Brian: Symphonies 2, 14, 5, 18 abd 21

BRIAN: Symphony No. 2 in e (1930-31); Symphony No. 14 in f (1959-60). Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7330 TT: 68:28

BRIAN: Festal Dance (1908); Symphony No. 5 "Wine of Summer" (1937); Symphony No. 19 in e (1961); Symphony No. 27 in c (1966-67); Symphony No. 31 (1969).
Roderick Williams (baritone); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7314 TT: 65:22

.Symphonist. I can think of no British composer for whom the symphony is more central to his catalogue than Havergal Brian. Other British composers have fine bodies of symphonic work, and some even innovate. However, Brian wrote over thirty (twenty after the age of 80) and in the course of his career, came up with many new ways to design them. I can't say that, of the ones I've heard (and I've heard every single recorded one), any two of them share the same approach. Brian is a Thomas Alva Edison of the form. You may ask why he's not better known. First, he lived in England, at the time a socially immobile society. Brian came from the hard-core working class, without access to Oxford, Cambridge, or the Royal College of Music, where the English typically looked for talent. Second, his music began, like Mahler's, caught between Late Romanticism and Early Modernism. Unlike Mahler, however, he had few champions to keep his music from neglect and only came out of obscurity in the Sixties. Third, even though he employs a tonal, Elgarian vocabulary, he writes so complexly (a superabundance of ideas in a contrapuntal web) and so outside symphonic norms, that a listener must concentrate over several hearings before the music begins to make sense. I find the effort exciting, however.

Brian wrote the Festal Dance as part of a Fantastic Symphony, which he broke up into separate works.  The idée fixe of the nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice," ran through the symphony, and you can hear wisps of it in Festal Dance, although Brian's original material firmly occupies the foreground. An arresting intro for percussion section alone leads to a fandango, one of the most delightful evocations of Spain not by a Russian, Spaniard, or Frenchman. Apparently, the farmer and his wife live in Andalucía. For a middle section, Brian gives us a comic fugue (marked "misterioso"), with hints of "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May" rising to prominence, and we get a brilliant reprise of fandango before the overture reaches its glittering conclusion.

An admirer of German musical and literary culture, Brian taught himself German in order to read the literature in the original. Goethe's drama Götz von Berlichingen, a heavily romanticized view of the Middle Ages, was in its time a revolutionary German drama. Despite some great passages, it's become something mostly specialists and graduate students read. The work, however, drew from Brian this symphony. Nevertheless, the inspiration is a general one. You can't find truly specific connections between this symphony and Goethe. An "heroic" symphony, highly unusual in its form, it nevertheless presents outward resemblances to classical structures. For example, the first movement -- brooding, tragic, and striving -- pays lip service to sonata-allegro form, but makes all its points in the exposition. The development, normally the bulk of such a movement, runs to the brief. If your attention wanders, you can easily miss it. Instead, Brian mainly states and develops one thematic group before moving on to the next. The second movement, analogous to a symphonic slow movement, follows without a break. In three large sections, it comes very close to continual variation of its melancholy main theme, which can make it hard for a listener to follow. The mood is broken in the middle of the second section by a funereal, occasionally brutal march. The music ends in a long sigh and leads immediately to the next movement. The third-movement scherzo strikes me as the most experimental, especially in its orchestration, much more inventive than in the first two and also a lot clearer, although it still has plenty of heft. It also leaves the previous post-Wagnerian and -Elgarian harmonic idiom behind.

The finale follows immediately. Many symphonic finales assume rondo form, a brisk movement that dispels the gloom. Brian described this movement as a "slow rondo," and it has emotional affinities with Siegfried's funeral march from Götterdämmerung. Again, Brian varies the rondo subject with almost every entry, further making the form hard to follow. It comes across basically as a funeral march. My favorite part of the movement is a tender prayer exclusively for cellos and basses. After a long build toward a glorious finale, the music makes a hard left and ends with gloomy ideas that open the first movement. Despite the symphony's difficulties, it rewards the effort. If you like the Elgar symphonies, give this one a try.

Time has not been kind to the British Decadent poets of the late 19th century. This group tended to believe that because the artist was a titanic soul, his great sins would produce great literature. Many of them died young, alcoholics and addicts, and for the most part produced purple poetry, full of hambone shock, vampiric femmes fatales, and little else. The best of them -- Swinburne and Francis Thompson -- have to some extent escaped the ignominy of their colleagues. Oscar Wilde, a terrible poet, survives in his plays and stories. Ernest Dowson still holds on by perhaps two hothouse lyrics. Very few remember writers like Arthur Machen or Richard Le Gallienne today.

Nevertheless, a truly lousy poem by Alfred, Lord Douglas (Oscar Wilde's bratty lover, "Bosie," the cause of his downfall), attracted Brian enough to want to set it. The poem aims for sensuousness and winds up being dull. Douglas apparently liked the setting, for baritone and orchestra and titled "The Wine of Summer." However, Brian, for the most part, avoids lushness. A note of uneasiness runs through, from the quiet, unsettling opening to the end. The orchestration is extremely clear, possibly because Brian didn't want to overwhelm the voice. It also features a complex thematic argument which more than justifies Brian's designating it his Symphony No. 5. In short, Brian gave the poem much better music than it actually needs.

