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Harry van der Wal
Harry’s classical music corner, April 2017

The recording is quite good, with huge dynamics well processed, and a reasonably good sound stage. As to the performance I cannot be definitive really, for I have little comparison. But it’s accomplished and disciplined. © 2017 Harry’s classical music corner Read complete review

Zan Furtwangler
Audiophile Audition, August 2012

…Brian composed in an unconventional symphonic structure in Symphony No. 11. 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.

Brian’s music is different, but tonal. He was a master of orchestration. © 2012 Audiophile Audition Read complete review

Steve Schwartz, June 2011

Giant. British composer Havergal Brian left a significant body of work, including a cycle of 32 symphonies, which hardly anyone but specialists knows. During his very long life (nearly 97 years), he gained the support of such figures as Elgar, Delius, Bantock, Vaughan Williams, Ernest Newman, and Robert Simpson, the last of whom helped illuminate him briefly on the general listener’s radar screen. Certainly, Simpson turned me on to Brian during the Sixties and Seventies through articles, liner notes, and getting up actual performances on BBC Radio. Yet, if we consider the quality of Brian’s music, we can’t say he’s yet gotten his due. Here, after all, is Elgar’s heir, among other things. Bad luck plagued him most of his life. Born in grinding poverty, his formal schooling stopped at the age of 12. Yet he stubbornly held to the idea of becoming a composer. He could not afford a formal course of study, so he to a great extent taught himself and earned a catch-as-can living in musical journalism and various musical secretarial tasks. He had married (twice; the first ended in divorce in 1913) and needed to provide for his family. His work as a reviewer gave him access to free tickets to the wealth of concerts in London. His positions in musical journalism kept him abreast of the latest developments. He early on beat the drum for Mahler, Handel’s operas, Bruckner, and Schoenberg. Promised performances and publications of major works often went unrealized, due to one thing and another (the usual lost scores and the ascent of the Nazis to power, for example). By the end of World War II, he was almost totally forgotten. At the time of his Sixties revival, he and his wife were living in a council flat. Through all of this, he single-mindedly continued to compose, producing most of his symphonies after World War II as well as other major scores. His work rarely shows up in recording, often in amateur performances, although Marco Polo and now Naxos seem to have taken a flyer on him—a long time coming.

Brian’s work divides roughly into early and late. The early work is big and Romantic; the late terse and thoroughly modern. This CD features scores from both periods.

If Brian has a fault, it’s his tendency to stuff his work full of too many wonderful things. I can’t think of a truly light piece. For Valour suffers from this. It’s an Elgarian overture—similar to something like Froissart or In the South. Ideas burst from it in confusing profusion. There are, for example, not one, not two, but three multi-thematic subject groups, and they’re freely mixed in the development. This takes, at least, great skill, but a listener may have to listen to it many, many times before it begins to make sense. Fortunately, Naxos has divided the overture into subtracks, and Brian maven Malcolm McDonald has provided terrific liner notes geared to those tracks. Most of the overture is either contemplative or grand, but it also contains some “barbaric” passages that I find quite gripping. Dr. Merryheart, on the other hand, takes off from Richard Strauss, particularly Don Quixote. Despite Brian’s designation of “overture,” it, too, is a set of “fantastic” variations. The theme, however, hasn’t as strong a profile as Strauss’s. Indeed, Brian seems to have made it out of bits, and the bits don’t particularly cohere. Furthermore, he varies the individual bits (often, just rising and falling scales) rather than the theme. Nevertheless, it’s wonderful music, overflowing—again—with invention. Nobody has yet found a literary source for Dr. Merryheart, other than Brian’s own program note. Some take it as the composer’s humorous self-portrait—head full of “crotchets,” heroic in dreams, modest awake.

