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CD Review

Havergal Brian


  • Symphony #4 "Das Siegeslied" (Psalm of Victory) *
  • Symphony #12
* Jana Valásková, soprano
* Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak National Opera Chorus
* Youth "Echo" Choir, Mixed "Cantus" Choir
* Brno Philharmonic Choir
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony (Bratislava)/Adrian Leaper
Marco Polo 8.223447 60:41
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If you had offered this as a serious possibility ten years ago, even the staunchest of Brianites would have patted you on the back and suggested a week off work. A complete cycle of the Brian Symphonies, all 32 of them, coupled with all his other extant orchestra music and the two concertos, for violin and for cello? Nah, you must be joking. The French have a useful phrase for this kind of utterly unrealistic wishful thinking - they call it "dreaming in colour". But there it is, in large block capitals on the top of two new Marco Polo CDs: the words "BRIAN CYCLE". The sales of Brian's First Symphony, the heaven-vaulting Gothic (8.223280 - 281) have been far in excess of Marco Polo's wildest dreams - well into five figures at the latest count - showing that the demand for Brian's music is far higher than had been expected (and certainly far higher than concert promoters have realised). So, with a little financial help per disc from the ever-active Havergal Brian Society (one of the most successful of its kind), Marco Polo has taken the plunge and over the next years intends to release the complete orchestral oeuvre. It is a project which will change the general perception of British music in the twentieth century.

Even including The Gothic, perhaps the most extraordinary utterance in the entire Brian symphony canon is his Fourth Symphony, Das Siegeslied (The Psalm of Victory), composed in 1932-3 to Martin Luther's version of Psalm 68. It is coupled with his Twelfth Symphony on Marco Polo 8.223447 (TT: 60:41, DDD); Adrian Leaper conducts a vast array of Czech and Slovak musicians: Jana Valásková (soprano), the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak National Opera Chorus, Youth ":Echo" Choir, Mixed "Cantus" Choir, Brno Philharmonic Chorus and the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Brian went to town in #4 - three movements, three-quarters of an hour long - with a vehemence that makes all but the most cataclysmic moments of The Gothic seem tame in comparison. The scoring is similarly massive, although not quite on the same vast scale as The Gothic: solo soprano, double SATB chorus, and an orchestra that makes your ears blink even before you hear what he does with it - six flutes, two oboes, two oboi d'amore, two cors anglais, bass oboe, one clarinet in E Flat and four in B Flat Major, two bassett horns, two bass clarinets, pedal clarinet, four bassoons, two double-bassoons, eight horns, four trumpets, five trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, two harps, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, bell, organ and strings. The text invites a response of the type that requires such enormous forces, for Psalm 68 is an exultant, bloodthirsty paean to Jehovah as a conquering king: "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let also those that hate him flee before him". In The Gothic Brian had used his huge orchestra, as Mahler had his, for the vast range of textures that it afforded him, but here he deploys it for the sheer power it can command. Brian was extremely well verse in the cultural heritage of Germany: he was to set Goethe's Faust in its original German, he was acutely aware of developments in German music (indeed, he was one of the most perceptive critics of his day) as in German politics, and the accession to power of the Nazis as he was composing Das Siegeslied may have provoked this response, invoking elements of that cultural heritage as an oblique but savagely powerful protest against its falsification by Hitler's propagandists. But it wasn't the events of the day that triggered Brian's response directly: the mention of a setting of "Psalm, Let God arise, for chorus, soli and orchestra, Op. 15" in the earliest recorded list of Brian's works, in 1907, suggests that the idea had been brewing for some three decades before it took its final, earth-shattering form. (That early version may never have progressed beyond sketch form: its opus number was later assigned to a different work.)

The beginning of Das Siegeslied is deceptive: an almost jolly march-rhythm, full of blazing fanfares - but with the entry of the voices we are instantly in a different world, the chorus singing in a harmonically complex eight-part texture into which battering brass and percussion soon burst their unfeeling way. The textures do occasionally thin out, for a cappella chorus, for the occasional orchestral solo, for the solo soprano, sometimes lyrical, sometimes chromatically complex - but the respite, when respite it is, never lasts long: fragments of march rhythm galvanise more power, and climax after crashing climax, some of them of unbelievable size and energy (particularly the startlingly inventive battle-scene that begins with the words "Der Herr gab das Wort"), drive this colossal movement to its unexpectedly abrupt conclusion. The second movement begins as a complete contrast, with an extended soprano solo.

Brian's Twelfth Symphony is a well-chosen foil to the brutal enthusiasms of Das Siegeslied. Indeed, the Havergal Brian Society has been active in planning the series of CDs, and these first instalments proves that some astutement judgement has gone into selecting the programmes. Composed 25 years later, in 1957 (when Brian was a mere 80, and had still twenty symphonies ahead of him), it shows the elliptical style that characterises his later music. The inspiration at the heart of the work is Aeschylus' Agamemnon

The notes are first-rate, but then they would be: they are written by Malcolm MacDonald, CDR's own CM, the world's leading authority on the music of Havergal Brian and in my view one of the finest living writers on music (I should explain at this point that he is a friend of mine, but I would hold the same opinion of his work even if I hated his guts).

To end, a word of warning. In the late 1970s and early '80s the Havergal Brian Society sponsored a series of LP recordings of Brian's earliest surviving orchestral music by the City of Hull Youth Orchestra, under the ever-enterprising Geoffrey Heald-Smith, that appeared as a series of three LPs on the Manchester-based label Cameo Classics. At the time it was a brave and necessary project: no one had heard most these works for seventy years, when they had been previously been performed at all. And they revealed some real gems: In Memoriam first showed the nobility of its face, and the melodic appeal and big-heartedness of the Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme struck me, when I first heard it then, as a possible rival to the Enigmas. But now, with a complete, professionally performed Brian cycle already over the horizon, these performances will have a limited shelf-life. One interest, nonetheless, is that the Hull version of Festal Dance uses an orchestral piano, which Adrian Leaper's Irish recording does not; it changes the character of the music considerably.

Copyright © 1996/1998, Martin Anderson