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CD Review

Havergal Brian


  • Symphony #4 "Das Siegeslied" (Psalm of Victory) *
  • Symphony #12
* Jana Valásková
* 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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Summary for the Busy Executive: Dark victory.

Havergal Brian even today isn't exactly a household name, although he's one of the outstanding symphonists of the last century. He had the fortune of the advocacy of Robert Simpson, who in the Seventies turned on a lot of us to Brian's work. The modern revival – certainly the modern recording revival – of Brian's music begins with Simpson.

To me (no Brian scholar), the composer's symphonic output divides in two: lush and lean, or perhaps grand and grim. The first symphony, subtitled "The Gothic," is probably the best known or most notorious. It shows the influence of one strain of symphonic thought around the early years of the twentieth century: the penchant for gigantic works. Brian's finale alone is an elaborate, complete Te Deum. Indeed, the size of the symphony may have scared programmers away from Brian's music in general, and it's a rap that's clung to him, despite the evidence. The next few symphonies, through about number seven, though not as long as the Gothic, nevertheless make the same majestic use of the orchestra. However, with Symphonies Eight through Ten, Brian strips down his language and from then through number thirty-two (yeah, he wrote thirty-two symphonies) the structures become downright terse. For example, the Symphony #4 runs almost fifty minutes; the Symphony #12, eleven.

Poor most of his life, Brian nevertheless knew a lot of music, as much as anyone of developments throughout Europe. He turned himself into a music reviewer and thus got free tickets for concerts in London, then as now a musical embarrassment of riches. Occasionally, composers even sent him scores. Very early on, he absorbed the lessons of Mahler, although he himself never imitated the older man and indeed always went his own way. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that, as with Mahler, the symphony fit his habits of musical thought. Both composers have a very long architectural reach, and the spans they build never sag. Both also have a fondness for marches and put the march to several different expressive uses. However, Mahler, as great as he is, nevertheless is a transitional figure – a Romantic on the way to Modernist – while Brian really is as modern as, say, Shostakovich (another Mahler heir). This is not a simple matter of idiom, but of outlook. Mahler, for example, really does believe in transcendence. Indeed, the second movement of the Symphony #8 is all about transformation and transcendence. Mahler may have his Angst, but ultimately he believes he can rise above it to glory. Brian's belief shakes more than a little and lies closer to the classically tragic (Greek tragedy inspired much of his music), where glory itself is a two-edged sword. Although in technical conception much of Brian's symphony may derive from the second movement of Mahler's eighth, the effect differs significantly, and Brian's idiom owes very little to Mahler.

Certainly, the fourth symphony "Siegeslied" ("psalm of victory," Psalm 68) projects overwhelmingly psychic and, indeed, moral ambivalence from just about its opening bars. It begins with, I suspect, a satiric take on Edwardian pastiches of Handel. Indeed, it may even be a satiric swipe at Mahler's "Veni Creator" movement. It's over in the blink of an eye. From then on, it pretty much sticks to the misery and barbarity of war. The choirs wail and gnash their teeth. By this rough contrast, Brian establishes his philosophic agenda. Very little in this symphony sounds like victory.

The historic circumstances of its composition lend more than a bit of interest. In the early Thirties, Brian's music enjoyed a mini-vogue in Germany, and he acquired a German publisher who planned to publish the "Gothic" Symphony. Fritz Busch planned a production of Brian's opera The Tigers in Dresden. Thinking ahead to possible German performances, Brian planned from the outset to create a large work in German. The composer, a great reader and admirer of classic German culture, nevertheless was appalled by the Nazi government. This, as well as the lingering horror of the Great War, has much to do with the tenor of the work. Symphony #4 was finished in 1934 but languished unplayed until 1967, five years before the composer's death. What Brian meant as a timely sermon went unheard.

The fourth symphony, again like the second movement of the "Symphony of a Thousand," consists of several sections played without a break. The themes are many and their organization extremely complex. Thematic relationships span movements. After an instrumental Prélude full of bluster and swagger, Brian pulls the rug out from under the listener with, in the words of liner-note writer Malcolm MacDonald, "tortuous chromatic polyphony." The first movement is full of blistering winds and brazen sounds, as from an ancient, pagan army – all to the words

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him.… But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice.

The rejoicing sounds more like blood lust. The central part of the movement relaxes briefly, but the tortured and brazen undercurrent quickly re-establishes itself and breaks through. The slow movement goes through the same sort of ritual. It begins serenely with the solo soprano but leads to a frenzied section on the "chariots of God." The movement ends quietly with the solo soprano, but still troubled in "tortured" chromatics.

The finale, the longest movement, at last gives us something like rejoicing on the words "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our Salvation." Despite more unease, a wonderful Big Tune rises from the orchestra on "The Lord said, I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea." The tune manages to carry over more chromatics at "That thy foot may dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of they dogs in the same" – an extended passage of bizarre colors and Baroquish rhythms (MacDonald refers to it as a "scherzo"). The barbarity returns with a powerful march. The movement bristles with surprises, easy to overlook among such rich detail, including a canon on the chorale "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," which finally blazes forth and then stops abruptly. The barbarity and blood lust re-enter for the last, long section, and once again Brian leads us through the emotions of the symphony. He ends with the music of the opening, this time appropriately grand, even mammoth. Nevertheless, one can't ignore the predominant harshness before. The end may be grand music, but it doesn't convince and probably doesn't mean to.

Symphony #12 comes from Brian's love of Greek tragedy. He once suggested that it could be used as an overture to his one-act "curtain-raiser to Strauss's Elektra," Agamemnon. The whole symphony, all eleven minutes, comes down to an introduction and four mini-movements, played without a break. Obviously, this is not a symphony in the usual sense, but it certainly feels like one, with four "proper" movements. I hear no thematic unity, but I also have no score. I may well have missed the scheme. Somehow it hangs together – I have no clue why, except to say simply that Brian has mastered the rhetoric of symphonic time. The intro is, naturally, extremely brief, but it's also extremely odd and intriguing. It just sucks you in. Another brazen march comprises the first movement. This leads to a heavy-footed funeral march. The march's climaxes dissipates into a lament, perhaps corresponding to a slow movement. Fragments of march rhythm seem to hang on, however. Out of this come heroic fanfares on the horns, heralding yet another brazen, vigorous march, with elements of scherzo, particularly in the sardonic orchestration, reminiscent of Mahler in his grotesque vein. Suddenly, everything stops. There's the stroke of a gong and a reminiscence of the funeral tread, and it's all over. The whole thing hypnotizes.

The performers have achieved a lot. The problems of the fourth symphony are the problems of Mahler's eighth, mainly balance of huge forces and how to shape an extremely long movement that doesn't work like one in a classical symphony. For a first try, this is awfully good. The chorus is a bit mushy, both in texture and in diction, but they've got the notes and a decent, if not great sound. Jana Valásková sings movingly – undoubtedly the most accomplished performer in the group. Leaper conveys the excitement of large tracts of the symphony, if not the architectural whole. But why expect this? After all, there aren't, among the horde, that many recordings of Mahler's eighth that pull this off (my candidates: Horenstein and Gielen). And Leaper and the orchestra are terrific in the Symphony #12. The sound is good, but not spectacular. Don't expect what Decca did for Solti and the Chicago, although that would have been nice. Above all, this CD provides a splendid introduction to one of the most powerfully original musical minds of the previous century.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz