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CLASSICAL  February 2008

CLASSICAL February 2008

Subject:

Music by Brian

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 19 Feb 2008 22:34:55 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Havergal Brian

*  Festival Fanfare (1967)
*  Symphony No. 2 in e minor (1930-31)

Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe
Naxos 8.570506  Total time: 55:12

Looking forward and back.  Havergal Brian, largely self-taught as
a composer, was born in grinding, working-class poverty.  Although
periodically helped and encouraged by composers like Vaughan Williams
and Granville Bantock, he never broke through until he had become a very
old man.  To some extent, music had moved away from Brian, as he himself
well knew (he probably was as aware of the totality of Modern European
music as anyone of his time).  He was neither a Stravinskian nor a
Schoenbergian nor a Bartokian nor a Hindemithian.  Then Robert Simpson
discovered his music, beat the band for the composer (living at the time
in a council flat), especially for performances, and indeed inspired
Brian to a late spurt of creativity.  Simpson in fact turned me on to
Brian in the late Sixties.

During his life, Brian's most famous (and notorious) piece was his
first symphony, subtitled "Gothic," a huge work for gigantic orchestra,
chorus, and soloists, inspired by the examples of Mahler and Richard
Strauss, with a complete, elaborate Te Deum as its final movement.
Indeed, Brian's first seven symphonies tend to the big, at least, if
not the huge.  The "Gothic" takes up two CDs, after all.  However, in
the late Forties, Brian began to compress and concentrate his musical
thought.  For example, the second symphony runs close to an hour.  The
twelfth symphony zips by in eleven minutes.  However, Brian pulls off
miracles in these mini-symphonies: the listener somehow experiences in
them the same weight as the larger.  Certainly, I have never felt
shortchanged.

Brian's music occupies a twilight between late Romanticism and early
Modernism, just as Mahler's does.  His idiom differs noticeably from
Mahler's, but not his habits of symphonic construction.  Mahler, I think
it fair to say, has memorable themes as well as great symphonic skill.
Brian has the skill but not the same memorability.  One tends to recall
passages in general, rather than actual themes.  Furthermore, Brian,
despite a shared approach to the symphony with Mahler (at least here),
isn't the same kind of artist.  Mahler, his Modernism notwithstanding,
belongs ultimately with the Romantics due to his search for transcendence.
Das Lied von der Erde begins with "Darkness in our life, and death," but
it ends in a kind of approach through Nature to God, "ewig, ewig." Brian,
for all his similarities with the Late Romantic idiom, stands closer to
the Moderns in that his world-view leans more to the classically tragic
than to Christian transcendence.  In Schiller's Naenie, one encounters
the line: "Even to be an elegy in the mouth of the beloved is glorious."
For me, this sums up the closest Brian comes to triumph over death.

The Second Symphony runs to four movements: something like a
sonata-allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a funeral-march finale.
The symphony, finished in the early Thirties, didn't receive its first
performance until 1973, half a year after the composer's death, and got
its first professional performance six years later.  However, in 1972,
the composer's daughter, Elfreda, had died.  Probably because of the
last movement, Brian decided to dedicate the symphony to her memory.
The work began, however, inspired by Goethe's drama Goetz von Berlichingen,
and one can see counterparts in the drama to some events in the symphony.
Nothing is all that specific, of course, but Brian captures the general
narrative shape and tragic atmosphere of the play.  Brian described the
symphony as "in the orthodox four movements -- but very unorthodox
inside," a fair description.

Beginning with an open fifth in the kettledrums, the first movement,
as I've said, has affinities with sonata form, with first, second, and
third subject groups, but almost all the meat lies in the exposition. 
The development is rather brief.  The recap breaks in before you know it.
It's as if Brian had stated his theme, developed it there and then, and
moved on to the second and worked it in the same way.  Thus, the movement's
formal development section really functions more like a transition.  It's
like looking at one of those eccentric houses in Dickens: it's cozy and
so on, but the proportions are bizarre.  The movement builds up great
climaxes, the last of which falls back so shortly before the movement's
end, it reminds me of a balloon deflating.

The second movement, in three large paragraphs, follows without a break.
It begins with a tender theme for the English horn.  This comes back,
altered each time (a Brian fingerprint which makes him occasionally hard
to understand) throughout the movement.  The second paragraph features
another wind solo theme, but this gets interrupted by a heavy march.
One also encounters a memorable, singing canonic passage for wind solos.
The music becomes increasingly agitated.  Toward the end, we get a
gorgeous violin solo over harps, strings, and woodwinds and a summing
up of the main musical materials in contrapuntal simultaneity -- an
awe-inspiring feat of composition.  The movement ends quietly, in a long
sigh.

The scherzo, the shortest movement, strikes me as the most experimental,
at least so far as its orchestration goes.  It calls for sixteen horns,
grouped onstage and off, and Brian probably had examples by Wagner and
Richard Strauss in mind.  However, the movement can be done with eight,
as here.  The point isn't mass, so much as the creation of a spatial
counterpoint.  The effect is that of hunting horns calling to one another
from various parts of the forest.  The movement builds, like the excitement
of a hunt, with harp, piano, organ, and tuned percussion joining in, as
the horns flare and whoop.  About halfway in, the hunt becomes a frenzy
in a huge orchestral tutti.  Again, it's not an effect of mass, as much
as one of counterpoint on steroids -- multiple planes of musical activity
sounding simultaneously, off-stage and on.  How a conductor keeps all
of this even roughly together, I have no idea.  The movement ends with
a quiet coda and enigmatic downward chordal arpeggios from the woodwinds,
each instrument taking one note of the chord.

The finale follows without a break.  It is, in effect, a Wagnerian
funeral march, and you occasionally hear echoes of the one for Siegfried
from Goetterdaemmerung.  Despite this, the movement displays much
originality, even eccentricity.  Brian described it to the critic Ernest
Newman as a slow rondo.  Newman replied, "Well, why not make it fast?"
Most rondos, after all, are fast.  Also, this rondo can't make up its
mind about its recurring idea, since it varies on practically every
return.  Themes from earlier movements, particularly the first, show up
varied as well.  My favorite part of the movement, a beautiful lament
for cellos and basses (the liner notes inform me, in seven parts), also
seems the least German thing about the symphony, almost Vaughan-Williams-y.
The funeral procession seems to head for home with brass fanfares and
Goetterdaemmerung-like interjections swerves abruptly to an extended
reflective coda.  Earlier motifs return, this time quietly.  The symphony
ends, as it began, with the bare fifths in the timpani.

The Festival Fanfare, a late work from the Sixties, begins an age away
from the symphony.  The brass elicit from the composer quartal harmonies
(chords based on fourths, rather than thirds), giving the opening a
Hindemithian cast.  As the music proceeds, it "clarifies" into diatonicism.
The piece, brief though it may be, nevertheless goes on a bit too long,
with an end for me full of empty calories.  Nevertheless, most of the
work struck me as good enough for a symphony.

I am grateful for the recording but must say I can easily imagine a
better performance.  Still, it's no worse than most Brian recordings the
composer's fans have had to accept, and no major conductor and orchestra
will likely take up Brian any time soon.  Brian, like Mahler and Elgar,
writes for the top of the musical food chain.  The complexity and fecundity
of his musical thinking demand a conductor who can plan a reading that
makes the architecture plain.  For years, Bruckner fans found themselves
in similar situations.  With the Bruckner Boom, they now have choices.
I hope the same attention will come to Brian.  These symphonies are
simply too magnificent to be ignored.

Steve Schwartz

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