HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphonies 6, 28, 29, and 31—New Russia State Sym. Orch. /Alexander Walker — Naxos 8.573408, 69:51 ****:
By the time most composers have reached the age of 72, they are either dead or their creative output has become nothing more than a trickle of inventiveness. Not so with the British composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972). In the last twenty years of his life (he died at age 92), Brian composed 26 symphonies.
He was raised in a working class family and his early musical experience was in the church as a choir member and organist. Largely a self-taught composer, by the early 20th century his works were admired by Elgar and performed by Beecham and Wood. That momentum was lost, and by the end of the Great War, he was poor and desperate to support a large family. A career as a critic and writer sustained him while he composed late at night. But, by the 1950s, BBC producer Robert Simpson, (later destined to become one of Britain’s foremost symphonists) became an advocate and some performances and broadcasts of his music ensued. His most famous work is the Symphony No. 1 “Gothic,” maybe the largest symphony ever written—requiring over a thousand musicians, and lasting over two hours.
Brian’s music has been influenced by Bruckner, Wagner, Elgar, R. Strauss and Mahler and is largely tonal. The Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ (1948) was transformed from a prelude to an opera (never finished) into a one- movement work. There’s a delicacy and mystery to the beginning few minutes that demonstrates Brian’s mastery of the orchestra: trumpet fanfares, dabs of color from the harp and tam-tam. A quiet orchestral interlude leads to a gentle lyrical theme. Dramatic use of percussion instruments result in a fierce climax. Despite rapidly changing moods, there’s a forward momentum and mastery of orchestral texture that’s representative of Brian’s best work.
The opening of the Symphony No. 28 (Sinfonia in C minor) of 1967 is about as lighthearted as Brian can get, with bubbling woodwinds and a pensive ending. The second movement continues the placid mood and the third movement contains a beautiful string melody. A brash finale darkens the atmosphere, and there is drama and wild use of percussion.
The 91-year-old Brian completed the first movement of his next symphony (No. 29) only a month and a half after the 28th. It’s the longest (23 minutes) and the only one in traditional four movements on this disc. A festive opening is distinguished by cheerful trumpet voluntaries, a lovely lyrical central section and dramatically engaging polyphony. A quietly expressive second movement and a frolicsome scherzo follow. The final movement mirrors the convivial mood of the symphony’s beginning, but with deeper brass and percussion. But Brian never stays with one mood for long, and the symphony ends in serene doubt.
Brian’s short 31st Symphony is built on a descending four-note theme—a polyphonic fantasia that lasts only 13 minutes. It’s a short primer on Brian’s orchestral music that demonstrates incredible variety, sometimes at the expense of musical and emotional continuity.