Wednesday 29 May 2013

Excellent performances of three of Havergal Brian’s extremely rewarding symphonies from Alexander Walker and the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra on a new release form Naxos

In March 2012 I welcomed a new release from Dutton Vocalion of William Havergal Brian’s (1876-1972)  Symphonies 10 and 30, coupled with his Concerto for Orchestra and English Suite No.3 played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Dutton Vocalion followed up that release with a recording of Brian’s Symphony No. 13 coupled with the Violin Concerto, Tinkers Wedding: Comedy Overture and English Suite No.4.

Of Brian’s thirty two symphonies there are still a number yet to be recorded. As I noted in that March 2012 blog, Lyrita Recorded Edition made a start back in 1975 by recording No’s. 6 and 16. EMI  later recorded 7, 8, 9 and 31 and, in 1988, Hyperion recorded No.3, but it was Naxos  that made the first real attempt at recording all of the symphonies.

So far Naxos have recorded Symphonies No.1 ‘The Gothic’ (8.557418/19), No.2 (8.570506), No.4 and 12 (8.570308), No’s. 11 and 15 (8.572014), No’s. 17 and 32 (8.572020) and No’s. 20 and 25 (8.572641).

Naxos has now released Brian’s Symphonies No. 22, 23 and 24 coupled with the English Suite No.1, with the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Walker . This new release avoids duplication of any of the symphonies. The fact that all these recent releases avoid duplication is something for which we must be grateful to both Dutton and Naxos. This means that it is now possible to obtain recordings of 24 of the 32 symphonies (though the EMI recordings are currently unavailable but obtainable second-hand through Amazon).

Written between December 1964 and August 1965 Symphonies No. 22, 23 and 24 are closely linked, having as they do something of a martial sound to them.

The first movement of Symphony No.22 ‘Symphonia Brevis (1964/65), marked Maestoso e ritmico, opens with a dramatic outburst complete with bass drums and the orchestra in full flow, in this typically Brian flowing and shifting melody. The music eventually settles, briefly, on a quieter nostalgic theme but soon takes off again with music that ranges from quiet, delicate passages to faster flowing passages, ending with massive orchestral sounds. The Tempo di Marcia e ritmico opens quietly and tentatively, slowly moving forward with heavy bass brass and percussion, slowly growing louder.

There is an orchestral transparency despite the amount going on in the orchestra. The music quietens with a central passage for solo violin and orchestra, before an outburst for full orchestra, reminiscent of the opening of the work. All suddenly quietens, becoming soft and still before the coda arrives with outbursts from the orchestra heralded by timpani strokes.

The moderato of Brian’s Symphony No.23 (1965) opens with timpani before the orchestra builds, with percussion, in music that is quite wild. Eventually the music slows and quietens before a return of the louder percussive orchestra. This movement is volatile throughout, with quieter flowing melodies with delicate harp and percussion, swirling woodwind and a solo violin with cello creating a sense of mystery. Yet the full orchestra soon returns, with more percussion and, after another quiet section, soon builds, with a battery of percussion and brass, suddenly cut off to give a quiet end, though the percussion still quietly make themselves known. 

In the Adagio non troppo ma pesante the orchestra enters in full flow with string basses underlining the rhythm. This upward motif continues with another battery of percussion before levelling off with a softer string melody. There is a lovely section for flute and woodwind and solo violin with pizzicato strings. A plaintive oboe appears against a bassoon and orchestra before the music tries to build again but quietens, though the tension is still there as though the march will break out again,  which it does, slowly pushing forward underlined by percussion. The music again quietens but soon gains in momentum and decibels as the orchestra once again rises with percussion to a grand climax.

Whilst Symphonies 22 and 23 both have two movements, Symphony No.24 in D major (1965), though longer than its predecessors, is in one movement marked Allegro – Allegro – Maestoso e marcato molto – Adagio. Timpani open the work before the orchestra enters, again in full flight. There is a sudden halt before a quieter section, a flowing theme based on the opening. The music soon picks up, again with percussion, before quietening suddenly in a calmer flowing theme. Throughout there is an alternation of dynamic music with quieter gentle music, at times in extended passages. Halfway through, a particularly gentle passage leads to a section for bassoon with various brass and woodwind instruments before the rest of the orchestra joins with delicate percussion. The orchestra again grows louder in a fanfare like motif before slowly falling to the low brass. The final adagio brings a quiet, wistful, reflective orchestral section that gently flows, giving a sense of resolution. Some of Brian’s most beautiful music leads on towards the coda, with the orchestra rising for a forthright ending.

Following the three symphonies on this disc is Brian’s English Suite No.1, Op.12 (1905/06). In six movements, the first, Characteristic March, opens with martial sounds before woodwind take over in an attractive little march. This eventually develops into a more flowing march section. The martial feel of the opening theme combines with the broader flowing march in a slightly varied version, as the music builds, leading to a grand climax.

Woodwind open the second movement before strings bring a flow in this slightly syncopated Waltz. Brass play over a clarinet before the full orchestra develops variations on the waltz theme. Always there is that syncopated feel projecting the music forward. A quieter, more flowing section follows with a lovely woodwind melody. Whilst the music again quickens, it soon slows to bring a quiet transition to the next movement.

Under the Beech Tree gently flows on, stretching the previous theme to an expansive melody that rises several times to gentle climaxes. There is a delicate central section with percussion sounds before the music rises slowly in waves, only to end quietly.

Interlude is an elusive movement opening with percussion, harp and strings before a flute motif brings an unusual section with various instruments joining in. The opening sounds return leading to a sudden end, with a little flourish.

Brass intone the opening of Hymn, before a string middle section that pulls the music upwards, emotionally, before dropping to a brass motif to bring a solemn end. See if you can spot the elusion to a theme from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony.

To end this work there is a boisterous Carnival, again with a slightly Dvorakian feel at the beginning, but soon developing  with faster passages and some odd variations, some lively, some gently melodic, including God Save the King.  There is a riotous coda.

Every symphony on this well recorded disc is extremely rewarding and the performances from Alexander Walker and the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra are excellent. I hope that it will not be too long before my long held goal of having every one of Havergal Brian’s distinctive symphonies on disc is achieved.

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