Saturday, February 15, 2014

Havergal Brian, Symphony #3, an oft-quoted but obscure post-Mahler masterpiece

British composers know how to compose loud music.  We know that from the Royal Wedding in 2011.  And since both Prince William and his father reportedly follow classical music, I suspect that they both know the work I’m reviewing today.
I’ve had the 1989 Hyperion recording of the Symphony #3 in C# Minor by Havergal Brian (1931) for a number of years.  Somehow it did not show up after my relocation some years ago.  So I ordered a replacement from a reseller from Amazon, cheaply, on a new budget label called Helios.  The performance is from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend, with dual pianists (2 pianos) Andrew Ball and Julian Jacobson.

I had played the conclusion a few times on a YouTube video, apparently illegal.  When I commented on the work, it wound up in Google+ (just look up my thread there under my name in Blogger).  But then the video got taken down at the request of Hyperion, although Google+ keeps the comment (Dec. 13. 2013).  So I replaced the CD with an inexpensive but legal copy from an Amazon reseller in the UK.

Brian is indeed often called the English Mahler.  If Mahler had not died at 51 in 1911, what would he have composed?  Some works, like the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, the Prokofiev Sixth, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and his Cello Symphony, and some of the earlier large works of Havergal Brian give us an idea.

The Third, in C# Minor, seems influenced by the Beethoven 5th, the Mahler 5th (the opening C# Minor theme in that work with four notes, three of them repeated, based on the Beethoven),  and particularly in the last two movements achieves the linear contrapuntal palette that closely resembles middle and sometimes late Mahler.  The first movement, in which the pianos are more prominent (but as orchestra instruments, not soloists) reminds one of Shostakovich, with the march rhythms, and the second movement has a touch of Vaughn Williams and Bax.  This is a curious combination of styles, but it works.

Brian’s works are always tonally centered, and tend to jump from one tonality platform to another through sequences of dissonance.  He often uses repetition of notes and sometimes loud declamatory chords in doing so (like in the Fourth Symphony (Jan. 25).  Other young composers and even “popular” song writers use these techniques and may be carrying around vestigial memories of this particular symphony, which Hollywood composers seem to know pretty well,  to imprint them into the public mind. (We’ll come to that.)  Timo Andres’s uses repeated notes and this sort of harmonic treatment in a few of the pieces of his two-piano “Shy and Mighty”, especially the opening (“Antennae”).  Reid Ewing’s teen-popular song “In the Moonlight (Do Me)” (for “Modern Family”) might have been inspired by Beethoven’s piano sonata of that name (and one of the themes), but there is the same use of repeated notes moving the music around different levels that is very effective in an “art song” sense.   All new music involves some copying.  Oh, remember that Franz Schubert used repeated notes so effectively in the Great C Major.

The opening movement (Andante moderator e marcato, but it is more like Allegro moderato as played) seems also to have inspired a similarly conceived movement to open Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony (#2) with piano obligato.   That movement is built in groups of variations, but that sounds to be the case in the Brian work.  Yet, the program notes for the CD describe it as an expanded Sonata Allegro, with the themes themselves broken into variation-like blocks, moving among different tonal planes.  The second theme group, in B Minor (an odd choice), roughly sketches the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee”.  The twenty-minute movement works up to an explosive climax toward the end, with drum effects that seem to quote Mahler (the third movement of the Seventh Symphony, and the third movement of the “complete” Tenth). 

The slow movement, Lento, does take us to the English countryside, maybe the world of Thomas Hardy (didn’t we all read “Return of the Native” in high school English literature?), and has that overlay of the pastoralists, but with a more linear treatment (than with Delius, Vaughn Williams, etc).

The scherzo, Allegro Vivace, in A, will sound familiar.  I know it’s in the movies, but I can’t remember which film. It really could have been composed by Mahler, unaltered.  It’s alla breve so it isn’t a Landler, but it is 100% Viennese.  The brass take up a martial theme, with the repeated notes again, jumping around in crude, deliberately perfunctory modulations to sound popular.  The trio, more leisurely, again seems to belong in the world of the Mahler Seventh. 

The Finale, opening Lento solenne in a somber introduction, increases into a hesitating allegro, a kind of pulsar with a somewhat telescoped sonata form.  The three note theme comes back, and then the hymn tune from the first movement.  The music settles into skilled contrapuntal, perhaps fugal, development of the hymn – put this on the organ and you have something like a Liszt “ad nos”.  The resulting harmonies are strange, and among some of Brian’s most original music.  We are no longer in the world of Mahler or even Britten; we’re in a utterly strange, almost alien zone that is Brian’s own.  The music sets us up to face the idea of brutality again, as if Brian knew that war was coming.  The pianos and now organ join in. There is a pause, like a cardiac arrest.  Then suddenly, the repeated-note theme smashes down on us, in the Picardy D-flat Major, with one jump to the median F, and one final chord, “FFF”.  We have submitted.

Brian might have been inspired by the way Sir Arnold Bax ends his Fifth Symphony, in the same key, with a similar emotional effect, constantly compressing another hymn tune out of existence before crashing down.

I mentioned on Aug. 25 the possible use of this finale material at the close of the 1944 film “A Canterbury Tale”, with “Onward Christian Soldiers” thrown in.  The music is not exactly the same, but the Brian repeated note theme comes back, at the very end, even for the closing credits with boys, soon to be off to war, innocently playing soccer, with the soccer ball approaching, with crushing effect. 
I do have the Marco Polo CD set of the "Gothic" symphony, and some day soon I'll play it again and review it. 
But, really, a work like the Third (or the Gothic) needs to be listened to at a real performance.  That probably means getting my passport in order.  I haven't been to the UK since 2001 (before 9/11).  

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