Brian: Symphony No. 3
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KHCD-2013-002DL (STEREO) - Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 3 in C-sharp minor (1931-32) - Ronald Stevenson, David Wilde, pianos; New Philharmonia Orchestra/Stanley Pope - It is by now almost common knowledge among the cognoscenti of classical music that Havergal Brian (1876-1972) wrote 32 symphonies, starting with the enormous and still-controversial Gothic, and suffered decades of neglect. He was born in the same decade as composers like Ravel, Scriabin and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but his style belongs to no discernable school. Of course, he had his influences (Berlioz, Wagner, Elgar and Strauss spring to mind), but he digested them thoroughly and never really sounds like anyone else. Between 1900 and 1914, Brian briefly came to notice with a series of choral works and colourful symphonic poems. Then World War I broke out, and everything changed, not least his luck as a composer. But, although many decades of neglect lay in store for him, Brian found himself, too. By the end of World War II, therefore, he had written five symphonies, a Violin Concerto, an opera, The Tigers, and a big oratorio, Prometheus Unbound (the full score of which is still lost), all of them works of power and originality, and all of them unplayed for many years to come. Havergal Brian was already in his seventies. His life’s work was done, so it seemed. The opposite was the case.
Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor was written in 1931-32. Brian started sketching this heroic and iridescent symphony only six days after finishing, on 6 April 1931, the full score of Symphony No. 2. The orchestral forces are even larger (doing without the extraordinary sixteen horns of the earlier work, though). The two pianos this symphony also requires, are used in an almost concertante fashion in the first movement, betraying the origin of the symphony in an abortive concerto. Symphony No. 2 began and ended in darkness, its successor sets out, very purposefully, on a great journey, which for the listener is a journey through the most fantastic and thrilling soundscapes. The introduction of the first movement, Andante moderato e sempre sostenuto e marcato,has an unusual habanera rhythm, which in Brian’s hands has nothing seductively Carmen-like about it. A peculiarity of the two subjects of the bewilderingly expanded sonata design that follows, is that both are rather lyrical, the first slightly ‘dour’ (as Brian aficionado David Brown once aptly characterised it), but the second is unashamedly romantic. The stern centre of the movement is reached with a curious cadenza for the two pianos and the two sets of timpani, followed by a powerful coda. The slow movement, Lento sempre marcato e rubato, is among Brian’s most beautiful and atmospheric. Meditative intimacy and passionate outbursts are here in equal measure. In the third movement, Allegro vivace, which Brian wrote last, we get a ‘real’ scherzo, brilliantly-scored, and in the obligatory trio more than a nod to waltzing Vienna. Brian being Brian, however, things get grimmer and weightier as we near the end, an excellent preparation for the serious finale, Lento solenne. ‘The movement has the approximative shape (though not the detail) of a sonata-form’ (Malcolm MacDonald). And so we encounter two themes, one sad, the other dark but imbued with an unstoppable dynamism, which leads us finally to a crushingly triumphant ‘Epilogue’.
This historic first performance and recording (12 January 1974) features the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Stanley Pope. The pianists are Ronald Stevenson and David Wilde.