Monday, August 22, 2011

Who is the "English Mahler"? Havergal Brian, or (just) Benjamin Britten

Is Havergal Brian (1876-1972) the “English Mahler”?  

Well, maybe sometimes, but actually Benjamin Britten, much more familiar to most music lovers, sometimes fits the idea more closely, especially with the ascetic sounds (like the “open chamber” style of Mahler’s late symphonies) in some operas – “Billy Budd” (Feb 27, 2008 here) and “Death in Venice”, and in the Cello Symphony (with that scherzo). Other times, though, as with the Spring, he’s much farther away. But the “War Requiem” is probably a lot like the Requiem Mahler had planned to compose had he lived longer.

Brian’s reputation may come from the massive Gothic Symphony (on Marco Polo), with three instrumental movements followed by a choral service. The first movement is short and violent, driving its point home. The ending dies in hushed peace after a cataclysm about three minutes before.

But I pulled out the Symphony #3, in C-sharp minor (1932) (always a self-indulgent key), a 1990 recording on Hyperion by Lionel Friend conducting the BBC Symphony, the other day.  About 62 minutes, it’s the longest Brian symphony after the First (many of his thirty or so remaining symphonies are relatively short).  But it also predicts the course of a similar work by Leonard Bernstein, the Age of Anxiety “Symphony” (April 3 here).   

Like the Bernstein, the first movement has a piano obbligato and a somewhat episodic form, with block-like variations put together as to approximate a sonata form. It comes to a violent climax.
The second movement,  a long slow movement (Lento) however, here varies a bit from expressionism and wanders into the pastoral world of Vaughn Williams, with a curious effect (OK, maybe the world of the VW 4th).

The last two movements will sound familiar—the listener asks himself “in what movie did I hear this music in the background?”  The scherzo is a Mahler-fest, with a Landler-like trio and crunching rhythms and plenty of Viennese schmaltz.  The piece really is suspiciously familiar.   (Bernstein, by comparison, provided a scherzo based on rapid jazz rhythms). The Finale returns to the somber march rhythm of the first movement  (just as Bernstein would provide a majestic finale for “Anxiety”), particularly focusing on a figure like the famous  Beethoven 5th motto.  The music undergoes chromatic adventures, and builds up to a conclusion  (in parallel D-flat Major) of crushing power, a little bit like Prokofiev (as in the 6th) without the humor.  It is, in the final measures, purely British, with all the upper lip.  (Actually, there is another rhythmic figure that appears in the next-to-last movement of the "completed" Mahler 10th.) 

Since Prince Charles and William are both said to be affaciandos of concert music, and William probably knows about this work. I wonder how it would have come across at the wedding. That finale would have provided quite a postlude, perhaps burying the listener in submission. 

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