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The Listening Post: Havergal Brian Symphonies (3)
Here is the final part of our three part post summarizing the symphonies of Havergal Brian, covering the final ten numbered symphonies. The term “late period” isn’t really appropriate in Brian’s case, given that the composer wrote 26 of his 32 symphonies between the ages of 72 and his death in 1972, aged 96. The last ten span the final four years of Brian’s composing life, between 1964 and 1968. Within them, numbers 22-24, in particular form a concentrated and related group. Written between December 1964 and August 1965, they all have something of a martial sound and share a concern for march-rhythms, changeable moods and developing variation. Symphonies number 26, 28 and 29 still haven’t attracted interest from mainstream recording companies.

My choice from this group is the Symphony No 22, Brian’s shortest symphony and one of the most tightly organized, with its ghostly, nocturnal march dominating the latter part of the work.

1964-5 – Symphony No 22 “Symphonia Brevis” (fp 1971, Myer Fredman, RPO, St John’s Smith Square): two movement work, at nine minutes long Brian’s shortest symphony. Opening maestoso, with dense polyphony leads to a calm but uneasy march. (Recordings: Naxos; Klassic Haus)

1965 – Symphony No 23 (fp 1973, Illinois Symphony Orchestra, Goodman): another two movement work, Brian considered calling it “Symphonia grandis”. Like its predecessor, includes martial elements (in the opening allegro and prior to the conclusion). “Eerie, belligerent and seethes with incident” (Rob Barnett). (Recordings: Naxos, Klassic Haus).

1965 – Symphony No 24 in D major (fp 1973, Myer Fredman, LPO): single movement, 18 minutes long, but divided into three sections of widely varying mood. Closes with a restful, optimistic adagio. (Recordings: Naxos).

1966 – Symphony No 25 in A minor (fp 18 June 1976, BBC Scottish, John Canarina): this three movement work, first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at the end of 1976, begins with a first movement study in march rhythms. The symphony incorporates “beautiful melodies channeled within a wholly logical (sonata-like) structure…[it] is one of Brian’s most distinguished late works.(Naxos sleeve notes). (Recordings: Naxos).

1966 – Symphony No 26 (fp 5 September 1976, North Stafford Symphony Orchestra, cond. Nicholas Smith): another instance of Brian’s symphonies championed by amateur performance (see also numbers 10, 21, 22 and 29). In this case though, a BBC broadcast followed within a month (NPO, Vernon Handley). Two movements, 16 minutes, freer in form than either No 25 or No 27. (Recordings: Aries, pirated from radio broadcast).

1966 – Symphony No 27 in C major (fp 9 Jan 1979, PO, Mackerras). The Philhamonia recorded this work for a BBC broadcast in 1979, but the first public performance had to wait right until March 2012 by the Orange County High School Orchestra. 22 minutes long, like No 25 makes some use of classical symphonic form. (Recordings: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Aries (pirated from radio broadcast)).

1967 – Symphony No 28 in C minor (fp 7 June 1973, NPO, Stokowski): also called Sinfonia in C minor, and originally conceived as a Divertimento for orchestra. Brian was 91 when he composed this – Stokowski was 91 when he conducted it for the first performance, a BBC broadcast. In four continuous movements, under 20 minutes long. Neo-classical beginning, anticipating No 29. (Recordings: Aries, pirated from BBC broadcast).

1967 – Symphony No 29 in E flat major: (fp 17 Nov 1976, North Stafffordshire SO, cond. Nicholas Smith). The NSSO had premiered Symphony No 26 two months earlier. A BBC recording (PO, Fredman) was broadcast on 12 March 1979. This is a comparatively straightforward and generally cheerful work in neoclassical style. (Recordings: North Staffordshire SO).

1967 – Symphony No 30 in B flat minor (fp 1976, BBC broadcast, Harry Newstone, NPO): dramatic work in two movements, played without a break. May incorporate material from an opera project Oedipus at Colonnus. Thematically linked with number 22. Powerful coda, ends on a harsh discord. (Recordings: Dutton).

1968 – Symphony No 31 (fp 1979 Mackerras, PO): single movement work, 13 minutes long. Well-proportioned symphony that unusually ends on a final, positive cadence – in sharp contrast to its predecessor. (Recordings: EMI).

1968 – Symphony No 32 in Ab major (fp 28 Jan 1971, Kensington SO, Leslie Head, St John’s Smith Square): the last work of any kind that Brian completed (at the age of 92). It’s an introspective work but not a “summing up”, more of a continued exploration. Four movements, but really in two halves, the first brooding and melancholic, the second energetic and positive, with its dance-like scherzo and polyphonic finale. (Recordings: Naxos).

Part One: A Fantastic Symphony to Symphony No 10
Part Two: Symphony No 11 to Symphony No 21

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