Friday, May 22, 2015

Havergal Brian, Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31, New Russia State Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Walker

There are composers of recent times who have lurked in the shade of neglect for too long, whose music was not as a rule widely heard until now, who lived much of their lives in some obscurity, whose output was not in keeping with the prevailing trends. One of those certainly is Havergal Brian (1876-1972). His 32 symphonies until recently were virtually unknown, with the exception of the monumental giganticism of the first few, which were performed by esteemed conductors like Boult and available as a few very obscure LPs.

Incredibly enough, after completing his 6th Symphony at age 72, Brian went on to write 26 more from that period until his death, along with operas and other orchestral pieces. Naxos has been filling us in (thankfully) with a cycle of the works. Today we get the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker playing Brian's Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31 (Naxos 8.573408). Nos. 28 and 29 are first recordings.

So these are a sampling of those late works. Brian began as a long-formed English late romantic in an era when it wasn't unheard of to work in the style, though at the time he was aside from Elgar one of the very few English composers who intently took on the mantle of the last of the romantics. Elgar of course was no Mahler and he did not push romanticism to the edge as much as he reflected a Victorian restraint along with a vital fluency and passion that played against itself. Brian was more overtly expressive, less bridled.

His music, as much as I am familiar with the middle period, was never contemporary in the same way as Vaughan Williams or Walton. It remained in many ways anachronistic yet not derivative.

So here we are with some of the many "last" symphonies. They are of modest length compared to the early works, ranging from a 13-minute 31st (in one movement) to the multi-movement 29th, which clocks in at 23 minutes. With the temporal brevity is a compactness of expression that Brian's music had evolved to. There are long thematic developments at times (the third movement of the 29th, for example) which have an almost Schubertian thrust, yet on the whole he is much less the epicist of his early late romantic days.

Granted there remains the high expressivity often enough of his earlier work, but there are neo-classical elements peppered through the works and his originality is much more at hand. It is not "modern" music as a whole, yet it sounds chromatically contemporary and fresh.

If you seek analogies of the period, he perhaps shares with Sibelius the natural propensity to work in older tonal territory, yet like Sibelius he does it in his very own way. You might say that his music has a sterner cast than Sibelius, and the chromaticism sometimes comes much more to the forefront, as a kind of English Max Reger, though these are only loose approximations. Brian remains at this later period a symphonist of real stature, original in ways we may not expect of music written in 1948, 1967 and 1968. We tend to think of classical music teleologically, noting in admiration that so-and-so was the prophetic precursor of the so-and-so school. Brian was not that. If we forget about teleology though, he speaks to us truly, no matter what came before, after or during.

The four symphonies programmed on the current release give you a listening experience both fascinating and rewarding. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Walker furnishes us versions that sparkle with sonic vitality. There is enthusiasm to be heard and a full commitment to the stylistic particularities. Could there be better performances? Perhaps. But we are well served by these recordings and get the full impact of Havergal Brian and his tremendous burst of energy in the last decades of his life. And that's what counts.

It's remarkable music in all these ways. I am very glad to experience it and am left with a much greater appreciation for Brian's music than I had previous to this. Recommended!


  1. Hi Grego

    I wanted to prove that I'm still reading your blog by registering my appreciation of this review. Variations of the phrase "great neglected symphonist" tend to be bandied around ad nauseam, but in Brian's case it's very apt.

    I'm sure if you contacted the Havergal Brian Society they'd be delighted to publish your review in their newsletter. A little mutual publicising can't hurt!

  2. Hi Chris!
    Glad to see you are still reading. Much appreciated. Yes, what a difference a few years can make. 20 years ago Brian's first couple of symphonies I found as private label releases in an old dusty NYC used record store I frequented. But now there is so much more, well recorded and performed, an amazing, heretofore (to me anyway) unknown world of later work! His last years were incredible output-wise and the music does not sound at all hasty or uninspired! Good idea of contacting the Havergal Brian Society. I will try that. Why not? In the meantime have a great weekend and thanks once again for chiming in here.
    All best,

  3. A good place to head next would be a Dutton CD featuring symphonies 10 (one of Brian's greatest) and 30, together with the middle-period 3rd English Suite and the Concerto for Orchestra, a near-contemporary of the latter symphony. In (comparatively!) more familiar territory is the wonderful Gothic Symphony on Hyperion, recorded live at the 2011 BBC Proms. The dependable Martyn Brabbins is the maestro in both cases.

  4. Thanks for this helpful info, Chris. I am currently broke so have not been able to actually buy music in....around five years or so. Without promos I would be hamstrung. When I get myself turned around I will follow up on these. Meanwhile enjoy the turning season!