Tuesday 2 June 2015

Naxos’ premiere recordings of Havergal Brian’s symphonies 28 and 29 coupled with symphonies 6 and 31 will be a must for enthusiasts of this composer and, indeed, lovers of British music

For all William Havergal Brian’s (1876-1972) www.havergalbrian.org  prolificacy he had only reached his sixth symphony by the time he was 72 years of age. It was only in the last 24 years of his life that there came such a large outpouring of symphonies – another 26 in fact.

Naxos www.naxos.com  have taken us a step nearer to having all of Havergal Brian’s symphonies available on disc with a new recording of his Symphony No.6 and Symphony No. 31 coupled with the premiere recordings of Symphony No.28 and Symphony No. 29 all performed by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra www.nros.ru/nros  conducted by Alexander Walker www.alexanderwalker.org

Brian’s Symphony No.6 ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ (1947-8) came after a period of inactivity. He had completed his huge cantata Prometheus Unbound in 1944. This work lasts over four hours and took a number of years to write. The symphony is in a single span and first started out as an orchestral prelude to a planned opera on J.M. Synge’s play Deirdre of the Sorrows. It did not receive its first performance until a BBC Radio broadcast in 1969 by which time he had met composer and BBC music producer Robert Simpson who championed his music.

It has a strangely buoyant opening but almost immediately a note of caution is heard. A trumpet bursts out as the music becomes more dramatic with Alexander Walker holding a terrific tension as the music rises through passages of light textures with many instrumental details.  A cor anglais brings a slower passage to which a bassoon adds its deep resonance. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra bring some fine individual instrumental moments before the music rises up and speeds ahead full fine transparent textures. A cornet sounds bringing a feeling of intense emotion before the woodwind lead forward with a side drum bringing a slow, rhythmic forward funeral plod. Soon the strings take the sad melody before arriving at a more expansive passage.

When a flute plays over pizzicato strings there is an oddly Russian flavour but it doesn’t last here, the music rising again with a lovely wistfulness. There is a strange staccato bassoon passage as well as many fine moments of varied instrumental textures. Drum rolls and timpani introduce a dramatic section before the music scurries ahead pointed up by the timpani and other percussion in a frenzied section. Horns blaze over the frenzied orchestra as the music pounds its way forward until falling to a spirited section for a variety of woodwind. Brass enter to lead the music forward as though to a resolution but are interrupted by timpani. A cor anglais brings a hush against a dark plodding orchestral accompaniment before expansive strings finally lead to a kind of resolution though with timpani adding a note of darker caution.

Symphony No.28 (Sinfonia in C minor) (1967) was dedicated to Robert Simpson and first performed by BBC Radio in 1973. It receives its premiere recording here. It is in four movements played without a break. The Moderato opens with a light-hearted theme, rising through some typically Brian sounding climaxes with a myriad of orchestral textures and instrumental details, very much supported by percussion. It rises to a loud climax just before a quiet coda as it runs into the Grazioso e leggiero which opens with a gentle woodwind passage lightly pointed up by a celeste. Brian soon builds the tension as the music progresses. The orchestral sweep of the strings is constantly checked by little instrumental details, all beautifully shaped by Alexander Walker, rising to a peak before falling to run into the third movement.

In the Andante espressivo the expansive strings are allowed their head in a very fine melody with some very fine woodwind passages, slow and measured before leading confidently into the Allegro vivo which arrives full of drama, a battery of percussion sounding as the music pushes ahead. There is a strange rising motif for a variety of brass and woodwind instruments, pointed up by percussion before the music reaches a peak and suddenly drops to a resigned coda.

Symphony No. 29 in E flat major (1967) was not performed in the composer’s lifetime, receiving its first public performance on 17 November 1976 at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, England by the North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Smith. It receives its premiere commercial recording on this new disc.

It is again in four linked movements opening with Adagio – Allegro that provides a grand orchestral opening as the music rises up confidently. Timpani sound to announce a lighter, jollier theme which develops as various woodwind and brass add details. The music soon rises again becoming more dramatic with percussion adding quite a noise. There is a fine forward momentum and sparkling orchestral textures. Despite the orchestral weight, this conductor achieves such a fine transparency from the orchestra. The music slows and quietens as violas and cellos lead forward before rising with a terrific rich orchestral texture to a dynamic climax before leading into the Lento cantabile sempre, slow movement with a gently, yet passionately undulating theme. There is a lovely passage for flute, then oboe before the music rises with bass drum before falling to lead into the third movement.

The Allegretto grazioso has a spritely, light-hearted theme with a great little flute part. Indeed, it is full of fine moments for a variety of instruments including violin and clarinet.  After moving through a quiet, withdrawn section the music rises again but it is a more measured paced leads into the Adagio – Allegro molto – Adagio that is launched in a grand fashion with brass leading the orchestra. Soon the whole orchestra moves ahead. There are lighter textured moments but overall there is a confidence as the music leads to a grand climax. There is a quieter section before the music grows in strength and rises again before moving to its hushed and gentle coda.

In January 1968 Brian moved to his final home, a sea front flat at Shoreham by Sea in Sussex, England. He wrote three works at this new home, his one movement Symphony No. 31 finished on the 3rd April that year; a Legend for Orchestra, Ave atque Valer, finished on 31st May and his final work, his Symphony No.32 posted to Robert Simpson in October 1968.

Symphony No. 31 (1968), which received its first performance in a 1979 BBC Radio 3 broadcast, opens with three timpani strokes followed by a descending motif for strings taken up by the woodwind before various instruments subject it to a series of variations. There is a more flowing version of the theme that leads lightly and gently forward and some beautifully light textures in Brian’s distinctive orchestration. The music soon rises up, pointed up by timpani and bass drum achieving a real forward impetus with such fine textures. There is a quiet passage for violin with string accompaniment before the music again rises in energy to swirl ahead. Later there is a passage that brings a riot of percussion and orchestral textures brilliantly done here. A solo passage for clarinet arrives before the music slowly and gently moves forward before rising to its dynamic coda.

The performances by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker really are very fine. They benefit from an excellent recording that allows all of Brian’s orchestral textures to emerge. There are excellent booklet notes from John Pickard.

This new disc is a must for all of those Havergal Brian enthusiasts that have long awaited hearing symphonies no’s 28 and 29.

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