BRIAN: The Tinker's Wedding Overture; Symphony No. 7 in C; Symphony No.
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker, cond.
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Havergal Brian was born into grinding poverty. Both of his parents labored
in the Staffordshire potteries. Somehow, he taught himself the rudiments
of music and managed to study with local musicians, church organists and
such. With this catch-as-catch-can training, he turned himself into a formidable
composer, especially of symphonies and operas. After a brief flurry of
interest in his music in the Twenties, he was essentially ignored and made
his living as a music journalist and as a copyist of other composers' scores.
Ralph Vaughan Williams threw some work his way. The journalism provided
him with free tickets to concerts, and he probably knew as much as anyone
about contemporary music both in England and on the continent. Toccata
Press has published collections of his articles and essays, and I recommend
them for their wide, penetrating, and thoroughly individual insights.
He remained poor the rest of his life. World War II depressed him so much
that he stopped composing, but a few years after its end, he began to compose
at a prodigious rate, including 25 of his 32 symphonies after the age of
70. In the Fifties, the symphonist and BBC producer Robert Simpson discovered
him and championed his music and by the Sixties, a slow, but solid revival
began. That's when I first heard Brian. Right now, it appears that a number
of independent labels have taken him up -- in capable to good performances
-- and Naxos seems to be involved in producing all the symphonies. Nevertheless,
one still can't call Brian a household name. So let's welcome this disc.
Some of Brian's neglect stems from the British class system, some from
the lack of "proper" connections due to his rough-and-ready education
outside of such institutions as the Royal College of Music or the university
system. Some of it comes from the complexity of his music. Despite its
roots in late-German Romanticism -- Mahler, Strauss, and Elgar in particular
-- Brian's music poses challenges for the listener. First, a lot goes on
at the same time. He subscribes to Mae West's "too much of a good
thing is wonderful." If most composers work with two subject groups,
Brian often goes with three. Furthermore, he loves to vary his main ideas,
often to the point where one easily loses track, and his counterpoint chops
are such that he likes to juggle a number of them simultaneously. It takes
me a number of times to begin to get hold of the musical argument of an
unfamiliar Brian work. After that, one contends with an idiosyncratic emotional
landscape. Very little in Brian is purely one thing. Heroic marches are
tinged with doubt. Darkness gets sustained by interjecting little glows
of hope. Victory seldom appears without accompanying doubts and regrets.
Although Brian survives because of his symphonies, he considered himself
essentially an opera composer and claimed that even his symphonies usually
had a dramatic inspiration. His Second Symphony, for example, was inspired
by Goethe's drama Götz von Berlichingen, and he composed his Sixth
out of scraps for an abandoned opera on Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows
(he couldn't get permission from the Synge estate). I've never heard a
Brian opera live, and I'm an interested party. The economics of opera make
that possibility highly unlikely.
Most of the Brian I've encountered has shown a tragic sensibility. Lighter
pieces seem much rarer, but The Tinker's Wedding concert overture (inspired
by the Synge comedy) certainly qualifies. From a remarkable year (1948)
in which Brian returned to composing, it avoids most of the clichés
of the comedy overture. Two of its most intriguing ideas are a sudden stop-and-start
and faux-fugatos that appear throughout the work. The score also features
truly odd but piquant scoring (a memorable passage with piccolo against
double-tonguing muted brass, for example). Much of the music is in two
parts, which threatens to turn into fugue with promising entrances by different
instruments yet never does. Never having read the play, I can't say how
close the overture shadows the plot, but it doesn't matter. It's a brilliant
concert piece all on its own.
The Symphony No. 7, also from 1948, is the last relatively conventional
symphony Brian wrote. A late Romantic sensibility, although highly individual,
still hangs about. Increasingly, he became more concentrated and elliptical.
Inspired by Goethe's description of the Strassburg cathedral bell tower
in the essay "On German Architecture," the symphony runs to four
movements: Allegro moderato; Allegro moderato ma maestoso (a scherzo, of
sorts); Adagio - Allegro moderato - Adagio (slow movement); Epilogue: "Once
upon a time" (Moderato).
Many of the ideas seem to evoke either church bells or pageantry. The first
movement begins with an awesome intro for percussion and fanfares on double-tonguing
trumpets which introduce an heroic march. In some ways, this takes off
from Elgar's marches, but Brian abandons Elgar's commitment to "pomp
and circumstance." The movement is a large ternary form (A-B-A), with
the sections starkly marked by change from loud to soft dynamics and back
again. The middle is half-light and ambiguity, and even though we return
to the earlier march, the middle section casts a shadow on its heroism.