In three movements played without a break, the Symphony No.11 opens, unconventionally, with a contrapuntal, contemplative adagio, Brucknerian in mood, without borrowing Bruckner’s idiom. Brian refers to its two main ideas as “motto-themes”—that is, they engender other themes. The mottoes slightly vary one another—an upward octave leap, followed by variants of a short descent. These mottoes run throughout the symphony. In the adagio, they appear in truncated form, without their opening jump. The second movement, an allegro which takes up more than half of the symphony, begins with an idea clearly derived from the first measures of Mahler’s Symphony No.4. It’s an odd allegro, in that it’s largely quick in brief spans; contemplation is “always breaking out.” As in a lot of Brian, it combines several different movements within one overarching argument. Essentially, an allegretto transforms itself into a slow movement. The first idea consists of the horns blowing a bumptious theme that consists of the mottos in their full form conjoined. The spirit of Mahler flows through the movement in more ways than one, particularly in how one idea segues into the next and in the chamber-like symphonic orchestration. Brian uses a large orchestra, but seldom all at once. The extra instruments provide a greater variety and color in less complex textures. Especially noteworthy is Brian’s use of percussion, absolutely individual, almost a composing fingerprint. The second movement flows into the short coda, a swaggering march which sandwiches a pastoral dance, and the symphony ends with a strong dash of bright brass.

Structurally, the Symphony No. 15 comes across as an odd duck, even for a one-movement symphony. Its main idea—MacDonald calls it “Handelian”—strikes me as a first cousin to “Rule Britannia!” That idea acts like pillars throughout the work, between which one gets discursive episodes. The sections of the symphony can’t really be called movements, since their boundaries are fluid. I doubt whether two people would agree on where one ends and the next begins. It’s fantasia as much as symphony. Nevertheless, one can distinguish three main spans: a march, a lyrical bit (the bulk of the work), and a final triple-time dance based on the march. This last is hardly the light divertissement one might expect from a Classical work. It sounds like giants dancing, even waltzing. There’s a deep “boom” to it. Throughout the work, Brian’s imaginative, yet non-showoff-y use of percussion counts as one of the many fascinating details. As discursive as Brian can be, this symphony, because of the centrality of the opening idea, seems one of his most focused.

Tony Rowe in For Valour and in Symphony No. 15 and Adrian Leaper in the rest do very well indeed containing Brian’s tendency to sprawl in these scores. The RTÉ band significantly improves over the amateurs and pickup groups that seemed to appear on most of the early Brian recordings. The sound is firmly within the current standard, without exceeding it. Naxos is relatively cheap. Why not take a flutter?

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, January 2011

These performances are rereleases from the Marco Polo catalog (originally on 8.223588) and were recorded in 1993 (Merryheart and the 11th Symphony) and 1997.

There is something intrinsically English about the opening to the comedy overture For Valour (premiered in 1907; there is a reasonable amount of certainty that this is a revised version). The initial reaction is to call it Elgarian (Cockaigne, specifically). Melodies continually threaten to call for a nobilmente marking. Other models that have been suggested are apparently Elgar’s In the South and Wagner’s Meistersinger. This is one of Brian’s earliest surviving orchestral works. The RTÉ Orchestra plays with a true sense of style, unintimidated by Brian’s sometimes complex counterpoint. The long-breathed melodies speak of a very English, proud sense of dignity.

The “comedy overture” Doctor Merryheart is in fact an elaborate set of symphonic variations on a simple tune. Written in 1911–12, it reveals a most winning compositional exuberance. Brian’s scoring is miraculously deft. The imaginary character of Doctor Merryheart was a jocular figure who was convinced that the sun and planets are all part of a cosmic diatonic scale, the tonic of which resides in the Milky Way. Brian picks up simple material (a descending diatonic scale) and takes it for a walk in a whirligig paradise. Contrast is effected by the slower section, titled “Dreams: Asleep in the Arms of Venus.” The music here verges on the erotic. Merryheart has a sequence of dream adventures in which he fights a dragon, leads a procession of heroes, and suchlike. The music is unfailingly delightful, and if the scenarios are reminiscent of Richard Strauss in heroics, then the reference is clearly mirrored in the music itself. Adrian Leaper inspires the RTÉ orchestra to miracles of swashbuckling jocularity.

