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CD Review

Havergal Brian

Orchestral Music

  • Comedy Overture "The Tinker's Wedding"
  • Symphony #7 in C Major
  • Symphony #8 in B Flat Minor *
  • Symphony #9 in A minor *
  • Symphony #31
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
* Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves
EMI ZCZB75782 115:42 2CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Uneasy.

Every time I consider Havergal Brian's career, the more improbable it becomes. Born in one of the lowest rungs of the working class (his parents worked as laborers in the Staffordshire potteries), he somehow managed to learn music. This led to playing church organ and in dance bands and finally to teaching himself how to compose. His best-known score, the Symphony #1 "Gothic", garnered notoriety, more than anything else, as the Longest Symphony, which it may or may not have been and which required greater forces than Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand. If people know anything about Brian, it's generally that one factoid, although the piece stands way to the side of his other work.

After a brief flurry of interest in his music during the Twenties, he basically vanished as a composer, although he continued to compose and managed to make a meager living writing reviews and copying the music of others. In the Forties, he gave up composing altogether, but a few years later resumed, simply because the music insisted on coming. Postwar, he snagged the attention of the British symphonist, broadcaster, and critic Robert Simpson, who began to beat a very loud drum for him. Simpson turned on many (including me) to Brian in the Sixties. By that time, Brian was fairly old and living in a council flat. Brian had another creative burst and ended up with 32 symphonies, alongside concerti, operas, oratorios, and other work. He died at 96 in 1972, composing up to the age of 92.

I can't say that Brian is yet a household name among classical-music lovers, but recording companies have begun to pay attention – mainly Naxos and EMI. For years, listeners had to put up with amateur and pick-up performances, which did these complex scores no favors. These accounts, however, come from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Charles the First and Charles the Second – Mackerras and Groves. Nevertheless, some of the resistance to Brian stems from the composer himself. I believe that his obscurity encouraged him to write "for the desk drawer." What the hey? If no one pays attention, you might as well have fun. For Brian, fun definitely consisted of manic complex counterpoint. Where many composers would content themselves with two main ideas, Brian will juggle three to five, and the ideas themselves aren't all that simple. Brian's symphonies are sometimes overstuffed with good things. Furthermore, the music moves in a way similar to Mahler's – abrupt transitions, modulations to harmonic Pluto, kaleidoscopic shifts of orchestral color. Unlike Mahler, however, Brian doesn't come up with genius themes. I know quite a bit of Brian – almost all his recorded output, in fact – and I can recall very few and only one really well ("Three Blind Mice" from the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme and from the Festal Dance). Nevertheless, I remember many, many brilliant moments, as well as much of the architecture. If you try Brian, prepare yourself for concentrated listening. There's very little Brian Lite.

Yet The Tinker's Wedding Comedy Overture (1948) certainly qualifies. Brian based it on the play by John Millington Synge and conceived of it as a companion piece to his Symphony #6 "Sinfonia tragica" (also 1948), based on Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows. No sorrows here. It begins with a brilliant series of fanfare-like themes and moves to a reflective bit. The poetic orchestration exploits the ambiguities of instrumental sounds – horns melting into clarinets, for example. We encounter a wild fugato on our way to a resplendent finish, as well as a passage of pure delight that bounces around horn, piccolos, and tuba.

The year 1948 came after Brian's taking up composing once again. Obviously, the reservoir was full. Symphony #7, from that year as well, represents the last relatively conventional symphony Brian wrote. Afterwards, he moves toward increasingly condensed, elliptical forms, analogous to a tonal Webern. In four movements – "Allegro moderato," "Allegro maestoso ma moderato," "Adagio – Allegro moderato – Adagio," and "Epilogue: 'Once upon a time' (Moderato)" – the score, according to the composer, was inspired by Goethe and the cathedral in the city of Strassburg, famous for its bell tower. Many of the ideas seem to evoke either church bells or knights in armor. The first movement begins with an awesome intro for percussion. Quick trumpet fanfares herald an heroic march, which changes character every half-minute or so. We get taken through tenderness, meditation, and barbarism as well, and end up in an ambiguous place – not quite heroic, as if doubt lurks just out of sight. The second movement scherzo, beginning in 5/2, sets out on a surrealistic journey – a lumbering march, fairy-like scherzi, demonic howling and stamping, evocations of pastoral dance, pure swagger. Like a dream, however, it makes sense while you experience it, in this case due entirely to Brian's thematic manipulations. It ends with repeated strokes of the chime.

The third movement combines adagio and another scherzo. The effect disorients you. The scherzo is full of mists, false starts, and so on. It mainly takes on the character of a Mahler Ländler. The adagio, although the movement begins with a forlorn horn solo, at first keeps getting interrupted by the scherzo, which often reduces it to a mere suggestion. This lasts until the halfway through the movement, when it briefly takes over, despite the occasional frantic orchestral outburst. Even so, for a while it seems to lack direction, until it gathers up into a rhapsodic violin solo against thematic material in the cellos. The movement ends radiantly, with bright, piercing notes from the glockenspiel.

Brian subtitled the finale "Once upon a time" and suggested in his letter a reference to Goethe, although I can't make it out from Brian maven Calum MacDonald's otherwise solid and helpful liner notes. Longfellow, not Goethe, is the poet I associate with the Strassburg cathedral, due to his poem The Golden Legend. MacDonald suggests that one concentrate on the music – good advice.

