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

The Tone Poem is easily one of the most beautiful works that I have heard from Brian so far. Its magnificently scored, just listen at the third movement around 2: 35 to the very end of this movement, absolutely magical. It has a stamina quite unusual, and power to stay on a concentrated level, without losing the tension on the strings. Remarkable.

The Festal Dance is quite another meal, when it starts in the Allegro vivo mood, indeed a dance with fleeting melodies, like little bolts of fire, and a surge of violins that keep you on edge. Some funky rhythms too, it keeps this work firmly in place, and is a lot of fun, going over in misterioso, albeit a happy foray into this realm, the dance rhythms are still on duty, with some march like brass into the bargain too. Very nice.

The performance strikes me as good, and the sound certainly is better as some recordings… © 2017 Harry’s classical music corner Read complete review

Stephen Schwartz, October 2011

Powerful, elusive, idiosyncratic.

British composers labored under a disadvantage in the 20th century because there were simply too many good ones, even great ones, to compete against. In his long life and career, Brian strove for recognition against Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett. A country where Gustav Holst becomes an afterthought should indeed count its blessings, but Holst did not suffer alone. I wish I could propose Havergal Brian as The Great Unsung, but I know at least two others. Perhaps one day we will be learn to hold more than one or two great artists in our heads at a time.

Leaper and the RTÉ…play well throughout the program, and given Brian’s intense counterpoint, that means a lot. These readings stand at a professional level, at least, sometimes higher than that. Kudos to Naxos for their current releases. I hope they make it to all 32 symphonies.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, May 2011

I did not pick this CD to review on my own. Despite a fondness for English music in general, and for 19th- and 20th-century English music in particular, I had limited interest in Havergal Brian’s orchestral output. I lumped it with that of Granville Bantock, which I generally find overwrought and undisciplined. This CD turned out to be a bit of a surprise. Though Brian’s work does exhibit some of the same freedom of form and emotional liability of his friend Bantock’s more purple scores, it avoids most of their excesses. In fact, in these later symphonies, there is a reserve that one would not predict from the extravagance of Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony and other earlier symphonic scores. I still cannot excuse as breezily as do some advocates the occasional turgidity that arises, nor can I believe that every disjoint transition and illogical key change is part of some design not immediately apparent to us mere mortals. Still, while relatively few would argue that these works are orchestral masterpieces, there is much more to admire in this eccentric and generally unknown composer’s music than I had remembered.

The two symphonies here are both products of the remarkably productive period that began when composer/producer Robert Simpson took up Brian’s cause at the BBC in the early 1950s. The Symphony No. 17 was completed in 1961, just before the composer’s 85th birthday. The Symphony No. 32 was Brian’s last work, written in 1968, four years before his death. Both demonstrate the classical concision that was the hallmark of his later work, and a modernist tonality that recalls Hindemith. They are full of ideas, not all of them particularly memorable (or allowed to stay around long enough to become so), but most are effective in their context, and a few are quite striking. There is little apparent structure or organic development; rather the composer assembles a collage of themes that, in its contrast and even illogic, creates the emotional statement. This is particularly effective in the slow movements, in which he can generate a great deal of intensity with slow marches, flashes of brass, sudden wind solos of a few notes, and martial percussion thrown together seemingly at random. Faster movements tend toward the mercurial and whimsical, with punctuations of brass creating the same random effects. The 17th is particularly notable for the lovely violin solos that begin and end the first section, and for the bizarrely disproportionate brevity of its brassy finale. Two pensive movements culminating in a funeral march of considerable power suggest that Brian may have intended the 32nd Symphony to be his last, but the energy of the final movements—remarkably affirmative for a man of 92—argues otherwise.