Moving on some 40 years, the Symphony No. 11 of 1954 shows Brian in a relaxed mood. The work begins with an Adagio, stately and long-breathed, seamlessly composed and ending in a whisper out of which emerges the long horn melody that opens the Allegro giocoso. The feeling of scherzo cannot keep going for long and keeps relapsing into the gentler mood of the opening movement. The RTÉ orchestra is masterly in switching from one mood to the other, and evokes the most delicious sense of stillness at the close of the long (14-minute) central movement. The finale, in contrast, is a mere four minutes. The strings cope well with Brian’s demands in their higher register. The ceremonial nature of the music is well captured.

Finally, the 15th Symphony (1960), another extrovert work with moments of celebration, receives a similarly dedicated performance, this time under the baton of Tony Rowe. Brian’s dense scoring, as so often, reveals itself as carefully calculated rather than compositional overindulgence. The work’s slow movement, a passage marked Cantabile e espressivo molto, provides delicate contrast (and is magnificently realized here) before an almost Wagnerian brass chorale leads into the finale. Further elements of the processional figure prominently here; the work ends in a blaze of A Major.

Another addition to the Brian discography at the lower end of the price scale. May this trend continue.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, January 2011

Playing and recorded sound are superb; notes are in English. Since much of Brian’s music can be rather forbidding, this is a good place to start.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, October 2010

When I was 12 years old, I saw a piece on a TV News programme concerning a very old composer who was about to have the professional première of a work he’d written nearly fifty years earlier. I assume that it was a serious piece of TV journalism, but all I can remember is that we were told that it required more performers than any work ever written and that there would probably be more people on stage than in the hall. This single, and very ill-advised, comment probably did Brian more harm than good because it put into the public’s mind that here was some kind of lunatic who was getting the only performance he would ever get, and gave the impression that all his works were on a similar scale. After that performance of the Gothic Symphony, under Boult at the Albert Hall—“ but just think what Toscanini would have made of it” is supposed to have been Brian’s ungracious comment afterwards—I eagerly awaited the occasional broadcast of one of his Symphonies. Over the years I bought the legal, and pirate, recordings of his works. I was lucky enough to study with Harold Truscott, the expert on Brian’s music, and subsequently hear his own recorded archive of the composer’s works.

Over the 45 years since that performance of the Gothic I’ve listened to Brian on and off, and although there is much fine work in his output, I find myself drawn to the shorter Symphonies—those following Das Siegeslied (No.4)—finding the earlier ones to be sprawling and lacking in real focus. It was Marco Polo’s work in recording many of the Symphonies which probably did more for his cause than even the BBC’s performing them all.

This disk brings together four interesting works from the very earliest years and the maturity of this fascinating composer. The two Overtures were recorded, together with six other early orchestral works, by the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith (re–issued on 2 CDs (for the price of one)—Cameo RR2CD 1331/2) and these recordings were as valiant an attempt to put Brian in the focus of the record-buying public as were the ones by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. But Brian needs professional musicians if only because his music is very difficult to play. For Valour is very Elgarian in terms of heroism, but quite un–Elgarian when it comes to introspection. There are a couple of passages which, heard in isolation, could pass muster for the older composer, but this is not Elgarian in any way! What keeps Brian’s music apart from Elgar, and, indeed, all other British composers, and not just of his time, is the unique way he musters and handles his material. For Valour is a fine example of this. Starting with a real valiant call to arms, the music quickly moves between thoughtfulness to mocking march, then patriotic fervour. It’s thickly scored, much of Brian is, but Rowe makes a very persuasive case and is very sympathetic when dealing with the full forces. The performance has a great deal of spontaneity, giving the impression of a concert performance—once through, so to speak—but I cannot believe that this was done without editing. If it was then a huge bravo for the players. Dr Merryheart is a comedy overture, but not of the belly-laugh kind of Eric Fenby’s Rossini on Ilkla’ Moor; it’s more a comedy based on a fantastic, and humorous, sketch. Like all Brian it’s thickly scored so you might just wonder where the comedy lies, but it’s in there, you just have to listen for it.

