This CD contains a well-chosen sampling of both Brian's earliest and latest works. Its inexpensive price tag may make it an attractive purchase for those curious about this controversial figure. International Brian authority Malcolm MacDonald wrote the booklet notes, and he supplies a reliable introduction to this sometimes affable, sometimes crotchety composer. For those new to Brian, the first two works on this CD will be the easiest going--the most conventional in their syntax. Neither partake of the unpredictably shifting idioms or biting dissonance that will so often characterize Brian's mature utterances.
Brian never gave any clues as to who is commemorated in his 1910 tone-poem, "In Memoriam." Although the music has a pronounced flavor of Elgar at his darkest, the subject cannot be Elgar, who died in 1934. (Elgar was one of Brian's heroes, and encouraged him to pursue the path of a basically self-taught composer.)The music progresses in long, noble lines, often feeling like a funeral march, even though some of it is in triple meter. Toward the end of the second movement, it works itself up to a glittering, seemingly triumphant climax, which subsides into the third movement, which feels like a pensive Elgarian epilog, ending in a soft "sunset glow."
"Festal Dance" of 1908 was originally the finale of Brian's discarded real first symphony, "A Fantastic Symphony" which centered around the nursery rhyme of "Three Blind Mice." Its original title was "Dance of the Farmer's Wife". The NAXOS recording doesn't include the piano because the pianist didn't show up for the sessions! Leaper decided to go ahead for reasons described by Malcolm MacDonald on the Havergal Brian Society website: "This was of course an entirely legitimate course of action, since Brian marks the part `ad lib' even though it is virtually continuous throughout the score--and the Marco Polo recording eloquently demonstrates that `Festal Dance' sounds perfectly well without it." The recording by the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Havergal Brian - Orchestral Works (2 CD) (Campion)) includes the piano. MacDonald finds it tolerable, but it is a school orchestra, after all. The opening for percussion alone, brief as it is, was unusual for the time (1908). To me, this lively piece somewhat suggests Holst.
Both of the symphonies on this disc demonstrate Brian's characteristic extreme and rapid contrasts of direction and texture. The music is in a continuous state of development from its first statements. Like so many of Brian's later works, they can be viewed as multi-movement contrapuntal fantasias, that only occasionally make use of standard sonata-allegro procedures.
No.17 is one of Brian's most puzzling works. It begins quietly with an Adagio introduction of violin and woodwind solos over low brass, brusquely interrupted by the first movement proper in timpani and bass drum. The first theme group is energetically contrapuntal, punctuated with a great deal of percussion. (Brian's typically intelligent melodic writing for low brass liberates those instruments from their accustomed role of merely underpinning harmonies, and allows them to partake in the contrapuntal discourse.) This is followed by a calmer secondary theme section. After many abrupt changes, the music eventually leads back to the violin solo and melds into the second movement, beginning with sinister march-like rhythms. Again, there are abrupt contrasts--march rhythms in the low brass, eerie harp and woodwind solos, and even a few sweet moments for massed strings that briefly recall the Russian romantics(!). The movement ends with an odd, very brief, off-kilter gyration leading to the finale. This is a brief (less than two minutes!) but strenuously contrapuntal symphonic waltz which crumbles and metamorphoses into an even more strenuous march, heavily underlined with percussion. The harsh martial ending comes so soon that the movement scarcely seems to have begun before it is over. Listeners who find it difficult to wrap their minds around this bizarre work may take comfort in the fact that Malcolm MacDonald, one of the world's foremost Brian experts, regards this as one of the composer's most unorthodox compositions.
Personally, I find Brian's Symphony No.32 (his last completed work, at age 92!), easier to comprehend. Again the textures are freely contrapuntal and development is continuous from the first bar. I disagree with Malcolm MacDonald's description of the first two movements as "brooding" and "angry." Rather they strike me as "ruminative" and "vigorous." Certainly their tone is not dark, as the word "brooding" would suggest. For a change, the opening is not a march, but an Allegretto in triple meter. Although the lines are jagged with octave displacements, they move smoothly. The second movement is similar in emotional temperature, but seems to be in four. It eventually builds to a sudden dismissive snarl underlined with snare drum, and then ends quietly and enigmatically. In both movements there is not as much as usual of Brian's trademark rapid alternations of style, and for the most part the music progresses with ease in a freely-flowing contrapuntal texture. Nor is there as much use of percussion, particularly snare drum and xylophone, as one has by now come to expect from this composer.
III is a moderate scherzo in 6/8. After the merest suggestion of a trio (in bare woodwind solos), the scherzo returns, more clownishly galumphing than before, in fuller orchestration, with a prominent xylophone part. For the finale, we are back to Brian's typical rapid stylistic changes. Again, even the low brass is melodically involved in the contrapuntal writing. Generally, the mood is bright, and the counterpoint less dense than in No.17. Several times the music slows as if to draw breath before another exertion. A brass fanfare puts a stop to the ceaseless contrapuntal activity, announcing a broad and triumphant coda, which unequivocally asserts the tonic of A-flat.
In his review of this CD on the HBS website, Malcolm MacDonald had this to say: "The performance of 17 is the most cogent this knotty work has yet had... To be honest, even I don't 'get' No.17's finale section yet. Why does it go nowhere? Why is it so short? But we need performances of at least this standard before we can properly formulate our own responses, positive or negative, to this inexhaustibly surprising composer." Although I share MacDonald's baffled response toward this work, I still find it fascinating.
This CD might be a wise and inexpensive choice for those who wish to try a sampling of Brian, presenting the composer, as it does, both at his most immediately accessible and his most enigmatic. We are lucky that this challenging stuff is so well played by the NSOI, and led by the sure hand of Adrian Leaper.
Any Brian enthusiast will tell you that this music does not yield its secrets easily, and admittedly, he's not for everyone. This is not something to put on the CD player to listen with half an ear as background for other activities. Brian takes attentive and persistent listening, not just a casual once or twice through. As with any demanding composer, that is the only way to finally reap the rewards of his acquaintance. I've been getting to know Brian for over 30 years, and although I don't remotely pretend to "get" everything, I don't regret the investment of time.