The second movement scherzo, beginning in 5/2, sets out on a surrealistic
journey – a lumbering march, fairy-like scherzi, demonic howling
and stamping, evocations of pastoral dance, pure swagger. Episodes follow
with no particular logic, although the heavy-footed march reappears. Listening
to this movement resembles watching the scenes of Un Chien Andalou. Nevertheless,
the narrative grips you, and you experience it whole, due entirely to Brian's
The third movement combines adagio and another scherzo. Brian creates an
eccentric rhetorical argument. A brief misty atmosphere disperses to the
scherzo. An adagio tries to establish itself, but the scherzo keeps interrupting.
Gradually, however, the two interpenetrate, with the adagio material moving
to the scherzo rhythm. The movement ends radiantly, with bright, piercing
notes from the glockenspiel.
Brian subtitled the finale "Once upon a time," but it's no fairy
tale. John Pickard's liner notes suggest that the epigraph refers to Brian
looking nostalgically at pre-Reich German culture after World War II. To
each, his own. I don't hear that myself, but it doesn't matter. The music
stands on its own, without a listener having to know Brian's spiritual
The movement opens with quiet fanfares from the horns reminiscent of the
beginning of the first movement, leading to a determined march with a distinctive
rhythm. However, this movement, full of sudden and wrenching emotional
shifts, puts you in mind of ADD. Nevertheless, the march rhythm provides
a great deal of coherence, and the shifts, aided by quicksilver changes
of orchestral color, add to emotional complexity. Brian is always a prodigal
inventor of unique and -- if you'll allow me -- psychologically acute orchestral
sounds. The movement contains two barbaric, climactic outbursts, the first
near the beginning and the second near the end. The music switches between
bursts of chivalry and subsiding into grim determination or tender nostalgia.
The sense of struggle lasts almost to the very end, when Brian lets loose
all the devils in hell and then dissipates them for a mood of grim resignation.
You think you know how the symphony will end, but Brian has one more bold
surprise. At the last possible moment, the symphony ends with strokes from
the chime and the gong on, in John Pickard's words, a "radiant" A-major
chord. It sounds, and it's over -- by convention, a "serene" ending.
Yet its very brevity raises more questions than it settles.
The symphonies 13-17 (1959-1961) constitute a group of works in which Brian
radically redefines his notion of what a symphony might be. All are extremely
short, all differ structurally, and all pack a punch. In many ways, they
remind me in their density of Webern's Symphony, except they are neither
serial nor atonal, although the tonality is almost always ambiguous and
often pushed to its limits. The Symphony No. 16 shows Brian's obsession
with counterpoint. The texture hardly ever rests -- pea soup at a boil.
In one continuous movement, this symphony nevertheless falls into several
sections. However, as with a lot of Brian, you often realize that you are
in the middle of a new section a bit after it has actually begun, due to
the similarity of themes. Indeed, John Pickard claims that the entire symphony
grows from its early material. I can't confirm this, because Brian subjects
his themes to constant variation. I assume Pickard has seen the score.
The symphony begins in fog, out of which arises some quasi-improvisatory
figures (the material for the symphony) that soon coalesce into a grim,
plodding march. At a certain point, the rhythmic pulse doubles, increasing
the tension and leading to an extended section related to passacaglia (a
set of variations over a repeating bass line). However, Brian -- out of
contrariness? -- varies the bass, including changing its length. After
a climax, an elegiac passage for oboes and English horn (a variant of the
opening material) leads to a jagged fugue which sandwiches a slower "trio" section
and leads to a vehement climax. A slow section follows but soon becomes
more dissonant, leading to a coda of fanfares and four grinding chords
which herald an end which is no end. Harmonically, the symphony seems to
end on the dominant. Symphonies usually end with a definite gesture. This
end, though certainly startling and memorable, hangs like a ledge over
a deep drop. It brings the listener up short.
This is, as far as I know, the second recording of the Symphony No. 16.
The other two works have received recordings by Charles Mackerras on EMI,
now deleted. Brian's symphonies, so full of counterpoint and so suddenly
changeable in mood, pose difficulties just in the physical playing. One
can compare them to Mahler symphonies in that regard. Coherence, however,
offers an even greater challenge, and few recordings achieve it. Suffice
to say that Mackerras beats Walker, as far as I'm concerned. Walker achieves
clear textures and gets the Russians to play very well, but Mackerras,
an underrated musician, "tells the tale" better. Walker does
better in the Symphony No. 16, and it does improve on Myer Fredman's 1973
Lyrita premiere recording. Nevertheless, it wouldn't surprise me to learn
of Walker's familiarity with Fredman. A Brian symphony needs many performances,
for the same reason a Mahler symphony or a Shakespeare play does: one interpretation
can't embrace all possible meanings. I strongly believe that "cracking" a
Brian score will occur piecemeal over many performances, so it is important
to establish a multifarious "performing tradition."
However, I don't want to put you off this disc, worth getting for the
Symphony No. 16 alone. The overture and the Symphony No. 7 come across
well enough, and at the Naxos price, that's a bargain.
S.G.S. (October 2019)