- Symphony No. 15 in A major
- Symphony No. 11
- Doctor Merryheart
- For Valor, for organ & orchestra
The packed-to-the-gills music of British composer Havergal Brian is an acquired taste, but the occasional recordings of his 32 symphonies, many of them written when he was well beyond 80 years old, continue to reveal music that at the very least incorporates its influences (Elgar, Mahler, William Walton) rather than aping them. In much of Brian's mature music an essentially conservative musical language is subverted by sheer density and motivic subtlety. Among Brian's champions was Leopold Stokowski, who programmed Brian's "Symphony No. 6" when both were 91 years old; it would have been nice to hear that performance, for the two artists share a certain extremity of style that seems Romantic but ultimately is distinctively modern. These performances by conductor Adrian Leaper, Brian's contemporary champion, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland are sympathetic if not quite smooth technically. After a rather melodramatic early "Concert Overture: For Valour" (based on a Walt Whitman program and closely analyzed in a booklet that will be worth the price of the album for Brian fans and students), the fun begins with a bizarre variation-like "Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart," a piece of program music based on thoroughly imaginary ideas. The central attractions are the "Symphony No. 11" and "Symphony No. 15," composed in 1954 and 1960, respectively. Both of these works are light and relaxed in spirit, but on closer listening they begin to reveal derivation from a quite restricted set of motivic cells. Sample the music for awhile to see whether you find it scattered and how you feel about the rather screechy mid-'90s sound (the album was originally recorded for Marco Polo and later reissued by Naxos). But don't be surprised if you become the latest Brian addict.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The works on this disc were recorded in 1993 and 1997, and were part of the series of Marco Polo discs from the end of the century that helped move Brian from cult status more or less into the mainstream of British classical music. It's nice to have this music at budget price, and more widely available (though this particular Marco Polo issue is still out there both on CD and through MP3 downloads). The CD begins with two very early works. Both the Concert Overture: For Valour and the Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart owe a great deal to Elgar and to Richard Strauss. They're very expressive and highly emotional; Brian wears his heart on his sleeve in this music. Don't expect Monty Python in the Comedy Overture, by the way; this is very much in the Falstaff hearty-laughs tradition. The symphonies come from much later in Brian's career. I'm certainly no Brian specialist, but I find this craggy/lyrical music to be highly cogent, and more accessible than I had assumed. The music repays careful listening, but chunks of these symphonies blasting from the CD player in my car have provided spur-of-the-moment inspiration along with much admiration for an uncompromising, crusty old composer.