The two Symphonies are made of sterner stuff, if you can believe that. The Eleventh starts where the Tenth finished, with the same three notes—in inversion—and a very serious Adagio grows from them. This is searching for something and what it finds is a joyous scherzo! That juxtaposition of material is one of those odd things about Brian. March rhythms come to the fore, the march is seldom far from Brian’s mind, and the music becomes disjointed and suddenly the movement is the longest of the three, accounting for three-fifths of the whole, ending with a long slow section, full of longing and loneliness. The finale breaks out into another of Brian’s English Dances and ends with a march. The scoring of this Symphony is more transparent than in some of his other works, but it’s still full. I wonder if the experience of hearing the BBC broadcasts of the Eighth Symphony on 1st and 2nd February 1954, by Boult and the London Philharmonic, spurred him on to write another Symphony. The Eleventh was started on 10 February 1954. Perhaps it also prompted him to have a careful look at his orchestration.

The Fifteenth Symphony has something of both the Eleventh and its predecessor, the Fourteenth, about it. By the way, when are we going to have a recording of No.14? It is one of the very best, and most searching, of all Brian’s Symphonies. The Fifteenth has sections built of stone, which alternate with more delicate passages.

I wonder why I have written the above because Brian’s music defies description. Of all the composers whose work I know, his is the work for which the hippy word phantasmagorical might have been coined. Brian cannot be put into categories. It’s obvious he’s an English composer, but he stands apart, his physical isolation and neglect helping to build both the man and his work. After the early successes his music took on a darker hue, his orchestration became richer and a deep seriousness came to the forefront of his thinking.

These are fine performances, lacking, perhaps, the last ounce or two of bite, but the music was then, as it would be now, totally new to the musicians. The recordings are exemplary and the booklet contains a very long, and interesting, essay by Malcolm Macdonald.

Brian has been neglected, for all the wrong reasons, for too long and these Naxos re–issues of original Marco Polo recordings are invaluable. At the price they’re a steal and should be on every record shelf, standing proud beside the English music we already know and love—Elgar, Bantock, Parry, Rubbra, Alwyn and so many more. Do not miss this, it’s too important. And what’s more, it’s very good.

John France
British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content, September 2010

The symphonic LP discography of Havergal Brian has been largely distorted by a number of pirated recordings released on the so-called ‘Aries’ label. These were derived from BBC broadcasts and were (with one exception) issued under assumed names of both orchestras and conductors. A number of other CD companies issued selected symphonies over the years, but the mainstay has been the eleven examples released by Marco Polo. These original discs appeared in the nineteen-nineties and according to the Brian Society webpage have now been largely deleted—although many are available as MP3 downloads. Naxos has to be congratulated for re-issuing a number of these recordings: it is a process that I hope will be continued in the coming months and years. I believe that there are a further six symphonies still to be re-issued.

The entry point to this fine CD must surely be the captivating Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart (1911–12). As Reginald Nettel points out in his book, ‘Havergal Brian and his Music’, the title of ‘overture’ is misleading. This work is in fact ‘a symphonic poem in the form of a set of continuous variations on two converging lines’ [of music]. Even the most cursory hearing of this overture must impress the listener with the sheer confidence and technical mastery presented by the composer. The piece is based on the life and doings of a certain Dr Merryheart, whose persona was the creation of the composer. Merryheart was both an astronomer who indulged in Pythagorean speculation and also a dreamer. The subtitles given to the variations suggest the sort of dreams he had. For example, the first variation was ‘Whimsies and Sunshadows’, another was ‘Dreams: Asleep in the arms of Venus’ and another, ‘Merryheart as a chivalrous knight chases Bluebeard.’ Before Dr Merryheart awakes he has fought a dragon and led a procession of heroes. The work concludes with ‘The Dance of Merryheart’ where the composer recapitulates a number of the preceding themes. It is perhaps a good idea to see this overture as a kind of English Til Eulenspiegel. Certainly there are a number of Straussian references and even parodies in this music. It is interesting that Brian retained a lifelong affection for this work—possibly because it is one of the few works that retained a tentative place in the concert repertoire. But more to the point it may well be because the character of Dr Merryheart is largely that of the composer himself!

