Walker Conducts Havergal Brian

cover - 8.573959

BRIAN: The Tinker’s Wedding Overture. Symphonies Nos. 7 & 16 / New Russia State Symphony Orch.; Alexander Walker, cond . Naxos 8.573959

As I noted in my review, about a year and a half ago, of Alexander Walker’s recording of Brian’s Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26, “he makes the music more interesting by infusing it with a good deal of emotion.” This was not always, or even generally, true of the majority of recordings of Brian’s music from the time he was suddenly “discovered” in old age, the late 1960s, through the early 1990s. Most of those recordings had a certain amount of what I would call steely resolve, but that is not the same as actual feeling, and to play any music without actual feeling does it a great disservice.

This disc starts off with the composer’s Tinker’s Wedding Overture, a stand-alone piece based on the play by J.M. Synge. Although Brian initially wanted to write a full opera on this work, he stopped after writing this bright and attractive overture in 1949, when he was already 72 years old. It has an astonishing energy for the work of a relatively old man, though this is nothing compared to the works of his 80s and 90s.

The Seventh Symphony, dating from the same year, was his last multi-movement work in this genre and, in this case, a surprisingly bright and bouncy piece, avoiding the more modern harmonies and gritty angst he injected into his later works. Inspired by Goethe’s recollections of his student days in Strasbourg, the music is almost, but not quite, tonal and light enough to be heard on your local classical music/insomnia-curing radio station. There’s just a bit too much energy in the music and occasionally moody passages to pass muster with the “music for your mind, body and spirit” folks. Nonetheless, for me, personally, I found it just a bit too jolly and repetitive in places. In the second movement, for instance, Brian juxtaposes lyrical string passages and highly rhythmic, staccato trumpet passages, but somehow it sounds more mechanical than musically convincing. The sudden ending in Gb major sounds artificial and forced.

I did like the third movement very much with its pizzicato celli and basses and the running soft violin passages against that pizzicato. Soft snare drums are also heard in the background, and all in all Brian created a very convincing scherzo, but once again some passages sound amiss, such as his sudden key changes here and there which seem to be injected just for effect and not for any particular musical reason. Yet Brian did make effective contrasts here between the various sections of the movement, which vacillated between “Adagio” and “Allegro moderato” to good purpose. In the last movement, titled “Epilogue: Once upon a time – Moderato,” Brian again juxtaposes themes, more effectively here than in the first movement and thus creating an interesting if somewhat bipolar narrative.

By contrast, the 16th Symphony from 1960, when Brian was 84 (and still had 16 more symphonies to write!), is more compact though, again, juxtaposing rather than dovetailing his themes. Nonetheless, the tighter one-movement form allowed him to push these contrasting themes closer together and occasionally unite them via the underlying moving harmonies. This symphony also contains more dissonance, a strong feature of his later work. As the symphony progresses, the disparate themes are indeed wedded more successfully as Brian used snippets of them in creating his variations. This is by far the most interesting and arresting work on this CD.

Despite my misgivings about the Seventh Symphony, these are certainly the best performances these works have ever received and the disc is particularly interesting for the Sixteenth Symphony.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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