Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 18-19-22
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KHCD-2013-027DL (STEREO) - Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 18 - New Philharmonia Orchestra/Brian Fairfax; Symphony No. 19 - BBC Scottish Orchestra/John Canarina; Symphony No. 22 "Symphonia brevis" - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman - First CD Releases - 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 discernible school. Of course, he had his influences (Berlioz, Wagner, Elgar and Strauss spring to mind), but he digested them so thoroughly, he 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.
The 18th and 19th Symphonies, both from 1961, have formally a lot in common. In them – according to leading Brian scholar Malcolm MacDonald – the octogenarian composer tried his hand at a ‘classical’ symphony for the first time: clear structures, varied repetition, continuous tempo. The sudden pauses and lightning switches of mood that marked the earlier symphonies are, for the time being, rejected. Symphony No. 18, in three movements, is a masterly illustration. An unyielding, hard-bitten march is the main matter of the opening Allegro moderato. The atmosphere is by turns militaristic and grimly humorous. The music then quietens down for a tragic Adagio. Haltingly, searchingly it grows and grows until, via sorrowful solos on viola and flute, it reaches a shattering climax. Surprisingly, the concluding Allegro e marcato sempre is almost strenuously jaunty, but gets more and more angry as it progresses, ending the work as harshly as it began. Symphony No. 19, in E Minor, by contrast, is mostly very genial and sunny. The outer movements have their reflective moments, but they are permeated by dance rhythms. The middle movement, Adagio – Allegretto, hints at greater depth and darkness. The final symphony on this CD, the 22nd (Symphonia Brevis), from 1964/65, is Brian’s shortest ever. It is the first panel in a triptych of sorts, and the problems it poses are worked through and resolved only in the next two symphonies. In Symphony No. 22 Havergal Brian dispenses again with his new-won ‘classical’ decorum. The first movement, Maestoso e Ritmico, hurls the listener headlong in a raging stream of polyphony. Brian, fortunately, knows when to relax and when to heighten the tension. Still, the music is far from easy listening. An almost desperately lyrical theme sings against the enveloping darkness and after a pause, the Tempo di Marcia e Ritmico – Adagio begins, a nocturnal march. We travel through weird, wonderfully-scored, landscapes. Then the opening figure again rears its angry head. The work ends menacingly, with a great question mark. Symphony No. 18 is played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor Bryan Fairfax; Symphony No. 19 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under John Canarina; and Symphony No. 22 is played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Myer Fredman.