Brian: Orchestral Music, Volume 1
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Havergal Brian: Orchestral Music, Volume One

Early and Late Works

Catalogue Number: TOCC0110
EAN: 5060113441102
Release Date: 17 March 2011
Duration: 63:24

Legend: Ave atque vale
Burlesque Variations
English Suite No. 5

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Garry Walker, conductor

The English composer Havergal Brian (1876–1972) had one of the longest creative careers in all music: the music on this CD spans 65 years, from the early Burlesque Variations, written in 1903 in partial response to the ‘Enigma’ Variations of Elgar, who was a friend of Brian’s, to the second-last work he ever composed, the ‘Legend’ Ave atque vale of 1968 – music of astonishing vigour and energy for a 92-year-old.

Booklet texts   (PDF)

Track Listing, MP3 Downloads and Streaming Samples

Track No. Track Title / Details Duration Sample Add to Cart
1 Legend: Ave atque vale (1968)

Havergal Brian, composer
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Garry Walker, conductor

(first recording)
7:05 play
2 Elegy (1954)

Havergal Brian, composer
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Garry Walker, conductor

(first recording)
11:35 play
3-10 Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903)

Havergal Brian, composer
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Garry Walker, conductor
3 Theme: Andante (quasi Allegretto ma serioso 1:15 play
4 Variation 1: Imitando 1:18 play
5 Variation 2: Tempesto 1:07 play
6 Variation 3: Elegy 5:46 play
7 Variation 4: Allegretto grazioso 3:35 play
8 Variation 5: Allegro resoluto 2:17 play
9 Variation 6: Adagio e Rubato e Mistico 2:06 play
10 Finale en form d’Ouverture 8:10 play
11-14 English Suite No. 5, Rustic Scenes (1953)

Havergal Brian, composer
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Garry Walker, conductor
11 1. Trotting to Market 4:18 play
12 2. Reverie 7:06 play
13 3. The Restless Stream 4:06 play
14 4. Village Revels 3:40 play


Havergal Brian

Havergal Brian, composer

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, orchestra

Garry Walker

Garry Walker, conductor
[credit: Andy Buchanan]


A feast of Brian rarities

A feast of Brian rarities here, with two works (Legend: Ave atque vale; Elegy) listed as first recordings, and two others as first professional recordings.

The Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme is the earliest of the lot. Dating from 1903, the “Burlesque” in the title refers to the ironic treatment given innocuous themes. It would become a reoccurring aspect of Brian’s work, notably in his pseudo-pastoral English Suite No.3: simple, pious melodies set against dissonant imitative textures, dance motifs set in “wrong” registers or given a tonally chromatic treatment, etc. Brian’s technical resources would develop greatly over the years, but his gifts for orchestration, structure, mood painting, and inventive parody are all apparent in this early piece. Much like another fine series of burlesque variations, Jerome Moross’s Variations on a Waltz, this work deserves to be far better known than it currently is.

The English Suite No. 5 was composed 50 years later, in 1953, when it was originally titled, simply, Rustic Scenes. “Trotting to Market” is in its way a miniature of the same burlesque procedures referred to above: an innocuous lightly bouncing theme that gets pulled into odd keys, with sudden shifts of mood and orchestration, as though whoever was doing the trotting stopped pleasantly along the way to sample some delicious-looking mushrooms with evident side effects. By contrast, the “Elegy” that follows comes close to the manner and expressiveness of Gerald Finzi, though the treatment is pure Brian. “The Restless Stream” is a miniature tone poem of exquisite delicacy, a study of undulating winds in counterpoint, with sparing percussion (especially brushed snare drum). It completely avoids the bucolic associations such a title inspires. Finally, “Village Revels” does the unthinkable: It takes a Holst-like reel (a fine tune, too) and, while driving it occasionally along Brian’s curious tonal paths, treats it by and large in a conservative fashion. There are echoes of Grainger’s bigger-than-life exuberance, and it forms a fine conclusion to an excellent suite.

The Elegy of the following year was considered by its composer “another symphony without a number,” and so it is. Ranging through a host of expressive moods in six strongly related sections (the last, among the most purely beautiful and moving things Brian ever wrote), it is both restless and plaintive; but the title may come, I think, from its phrasing similarities to the scansion of the traditional elegiac couplet.

Finally, Legend: Ave atque Vale derives from the most famous phrase in Catallus’s Carmen 101, addressed to his drowned brother: “Hail and Farewell.” (By the way, the poem is written in elegiac couplets.) It dates from the composer’s 92nd year. Though Brian disdained any autobiographical element, its combination of so many elements of his musical personality, typically juxtaposed in crazy-quilt fashion, points inevitably to a distillation of his personal style. No textural or expressive frame is established but it is almost immediately swept away.

Were these merely competent performances, they would still be welcome for filling in the gaps of one of the 20th century’s most interesting and imaginative composers. Fortunately, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is in good form, and Garry Walker is alive to the fluid pacing these pieces require. There is never any loss to the forward pulse in the almost manic fluctuations in character of these works, yet little sacrifice in the careful definition of each cell. The sound is moderately too dry to bring out the richness Brian was capable of when he so desired, but there’s no lack of instrumental definition.