Before starting work on the Symphonies I would recommend backtracking to the opening number on this CD—the Concert Overture: For Valour (1902–06). In many ways it has the assurance and confidence of the Edwardian period, yet I think it would be wrong to assume that it was simply a sort of pastiche of ‘ceremonial music’ nodding towards jingoism. There is an ambiguity here. This is not a piece of music that exalts war: if anything it is a work that questions the fact that men have to go and fight and die in the battlefield in the first place. It is no coincidence that ‘For Valour’ is the inscription on the nation’s highest battle order—the Victoria Cross. The Overture, which was written after the Boer War may reflect the dichotomy between the reality that many VCs were won in that campaign for outstanding bravery and the fact that the war was largely unpopular ‘back home.’ The work is certainly not anti-war but neither is it a kind of ‘Froissart-ian’ glorification of it. It is the balance between the marital music in this overture and the more ‘pastoral’ imaginings that gives the work it character and emotional depth. Interestingly, the literary inspiration for this work was a quotation from Walt Whitman’s ‘Drum Taps’—the passage beginning with ‘Adieu dear Comrade’ and concluding with ‘To fiercer weightier battles give expression.’

I always have a major problem when I listen to any Symphony by Havergal Brian—it immediately becomes my favourite of the series! Furthermore, I am always depressed as to how such inspiring works of art can be ignored by the great and the good. If pressed, I would have to declare my contention that Brian is up there with the ‘Top Five’ symphonists from Great Britain. Who the other four would be is always a matter of debate and not for these pages! It is redundant to attempt an analysis of these Symphonies for my review. The Havergal Brian Website carries such a vast array of information, reviews, analysis and bibliography on virtually all of Brian’s works. Furthermore Malcolm MacDonald, who has produced the three-volume study of Brian’s 35 Symphonies, has given a comprehensive analysis of both works in the liner notes. However, a few comments are essential to allow any potential listener the opportunity to decide if this music is for them.

The 11th Symphony was composed between February and April 1954. It is scored for a large orchestra with an array of percussion instruments, including sleigh bells and gong. The work is conceived in three movements with the middle movement being longer that the other two together. MacDonald notes the unusual form of the work—with a deeply felt ‘adagio’ preceding what is effectively the central scherzo-like movement. He suggests that the nearest parallel is Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (1939) which is of similar length and form. Yet the mood of the two works are very different, especially in the opening movement—the Brian work seems to be much more positive and even relaxed in its outlook whereas the Russian adagio is tragic. Furthermore, the finale of the Brian work is a ‘ceremonial’ style march in E major which is followed by a country dance tune, whereas the Shostakovich concludes with ‘a full-blooded and debauched music-hall galop’.

The 11th Symphony is a fine work and one where the composer has seemingly enjoyed himself. The music travels a huge distance in its half hour duration. Quoting Malcolm MacDonald, who gives an excellent summary in a review of this CD:—[The] ‘Symphony 11 runs a gamut, from exalted lyric expression at the start, through truly comic episodes in this big central movement, to a Finale of swaggering ceremonial—which nevertheless is itself qualified, once again, by more pastoral images in a central country dance…in fact it ranks among Havergal Brian’s occasional (and usually ironic) nods to the ‘English pastoral’ school of composers who were the Establishment throughout much of his career.’

