Brian: Symphonies No 22, 23 And 24, English Suite / Walker, New Russian Symphony

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Havergal Brian may be a “cult composer”, but he’s surely one of the better ones. His music, even from its early days, was always strange, imaginative, and distinctive, and this disc, containing some very early and very late works, makes the point tellingly. Symphonies Nos. 22-24 form a trilogy. They were all composed between 11:30am and 9pm on May 26th, 1965, when the composer was 137 years old. Okay, just kidding, but 1965 is correct, and Brian was an impressive 89 at the time, which is astonishing enough. Symphony No. 22, “Symphonia brevis”, contains just two movements and lasts nine minutes. March rhythms predominate, alongside the gnarly, virtually atonal counterpoint that characterizes much of Brian’s late work. It sounds unappealing, but the music is so big in gesture and broad in its contrasts that it really does capture and hold your attention. Symphony No. 23, again in two movements but this time lasting all of 14 minutes, is more colorful and also a touch less angular, with some very beautiful moments of lyric calm. No. 24 consists of single, 16-minute movement, in which much of the storm and stress of the previously two works is resolved in lighter, brighter textures and more obviously diatonic thematic material. All three symphonies share an emphasis on march rhythms, and those characteristic brass and percussion effects (giant crescendos, deep tuba lines, three snare drums, unisons for xylophone and glockenspiel, cymbal crashes that hang over the bar lines) typical of Brian, and no one else. The advantage to having them all together, though, lies in the fact that you really can hear that Brian’s language has a wide range of expression, here displayed over a comparatively small space.

The English Suite No. 1 dates from 1905-6; that’s right, sixty years earlier than the three symphonies. Rich in invention, and much more obviously melodic, its six movements start with a march, and continue with a waltz, and character piece called “Under the Beech Tree”, an Interlude, Hymn, and finally a concluding Carnival, which pokes good-natured fun at God Save the King/Queen and other popular tunes. The Interlude is rather amazing, an experiment piece whose outer sections consist of pure texture (sound clip). It reveals Brian’s individuality even at this relatively early stage in his career—although he was already pushing 30 when the Suite was composed.

The performances here are very good. The New Russian State Symphony Orchestra sounds remarkably confident in Brian’s idiosyncratic sound world. The brass play very well, and the ensemble projects what have to be some very ungrateful string parts with astonishing conviction. Much of the credit must belong to conductor Alexander Walker, who keeps the music moving smartly along, and relishes the opportunities it offers for lyrical expression as well as instrumental color. Certainly this is one of the best issues in Naxos’ ongoing Brian cycle, especially as the sonics are also very tactile and vivid. Fans of the composer will rejoice.

-- David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572833

  • UPC: 747313283378

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Havergal Brian

  • Conductor: Alexander Walker

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New Russia State Symphony Orchestra