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Brian: Symphonies 10 & 30, Concerto For Orchestra / Brabbins, Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Brian / Bendall / Rsno / Brabbins
Release Date: 07/12/2011 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7267   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRIAN Symphonies: No. 10; No. 30. English Suite No. 3. Concerto for Orchestra • Martyn Brabbins, cond; Royal Scottish NO • DUTTON CDLX 7267 (64:49)



"Little by little we are getting to hear Havergal Brian’s complete symphonic and orchestral output on disc. In the 1990s the Marco Polo label produced a Brian series incorporating his Symphonies No. 1, 2, 4, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, and the final 32nd, plus the Violin Concerto (some of which, if not all, have been reissued on Naxos). There have also been other random releases: Symphony No. 3 from Hyperion; Nos. 6 and 16 from Lyrita (which I reviewed favorably in Fanfare 32:2); Nos. 7, 8, 9, and 31 from Read more EMI (with Groves and Mackerras); and a rare recording of six symphonic movements from Brian’s opera The Tigers , played by the Luxembourg Orchestra. Prior to that were hardy recordings of his music from excellent school orchestras (which included the Symphony No. 10 and Fifth English Suite, heard on the releases at hand, along with Symphonies No. 21 and 22), and if memory serves there was once an LP of the Fourth Symphony on the market in a pirated performance. Sir Adrian Boult’s 1966 BBC radio concert performance of Symphony No. 1, the expansive “Gothic,” was similarly available on record under a shady pseudonym; it has recently reappeared on the Testament label with the performers fully and properly credited. Now, with these two brand-new studio recordings, the Scots add to our knowledge of this quirkily individual composer.


At last, Brian (1876–1972) has become known for his music as much as his longevity. As astonishing as it is to realize that he wrote 26 symphonies (and much else besides) after the age of 75, it is even more astonishing to hear the works themselves in all their strange and colorful complexity. Highly knowledgeable about contemporary music, Brian nevertheless went his own way, adhering to no specific system and adopting few stylistic fashions or trends. In this he resembles his French contemporary Charles Koechlin, although the sound of their music is not at all similar. There have been several books about the composer and his work, most of them by the musicologist Malcolm MacDonald. (Frustratingly, none has been titled The Life of Brian .) Elgar was an early hero and influence—Brian’s Burlesque Variations were composed only four years after Elgar’s Enigma Variations , and I would swear I picked up a quotation from the older composer’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings in the first movement of Brian’s Third English Suite. Even early on, however, the basics of Brian’s own style were manifest: a reliance on juxtaposition and sudden contrast, themes containing leaps of unexpectedly large intervals, fluid bass lines, and colorful orchestration making significant use of percussion.


The 10th Symphony, typically in one movement, shows all those characteristics. It opens with a portentous march, which is frequently interrupted by passages of mysterious stasis. Themes are in constant flux and a harmonic restlessness often brings Allan Pettersson to mind. This is not easy music to follow, but from moment to moment it enthrals. A lone high violin, in a passage of sudden tenderness, leads to a splashy climax—lots of the composer’s beloved snares and cymbals—followed by a subdued but uneasy coda. Symphony No. 30 begins in a calmer manner with contrapuntal textures; this is Brian in austere mood, with less of the glittering percussion element. The work is in two linked movements, Lento and Moderato commodo e leggiero , but each of these is more a mosaic of ideas than a logically unfolding argument. (Formally, Brian is the polar opposite of Robert Simpson, the younger English symphonist who championed Brian’s music and was the first to program it at the BBC.) The second movement finds Brian in grotesque vein; the texture is rich with jaunty and characterful woodwind figures, at least until the military band element takes over. Once the parade passes by we are back to the meandering counterpoint of the opening, now highlighted by subtle contributions from the harp, glockenspiel, xylophone, and tubular bells. The music strengthens to a broad climax.


Brian’s Concerto for Orchestra was composed in 1964, between his 21st and 22nd symphonies. He could have easily labeled it as another of his symphonies; it resembles them in every way. Perhaps in this work orchestral effects are relished a little more for their own sake, and occasionally one section of the orchestra will prevail, although in Brian’s habitual kaleidoscopic manner nothing settles for very long. The piece is notable for the lyrical string writing in the central section, and a stirring brass chorale. The deftness with which Brian orchestrated is remarkable, considering how rarely he got to hear his music played.


The English Suites have their own individuality, too. Brian wrote five of these over his lifetime, but the second is missing. They are groups of short genre pieces, in the case of the Third Suite (1919–21) depicting scenes from the Sussex countryside. Generally, the movements are scored with a lighter touch than the big symphonic works, except for the suite’s fourth movement, “The Stonebreaker,” which boasts a vast climax with ad libitum organ (included in this performance). There is nothing cozy or mistily nostalgic about Brian’s scenes of village life. The sharp and fragmentary final movement, “The Merry Peasant,” mischievously evokes that common type of village merriment associated with alcohol.


Martyn Brabbins and his orchestra do a magnificent job with all this music, alert to Brian’s every changing mood. Dutton’s recording quality is full, clear, and well balanced. (In the realm of English music, Dutton seems to have taken over where Lyrita left off.)"

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

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The Tenth Symphony, which actually has been recorded before (for Unicorn), has parts for a wind machine and a thunder sheet (played in tandem according to my score). What’s not to love? Brian’s music, even his supposedly easy early stuff such as the English Suite No. 3, is always knotty and gruff but curiously compelling. That’s why he remains a cult composer, a sort of Bruckner with percussion. Whether he’ll break out of his cult status, as Bruckner did, remains to be seen, but this disc is excellent in every respect. None of the works are long, all of them have magnificent moments that command attention, and Brabbins gets some of the best playing from his orchestra that Brian has yet enjoyed on disc. The sonics are also first rate. Self-recommending both to cult members and everyone else.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsTody.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Symphony no 10 by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
2.
Symphony no 30 by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
3.
Concerto for Orchestra by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
4.
English Suite no 3 by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 

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