Brian Symphonies Played Brilliantly by Alexander Walker


BRIAN: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 / New Russia State Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Walker, conductor / Naxos 8.573752

No one under the age of 40 will remember the big Havergal Brian “boom” of the 1970s. Suddenly, hear the tail end of the composer’s life and for the next eight years thereafter, it seemed as if everyone and his or her uncle in the classical world had an interest in this quixotic, prolific yet somewhat aloof composer. Even such old geezers as Leopold Stokowski took a stab at performing his symphonies, and there were releases of his many such works on a variety of labels both large and small, live and studio, on mainstream and “pirate” labels. For nearly a decade, Havergal Brian was a cause célèbre.

But then, just as suddenly as it started, it stopped. The stream of Brian symphonies stopped coming forth as any listeners, myself included, realizes that although his music was very neatly written and logically ordered, it was somewhat cold emotionally. It said quite a bit but sounded like the musings of a chartered public accountant: terse, dry and aloof.

This new recording by the excellent conductor Alexander Walker may go a long way towards restoring Brian’s reputation and, perhaps, give a nudge towards more public performances of his music. As I noted in my review (for Fanfare) of an earlier entry in this series, the symphonies Nos. 22-24 (along with the English Suite No. 1), he makes the music more interesting by infusing it with a good deal of emotion. I’m not sure this was the older Brian’s intent—and I say “older” because most of his symphonies, from No. 6 through No. 32, were composed at or after the age of 70(!)—but in terms of making the music more attractive to the listener, there is no question but that Walker does a fabulous job.

The earliest work here, the Eighth Symphony, was finished in 1949 when the composer was 73. The 21st Symphony comes from 1963, when he was 87, and the 26th Symphony, which receives its first recording here, from 1966. One must remember that none of his symphonies were performed in public until very late in his life because most people had forgotten him and he wasn’t a self-promoter. He just sat in his little house in the country and wrote music to please himself, and said music became more and more abstract as time went on.

Ironically, although the Eighth Symphony was the first of Brian’s works to be publicly performed, five years after he wrote it (his early “Gothic” Symphony from 1927 had to wait until 1961 when Sir Adrian Boult insisted on performing it despite its 106-minute length), it is not as concise and cerebral as many of the later works. As noted in the booklet, “A strange nocturnal march, scored for alternating muted euphonium and muted tuba, underpinned by three side drums playing without snares, barely establishes itself before it is cut off and replaced by a soft bare fifth in the low strings. As if from the depths of the earth, muted horns intone two interlocking rising fifths and an upward semitone, confirming the minor mode of the prevailing B flat tonality, before the march resumes.” This abrupt cutting-off of themes and replacement of one theme with another became a trademark of Brian’s mature style, and indeed may be one of the more off-putting qualities of his music to lay listeners. His music resembles a conversation by someone who is full of good ideas but constantly changes the subject.

If this tendency was already present in 1949, it was even more pronounced by 1963. In between Brian wrote a series of one-movement symphonies (Nos. 13-17) which were his “workshop” in striving for an entirely new means of expression, one which was more neo-classical and also more abstract. Here Walker has a bit more difficulty infusing emotion into the music because its fast-moving shifts and changes resist such an approach, yet he still manages to produce exciting performances with both tremendous energy and strong forward momentum. Ironically, both the 21st and 26th Symphonies are not one-movement works, but rather divided into clear-cut movements, the 21st in particular following normal classical models (“Adagio – Allegro,” “Adagio cantabile e sostenuto,” “Vivace” and “Allegro con fuoco”), but for Brian dividing his music into clear-cut movements did not necessarily mean an obeisance to convention of form. Even in the slow movement, the closest to classical form, Brian was constantly shifting keys and pulling the rug out from his underlying harmony (note the passage around the four-minute mark, for instance). And here he is at his most emotional, contrasting pastoral music with that of dark, troubled corners of the mind. The scherzo, too, tends to vacillate between edgy (such as the opening) and bucolic (the peppy little string and wind figures that follow). I am in awe of Walker’s intuitive grasp of the form of this music and his tremendous ability to bring out not only more emotion but also a great amount of orchestral detail.

The last movement of this symphony is as long as the previous two combined (11:39), beginning with a solo horn call before the strings suggest the theme in bits and pieces. After a pause the tempo increases and the orchestra gives us a lively “Allegro” which is about as cheerful a tune as Brian was capable of. This, however, gives way to martial music that is almost ferocious in its forward pulse, and these two moods continue to alternate and clash with each other as the movement progresses, along with a surprising slow middle section that sounds unrelated thematically to what had come before. Eventually this music becomes faster and more agitated, eventually resuming the quasi-martial feel (along with crashing snare and bass drums, cymbals and glockenspiel) before a short bassoon solo leads us to some of the oddest, quirkiest music Brian ever wrote. This movement is almost a self-contained fantasia in itself. Pounding tympani is featured in the conclusion, yet the music itself sounds as if it has just paused and not really ended!

The 26th Symphony, receiving its world premiere recording here, is even quirkier. The first movement sounds as if the orchestra were picking up the music from letter B and not from the beginning, and as usual Brian juggles his themes and development sections around so that even the attentive listener could easily get lost. The ending also doesn’t quite sound like an ending, and the second movement, which begins bitonally, sounds rather unrelated to the first. This was typical late Brian, writing (as I said) for himself and not for others. It’s still a bit amazing that he did have that boom in the 1970s, although only musicians and critics really paid attention or understood what on earth he was doing. By the third and fourth movements, Brian is writing in his abstract late style, despite following rondo form in the latter, and once again Walker does a fine job of sustaining interest.

All in all, a splendid disc!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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