Composers: Brian
Compositions: Symphonies No 7 & 16
Performers: New Russian State SO/Alexander Walker
Catalogue Number: NAXOS 8573959

Britain’s Havergal Brian Society has been vigilant in getting the neglected English composer’s symphonies played in decent studio recordings. Over the last three decades all 32 symphonies have appeared, mostly from Naxos and Dutton. With this new release, we venture into territory where previous recordings already exist.

The Tinker’s Wedding Overture (1948) is a celebratory comedy overture redolent of the Edwardian era. Being Brian, however, the music has its quirks: it is craggily episodic, and he writes for tuba as though it were a flute. Symphony No 7 from the same year continues the Elgarian pomp with trumpet fanfares but soon veers into Brian’s unsettled stylistic deconstruction. Again, the orchestration offers unexpected challenges, especially its ever-busy bass lines and use of percussion, including xylophone. The single-movement Symphony No 16 (1960) is alternately mysterious and aggressive, harmonically astringent, and completely isolated from British music of the time.

Alexander Walker and the orchestra have recorded several of his symphonies and are comfortable with his idiom. Walker knows how to balance the sometimes incongruous elements, as the musicians manage the climactic outbursts while retaining a light touch. Charles Mackerras previously recorded Symphony No 7 and the Overture, and Myer Fredman recorded an exceptional performance of No 16, but neither outshines this new disc.