Review By John France,MusicWeb International,January 2011
It is hard to imagine that when Havergal Brian began to compose his 17th Symphony some five decades had passed since the Festal Overture. The composer was a ‘young’ 84 years old. The work was begun in the latter part of 1960 and was completed in early January. The liner-notes point out that in the previous twelve months he had been extremely active—completing Symphonies 13–16. Each of these had been in a single movement format, calling for a large orchestra. No. 17 was a little different. Although still in a single movement, the orchestra is somewhat smaller—in spite of a large percussion section and a pair of tubas—and the duration is quite short. In fact, this work lasts just over thirteen minutes with an unbalanced scale of movements:
The music opens with an adagio that is described as being redolent of Celtic Romanticism. Yet this is soon blown away by the timpani leading to virile and forceful music that is occasionally tinged with reflection.
The ‘lento’ is not a relaxing listening experience. The composer chose to use a variety of moods seemingly juxtaposed in a haphazard manner, but actually cunningly contrived to achieve an unsettling effect. There is a grotesque march here, and a romantic interlude there: all thrown around in abrupt contrast.
Certainly there has been some critical concern over the final movement which just does not really seem to do anything or go anywhere. It starts off well and then appears to become a little confused. It is not surprising that adjectives such as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘elusive’ are used about this music.
Yet something about this symphony impresses and moves me: I fear it should not do so, but it does. There is an uneasy coherence that emerges from the disjointed and varied material the composer has chosen to use.
Havergal Brian’s last Symphony is one which I have admired since first hearing the Marco Polo release of this work in the early nineteen-nineties. As Malcolm MacDonald points out, this was in fact the last work of any kind that Brian completed. He was only 92 years old at this date. The work was composed in 1968 whilst Brian was staying in his council flat overlooking Shoreham Beach. I recall when I first listened to this work some eighteen years ago, wondering if it would be ‘valedictory’ or would represent some kind of ‘summing up’ or epitome of his career. Macdonald suggests that this is n