BRIAN: Symphony No. 6 "Sinfonia Tragica" (1948); Symphony no. 28 “Sinfonia in c” (1967); Symphony No. 29 in E-flat (1967); Symphony No. 31 (1969); New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker.
Naxos 8.573408 TT: 69:51

Night sweats. Other than Vaughan Williams, the two British composers who have made the symphony central to their output are Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson. Other than these, one recalls with difficulty any other. William Alwyn seems an all-rounder. Tippett, although the creator of a fine, innovative cycle, I will remember more for other works, like his operas and Arnold Bax for his tone poems. Britten didn’t really touch the symphony, and in any case his vocal music seems far more typical of him. However, Brian and Simpson really put their finest thinking into the symphony, both as expressive artists and as philosophers and architects of the form.
I don’t know how often writers have connected Brian to Mahler, but I’d suspect quite a few. Indeed, Brian and Britten seem the two Brits most affected by the older composer -- Britten by the vocal music and Brian by the symphonies. Indeed, there’s the same sense of non-Britishness in their music. Modernist British music can certainly take on seriousness and anger as well as pastoralism, but it seems largely to omit doubt and doom -- the sense that around the next corner lies nothing but a void. This, it seems to me, colors the music of Mahler, Britten, and Brian. Mahler takes refuge in a folk-painted heaven or at best in stoicism. Britten distracts himself with the beauty of music. Brian looks squarely into nothing, which, Goethe tells us, frightened even the devil.
The Symphony No. 6 “Sinfonia Tragica” has its roots in a projected opera, contemplated but never really begun due to copyright restrictions, on John Millington Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, a variation on Tristan and Iseult, minus the love philter. The symphony comes from themes Brian had written for the opera. Other than an air of foreboding, Brian doesn’t attempt to mimic the plot, so you can enjoy the music without knowing Synge. One can view it as a very long overture or tone poem, a symphony, or even a one-movement sinfonia. Brian’s early music takes off from the expanded scale of Mahler, Elgar, and Strauss. This symphony marks the beginning of a more compact and more Modern view. It consists of an introduction that evokes the bleak turmoil of the North Sea, a long funeral cortège, and a barbaric march. Although the procedures stem from Elgar, Brian writes more contrapuntally and more sparely, often reducing the music to two or three voices. He uses a small group of themes. Brian also changes his orchestral textures at least as frequently as Mahler or Ravel, so material develops chromatically as well as thematically. One especially notes a highly effective, idiomatic use of percussion. It provides a dramatically compelling introduction to Brian’s late manner.

Brian wrote his Symphony No. 28 (Sinfonia in c) in 1967. It premiered in 1973 under the baton of none other than Leopold Stokowski. At that time, both conductor and composer were 91 years old. Brian conceived of the work as a divertimento, and one can find traces of that earlier notion here and there in the score. The work falls into four movements, played without a break, and lasts about 14 minutes. Though brief, it feels highly compressed, rather than superfluous. The orchestration is powerfully dramatic, although never turgid, the music highly contrapuntal. The symphony’s chief interest for me lies in the fact that nothing remains as it first seems. The first movement begins as a divertimento, but it quickly edges to dark territory, and a minute later, we find ourselves in dizzying uncertainty, with the bright divertimento rhythms trying to continue, until overwhelmed by angst. The second movement, “Grazioso e leggiero” (graceful and sprightly), moves much the same way. The harmonies resemble Schoenberg during his early expanded-tonality period: the music stays tonal, although harmonically fluid. Toward the end, the music leaves sprightly for heavy. A pastoral movement follows (“Andante espressivo”). At least, it starts out that way. But it gives way to a haunted march about a minute-and-a-half in. The intensity increases, with brittle strokes from tuned percussion and harp. The finale (“Allegro con brio”) lets the implied barbarism of the music out of the cage, with again astonishing writing for untuned percussion -- cymbals, bass and snare drums, and wood blocks. However, just before the end, the energy dies, and the music barely finishes up in a gesture of exhaustion.

