In the 1990s, after the success of their recording of Brian's gigantic Gothic Symphony, Marco Polo embarked on what seemed, at the time, to be planned as a complete cycle of his 32 symphonies. That project faltered, although there are signals to the effect that it has been picked up again on Naxos. It would certainly be worth doing. Brian's music is variable, to be sure, but there is enough fabulous music in his catalogue to merit a rather extensive investigation. Nothing on this disc is quite in the league of the Gothic Symphony, and the program is even less comparable to the magnificent third symhony (available from Hyperion), yet this is, overall, music worth hearing, in particular the fascinating violin concerto. That said, I must admit some serious caveats. Overall, the performances are serviceable, but not much more, and the sound quality is only fair.
The Overture to "The Jolly Miller" was written in 1962 (Brian was 86 at the time), and is a witty, energetic affair, arriving with a splash without going anywhere or containing anything particularly memorable. A less heavy-handed performance would not really have saved it completely, but at least it would have helped with greater textural clarity to reveal Brian's rather original approach to the orchestra.
The violin concerto, however, is a major work. Cast in three huge movements (helpfully divided into multiple tracks each to assist the listener in grasping the full architecture) it is a substantial work, sinewy and strong-boned, yet with glittering textures and some really memorable themes - it was originally subtitled "The Heroic", and although it was probably a wise decision on the composer's part to remove the subtitle it still gives some indication to its character. The eventful and powerful outer movements contain plenty of valuable material themselves, but the main movement is the central one, a stirring, inventive and deeply engaging Passacaglia. There is also plenty of opportunities for the soloist to shine, and fortunately Marat Bisengaliev does a fine job of it; the orchestral accompaniment is a tad rough, but overall the performances are good enough to let us appreciate the music (but without being better than they absolutely need to be).
The eighteenth symphony was penned in 1961, and is a relatively small-scale work. The first movement is a bright and brisk march, the slow movement is convincingly constructed to produce a fine climax, and the finale is a jolly, strutting, quick promenade with the barest hint of shadows. Overall, however, it is hard to judge this one to be a major work; instead, it is one of those symphonies that must have served as (otherwise misleading!) evidence for the oft-heard claim that Brian's later symphonies were mere satellites around or afterthoughts to his Gothic symphony.
Overall, however, this is a pretty rewarding program, and the violin concerto in particular is masterly. The main obstacle is the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Lionel Friend - it is an accomplished band, to be sure, and I am confident that they would have produced something excellent with just a few more hours of preparation time. As it is, however, the performances are often rough and perfunctory, seeming to lose hold of the longer lines and arguments. The violin concerto works best, and is worth the price of the disc as it is, but even this one could have been several notches better with a little more preparation time for the orchestra (Bisengaliev is impressive enough). The sound, too, is less than ideal. Still, given the unavailability and quality of the repertoire anywhere else this disc must receive a slightly hedged and cautious recommendation.