The movement opens with quiet fanfares from the horns reminiscent of the beginning of the first movement, leading to a meditative march. But nothing in Brian lasts. We quickly find ourselves in the barbarism of the first movement with those quick trumpet fanfares and a sense of purposeful struggle. Again, the quicksilver changes of orchestral color imbues the score with emotional complexity. The music switches between bursts of chivalry and subsiding into grim determination or tender nostalgia. The sense of struggle lasts almost to the very end, when Brian unleashes a storm of devils and then dissipates them. The quiet fanfares return, and the symphony ends with strokes from the chime and the gong. All in all, not your parents' symphony.

Symphony #8 comes from the following year, and you can hear significant differences. For one thing, it runs significantly shorter than its predecessor. For another, it's a one-movement symphony in several sections. I sense Brian playing with symphonic form in the search for something new. Again, if no one's paying attention, why not have fun? In many ways, this symphony lies as close to the Elizabethan fantasia as to conventional symphonic form.

Yet another arresting opening – solo trombone and tuba fanfare against a dead-march rhythm in the snare drum, and that's it – interrupted by an eerie off-stage horn call. A profusion of themes follows, the horn call and a downward scalar fragment prominent among them. We encounter hard-to-forget moments, including a quietly intense passage beginning piano, harp, and timpani. The textures are both highly contrapuntal and extremely clear in the way Mahler's can be. We get something like a condensed recapitulation before heading into a singing movement in 3/4, without quite losing the tread of the march. Brian reuses and varies his themes throughout, but the effect is still a bit like watching a juggler with seven duckpins in the air. The dead march attempts to come back in a canonic passage based on the horn call for three bassoons. This leads to a quick-march and a broad, expansive section. The dead-march rhythm introduces another slow movement, marked "molto teneramente" (dearly or tenderly). Brian winds up with not one, but two passacaglias, an imaginative feat based on a one-measure idea. The passacaglia, which repeats a line (usually in the bass) over and over while various lines appear above it. Many consider it a test of the contrapuntalist's art. Bach's Passacaglia in c is a high monument in his catalogue of monuments. That someone as contrapuntally mad as Brian should tackle the form should surprise nobody. Yet Brian's passacaglias are weirdly like no other I've heard – twisty, inhabiting a harmonic no-man's land. The coda, after searching for a place to land, alights on a lovely major chord in the English horn and strings. The off-stage horn call returns, its nobility undermined, however, by a dissonance in the trombones. The symphony ends on a stroke of the gong. It disappears in a long, lingering puff of smoke.

Ever since Beethoven, the few composers who've reached eight symphonies have tended to regard their ninth as a near-mystical dilemma. Mahler, for example, superstitiously avoided writing a ninth by thinking of Das Lied von der Erde as his ninth in fact, if not in name. The official Ninth is actually his Tenth. Whatever. Shostakovich pulled a switcheroo by deliberately writing against expectations and produced a divertissement. Vaughan Williams made his Ninth an occasion for one of his most exploratory scores.

Brian, however, usually tries something new each time out, so one reads a special significance into his Ninth (1951) only with difficulty. Here, we have a symphony of three movements (fast - slow - fast), played without a break. A garish, brutish slow intro among the brass, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Strauss, unleashes an allegro and another fistful of ideas – prominent among them an upward-chromatic three-note chromatic coil identical to the first notes of the BACH motif (B Flat - A - C - B), in this case BAC, a jazzy sneer from the clarinet, and a chromatic whoop from cellos and clarinet, all simultaneously undergoing restless variation and development, all possible because of Brian's mastery of counterpoint. The music moves nervously, with brief bits of respite which nevertheless fail to establish any calm. Yet another outburst dissolves into a trilling flute, which takes us into the slow movement, an adagio.

A cor anglais begins with a haunting solo which resembles the main idea of the aria "Into thy hands, O Lord" from Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress opera, also from 1951. Indeed, much of the section sounds like one of Vaughan Williams's more troubled slow movements, at least in tone, although Brian moves from one idea to the next far more quickly. A slow march, thoroughly characteristic of Brian, begins with an insistent underlying rhythm. Toward the end, the movement tries to come to a peaceful resolution and, in the relative terms of this symphony, actually does.

The allegro finale (yet another march) crashes in, a Brianesque ode to joy. This leads to a serene central episode, initiated by harp and strings. Earlier motifs reappear (notably, BAC), this time ratcheting up the general elation, as we march to the end, and we wind up in a blaze of bells and brass.

Seventeen years and an amazing 22 symphonies later, we reach Brian's penultimate, the 31st (1968). The work, typical of Brian's late practice, is highly compressed, ever more fragmentary, and more enigmatic. The orchestral textures are generally leaner and the counterpoint even clearer and more independent. The form is a fantasia, although not really loose. One hears strong thematic variations throughout. I stress that Brian uses basic musical cells, rather than tunes. It reminds me very much of the Carl Nielsen Sixth, just not as playful. Despite the pared-down textures, one still gets plenty of memorable moments, including a violin solo, and characteristic "barbaric" din of brass and percussion. Most of the symphony consists of an allegro moving inexorably forward. Toward the end, however, things quiet and slow down, to gather for a grand statement. That statement, however, is so brief as to be apologetic. Emotionally, what can a listener make of this music? Its appeal to me lies in its ambiguity and half-lights. I like the fact that it never really settles down, that Brian's musical mind continually buzzes around.

Until recently, none of Brian's works have received more than one recording, many of them inadequate, so I find rating these performances extremely difficult. Works like Brian symphonies need several accounts before they begin to come fully into their own. I will say Mackerras and Groves are no slouches and the Liverpudlians thoroughly professional. The textures are clear, the rousing sections rousing, the relatively serene passages lovely. Brian's "no-man's landscapes" find perceptive interpreters. I do wonder about the wholes, however – whether anybody can convey the overall coherence among the plethora of detail. However, this process will probably take years, and meanwhile these readings still make a very persuasive case for this astonishing composer.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz