Brian: Symphonies Nos. 17 and 32 (CD review)

Also, In Memorium; Festal Dance. Adrian Leaper, RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572020.

British composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was something of a throwback. While he wrote most of his music during the twentieth century, he could just as easily have lived most of his life in the nineteenth. If you haven't heard any of his prodigious output, including thirty-two symphonies, it's probably because the twentieth century pretty much ignored him. Nonetheless, he persisted, writing his last eight or so symphonies when he was in his nineties. Over the past twenty-odd years, the Marco Polo and Naxos labels have tried to provide the listening public with as much of his work as possible, so today you'll actually find a good deal of it in the catalogue. Still, you'll have to look for it.

The present album begins with two early tone poems, the first called In Memorium (1910), subtitled "Vigueur dessus" (possibly meaning "utmost strength") and written in three movements. However, the composer left no clues as to what it was about, what the subtitle actually meant, or who the music might have been memorializing. It sounds like a funeral dirge, arranged as a kind of solemn march, but, then, much of Brian's music sounds solemn, so it's hard to tell. The second tone poem, composed two years earlier, is Festal Dance (1908). Its tone is the opposite of In Memorium, with a sort of Richard Strauss satiric appeal to it. It's more fun than the first number, both of them showing an admirable economy of style yet providing a good deal of ornate flourish, too, with Festal Dance perhaps beginning life as part of an unfinished symphony. Be that as it may, it's enough to give any orchestra and any stereo system a workout.

After these tone pictures we get two of Brian's later works, the Symphonies Nos. 17 and 32. They are very short, and Brian wrote them when he was in his late eighties and early nineties respectively. Symphony No. 17 (1960-61) is in a single, three-part movement lasting about thirteen minutes. It varies from huge orchestral crescendos to soft, light, reflective moods, with some of the same slow march rhythms heard in his music of fifty years before.

Symphony No. 32 (1968) was the last composition of any kind Brain wrote, so we can see where he ended up. Like most of his work, it's dark and edgy, more than a little noisy, eventually high spirited and jubilant, and maybe a tad introspective. Who knows what goes on in a person's mind.

Adrian Leaper and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Ireland's Public Service orchestra and one of its most-popular ensembles, play the music as though it were Bruckner or Brahms, music with which Brian shares some superficial resemblance. They place great emphasis on the more lyrical aspects of the works, where they can find it, as well as the purely bombastic, which is easier to come by. Brian was, after all, an unusual fellow, composing a ton of music over an enormously long lifetime, while hardly causing a ripple in the world's musical stream.

Originally recorded in 1992 and previously released on the Marco Polo label, the sound is fairly big, as expected, yet reasonably clean and dynamic. The midrange shows good depth and moderate transparency despite being a trifle thick and displaying a degree of reverberation. The latter provides a realistic concert-hall ambiance, though, so it's hard to complain.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa