Monday, May 13, 2013

What I am Listening to Today

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) is one of those composers more notorious and talked about than actually heard.  Every so often, he is "rediscovered" and a new batch of recordings and performances pop up here and there. Then his star fades again for a while... waiting for a new champion.

I have managed to be a fan of this fascinating and quirky composer since my college days. A former University of Illinois music student Paul Rapoport (who went on to be a popular record reviewer with Fanfare Magazine and a noted professor of music in his native Canada) had left behind research and scores in the Music Library which I managed to find while ignoring my more immediate studies. Curious I located some pirate recordings of live performances and at the time the only commercial recording of his music, the 10th and 21st Symphonies.

Devotees of the "Guinness Book of World Records" know Brian as the composer of the longest Symphony, his massive Symphony # 1 "Gothic" written in the 1920's. Instead of quietly retiring, Brian spent his 80s and 90's composing, 32 symphonies in all, 20 of them written after his 80th birthday.

The disc capturing my attention is part of a series of Brian works on Dutton Epoch with Martyn Brabbins and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With a Proms concert of the Gothic under his belt, Brabbins is the latest Brian champion. A second disc with the Violin Concerto, Symphony # 13, Third English Suite and the "Tinker's Wedding" Overture is also available.

The 10th Symphony in one movement from 1954 has the frequent dotted rhythms (making the music a bit "Clunky" to some), large orchestra and percussion effects characteristic of many of his symphonies. The sound and performance are miles ahead of the 1972 recording which used a school orchestra, albeit a fine one. Brabbins' performance also seems a bit livelier and concentrated than the 1972 Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra performance under James Loughran, likely due to the more accomplished orchestra.

Receiving its recorded premiere, the Symphony # 30 is a product of  Brian's incredible later years. In 1967, 91 year old Brian had written his 27th, 28th and 29th Symphonies and then completed the 30th. Although it is almost the same length as the 10th, the 30th seems more compact. Chromatic, a bit wild, dramatic and "fantastic", the 30th is a prime example of his late works.  The final coda is worth the price of the disc itself, if nothing else, Brian new how to end a symphony in spectacular and often unexpected fashion; a new recording of the Symphony # 21 would be most welcome as it contains his most interesting and surprising ending.

The 1964 Concerto for Orchestra is a compact 15 minute orchestral tour-de-force in the vein of Bartok and Hindemith's examples of the genre. All the Brian characteristics, the colorful percussion and brass especially, are there in this first recording of this almost unknown work.

The English Suite # 3 dates from 1921 yet is every bit a product of the composer. Colorful, more pastoral than the later symphonies and more Strauss and Wagner influenced than the later works, this is another welcome first recording.

Admittedly, Brian's music, like anchovies and scotch, is an acquired taste. What does it say about me that I like all three?

Havergal Brian
Symphony # 10 in c 1954
English Suite # 3 1919-1921
Concerto for Orchestra 1964
Symphony # 30 1967

Martyn Brabbins
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7267

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