works
as associatively as Ives -- leaping from one idea to the next (and there
are a lot of ideas) -- although with more normative rhythms and phrases.
Brian's final symphony, No. 32, appeared in the composer's 92nd year.
It was his last score, period, and he had four more years to live. He
writing, as he said, because he couldn't think of music. The muse had
been pretty constant, to say the least, when he was on the boil. However,
had had major blocks in his career before, which lasted at least a couple
of years, in the Forties and Fifties. Here, he finally ran out of time.
Nevertheless, he had no way to know that he had written his last, although
he knew the odds were against him. So those who expect a grand summing-up,
like the Beethoven or the Bruckner Ninths, will be disappointed. Nevertheless,
this is a corker of a symphony, in four movements, almost classical in
its formal design, and anything but in its actual working-out. Again,
counterpoint rules. The first-movement allegretto contrasts two main
an opening that moves in a way reminiscent of the Brahms Second Symphony;
a perky idea dominated by woodwinds, which turns menacing when given
to the brass. The second movement, adagio in name only, sounds more like
continuation of the second subject group of the first. Nevertheless,
I find it more enigmatic, not least because of its erratic stops and
The third-movement scherzo reminds me of a Nielsen scherzo, but grittier.
A vigorous finale follows after a slight pause. Brian expert Malcolm
MacDonald senses it more as a coda, and I agree. Indeed, I'd go further
it a "two-movement symphony in four movements."
Leaper and the RTÉ do better in the earlier pieces. They play
well throughout the program, and given Brian's intense counterpoint,
a lot. For years, Brian fans had to put up with accounts barely adequate,
for the most part. These readings stand at a professional level, at least,
sometimes higher than that. Nevertheless Brian's symphonies really demand
many different interpreters. There's room for many different takes. They're
so psychologically gnarly that no one conductor will exhaust their meanings.
I also think of them, despite the stylistic differences between the early
and late, as a whole, like the Beethoven cycle of piano sonatas. But
fat chance any one conductor will ever learn all of them. Kudos to Naxos for
their current releases. I hope they make it to all 32 symphonies.
S.G.S. (October 2011)