The other works come from the period before the First World War when Brian was enjoying the attention of the likes of Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham, and an income from a wealthy businessman that should have left him free to compose full time. These two contrasting works, more conventionally constructed than the symphonies, exhibit styles common to early Brian: the darkly expressive and the exuberantly satiric. In Memoriam, a tone poem of the former style, was initially programmatic, tracing a funeral march, service, and apotheosis for an unidentified artist. (Program and dedication were later withdrawn.) The lyric moments remind one of the English pastoralists, and the more solemn sections, the Edwardian nobility of Elgar. Festal Dance, the finale of an abandoned programmatic symphony, is of the latter style. Originally titled Dance of the Farmer’s Wife, its rustic energy is capped by a wild fugal development and Straussian horns. Both works show Brian’s skill in employing orchestral color and standard forms, as well as his ability to build impressive, often brassy climaxes.

This is not a new issue, but is a rerelease of a well-engineered 1992 recording previously available on the Marco Polo label. The Dublin-based orchestra plays brilliantly. Adrian Leaper wisely avoids heaviness, opting for relatively fast tempos and lighter textures. He does not exhibit either the personality or insight of my just-discovered ideal Brian conductor—Stokowski, who in the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 28, available on YouTube, seems to instinctively know how to make those discontinuities work—but he gives strong performances of the symphonies and better than that of the earlier works.

Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, May 2011

The RTE Orchestra plays these unfamiliar works well, and Leaper’s interpretations are intelligent and original.

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

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Another welcome re-issue from the Marco Polo Havergal Brian recordings of the 1990s, and a particularly nice juxtaposition of early and late works.

Although described as a tone poem, In Memoriam doesn’t have a programme. It is a long funeral march, or a study in slow march rhythms. Whatever the impetus behind the music, this is a very strong inspiration, deeply felt and expertly carried out. There is a particularly heart-warming central section. The coda is particularly moving in its simplicity. How many composers could create such a large slow movement which could stand alone? Malcolm MacDonald, in his excellent note, gives a detailed account of the genesis of the music.

As the title suggests, Festal Dance is bright and breezy, and were it not for the large orchestration this could almost pass as a piece of light music. But this is Havergal Brian and the concept of light music wasn’t for him, even though he did write some pieces of a lighter nature. This is Last Night of the Proms extrovert! It would be a real winner with that audience.

Fifty years, and 16 Symphonies later, we arrive at the 17th Symphony, and it’s a typically argumentative affair, with a brooding slow introduction before launching into a big, full-blooded, Allegro. At first hearing it might seem somewhat disjointed, but on better acquaintance will deliver all its glories, especially the subtle construction and working out of its ideas. After this, the other two movements together play for less than half the duration of the first, but what riches there are here. The slow movement is another of Brian’s measured marches, with some fine writing for the horns, but just as the argument is beginning to unwind the, very short, finale bursts in and brings things to a swift conclusion. Despite the obvious brevity of the work, there’s a feast of music here and the ending comes at just the right moment for the progress of the music. On paper the 17th Symphony appears to be wrongly balanced, but one thing Brian understands is content and form and what makes a satisfactory composition. Therefore, despite an almost 9 minute first movement and a less than 2 minute finale, the proportions are perfect!

The 32nd Symphony, Brian’s last, consists of four movements, each playing for about 5 minutes. It’s music of defiance. There’s nothing valedictory here, nor, at 92, does the composer show any signs of losing his grip on composition. It’s a cogently argued work, dark and very serious at times, and even when Brian lightens the textures and feeling, such as in the scherzo, there’s still an undercurrent of worry and disturbance.

Adrian Leaper is a conductor who should really be working regularly in the UK. One wonders why the land of his birth ignores him. I well remember him directing a superb Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra some 15, or so, years ago and he proved himself to be a splendid conductor with vision and insight. He directs fine performances here of some very challenging repertoire, but he has obviously given much time to his interpretations and has conveyed to his players exactly what he wants because one feels that he gets it. It doesn’t look as if Brian will be getting any new recordings in the near future so we must be grateful to Naxos for giving us this, and other, Marco Polo, recordings, and reminding us of what an important figure Brian was in English music. Performances, recording and notes are all that you could want.

