Review By Hecht,American Record Guide,June 2007
This is the latest Naxos reissue of symphonies by English composer Havergal Brian (18961972) that appeared on Marco Polo in the 1990s. Brian's career has been recounted in ARG reviews of the originals written by Mr Tiedman and me. Briefly, he was a relatively radical composer, but more as an individualist than as part of the avant-garde or any movement. He wrote 32 symphonies, among other works, many after he turned 80 years old. They are craggy and emotional works, full of dissonance (atonal but not serial). cacophony, marches, and hymns, interspersed with passages of simplicity and serenity. Compare him to composers like Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. His music is not easy or "pretty"; but it is romantic in its way, often sonorous, and for the most part accessible.
Most of Brian's symphonies were performed at least once, but none has entered the repertory. Before the Marco Polo series, there were recordings on EMI, Lyrita, and Hyperion. Many other Brian releases were air-checks, often with poor sound, from the "pirate" label Aries. The Marco Polo project, my great hope for Brian, stalled at about a third of the symphonies, leading me to think the time has not come for Brian and possibly never will. Too bad. There is much to enjoy in his music, even if some of his writing can seem rhetorical and strewn about.
I wouldn't start with this disc, though. The Fourth Symphony (Psalm of Victory) is Brian's second-and last-that used a chorus. (The first was the more imposing First or Gothic Sympnony). The text is a German setting of Psalm 68, and the result is one of the fiercest pieces the composer wrote. It was composed while Hitler was taking over Germany, leading annotator Malcolm MacDonald to speculate that the work was a warning to Germany about what would happen to that country if it followed Hitler into war. Mr Tiedman (Nov/Dec 1993) believed Brian bought into the violent text too much to be merely composing a warning. I have no idea what Brian's intent was, but I can't imagine Nazis paying much heed to a psalm singing of God's armies led by Israelites.
The symphony opens with a cheery neobaroque march, whose triumph and joy is thrown into confusion and dissonance by the chorus until all Hell literally breaks loose. The change of mood is shocking. The chorus roars with blood lust, as soprano tone, often abetted by the violins, swirls through the air like the winds of a wild storm. The orchestra occasionally tries to restore the opening march, and there is one occasion when the sunbeam of a hymn tries to break through; but the choral gale prevails, and its monochromatic wall of sound dominates the movement. One piece that comes to mind in this movement is Allan Pettersson's 12th Symphony for chorus and orchestra.
The second movement's opening pastorale of flute, lower clarinets, and strings, followed by soprano solos, seems bent on restoring calm. In fact, the restless polytonality and wandering vocal line never allow the music to rest. Instead, it meanders in increased frustration until one must conclude that relief is not forthcoming.
III is the most complex and varied movement. It begins quietly, returns to the violent storminess of I, and then yields to a broad Elgarian tune introduced with startling good effect by the organ. This is followed by a scherzo-like fugal development of some nasty text, before Brian sets 'Princes shall come out of Egypt' with an almost noble canonic treatment of 'Ein Feste Burg'. The ending blazes with brief excerpts from the opening march tune before a last choral roar of 'Gelobt sei Gott'.
Does all this work as a symphony? Not for me, though Mr Tiedman's positive view is worth seeking out in an excellent and informative review. To me, the Fourth is Brian's working out of heated and emotional urges before the onset of his terse and controlled, but still highly inventive and often romantic, maturity. The Fourth has its moments, but for the most part, the choral writing is not that effective. One reason for that is the distant, amorphous recorded sound that makes it impossible for the words – and what incisiveness there is in the rest of the writing – to make a real trenchant impression. Better sound might lead to more positive conclusion.
The 11-minute Symphony No. 12 is mature Brian. It is in one movement, and its four sections are strikingly concise even for this composer. After a quiet beginning, the Allegro Maestoso, consisting of typical Brian fragments, leads to a funeral march that in turn builds to a deep climax before settling into creepy but somber nocturnal processional. A second climax takes us to a reflective, string dominated "slow movement" that offers contrast to the symphony's cragginess, thou even here, Brian cannot resist some biting gestures recalling the first section of the pie The Allegro Vivo plays like a random, grotesque scherzo before the quiet chordal ending in the strings startles and soothes. The sound for the 12th is much better than for the Fourth.
The 12th would be a fine introduction mature Brian, but you'll have to get the Fourth with it. A more efficient and rewarding beginning would be the Naxos release of the Violin Concerto and Symphony 18, Symphonies No. 20 and 25 on Marco Polo, the EMI disc of Brian symphonies, the four symphonies on Lyrita if they're reissued, or further issues on Naxos. For early Brian, try the First on Naxos or Third on Helios.