HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphony No. 4 “Das Siegeslied” (Psalm of Victory); Symphony No. 12 – Jana Valásková, sop./ Slovak Philharmonic Choir/ Slovak National Opera Chorus/ Echo Youth Choir/ Cantus Mixed Choir/ Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno/ Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Adrian Leaper – Naxos 8.570308, 60:57 ***:
HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphony No. 11; Symphony No. 15; Concert Overture: For Valour; Comedy Overture: Dr. Merry Heart – RTE Nat. Sym. Orch./ Tony Rowe & Adrian Leaper, conds. – Naxos 8.572014, 77:10 ****:
These two discs are reissues from the Marco Polo label and are part of a mighty effort on the part of Marco Polo and Naxos to promote the music of Havergal Brian. Other labels have done yeoman’s service, as well.
If you are not familiar with Brian, a few comments are in order. Brian (1876-1972) was a compulsive composer, writing 32 symphonies, five operas, a violin concerto and miscellaneous orchestral music, among others. Performances of some of his works occurred as far back as 1907, but generally he and his music were ignored.
Brian first became noticed in the 1950s with radio performances. He really became known with a 1966 BBC performance led by Sir Adrian Boult of his Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’. This work is gargantuan in concept with hundreds of singers and an orchestra to match, including brass bands. Boult’s performance circulated on pirated tapes and LPs for years. It has been recently issued in stereo by the Testament label. Marco Polo issued the first commercial recording which has now been reissued on Naxos, and a brand new recording on Hyperion is now out.
The fifty-minute Symphony No. 4 ‘Das Siegeslied’ (Psalm of Victory) (1932-3) is a setting in German of Psalm 68 Let God Arise, let his enemies be scattered, in Martin Luther’s translation. While not religious or political, Brian was an admirer of German culture – music and literature. He chose German because he was expecting his opera The Tigers to be staged in Dresden and a German publisher was issuing the complete score of The Gothic. This fourth symphony is scored for soprano soloist, double chorus and large orchestra. [Some have compared his lengthy symphonies to those of Mahler…Ed.]
Soprano Jana Valásková wobbles her way through the second movement in typical old style Eastern European fashion. The various choruses are better, but the quality of their German pronunciation leaves something to be desired. Adrian Leaper, who conducted the Marco Polo/Naxos version of “The Gothic,” seems at home with Brian, bringing out the music’s drama and fervor. The orchestra plays with precision and vigor.
Also on this disc is Brian’s Symphony No. 12 (1957), a short work of 11 minutes. This work is somewhat bizarre in construction and subject matter and is dark with an unconventional orchestral splendor. This CD was recorded in 1992, so it has the advantage of digital recording. However, it is not state of the art. No engineers are listed.
The second of these reissues is a collection of two symphonies plus two overtures. Adrian Leaper conducts Brian’s Symphony No. 11 (1954) and Tony Rowe conducts Symphony No. 15 (1960), both performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.
Again, Brian composed in an unconventional symphonic structure in Symphony No. 11. More relaxed than the previous symphonies, this employs two ‘mottoes.’ There are moments of elegiac mystery, a remembrance of the opening of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and an abundance of sharp orchestral contrasts. Symphony No.15 opens with a triumphal blaze, as Symphony No. 11 ended. Brian called it “a work of power and tenderness.” Humor and grandeur abound.
Two overtures open the disc. First is a Concert Overture: For Valour (1902-06), conducted by Rowe, and the Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart (1911-12), conducted by Leaper, both with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
For Valour was inspired by a passage from Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps and is very martial in character. There are references to the music of Elgar, Strauss and Wagner. Dr. Merryheart is a set of complex variations and is also a concert overture. Brian parodies Richard Strauss in this work of orchestral virtuosity. Leaper and Rowe both have the measure of the music.
Recorded in Dublin in 1993 and 1997, the sound is an improvement over the other disc. The producer was Chris Craker, who also functioned as engineer as did Dave Harries. Notes for both discs are by Malcolm MacDonald, and they are in English only. Brian’s music is different, but tonal. He was a master of orchestration. If you are looking for something distinctive and individual, give these two discs a try.
Ormandy and the...