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Brian's music can be relentlessly dense, with long passages of heavily-orchestrated counterpoint and much chromatic slithering about [listen -- track 2, 5:48-6:38]. This, carried over three large movements, each of them multipartite, requires a stiffness of resolve from the listener which some may find too much. Relief, when it comes is not always memorable relief: at track 2, 8:05, the chiming harps and comforting strings are not something you would carry away, or would carry you away. When simplicity is given its head for a while [listen -- track 3, 1:50-2:35], the effect can be uplifting; or witness the violin solo [listen -- track 5, 1:21-2:47] and soprano entry in the slow movement -- although some eccentricity always creeps in to break things up. Moments such as track 6 (0:52) however show the kind of mundanity that occurs all too often.

The opening of the final movement (track 8) seems curiously backward-looking, a kind of post-Victorian choral writing (and quite clumsy at times too) that by the 1930s other English composers had worked out of their systems; and in track 9 we get, despite dissonant inflections, full-on Victorian hymnery: Parry et al couldn't have done it better. Tracks 10 [listen -- track 10, 2:10-3:23] and 11 (0:00) superficially reminded me of the Prokofiev of Alexander Nevsky, who could do bigness with clarity, whereas Brian's lines often seem to disappear amongst themselves under the sheer weight of sound. Moments like track 14 (1:36) are in danger of being obscured in the overall picture: a genuinely telling peroration which needs separation from the density of material preceding it. And to some ears [listen -- track 14, 3:49-5:20] the return of the jolly little Volksmarsch which opened the whole symphony may sound perilously close to the Nazism that the piece is supposedly refuting -- but there is no lack of room for interpretation in a piece this big.

In general Adrian Leaper marshals his enormous forces well, negotiating the many sudden changes of tempo, mood and texture -- something of a Brian trademark -- and the Slovak Radio Symphony give their all, (although goodness knows what the Slovaks thought of all this). Although there are ragged edges (the start of track 13 marred by shoddy ensemble) and the choir can sound too far back in the mix at times, Naxos has lived up to its reputation recording-wise. Brianites need not fear, those who can't stand Brian's music will undoubtedly not have their minds changed.

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Copyright © 20 May 2007 Paul Sarcich, London UK


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