John France
MusicWeb International, January 2011

It is hard to imagine that when Havergal Brian began to compose his 17th Symphony some five decades had passed since the Festal Overture. The composer was a ‘young’ 84 years old. The work was begun in the latter part of 1960 and was completed in early January. The liner-notes point out that in the previous twelve months he had been extremely active—completing Symphonies 13–16. Each of these had been in a single movement format, calling for a large orchestra. No. 17 was a little different. Although still in a single movement, the orchestra is somewhat smaller—in spite of a large percussion section and a pair of tubas—and the duration is quite short. In fact, this work lasts just over thirteen minutes with an unbalanced scale of movements: the opening Adagio-Allegro last for over eight minutes, the final allegro for under two. Malcolm MacDonald gives an excellent précis of this work which is worth quoting in full:—‘[This] is one of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral equivalent…to the big keyboard toccatas of Bach…’

The music opens with an adagio that is described as being redolent of Celtic Romanticism. Yet this is soon blown away by the timpani leading to virile and forceful music that is occasionally tinged with reflection.

The ‘lento’ is not a relaxing listening experience. The composer chose to use a variety of moods seemingly juxtaposed in a haphazard manner, but actually cunningly contrived to achieve an unsettling effect. There is a grotesque march here, and a romantic interlude there: all thrown around in abrupt contrast.

Certainly there has been some critical concern over the final movement which just does not really seem to do anything or go anywhere. It starts off well and then appears to become a little confused. It is not surprising that adjectives such as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘elusive’ are used about this music.

Yet something about this symphony impresses and moves me: I fear it should not do so, but it does. There is an uneasy coherence that emerges from the disjointed and varied material the composer has chosen to use.

Havergal Brian’s last Symphony is one which I have admired since first hearing the Marco Polo release of this work in the early nineteen-nineties. As Malcolm MacDonald points out, this was in fact the last work of any kind that Brian completed. He was only 92 years old at this date. The work was composed in 1968 whilst Brian was staying in his council flat overlooking Shoreham Beach. I recall when I first listened to this work some eighteen years ago, wondering if it would be ‘valedictory’ or would represent some kind of ‘summing up’ or epitome of his career. Macdonald suggests that this is not the case—it is not a last will and testament. However it does continue to explore the ‘Brianist’ symphonic development and challenges the listener with its dichotomy between darkness and affirmation.

The work is ostensibly written in four reasonably-balanced movements with the ‘adagio’ placed second and the scherzo third. However, formally it is usually perceived as being in two ‘large halves’—the first being brooding and melancholic, with the second half energetic and positive. It is hardly the work of an elderly man. This symphony has been described by one reviewer as having a Nielsen-like conflict alongside one of Brian’s trademark funeral marches. There is a wide range of mood and musical device in this symphony—from the dance music of the scherzo to the polyphonic final movement.

The two other works on this CD are impressive. The first is the tone poem In Memoriam (1910) and the second is the sparkling Festal Dance.

For many composers a work of the size and seriousness of In Memoriam would have been cast as a ‘symphony’. Certainly, Brian makes use of a large orchestra of Straussian proportions. The formal sense of the work is in three scenes; or movements, preceded by an introduction. This is funeral music that refuses to be totally pessimistic: there is a positive feel to much of this music.

The genesis and conception of this tone poem is convoluted. It has been suggested that the late King was its subject. Or was it a musical friend from the Potteries? There are a number of musical allusions—for example, the National Anthem. A number of inscriptions on the score muddy the waters. Furthermore, there appears to have been a written ‘programme’ to the work appended to the score—but this has been removed. Brian wanted his music to be judged as absolute music—not as programmatic.

It received its first performance in Edinburgh during December 1921. The Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Landon Ronald.

The Festal Dance has a complicated history too. It was originally the final movement of the discarded ‘Fantastic Symphony’. It was published in 1914 and first performed at a concert in Birmingham conducted by Granville Bantock. The Symphony was also mined for the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. However, the scherzo and the slow movement are lost. The finale was subtitled Dance of the Farmer’s Wife.

