BRIAN: The Tinker's Wedding Overture; Symphony No. 7 in C; Symphony No. 16.
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker, cond.
Naxos 8.573959 TT: 61:58.

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 rhetorical skill.

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 intent.

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)