Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Havergal Brian Symphonies 17 and 32

Havergal Brian (1876-1972)
In Memoriam
Festal Dance
Symphony No.17
Symphony No.32
RTÉ National Orchestra
Adrian Leaper conductor
Naxos 8.572020
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At first appearances, the most impressive aspect of this music is the numbers associated with it. We have: a 32nd Symphony, music written by a 92 year old composer and a time span between the works on the disc of 60 years. But that said, the actual music itself doesn't go to extremes. Havergal Brian was always an individual, but his work fits squarely into the English pastoral tradition of symphonic composition. Among the British influences you will hear are Elgar and Vaughan Williams (there are also resemblances to Robert Simpson, but I'm not sure which direction the influence is working there). It is, of course, a long standing tradition in British music to take inspiration from the continent, and you can also hear echoes of Richard Strauss and even Prokofiev at times.
Given that Havergal Brian is best know as a symphonist, it is ironic that the tone poems on this disc are superior to the symphonies. However, that is not to compare like with like, as the tone poems 'In Memoriam' and 'Festal Dance' date from 1910 and 1908 respectively, while the 17th and 32nd Symphonies were written in 1960-1 and 1968. The earlier works are more direct in expression, and paradoxically have more symphonic coherency. 'Festal Dance' was originally conceived as a finale to a symphony, so perhaps its symphonic credentials should come as less of a surprise. The symphonies are more radical in their structure and dramatic shape. They have much greater flexibility in the lengths of phrases and in the regular disjunctions between sections. It is as if Brian reveres the genre, and even though it is not wholly appropriate to his muse, he is determined to find some reconciliation between his music and the form he applies to it.
No such concerns though in the tone poems. 'In Memoriam' originally had a programme based on the events of a funeral ceremony, although there is little sign of any narrative impulse remaining in the finished work. Elgar can often be glimpsed in the background of this music, but Brian doesn't suffer from Elgar's pomposity, nor his repression. The work is about the same length as the two symphonies on the disc, so it is interesting that the composer didn't apply the title here, and perhaps it is just as well that he didn't.
'Festal Dance' is a more upbeat affair, with lots of dance rhythms and bright open orchestration. Given that Brian continued to write music for another 60 years after the composition of this score, we are probably obliged to consider it as early period Brian. He was already in his 30s though by 1908, and his mastery of form, counterpoint and orchestration speak of absolute maturity.
Of course, they were many developments ahead for the composer, as the 17th and 32nd Symphonies demonstrate. This size of the orchestra seems to go up and down between these works, but the large and active percussion section is an almost constant presence. And if there is a change in the composer's use of the orchestra over the years, it is in the increased variety of textures. There are a good number of elegant woodwind solos in the symphonies, often only supported by the thinnest of accompaniments. Extended tuttis are another feature that appear more in the symphonies that the tone poems, and perhaps they constitute more symphonic writing in the composer's eyes.
The disc is part of a series of reissues, recorded in 1992 and originally released on the Marco Polo label. Adrian Leaper remains faithful to the music as it is rather than as it aspires to be, by which I mean he doesn't make it any more symphonic of dramatic than the scores can justify. The RTÉ National Orchestra play well, although the composer doesn't pose them many challenges, apart from the percussion section perhaps, who are clearly on top of their parts. The recorded sound is reasonable, although it is not very involving and a wider dynamic range would be appreciated. The liner notes by Calum MacDonald are up to the usual high standards of this erudite but readable author and are a godsend for those listeners (like myself) who are a little hazy on the details of Havergal Brain's life and work.
A fascinating insight, then, into the world of one of the UK's more esoteric musical minds. Stylistically, the symphonies fall somewhere between those of Vaughan Williams and Robert Simpson. If you like either of those men's essays in the genre, there is sure to be something here of interest to you.
Gavin Dixon

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