Brian: Symphonies Nos. 4 "Das Siegeslied" & No. 5 "Wine of summer"
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KHCD-2012-003 (STEREO) - Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 4 "Das Siegeslied" (1932-33) - Felicity Palmer, soprano; BBC Singers; BBC Choral Society; Goldsmiths Choral Union; London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Poole; Symphony No. 5 "Wine of summer" (1937) - Brian Rayner Cook, baritone; 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.
This CD contains two vastly different works. Symphony No. 4, ‘Das Siegeslied’ (Psalm of Victory), written in 1932-33, is Havergal Brian’s most violent and most Germanic work, employing orchestral and choral forces that are only eclipsed by the Gothic. Symphony No. 5, ‘Wine of Summer’, for baritone and orchestra, written in 1937, is one of Brian’s most English efforts, austere and coldly lyrical. It is also his first one-movement symphony, and a very successful and tightly-argued one at that. ‘Das Siegeslied’ is a setting, in German, of Psalm 68, ‘Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered’. Brian was an admirer of Germany, in particular of its cultural achievements, and followed developments in that country closely. He must have been aware of Hitler’s ascension to power, but whether this barbaric symphony is a prescient critique cannot be answered. As it is, the Fourth is in three movements – Maestoso (verses 1-12), Lento (13-18), Allegro (19-35). A ceremonial march opens and closes the work, but when we reach the end the music has traversed a very dark world indeed, putting a very ironic question mark over all the pomp and circumstance. Much of the atmosphere is harsh, frenzied and bloodthirsty, though there are oases of tranquility. The middle movement features a soprano (Felicity Palmer), with music of a cool beauty, typically shattered by an apocalyptic outburst. The symphony is as fascinating as it is uncomfortable. Its successor, ‘Wine of Summer’, lives in another world entirely. It is a haunting setting, for a more regular orchestra, of a melancholy poem by Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s Bosie), where an unspecified male ‘I’ reflects on transience and lost love. The music is astringent and wonderfully suggestive, and rather at odds with Douglas’s flowery fin-de-siècle style. The whole symphony, wrote Brian in a programme-note, is based on ‘the theme announced by the soloist to the opening words of the poem’. That concision points ahead to symphonic achievements still in the future.
Symphony No. 4 is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor John Poole, Symphony No. 5 by the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Stanley Pope, soloist: Brian Rayner Cook.