Saturday, 25 September 2010

Havergal Brian: Symphonies 11 and 15 on Naxos

Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972) Concert Overture: For Valour (1902-06) Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart (1911-12) Symphony No. 11 (1954) Symphony No. 15 (1960)
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe (For Valour and Symphony No.15) & Adrian Leaper. Originally released on Marco Polo 8.223588 NAXOS 8.572014 [77:10]
The symphonic LP discography of Havergal Brian has been largely distorted by a number of pirated recordings released on the so-called ‘Aries’ label. These were derived from BBC broadcasts and were (with one exception) issued under assumed names of both orchestras and conductors. A number of other CD companies issued selected symphonies over the years, but the mainstay has been the eleven examples released by Marco Polo. These original discs appeared in the nineteen-nineties and according to the Brian Society webpage have now been largely deleted - although many are available as MP3 downloads. Naxos has to be congratulated for re-issuing a number of these recordings: it is a process that I hope will be continued in the coming months and years. I believe that there are a further six symphonies still to be re-issued.

The entry point to this fine CD must surely be the captivating Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart (1911-12). As Reginald Nettel points out in his book, ‘Havergal Brian and his Music’, the title of ‘overture’ is misleading. This work is in fact ‘a symphonic poem in the form of a set of continuous variations on two converging lines’ [of music]. Even the most cursory hearing of this overture must impress the listener with the sheer confidence and technical mastery presented by the composer. The piece is based on the life and doings of a certain Dr Merryheart, whose persona was the creation of the composer. Merryheart was both an astronomer who indulged in Pythagorean speculation and also a dreamer. The subtitles given to the variations suggest the sort of dreams he had. For example, the first variation was ‘Whimsies and Sunshadows’, another was ‘Dreams: Asleep in the arms of Venus’ and another, ‘Merryheart as a chivalrous knight chases Bluebeard.’ Before Dr Merryheart awakes he has fought a dragon and led a procession of heroes. The work concludes with ‘The Dance of Merryheart’ where the composer recapitulates a number of the preceding themes. It is perhaps a good idea to see this overture as a kind of English Til Eulenspiegel. Certainly there are a number of Straussian references and even parodies in this music. It is interesting that Brian retained a lifelong affection for this work – possibly because it is one of the few works that retained a tentative place in the concert repertoire. But more to the point it may well be because the character of Dr Merryheart is largely that of the composer himself!

Before starting work on the Symphonies I would recommend backtracking to the opening number on this CD - the Concert Overture: For Valour (1902-06). In many ways it has the assurance and confidence of the Edwardian period, yet I think it would be wrong to assume that it was simply a sort of pastiche of ‘ceremonial music’ nodding towards jingoism. There is an ambiguity here. This is not a piece of music that exalts war: if anything it is a work that questions the fact that men have to go and fight and die in the battlefield in the first place. It is no coincidence that ‘For Valour’ is the inscription on the nation’s highest battle order –the Victoria Cross. The Overture, which was written after the Boer War may reflect the dichotomy between the reality that many VCs were won in that campaign for outstanding bravery and the fact that the war was largely unpopular ‘back home.’ The work is certainly not anti-war but neither is it a kind of ‘Froissart-ian’ glorification of it. It is the balance between the marital music in this overture and the more ‘pastoral’ imaginings that gives the work it character and emotional depth. Interestingly, the literary inspiration for this work was a quotation from Walt Whitman’s 'Drum Taps' – the passage beginning with ‘Adieu dear Comrade’ and concluding with ‘To fiercer weightier battles give expression.’

I always have a major problem when I listen to any Symphony by Havergal Brian – it immediately becomes my favourite of the series! Furthermore, I am always depressed as to how such inspiring works of art can be ignored by the great and the good. If pressed, I would have to declare my contention that Brian is up there with the ‘Top Five’ symphonists from Great Britain. Who the other four would be is always a matter of debate and not for these pages! It is redundant to attempt an analysis of these Symphonies for my review. The Havergal Brian Website carries such a vast array of information, reviews, analysis and bibliography on virtually all of Brian’s works. Furthermore Malcolm MacDonald, who has produced the three-volume study of Brian’s 35 Symphonies, has given a comprehensive analysis of both works in the liner notes. However, a few comments are essential to allow any potential listener the opportunity to decide if this music is for them.

The 11th Symphony was composed between February and April 1954. It is scored for a large orchestra with an array of percussion instruments, including sleigh bells and gong. The work is conceived in three movements with the middle movement being longer that the other two together. MacDonald notes the unusual form of the work – with a deeply felt ‘adagio’ preceding what is effectively the central scherzo-like movement. He suggests that the nearest parallel is Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (1939) which is of similar length and form. Yet the mood of the two works are very different, especially in the opening movement – the Brian work seems to be much more positive and even relaxed in its outlook whereas the Russian adagio is tragic. Furthermore, the finale of the Brian work is a ‘ceremonial’ style march in E major which is followed by a country dance tune, whereas the Shostakovich concludes with ‘a full-blooded and debauched music-hall galop’.

The 11th Symphony is a fine work and one where the composer has seemingly enjoyed himself. The music travels a huge distance in its half hour duration. Quoting Malcolm MacDonald, who gives an excellent summary in a review of this CD:- [The] ‘Symphony 11 runs a gamut, from exalted lyric expression at the start, through truly comic episodes in this big central movement, to a Finale of swaggering ceremonial—which nevertheless is itself qualified, once again, by more pastoral images in a central country fact it ranks among Havergal Brian’s occasional (and usually ironic) nods to the ‘English pastoral’ school of composers who were the Establishment throughout much of his career.’

The Symphony No.15 was written in the spring of 1960 when the composer was a mere 84 years old. It is almost incredible to imagine that at this point he was not yet half way through his symphonic career: the final essay, the 32nd Symphony was not completed until 1968. The work is scored for a large orchestra and is formally conceived as a single movement. Malcolm MacDonald suggests ‘that this work takes another look at pompousness and circumstance and magnificence and ceremonial, and ways of undercutting these things. This is monumental subversion raised to a fine art.’ Yet this is not to say that Brian totally mocks this genre. He stated in a letter that this symphony was ‘a work of [both] power and tenderness.’ The 15th Symphony is a complex and involved work that needs a lot of attention from the listener else much will be missed. What is not in doubt is the sheer technical mastery – both of the formal structures, the melodic transformations and the instrumentation. This is a Symphony that is totally ambivalent. On the one hand it appears to sit in the tradition of English ‘ceremonial’ music, yet on the other hand it represents this genre in a manner which although recognizable is totally transformed. I think that there is also a huge dash of humour in much of this music. There seems to be a reference back to the success of Dr Merryheart with much of the thematic transformations: nothing is ever at it seems. In some ways Brian does for this style of music what Charles Ives did for hymn-tunes and hoe-downs. Both the performance and the sound quality of these recordings are superb. There is so much potential for going wrong in any presentation of Brian’s music – the scoring is surely difficult to balance either in the concert hall or the studio. Yet every nuance is given here – from the most extrovert moments in the 15th Symphony, through to the instrumental complexities of Merryheart by way of the weight of sound of the For Valour Overture and the depth of the ‘adagio’ of the 11th Symphony.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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