Postwar masterpieces from Havergal Brian

Havergal Brian’s reputation these days rests on his first symphony — a record-breaker in size and scope. Thanks to recordings like this one, a more balanced picture of this British composer emerges.

The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra directed by Alexander Walker may be far from London, but they manage to capture the inherent Englishness in Brian’s work. The orchestra has a clean ensemble sound, albeit one in a slightly soft focus.

Nevertheless, they manage to convey the emotional content of Brian’s work effectively — whether it be the high spirits of the “Tinker’s Wedding” Overture, or the dark pathos of his Symphony No. 7.

I especially liked “The Tinker’s Wedding” Overture. This 1948 concert overture was inspired by John M. Synge’s comedy. It’s a high-spirited work, full of English folk song inspired material and some light and breezy counterpoint.

Brian’s Symphony No. 7, another work from 1948 marks the last of his “big” symphonies. This four-movement work runs about 40 minutes and takes the listener on quite an emotional journey.

It begins with a festive fanfare and moves along in an optimistic mood until the second movement. The middle movements are quite dark, with fragmented melodies and down-turning chromatic figures. The finale restores the hope of the opening, although ending with a quiet ambivalence.

Symphony No. 16, written twelve years later, is quite a different matter. This 15-minute work is packed tight with musical ideas. Brian develops his material logically and thoroughly, stretching his tonal harmonic style to its limits. There’s a restless insistence to this work that keeps things moving right through to the final chord.

Naxos/Marco Polo hasn’t recorded all of Havergal Brian’s 32 symphonies — yet. I hope they do. Brian is a master symphonist who (I think) still awaits proper evaluation.

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 16
The Tinker’s Wedding Overture
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Walker, conductor


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