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A Heady Mix

Havergal Brian's
Symphonies 4 and 12 -
reviewed by

'... Adrian Leaper marshals his enormous forces well ...'

Havergal Brian: Symphony No 4 'Das Siegeslied' (Psalm of Victory). © 2007 Naxos Rights International Ltd

What is one to make of a composer like Havergal Brian? For a country that specialises in producing eccentrics, England has thrown up more than a few composers of that ilk (Berners, Holbrooke, Boughton, to name but a few) but perhaps none quite as eccentric (or plain 'rum' as one critic described him) as Brian -- to this day totally neglected by concert programmers, and yet who in his time had the support of some very heavy people in the British musical establishment. There has been a Havergal Brian Society extant since 1974 (after 2 previous attempts)! Vaughan Williams didn't get a Society until 1994: maybe England is just an eccentric place, but dare one ask if there might actually be a reason for his neglect?

Probably the best-known fact about Brain is his astonishing creative burst late in life: 27 symphonies and four operas post 1945 until his death aged 96. Nothing if not eccentric, but the main work on this disc dates from 1932-33, when Brian, an ardent admirer of German culture and fully conversant with events in Germany, wrote his 4th Symphony as an apocalyptic warning about the historical distortions being perpetrated by the Nazis, and the likely fate of Germany under the Third Reich. Malcolm MacDonald's excellent booklet notes explain Brian's linking of Old Testament blood and fire with Lutheran German and even Cromwell and the Puritans, seeing this piece as a call to arms to those who would prevent this desecration.

Quite a heady mix, a template for sound and fury, and that is exactly what we get, from a huge orchestra and the amalgamation of five Slovak choirs. It has to be said that lovers of fin de siècle German music (Mahler, Zemlinsky, pre-atonal Schoenberg) will probably be more at home here than lovers of British music per se. Not to say there aren't Englishisms, but I was more reminded of the 'German' side of say, Delius and Grainger, although those composers are stylistically miles away from Brian.

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Copyright © 20 May 2007 Paul Sarcich, London UK


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