Brian at one point gave up on hearing his music performed and his output slowed. It didn't stop, because he couldn't not compose. However, conductors and programmers discovered him, in a small way, in the Fifties, and, encouraged, he began to produce symphonies again -- indeed, 21 symphonies after the age of 80. However, when he returned to the form, he did so with a difference. One can discern a definite break from the Edwardian effulgence of his earlier efforts and an impetus toward greater concision in both expression and form. The Symphony No. 14 represents a transition between the two. Many Brian experts (I'm not one) consider this one of the weaker symphonies in the cycle and characterize it as a cobbling together of various scraps. I really don't agree. To me it shows great cohesion, especially between the first and second sections, and the transitions from one section to the next not only convince me but show great poetic resource. But what do I know?

In one very long movement, it encompasses a two-section opening movement (not really a sonata, however, since each group is developed within its respective exposition), a scherzo, and a finale. Some writers see my first two sections as two different movements, and that's reasonable, since they don't share themes. However, the rhythmic units bear a strong resemblance. To me, the second part continues the first but with a different mood. The opening section is mostly slow or moderately slow, but compelling, from an unsettling, dismal atmosphere that reminds me of the Atlantic off the Irish coast, to barbaric marches, funeral-like processions (a frequent musical image in Brian, as in Mahler), and passages of phantasmagoria. Part of the disquiet here comes down to the extended harmonic "in-between-ness" from the introductory bars and part to the five-beat measures that take up more than half of the movement. Both are partially resolved in the second part, where the rhythm gets more or less regularized into triple meter and the sense of a harmonic "home" strengthens. Still, the rhythm doesn't beat all that regularly. Syncopations and switches from 3 beats of 2 to 2 beats of 3 abound in the second part. It seems mostly an evocation of older times -- perhaps Brian's version of neoclassicism. John Pickard's excellent liner notes suggest an initial sarabande. I hear it more as a quick waltz that begins off the beat. The theme consists of descending fourths, à la Hindemith. Brian develops this from quiet beginnings through increasing tension. Finally, the theme disappears into a "barbaric" climax -- open fifths in the brass with martial rhythms.
The tension winds down and leads to a scherzo, the only quick music in the symphony. Its counterpoint reminds me of Mahler in a satirical mood, but I'm not sure Brian had satire in mind. The section is very brief. Indeed, the music slows, and you may think you've hit a trio. However, the section works mainly to introduce a slow coda which builds to a brief, superficially triumphant conclusion -- superficial, because its brevity cannot balance the weight of the symphony so far.

The Symphony No. 19 comes from a relatively happy period in Brian's life. He felt a ripple of interest in his music after decades of neglect. In 1966, he was even to finally hear a performance of his massive Symphony No. 1 ("Gothic"), completed almost thirty years earlier. Symphony No. 19 has the character of a divertimento, a "Brian unbuttoned." The opening movement kicks off with another bit of the composer's "neoclassicism" (evocative, but not imitative, of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses). It consists of two major thematic groups, each developed separately, with the second group delayed until more than halfway through the movement -- strange proportions. The recapitulation, when it comes, is really the windup to the movement, which ends abruptly after all the energy seems to drop from it.

The second movement, nominally an Adagio, takes us through a phantasmagoria of moods, and yet none of the shifts seems abrupt. It begins with a bit of Elgarian pastoralism, begins to strive and strain, and gets interrupted with a more dance-like episode. The old music returns. We hear a bit of a glittering ceremonial march, another dance-like episode, and another return. The orchestration stands out. On paper, it seems like the work of either an eccentric or a rank amateur -- a passage featuring harp, timpani, and low brass, for example -- but in performance it's magic. Combinations no other composer would think of seem to come as naturally to Brian as breath. There really is no patented Brian "sound," but several. Yet to those even spottily familiar with his work (most of us), they seem part and parcel of a unified artistic personality. The third movement is a "spirited and playful" rondo and brings the symphony to a lively conclusion.

Brian wrote his Symphony No. 27 -- John Pickard aptly calls it "rich and strange" -- in partial response to the death of a young conductor who was to perform a Brian work. A three-movement structure -- fast-slow-fast -- it shows Brian's dramatic side. The first movement -- altogether more unsettled than anything in the Symphony No. 19 -- takes up neoclassical tropes once again. The solo flute, according to the composer, is the "protagonist" of the drama. The ground continually shifts -- from dark to darker, to brief passages of light, to anger but no real joy. The second movement sings an old-fashioned, Edwardian-like theme, and subjects it to distinctly un-Edwardian treatment. It has affinities with Schoenberg's tonal music. The argument consists mainly of continual variation on the opening idea. It's a triple-time elegy that becomes increasingly dissonant toward the end and collapses into tonal insecurity. There really is no final cadence to the movement. I heard this, and my mouth formed a silent "wow."

The finale really settles nothing. We continue on the same unfirm ground where no mood lasts very long and feel a kind of moral flailing, a sense of uprootedness. The opening music loses steam and sort of flops into a slower section. The opening material returns in more elaborate and more dissonant form and builds to a jarring crash. At this point, the solo flute returns, a bit disoriented as before. We end with the final music of the first movement, slightly more complex. Yet the symphony seems to abruptly cut out, due mainly to eccentric harmonic shifts. I find this one of Brian's most enigmatic works.

Brian sets high technical and interpretive challenges for orchestras -- extremely intricate counterpoint, busy textures and balance problems that can turn to mud if you're not careful, and an idiosyncratic rhetoric. Brabbins and his orchestra give the best performances of Brian on record, in my opinion. I hope this signals the end of the bad old days of having to do with amateurs, pirates, and pickup groups. Even if you have recordings of some of these works, Brabbins surpasses them, and in great sound, besides.

S.G.S. (February 2019)