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Guy Rickards
Gramophone, October 2011

BRIAN: Symphony No. 1, ‘The Gothic’ 8.557418-19
BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 (Ukraine National Symphony, Penny) 8.572641

Brian awareness grows apace with further reissues

I write this a few days before the Gothic’s Proms premiere, its first complete performance in the UK for 31 years. So this year’s 21st anniversary reissue of Ondrej Lenárd’s pioneering Marco Polo recording, on Naxos (with the rebranded Slovak—not Czechoslovak—RSO, I notice) in a limited Ondrej Lenárd’s pioneering Marco Polo recording, on Naxos (with the rebranded Slovak—not Czechoslovak—RSO, I notice) in a limited edition, is most timely. Michael Oliver was lyrical in his original review of both work and performance, which overcame his previous misgivings about the music and its creator. Lenárd’s account still sounds well in Günter Appenheimer’s expert recording, though since then it has been challenged by Testament’s archival release of Boult’s 1966 professional premiere. I outlined the pros and cons of both in my review of the latter last year so won’t repeat myself; suffice it to say, though, that both recordings serve Brian’s vision superbly, and both grace my shelves.

No alternative versions have yet been released of Symphonies Nos 20 and 25 or the early Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. The last-named, along with Festal Dance (coupled with Symphonies Nos 17 and 32), is all that remains of Brian’s original First Symphony, a (probably) never fully realised spoof symphonic treatment of “Three Blind Mice” which is worked up into a delightfully Straussian yet rather off-beam quasi-symphonic poem. Tovey thought highly enough of it to include it in his Essays in Musical Analysis, and Michael Oliver once again gave a warm welcome to the original issue on Marco Polo, justifiably in my view, as the disc juxtaposes three works from different periods in Brian’s career: early for the Fantastic Variations, (late)middle for No 20—one of the more expansive of Brian’s later symphonies with its wonderful slow middle movement—and (early)late for No 25. Penny produced fine accounts with the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra, for whom the idiom was quite alien. Occasionally that shows in the playing but it is no more of an issue than for a British orchestra performing, say, Kalinnikov. The sound is still of high quality and the restoration of these recordings, especially at super-budget price, will be immensely welcome to the Brian Society as well as to those coming anew to this famously incalculable composer.



Brian Wilson Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, August 2011

This recording of Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 is the latest to be reissued less expensively.

The opening variations on Three Blind Mice are something of a virtuoso tour de force and they come off least well, perhaps because the orchestra were unfamiliar with the underlying ‘old rhyme’. The two symphonies are not the easiest of nuts to crack, but they will reward your perseverance and all concerned make a strong case for them.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2011

I recall in my original review commenting that Andrew Penny’s performance of the humorous Fantasic Variations on an Old Rhyme is well worth the price of the disc. Now looked upon as a British eccentric, this marks the final reissue in a series of Havergal Brian symphonies released on the Marco Polo label. Learning how to compose by reading scores was the only avenue open to a young man born in northern England in 1876 into a poor family. Penniless and on the point of suicide, he recruited into the First World War to give himself employment. Yet still persisting that his destiny was that of a composer, he found work copying music together with the job of assistant editor to the magazine, Musical Opinion. At least it provided basic sustenance, though he was to die in abject poverty, friends buying him manuscript paper and a radio on which he at last heard some of his symphonies performed. On his death, at the age of 96, he had completed 34 symphonies including the massive ‘Gothic’ Symphony. He also left five unperformed operas, concertos for both violin and cello, and a large amount of orchestral, choral and chamber music, and the well-known song, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. As to the Twentieth and Twenty-fifth symphonies, both are in a conventional three-movement format and are very personal in their sound textures, orchestras finding that aspect difficult in its interrelated intonation. With total commitment the Ukraine musicians enter into the dramatic outbursts and quirky moments that permeate both scores, the recorded sound being very good. But if you are coming to Brian I beg you to start with the Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.557775), a 20th century masterpiece whose neglect is both disgraceful and idiotic.






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12:34:29 PM, 22 December 2014
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