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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Based on Psalm 68, a text full of apocalyptic and violent temperament with the most extreme of Old Testament passions, it was written in 1932–3 when many forces of evil were indeed gathering. Brian was an admirer of German culture and some of his scores had recently been published in Germany; this may explain why the texts are set in German: not only would that help promote the work in that country, he may well have felt that these words had something particularly relevant to say. The extreme violence is well conveyed and is counterbalanced with the more lyrical forces of humanity, goodness, heavenly visions, pastoral serenity, and the like. There are many inventive ideas, and the work’s impetus is surprisingly consistent…The Twelfth Symphony, written in 1957, lasts a little over 11 minutes. Inspired by Greek tragedy, the large orchestra is terse and direct, atmospheric and richly orchestrated. The performances are very good and enthusiastic, and they convey the music well. The recording (1992, originally Marco Polo) is decent enough and, at bargain price, well worth exploring. The helpful sleeve-notes take you through the enormous Fourth Symphony track by track, and texts and translations are included.



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.



Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, June 2007

I have always been fascinated by the music of Havergal Brian. I remember with affection the Charles Groves/RLPO recordings on LP, now available as part of an EMI twofer(5757822). I am more partial to this music than is my colleague Michael Cookson in his review. The EMI set contains symphonies Nos. 7-9 and 31, plus the Comedy Overture, The Tinker's Wedding. The present release, too, is a reissue as it originally appeared on Marco Polo 8.223447.

The Fourth Symphony is one of Brian's works that tends towards the gargantuan; his Gothic Symphony is the most famous example of this from his pen. For this Symphony, Brian chooses to set the 68th Psalm, and he sets it in German. The text thereof is rather complex in that it includes passages of darkness, violence and doom … all the ingredients for a varied musical ride, then! The fate of unbelievers in the Almighty is not a pleasant one in this particular vision. Here, the 'rebellious dwell in a dry Land' and 'the wicked perish at the presence of the Lord'; not much sweet Jesus forgiveness around here, then. Moreover, 'God shall wound the head of his enemies' and 'their feet will be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same' (track 10). Like Beethoven and, especially, Brahms, Brian was not of the received wisdom school of religiosity but sought instead to find a spirituality of his own.

The orchestra includes basset-clarinets, alto flute, two oboi d'amore, bass oboe, pedal clarinet, to name but a few, all in addition to the several choruses! Brian is a master orchestrator, though, and deploys his forces with the skill of a Mahler. The first movement, marked Maestoso, actually begins in the style of a hugely-orchestrated military march before the chorus opens with its announcement, 'Ein Psalmslied Davids, vorzusingen' ('To the Chief Musician – A Psalm of David'). True, the orchestral strings sound a little stretched at first and the recording seems a tad congested - believe me, you need all the clarity you can get here! - but neither aspect is overly disruptive. In fact, one might argue - somewhat tenuously! - that the shortcomings actually help the words of the second stanza, 'As smoke is driven away' … The choruses sings superbly at the dynamically contrasting (quiet) 'Du gabst, O Gott, einen gnädigen Regen' ('Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain'). It’s a shame that their words are garbled at the faster following lines, 'Der Herr gab das Wort' ('The Lord gave the word'). Indeed, track 4 seems rather scrambled and unsure of itself throughout its brief duration. Better is the uncredited placatory solo violin at track 5 that ushers in the solo soprano and subsequently duets with her. Vlasková is adequate rather than radiant here.

Interestingly, Brian opts to paint the Chariots of God with high dissonance - using his edgiest harmonies so far - before composing a graphic and near-mechanistic depiction of their arrival. An imposing organ introduces the words of the Lord: the rather revolting tongues of dogs passage quoted above.

Towards the end, there is a little more of the crowding to the recording noticed earlier (tr. 11). But, to compensate, there is a moment of pure silken magic at 'Die Fürsten von Ägypten werden kommen' ('The Princes shall come out from Egypt').

The Twelfth Symphony, on the surface, could hardly be more different. It lasts just over ten minutes, and is in five sections. The Introduction is gorgeously light-of-foot and yet mysterious, leading to a contrapuntal Allegro maestoso. Most impressive here is the transition to the A Tempo Marcia Lento. MacDonald's description of 'a shadow falls across the music' is very apt. The Funeral March has an internal momentum - Brian says a lot in a short space of time here – that leads into the string-based, placatory Adagio espressivo. Well performed - each note 'placed' - brass fanfares lead into the brief finale, full of jagged themes that give the rather bizarre effect of a danse macabre trying desperately to find some joie de vivre!. The work's final gesture is a masterstroke … and I won't spoil it for you.

Detailed and perceptive booklet notes from Malcolm MacDonald complete an important release. A companion Naxos disc, comprising the Violin Concerto and the Jolly Miller Overture (8.557775), makes for similarly stimulating listening. The famous Gothic Symphony is on 8.557418/19.

The use of Charles Mottram's painting, The Great Day of His Wrath on the front cover seems remarkably apposite to the disc's contents. An intensely valuable disc.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2007

English eccentric, gifted amateur, call him what you may, but Havergal Brian was a flawed musical genius. Born in England in 1876, he had on his death, at the age of 96, completed 33 symphonies, 27 coming in the last 24 years of his life. His love of music survived his early life in the mundane career as a clerk, and though taught organ as a boy, his education in composition came only by reading scores. As a young man the First English Suite was well received, but he was so short of money, he gladly enlisted in the army for the First World War. Hostilities ended he found more attractive employment copying music and working as assistant editor to the magazine, Musical Opinion, the two giving a financial stability to begin his opera, The Tigers, and the massive 'Gothic' Symphony. He was to end his life in abject poverty, friends buying a radio so that he could hear his music being played. Though he remained wedded to tonal music, and it is no slur on the Slovak performers to say they found the Fourth Symphony such an enormous challenge, for anyone would be in the same position. That we have on disc a work that calls for an enormous chorus and orchestra was with thanks to the Marco Polo label that had already given us the gigantic 'Gothic'. It is such a multilayered score, performers often harmonically cast adrift from each other, and it is high praise to Adrian Leaper that he managed to keep everything together. Massive in impact it is in contrast the Twelfth from 1957, the five very brief movements lasting just eleven minutes and presents the orchestra with few technical obstacles. The engineers have done their best to accommodate the mass of performers in the Fourth, but it was an unlikely task. Now issued at the Naxos budget price I fervently hope it will encourage more to hear Brian's music.






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2:28:36 PM, 26 July 2014
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