This is an impressive and surprisingly successful record of some deeply impressive and wholly original music. One’s surprise is the quality and genuinely committed playing of the Moscow orchestra, which deliver performances of notable distinction, of music that is by no means easy to grasp and which poses problems to any ensemble that undertakes it. The undoubted success of this release has to be laid at the feet of Alexander Walker, who clearly has the grasp of this remarkably condensed and unique series of works.
Englishman Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived to within weeks of his 97th-birthday. He composed 32 Symphonies (twenty of them after the age of 80), a series which began with the legendary ‘Gothic’, composed between 1919 and 1927, which demands almost 1,000 performers and which plays for just over an hour and three-quarters – a score which, because of its demands and length, has caused Brian to be pigeonholed in the most inaccurate fashion as an impractical and self-indulgent composer whose music has never appealed to a wide public. Well, the last part of that assessment is undoubtedly true, but Brian has never had much of a chance to become an established figure – until quite recently.
For it is an extraordinary fact that, forty-plus years after Brian’s death, his music is appearing more and more as recordings – and not merely from one particular company, although Naxos has in many ways led the way. It is through the medium of the gramophone that Brian’s music will stand the best chance of being understood, for the majority of it dates from his final decades, when his distinctive language had evolved to the point where it cannot be confused with that of any other composer. Not that his music is particularly obscure – for a glance at the listing shows that two of these Symphonies are in a definite key – but it remains highly concentrated, demanding a large orchestra (but not impossibly so), and it is full of changes that occur quite suddenly – a typical fingerprint. But repeated hearings demonstrate that Brian’s logic is fully coherent and has the character of convincing the listener that a great deal has been expressed within a relatively short time. Not a note, therefore, is wasted: it is all germane to the musical argument, but it demands a conductor and an orchestra that can cope with this fiercely original style of composition.
Brian’s late music is also hugely expressive: those erupting, powerfully snaky bass lines, like a deep-sea leviathan rising from the ocean, surging this way and that and taking the music with it on its journey – these are almost unique to this composer. In Alexander Walker, Brian has found an ideal interpreter, for each of these performances of four different and individual works, is magnificent – and the orchestral playing has, as I inferred, a quality of commitment that is admirable and in its way quite exciting.
The Sixth Symphony (‘Sinfonia Tragica’) began life as a prelude to an opera based on J. M. Synge’s Dierdre of the Sorrows that was never proceeded with. It stands perfectly suitably alone as a symphonic utterance, making a very suitable connection between the Fifth (‘Wine of Summer’, with baritone solo) and Seventh Symphonies (the latter inspired by Strasbourg, a city Brian did not visit), leading to the great trilogy of Symphonies 8 to 10. No.6 has been recorded before – by Myer Fredman and the LPO for Lyrita, almost forty years ago – but this current performance has the edge – the playing has more character and the recording quality is superior.
Of the three much-later works, their differences are astonishing, no matter that they appeared within a few years of each other. No.28 is a very good example of what I mentioned earlier: it is in four distinct movements which play virtually continuously for just 14 minutes. Here is the opposite pole to the ‘Gothic’ (or of Nos.2, 3 & 4, which each plays for around an hour), yet the concentration of Brian’s mind at this stage in his creative life is such that after it has finished one might well be forgiven for thinking the work was twice as long: so much is packed into it, so compelling are the contrasts of mood and temperament and so magnificent is the composer’s understanding and control of the orchestra.
It’s a great work, of that I have no doubt, and Walker and his players deliver a spellbinding account. This is the Symphony that was premiered under Stokowski in 1973 (91 at the time!), but some felt it did not do the work justice. Perhaps they were right, for Walker’s account is more compelling and better-played, although Stokowski’s energy and forward-thrusting approach was certainly seen as valid when he was confronted with this remarkable score.
Walker’s qualities are equally apparent in the longer No.29, composed just two months after its predecessor, but occupying a very different expressive outlook. The key is E flat, and the mood throughout less intense, but the concentration Brian demands of the listener is nowise slackened. Also in four movements, the weight of the work falls on the first movement, for it is from this symphonic exordium that the remaining three movements grow – not so much in thematic development, for they are each ‘their own man’, but in relating to taking each mood further – as if to show us a different aspect of the living organism which infuses the opening music. There is something inherently challenging about Brian’s late music, as though he was determined to release pent-up emotions from within his subconscious – yet who knows to what events they refer, for the result is utterly compelling, intense and unique, and always rooted in humanity.
No.31 comes from the following year, 1968, and finds the composer ranging freely over his muse, distilled into a fascinating textural expression that may be regarded as a “polyphonic fantasia” (as John Pickard claims in his excellent booklet note) but one that would surely have earned the keen attention of another nonagenarian – Sibelius, for there is something almost approaching a Sibelian concentration in this music, yet it could only have been written by Havergal Brian.
A magnificent record, this, containing some great music which is yet little-known; at budget price, these outstanding performances and recordings constitute a fantastic bargain.