Brian: Symphony No 2, Festival Fanfare / Rowe, Moscow So

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BRIAN Symphony No. 2 in e. Festival Fanfare Tony Rowe, cond; Moscow SO NAXOS 8.570506 (55: 12)

How wonderful it is to see the music of Havergal Brian (1876–1972) featured in the catalogs again! The Naxos “Gothic” found a place on Paul Rapoport’s Want List of 2004, while Barry Brenesal welcomed the Violin Concerto, the 18th Symphony, and the Jolly Miller Overture in Fanfare 29:3. On a personal level, one of my first music teachers awakened my interest in Brian with tales of the “Gothic” symphony (he was a fan of the large in music), and, in the early days of my LP collecting, Charles Groves conducting the Royal Liverpool PO on EMI fuelled the fascination (now available on CD on an EMI Classics Special Import, 75782).

The present Naxos release is in fact a re-release of an earlier, and pricier, Marco Polo disc. At Naxos’s price, this is, I would suggest, an essential purchase for anyone even vaguely interested. (The re-release of Symphonies 4 and 12 on Naxos 8.570308 calls similarly on the purse.) The structure of the listening experience is to begin with the 1967 Festival Fanfare , Brian’s only work purely for brass. It is one of the last works we know of by the composer. Its argument is terse but authoritative (it only lasts 1:44). The performance here is appropriately confident.

The Second Symphony is from over 30 years earlier (it was composed 1930–31). The scoring is typically Brianesque, including 16 horns (although only eight are used in the present recording), two pianos, three sets of timpani, and organ. Moving on from the huge “Gothic,” Brian confronted the traditional four-movement form (the “Gothic” is bipartite). For ease of reference to the superb and detailed booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald, Naxos has given each movement several track points.

The inspiration for this symphony came from Goethe, specifically the early drama, Götz von Berlichingen . One source on Brian’s music claims each movement concerns a specific character trait of Götz (the first, resolution; second, domestic piety; third, battle; fourth, death). Straussian, to be sure, but the accent here is pure Brian. Textures are often complex and oppressive but—and this is important—never muddy. The mysterious foreboding of the symphony’s opening leads to some strained playing from the strings (around 3:10), but the atmosphere is there, an atmosphere that seems remarkably congruent with the painting featured on the cover of Naxos’s disc ( The Last Man by John Martin). Contrasts have to be heard within the context of this overall feel; thus the second subject of the first movement (E Major, semplice and sempre teneramente ), while suave and delicate, never really gives any true balm nor, for that matter, hope. Brian’s inspiration takes flight in the Andante sostenuto e molto espressivo second movement. There is a lovely use of solo violin here, although the (uncredited) violinist seems rather recessed in the overall sound picture. Plus there are some extraordinary moments of scoring at the very close.

The Scherzo is by far the briefest movement of the symphony, coming in at just short of six minutes. The horns come into their own here, with antiphonal calls chasing each other over oppressive but somewhat subdued string poundings. The horns are very well played; evidently all eight are having a ball! Piano flecks add an interesting slant to the traditional hunting associations of the horn calls.

MacDonald is absolutely correct to identify the Wagnerian elements to the finale (“Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung is unashamedly evoked). The movement’s trajectory is towards a huge, hi-fi testing climax that is cruelly cut short, to be followed by some stunningly beautiful harmonies in the lower strings. The haunting end leaves one in a sort of stunned silence. This is significant music, make no mistake.

Every piece I hear of Brian’s leads me to want to explore more, and what with the onward march of Naxos’s reissues, it appears the time is right.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570506

  • UPC: 747313050673

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Havergal Brian

  • Conductor: Tony Rowe

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Moscow Symphony Orchestra


  1. Festival Fanfare

    Composer: Havergal Brian

    Ensemble: Moscow Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Tony Rowe

  2. Symphony no 2 in E minor

    Composer: Havergal Brian

    Ensemble: Moscow Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Tony Rowe