The resultant dance is certainly very ‘festal’ in its exuberance and sheer vitality. The quality of the orchestration is superb with a heavy reliance on the percussion section. Surely this would be a fine opening piece for a ‘Prom’ Concert, if only the BBC would look in Havergal Brian’s direction now and again.

The programme notes are both extensive and excellent: this is to be expected from Malcolm MacDonald who is the leading authority on the music of Havergal Brian. The sound quality is outstanding, the playing is convincing and the programme is ultimately satisfying.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, December 2010

British composer Havergal Brian (1876–1972) was something of a throwback. While he wrote most of his music during the twentieth century, he could just as easily have lived most of his life in the nineteenth. If you haven’t heard any of his prodigious output, including thirty-two symphonies, it’s probably because the twentieth century pretty much ignored him. Nonetheless, he persisted, writing his last eight or so symphonies when he was in his nineties. Over the past twenty-odd years, the Marco Polo and Naxos labels have tried to provide the listening public with as much of his work as possible, so today you’ll actually find a good deal of it in the catalogue. Still, you’ll have to look for it.

The present album begins with two early tone poems, the first called In Memorium (1910), subtitled “Vigueur dessus” (possibly meaning “utmost strength”) and written in three movements. However, the composer left no clues as to what it was about, what the subtitle actually meant, or who the music might have been memorializing. It sounds like a funeral dirge, arranged as a kind of solemn march, but, then, much of Brian’s music sounds solemn, so it’s hard to tell. The second tone poem, composed two years earlier, is Festal Dance (1908). Its tone is the opposite of In Memorium, with a sort of Richard Strauss satiric appeal to it. It’s more fun than the first number, both of them showing an admirable economy of style yet providing a good deal of ornate flourish, too, with Festal Dance perhaps beginning life as part of an unfinished symphony. Be that as it may, it’s enough to give any orchestra and any stereo system a workout.

After these tone pictures we get two of Brian’s later works, the Symphonies Nos. 17 and 32. They are very short, and Brian wrote them when he was in his late eighties and early nineties respectively. Symphony No. 17 (1960–61) is in a single, three-part movement lasting about thirteen minutes. It varies from huge orchestral crescendos to soft, light, reflective moods, with some of the same slow march rhythms heard in his music of fifty years before.

Symphony No. 32 (1968) was the last composition of any kind Brain wrote, so we can see where he ended up. Like most of his work, it’s dark and edgy, more than a little noisy, eventually high spirited and jubilant, and maybe a tad introspective. Who knows what goes on in a person’s mind.

Adrian Leaper and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Ireland’s Public Service orchestra and one of its most-popular ensembles, play the music as though it were Bruckner or Brahms, music with which Brian shares some superficial resemblance. They place great emphasis on the more lyrical aspects of the works, where they can find it, as well as the purely bombastic, which is easier to come by. Brian was, after all, an unusual fellow, composing a ton of music over an enormously long lifetime, while hardly causing a ripple in the world’s musical stream.

Originally recorded in 1992 and previously released on the Marco Polo label, the sound is fairly big, as expected, yet reasonably clean and dynamic. The midrange shows good depth and moderate transparency despite being a trifle thick and displaying a degree of reverberation. The latter provides a realistic concert-hall ambiance, though, so it’s hard to complain.

David Hurwitz, December 2010

Originally released on Marco Polo, these fine performances make a welcome return on Naxos. In Memoriam and Festal Dance are early Brian: tuneful, somewhat heavily scored, and in the latter (which is based on the tune “Three Blind Mice”, or possibly “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush”), quirkily humorous. The two symphonies are quite different—with their abrupt contrasts, flashes of lyricism, heavy-footed marches, and evocative bursts of color in strange places, they certainly won’t be to all tastes, but they have great character and a distinctive voice (in a good way). The performances are very good given the unfamiliarity of the music. The brass have some moments of strain in the 17th Symphony, and the sonics aren’t quite as good as more recent releases from this source (this was made in 1992)—but these are small blemishes. A valuable release.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group