Little exists for comparisons, but those that do come out entirely in favor of this new release. The Burlesque Variations can be heard on Campion 1331/32, where the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra displays considerable talent under Gerald Heald-Smith’s disciplined baton — while understandably not in the same league as the BBC Scottish Orchestra. I don’t find any current competition to the English Suite No. 5, also listed as a “first professional recording,” but I suspect this refers back to an LP in my collection: Eric Pinkett conducting the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra, on CBS 61612. Again, there’s much to praise, and Pinkett was a fine musician, but there’s no contest with the present release.

Toccata Classics deserves a round of applause for championing Brian’s orchestral music, listed here as Volume 1. Let’s hope it sells as well as it deserves, so there will be further volumes in the near future.

Barry Brenesal Fanfare September 2011

Fascinating and well presented

[…] At last, Brian (1876–1972) has become known for his music as much as his longevity. As astonishing as it is to realize that he wrote 26 symphonies (and much else besides) after the age of 75, it is even more astonishing to hear the works themselves in all their strange and colorful complexity. Highly knowledgeable about contemporary music, Brian nevertheless went his own way, adhering to no specific system and adopting few stylistic fashions or trends. In this he resembles his French contemporary Charles Koechlin, although the sound of their music is not at all similar. There have been several books about the composer and his work, most of them by the musicologist Malcolm MacDonald. (Frustratingly, none has been titled The Life of Brian.) Elgar was an early hero and influence — Brian’s Burlesque Variations were composed only four years after Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and I would swear I picked up a quotation from the older composer’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings in the first movement of Brian’s Third English Suite. Even early on, however, the basics of Brian’s own style were manifest: a reliance on juxtaposition and sudden contrast, themes containing leaps of unexpectedly large intervals, fluid bass lines, and colorful orchestration making significant use of percussion. […]

The English Suites have their own individuality, too. Brian wrote five of these over his lifetime, but the second is missing. They are groups of short genre pieces, in the case of the Third Suite (1919–21) depicting scenes from the Sussex countryside. Generally, the movements are scored with a lighter touch than the big symphonic works, except for the suite’s fourth movement, “The Stonebreaker,” which boasts a vast climax with ad libitum organ (included in this performance). There is nothing cozy or mistily nostalgic about Brian’s scenes of village life. The sharp and fragmentary final movement, “The Merry Peasant,” mischievously evokes that common type of village merriment associated with alcohol.

Martyn Brabbins and his orchestra do a magnificent job with all this music, alert to Brian’s every changing mood. […]

The Toccata release is tantalizingly labeled as Volume 1 of Brian’s orchestral works. Though known for his symphonies, the composer did not embark on the form until he reached his mid-40s, by which time he had completed many orchestral pieces. A span of 65 years links the items on this disc, from the Burlesque Variations of 1903 — possibly the composer’s earliest extant work; the score was thought lost and only turned up again in 1974 — to the Legend of 1968, his penultimate composition. The Burlesque Variations belie any lightness hinted at in their title: While some of the early variations display much high-spirited contrapuntal energy, others explore an elegiac mood. Brian’s original theme begins with a rising four-note figure, instantly recognizable in its various disguises. The composer strains against the form by writing the final variation as a virtuosic eight-minute sonata movement; even at this stage his thinking was symphonic. As the variations progress, Brian’s harmonic procedures become increasingly audacious. Elgar’s masterpiece nevertheless looms large as an influence, particularly in the fifth variation, Allegro risoluto, and the grandiose coda.

The Legend: Ave atque vale (“Hail and farewell” — the famous last words of Catullus) and the Elegy are shorter, more contained works. The former is a typically lumbering triumphal march, dazzlingly scored. The latter has quite an individual personality of its own: Sombre throughout (pace the inevitable interruptions), it culminates in a passage of wistful lyricism for clarinet and high violins. Brian maintained a strong pastoral streak in his music, albeit one that the restless jostling of fanfares and Ivesian marches regularly distorted.

Pastoralism comes to the fore more or less unscathed in the brooding “Reverie,” the second movement of the Fifth English Suite. Again, Brian’s scene painting takes on a parodic tongue-in-cheek element in the movements “Trotting to Market” and “Village Revels.” Perhaps the most unusual piece on the whole disc is the suite’s third movement, “The Restless Stream,” scored for solo winds and percussion. Only Carl Nielsen had such a way with woodwind instruments, but in reality I know of no other composer who sounds quite like this. That, in the end, is the reason behind our continued interest in Havergal Brian’s music: It is the product of a unique mind.

The BBC Scottish Orchestra under Garry Walker plays equally as well as its compatriots [DUTTON CDLX 7267] and is given a similarly classy recording. Both of these issues are fascinating and well presented — the Havergal Brian Society should be very pleased — and each boasts the addition of knowledgeable, readable notes by Malcolm MacDonald.

Phillip Scott Fanfare September 2011


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