The Symphony No. 29 comes from the same year as its predecessor and runs more than half again as long. It relates more closely to a traditional notion of symphonic form, although with Brian, you always take that with a grain of salt. Again, it runs to four movements played non-stop: a moderato, lento, intermezzo, and finale. The first movement plunges us into full Elgarian pomp and nobilimente. However, this is music of contrasts. The counter gives us a frisky divertimento and (very briefly) a bit of Vaughan Williams-y pastoralism about halfway through. However, the main drama of the movement consists of combining the counter with the fierce pomp of the opening. The music becomes more and more brutal until, spent, it ends on valedictory trumpets.
The Lento slow movement falls into three big parts. It begins in an uneasy way, as if awaiting a storm. The middle section is in triple time, but it doesn’t lighten the mood. It morphs into another disturbing march, using the material of the first section. The harmonies sound unusual for Brian, taking, in my opinion, from Hindemith, as well as that composer’s melodic shapes and rhythms.
The third movement, marked “Allegretto con grazioso,” is more intermezzo than scherzo, but it is in three parts, with something like a trio in the middle. Sparsely scored, much of it proceeds in three voices and fewer. This isn’t a “happy” intermezzo. A cloud of unease hangs over it. The short trio (a real trio, a clarinet and two bassoons) reminds me of a gloomy clown. The main part of the scherzo returns, builds somewhat, and ends on stark beats from the timpani, which lead directly to the finale, “Adagio -- Allegro molto.”

A very brief stately introduction, seconds long, leads to the allegro section. More “moderato” than “molto,” this uses neoclassical rhythmic figures allied to more expressionist harmonies. This results in emotional ambiguity: the rhythms are sprightly and dancelike, the harmonies acerbic. Again, the music proceeds contrapuntally with the orchestration bright and clear. The movement’s drama consists of the stately trying to re-establish itself against the expressionist. It rises and falls against the darker elements that successfully assert themselves and grow darker. Of particular importance is a repeated-note idea that helps intensify the dark, first heard as a trumpet call. The music rolls to a climax of brass and percussion and falls back to a “no-man’s land” of softer winds and percussion, followed by the strongest attempt so far to reach an up-beat ending. Yet this, too, falls back into a bleak, no-man’s land coda. Then follows Brian’s most enigmatic stroke: a radiant E major chord, over in a blink. What does it mean, after what Brian has put us through so far? I ave no idea, but I can’t forget it..
Brian wrote several short one-movement symphonies, some of which representing as radical a structural break with tradition as Webern’s symphony -- that is, they force you to re-examine what a symphony is. The Symphony No. 31, his penultimate, has earlier precedents, however -- mainly the symphonic fantasia. It lasts slightly fewer than thirteen minutes. Again, full of complex counterpoint so clearly scored you can hear all the lines, it works mainly with a descending scalar fragment of a fourth, sometimes inverted to become a rising fourth. All subthemes hang in “flux,” a movement of continual variation and development. The argument is masterfully complex. It took me several tries to follow it, despite its traditional harmonic basis. The scoring changes color as frequently as a kaleidoscope. However, the real mystery of the symphony lies in its emotional rhetoric, which changes just as frequently -- an ever-transforming ambiguity. Again, Brian holds his boldest stroke for the end. The work has moved mainly as a military march, sometimes falling back but mostly growing in intensity. The march comes to an abrupt halt, and we find ourselves in territory familiar to those who know Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, simultaneously quietly yearning and anxious. Brian then takes up the material of the march, now transformed to something monumental, builds, and ends in a brazen blaze.

For years, Brian enthusiasts had to put up with badly-recorded performances by pickup and amateur orchestras. Miraculously, Brian’s reputation survived. Walker and his Russians do a credible job -- miles beyond the old norm. Sometimes the rhythm becomes momentarily ragged, although it quickly rights itself. More important, Brian’s symphonies demand many performances from top-flight orchestras and conductors before their worth can find commensurate appreciation. No surprise, but the best performance on this CD is of the Sixth, the work with the most extensive performing and recording tradition. The sound is quite good.

S.G.S. (April 2018)