The Symphony No.15 was written in the spring of 1960 when the composer was a mere 84 years old. It is almost incredible to imagine that at this point he was not yet half way through his symphonic career: the final essay, the 32nd Symphony was not completed until 1968. The work is scored for a large orchestra and is formally conceived as a single movement. Malcolm MacDonald suggests ‘that this work takes another look at pompousness and circumstance and magnificence and ceremonial, and ways of undercutting these things. This is monumental subversion raised to a fine art.’ Yet this is not to say that Brian totally mocks this genre. He stated in a letter that this symphony was ‘a work of [both] power and tenderness.’ The 15th Symphony is a complex and involved work that needs a lot of attention from the listener else much will be missed. What is not in doubt is the sheer technical mastery—both of the formal structures, the melodic transformations and the instrumentation. This is a Symphony that is totally ambivalent. On the one hand it appears to sit in the tradition of English ‘ceremonial’ music, yet on the other hand it represents this genre in a manner which although recognizable is totally transformed. I think that there is also a huge dash of humour in much of this music. There seems to be a reference back to the success of Dr Merryheart with much of the thematic transformations: nothing is ever at it seems. In some ways Brian does for this style of music what Charles Ives did for hymn-tunes and hoe-downs. Both the performance and the sound quality of these recordings are superb. There is so much potential for going wrong in any presentation of Brian’s music—the scoring is surely difficult to balance either in the concert hall or the studio. Yet every nuance is given here—from the most extrovert moments in the 15th Symphony, through to the instrumental complexities of Merryheart by way of the weight of sound of the For Valour Overture and the depth of the ‘adagio’ of the 11th Symphony.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, September 2010

A warm welcome for this straight reissue of a pioneering Marco Polo recording of the music of an unconventional but unjustly neglected composer – only at the end of his long life, following a TV programme, did he receive anything like his due. The music is far better than the ‘all-British wallpaper’ description with which the BBC Music Magazine greeted the original issue and the performances and recording – well transferred here – do it justice.

James Manheim, August 2010

The packed-to-the-gills music of British composer Havergal Brian is an acquired taste, but the occasional recordings of his 32 symphonies, many of them written when he was well beyond 80 years old, continue to reveal music that at the very least incorporates its influences (Elgar, Mahler, William Walton) rather than aping them. In much of Brian’s mature music an essentially conservative musical language is subverted by sheer density and motivic subtlety. Among Brian’s champions was Leopold Stokowski, who programmed Brian’s Symphony No. 6 when both were 91 years old; it would have been nice to hear that performance, for the two artists share a certain extremity of style that seems Romantic but ultimately is distinctively modern. These performances by conductor Adrian Leaper, Brian’s contemporary champion, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland are sympathetic...After a rather melodramatic early Concert Overture: For Valour (based on a Walt Whitman program and closely analyzed in a booklet that will be worth the price of the album for Brian fans and students), the fun begins with a bizarre variation-like Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart, a piece of program music based on thoroughly imaginary ideas. The central attractions are the Symphony No. 11 and Symphony No. 15, composed in 1954 and 1960, respectively. Both of these works are light and relaxed in spirit, but on closer listening they begin to reveal derivation from a quite restricted set of motivic cells...But don’t be surprised if you become the latest Brian addict.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

Having given the world the first studio recording of the monumental ‘Gothic’ symphony, the Marco Polo label embarked on a Havergal Brian symphonic series. Without any formal training in composition, Brian composed in his spare time, and on his death at the age of 96, he had completed 33 symphonies (one of which is not included in his numbered series). He had been taught the organ as a boy, but his education in composition came only by reading scores and working with amateur choirs and orchestras. Sir Henry Wood conducted his first major orchestral score, the First English Suite, which was well received, but fame was short lived and the penniless young man enlisted in the army in the First World War as a form of employment. He later found work copying music and as assistant editor to the magazine, Musical Opinion. But 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. Often viewed as a musical eccentric, this disc would show a gifted composer who somehow heard in his mind totally unique orchestral sounds. Only six years separated his Eleventh and Fifteenth symphonies, but even this loyal supporter would admit his younger years were his finest, the Concert Overture, For Valour, and the comedy overture, Doctor Merryheart, being two extremely attractive scores. At times the two symphonies meander, the pages of the Fifteenth with their feel of pageantry being the most engaging. While the overtures fall nicely under the fingers of the string players, the symphonies do cause the Irish orchestra some problems. Adrian Leaper conducts Merryweather and the Eleventh, with Tony Rowe directing the remainder. From 1993 and 1997, the sound is good, though I thought at the time of recording the orchestra involved was the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. A unique composer, and still love him for any shortcomings.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group