Brian: Symphony No. 2
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KHCD-2013-001FL (STEREO) - Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1930-31) - BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras - 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. 2 in E minor was written in 1930-31. In it Brian tackles the purely instrumental symphony for the first time, after the choral colossus which is the Gothic. Symphony No. 2 is a massive work, in four movements, deploying large orchestral forces, including two pianos, three sets of timpani and, in the Allegro assai, no fewer than sixteen horns. The work seems to have been inspired by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen; at the end of his life, though, Brian denied any programme, asserting that if it was ‘about’ anything at all it was about ‘Man in his cosmic loneliness’, and that the four movements corresponded to ‘ambitions, battles, loves and death’. The first movement, Adagio solenne – Allegro assai, is in an unconventional sonata form. After a long and powerful introduction, the main allegro erupts with two subjects each subdivided into three themes. The atmosphere is tense and oppressive, and the musical textures are often densely and chromatically polyphonic. The slow movement, Andante sostenuto e molto espressivo, was written first. The melancholy opening theme, on cor anglais, provides the main material for this passionate, very freely developing movement, which rises to a glittering final climax, only to die away wistfully. The third movement, Allegro asai, was nicknamed the ‘battle scherzo’ by Brian scholar Malcolm MacDonald. The two pianos come to the fore for the first time, aided by the sixteen horns. This short movement is a Dionysian study in multiple ostinati and antiphonal effects (and really deserves to be heard live in the concert-hall). The finale, Lento maestoso e mesto, is a big funeral march with Wagnerian overtones. Cast in rondo form, it contains the symphony’s deepest music. After the apocalyptic climax, we return to where the whole work started – a bare fifth chord of E.
This first professional performance and recording, on 9 March 1979, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, completed the BBC's broadcasting of all of Havergal Brian's 32 symphonies.