Brian: Symphonies Nos. 9/12/23
KHCD-2013-004DL (STEREO/MONO) - Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 9 in A minor (1951) - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman; Symphony No. 12 in one movement (1957) (1966 mono recording) - BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar; Symphony No. 23 (1965) - University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Goodman - 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, all of them works of power and originality, all of them unplayed for many years to come. Havergal Brian was already nearing his seventies, his life’s work was done, so it seemed. The opposite was the case, as this CD with three of his late symphonies eloquently attest.
Symphony No. 9 in A minor, in three movements, was written in 1949. The introduction, Adagio, stern and forbidding, establishes the serious atmosphere immediately. The music of the Allegro Vivo, cast in sonata-form, is fluid and polyphonic. Brian strikes an excellent balance, though, between mercurial busyness and necessary relief. In the coda the whole edifice is magically dissolved, leading to the beautiful Adagio, where the melancholy tranquility is darkened by an angry outburst, recalling the first movement. In the finale, Allegro Moderato, the symphony finally wins through to a huge triumph. Nine years on, in 1957, Brian wrote Symphony No. 12. Already 81, he had immersed himself in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and the play seems to have inspired both this symphony and the opera of that name he was to compose later that year. Symphony No. 12 is one of Brian’s most compressed symphonies, only 11 minutes, a one-movement design with four clearly discernable sections. As Malcolm MacDonald says, the symphony seems ‘to embody the very idea of tragedy in its most solemn, exalted, and terrifying terms’. The work’s imaginative opening is at first reminiscent of Mahler’s First, but any similarity is very quickly dispelled, and the listener is plunged headlong into the fray of a hard-bitten Allegro Moderato. Before long we reach the heart of the symphony, Marcia Lento, one of Brian’s finest funeral marches. Its progress is inexorable and menacing. A mountainous climax is followed by a very curtailed ‘slow movement’, only 23 bars long, and the symphony closes with an exuberant Allegro vivo. Eight years later, in 1965, Brian wrote his Symphony No. 23 in two movements, the middle panel of a triptych, the ‘coiled spring’ (Malcolm MacDonald). Densely contrapuntal, full of conflict, it ends as abruptly as it starts. Symphony No. 23 is a hard nut to crack, one of Brian’s more uncompromising creations, and needs repeated hearings.
Symphony No. 9 is played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Myer Fredman; Symphony No. 12 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Norman Del Mar; and Symphony No. 23 by the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Goodman.