Havergal Brian (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 8 in B flat Minor (1949)
Symphony No. 9 in A Minor (1951)
Symphony No. 22 – Symphonia Brevis (1964-1965)
Symphony No. 24 in D Major (1964)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (Nos. 8, 9 and 22); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (No. 24)
rec. 27 June 1971 (No. 8); 28 March 1971 (Nos. 9 and 22); 1 April 1973 (No. 24)
Heritage HTGCD146 [78]

This is the fifth installment in the ongoing cycle on Heritage Records of archival recordings of Havergal Brian’s music. The 8th, 9th, 22nd and 24th symphonies are played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Myer Fredman. The label’s webpage explains that the audio is derived from the original BBC master tapes, “sensitively remastered” by sound engineer Harvey Summers. It should be mentioned that these recordings circulated for many years as bootleg LPs.

Myer Fredman (1932-2014), a British-born conductor, worked for much of his career with the Glyndebourne Festival and the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. In the 1970s, he moved to Australia, where he worked with the State Opera of South Australia and later Opera Australia. Latterly he lived in Hobart, where he taught at the University of Tasmania.

I first came across his achievement on the Lyrita recordings of Bax’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies (SRCS53 and 54). His relationship with Brian began in the early 1970s when he recorded the 6th and the 16th symphonies, also for Lyrita (SRCS67). Other British composers who benefited from his attention included Britten, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Robert Still and Edmund Rubbra. For several years, he was a Vice-President of the Havergal Brian Society.

The liner notes say that he met, and corresponded with, the composer when he was living at Shoreham-by-Sea. He had a great sympathy towards Brian’s music, particularly in evaluating each symphony’s overarching structure and in “clarifying Brian’s sometimes complex orchestral textures”.

The inspiration for the gloomy Symphony No. 8 was Goethe’s “macabre ballad” Die Braut von Korinth (The Bride of Corinth), which majors on sex, ghosts, vampirism, and generally on anti-Christian rhetoric. The symphony comprises one movement in three continuous sections, and has an unorthodox structure. It is really a collection of musical panels which cohere into a satisfying unity. Much of the progress is slow, with only the occasional increase in tempo. There is a dirge-like feel in much of this music, which is by turns gloomy, sometimes compelling, and occasionally quite beautiful. Midway, the Symphony appears to come to a dead stop, with minimal sound, before slowly building up into a macabre dance, and then collapsing into an almost romantic nocturne. The latter mood seems to deny the work’s background plot. Fredman creates a fine balance between the inevitable horror and a certain positive attractiveness.

Symphony No. 8 uses a large orchestra, including a glockenspiel and a xylophone. At 22 minutes, the force of this symphony is concentrated. It was first heard in a studio broadcast made on 1-2 February 1954 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. The liner notes remind the reader that this was the first time a Brian symphony had been performed, even if he had already written seven.

Havergal Brian completed his Symphony No. 9 in November 1951. It was not performed until Norman Del Mar and the London Symphony Orchestra gave a live BBC studio performance broadcast on the Third Programme on 22 March 1958. This work is written in three movements, played without a break. The progress of the symphony is from “Sturm und Drang – storm and stress – through to ultimate victory. There are many fascinating byways where there is relaxation and introspection before the bombastic coda of the final Allegro moderato brings the symphony to a triumphant conclusion, complete with bells and organ. This musical journey would seem to reflect Brian’s complex “inner psychological argument”. Notwithstanding the seemingly conventional symphonic structure, there are times when the listener feels that they are hearing a series of connected episodes. This is, quite naturally, the case in the finale, which is a good, old fashioned rondo. I guess that it is simply lack of familiarity that makes us struggle to hear the underlying unity.

Despite its diminutive size, the Symphony No. 22 Sinfonia Brevis packs a punch. The liner notes suggest that its power is the result of “extreme compression, rather than miniaturization”. At less than ten minutes, the two movements explore considerable depths of emotion and concern. Malcolm Macdonald felt that it evoked “a sense of strange landscapes and rumours of war”. It represents a view of the then recently passed Cuban missile crisis, the ongoing cold war, and the intensification of the Vietnam war. The opening movement, Maestoso e ritmico, immediately engages the listener in “boiling conflict”. The booklet points out the “upward surging figure heard in the bass” heard in the opening bars, which goes on to dominate much of the proceedings. There is some relaxation as this movement progresses, but this is short-lived. Without a break, the Tempo di marcia e ritmico – Adagio begins to expound an ominous march, which eventually gives way to an almost romantic violin solo. Material from the work’s opening pages returns before it closes with a “bleak coda” suggesting only a temporary halt in the hostilities.

John Pickard notes that the “ghosts haunting the previous two symphonies have evidently been laid to rest” in the Symphony No. 24. The reason for this assumption is, in his opinion, that “this work is as bright and optimistic as they were dark and troubled”. I am not sure that this is the whole story. For me, there is much in the flamboyant and energetic “victory parade” that is confident, but there is also something almost sarcastic in these pages. Much of the following development seems to me to be gloomy and reflective. The symphony is designed as a single movement, but divided into three sections with connecting and contrasting episodes. There is much “beauty, warmth and tenderness” in the concluding Adagio section. Here it begins to discover hope and triumph. But even in the final bars there is an occasional edge that is only sublimated in the last chord.

Composer and Havergal Brian authority John Pickard wrote the extensive, informative liner notes.

As I noted, the transfers have been remastered from the original tapes. The resulting sound quality is outstanding. It is one of the signs of getting old that recordings made in the early 1970s seem quite recent. The fact is that these are half a century old, and of remarkable quality. The performances are well-wrought. Brian’s music is a fusion of romantic tropes, dissonance, radical formal constructs, nods towards classical structures and the development of continual variation. His orchestration ranges from the highly nuanced to the downright unwieldy. The effect of his music can look backward in time, and also forward. Myer Fredman has absorbed all these facets, and produced what are superb and possibly definitive recordings.

John France

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