WHAT was Brian thinking? His Symphony No.4, a setting of Luther's German version of the bloodthirsty Psalm No.68, was written in 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power. Can this be the unthinkable--a British work lauding fascism? In his review for Havergal Brian Society website, Malcolm MacDonald, (a world-class expert on Brian, and author of the notes for the present CD), puts forth a convincing theory:
"The text that he chose, of course... I mean you can't call it a German nationalist text, because it's Luther, Psalm 67 in the Lutheran--and this in fact was a favourite psalm of Brian's, not just in the German but in the English; and he saw it as a great sort of Puritan psalm. It's a text about righteousness and evil, really, and the battle between the two. Now Brian's own treatment of this psalm, of the text, in this symphony is very curious in a way. It is an enormously militaristic-sounding piece...
"It seems to me that this piece is directed AT Germany [caps mine]. It's about things in the German psyche, almost, and it's about what has to be done to the militarists if Germany is to be reborn and cleansed. And from that point of view it's a much more explicit work than many of the symphonies of the 1930's by other composers which are sometimes taken rightly or wrongly as reflecting the international situation and the rise of fascism."
But why did Brian choose to set a German text at the time when Nazism was on the rise? To paraphrase MacDonald's booklet notes, in 1932, the full score of Brian's Symphony No.1, the "Gothic," had been published by the German publishers, Cranz & Co. Brian was surely hoping for further performances of his works in Germany, and he may have felt that setting a German text would give him an advantage. It also seems likely that he felt he had a warning to deliver to the German people about the disturbing political events of the early 1930's--what better way to do that than with a text in their own language? I'm not trying to put words into Brian's mouth, but the message I personally get from this symphony is, "If you persist in following your current course, the horrors of war are inevitable, those whom you attack will defend themselves, and there will be blood."
Brian mirrors the militarism and bloodthirstiness of the Psalm in a terrifyingly violent and barbaric score. This is tough (albeit rewarding) listening, and not for those whose tolerance level for dissonance is low. Although the work is framed by two relatively tonal statements in a quasi-Handelian festive style, much of the work is dissonant--even acidulously polytonal--and the choral writing, probably even more demanding than the "Gothic." There are oases of repose, but not many. This is not the kind of music one "enjoys," but one can take from it a cathartic lesson, just as one can from Britten's "War Requiem," Vaughan-Williams' Symphony No.4, or Strauss's "Elektra".
As for the current performance, Malcolm MacDonald's 1993 review for HBS is generally positive, although he feels that Handford's earlier performance (7/3/1967) got the tempi more consistently right. Since no recording of that performance is available--not even from HBS--it becomes like the old fisherman's saw about "you should have seen the one that got away." The ellipses in the following quote from MacDonald's review are mine, inserted because he was simultaneously reviewing Leaper's Nos.17 and 32:
"On the whole I admire Adrian Leaper's accounts of the various works: if I have a general reservation it is with the rather fast speeds he adopts in Brian's slow movements--the funeral march in No.12,... and the central climax of the second movement of No.4-which is admittedly marked "Allegro vivace" but shouldn't, I feel, sound in any way rushed (my impression is that Maurice Handford's 1967 broadcast, despite all its problems, got the tempi more effectively than either John Poole or Adrian [Leaper]). A sense of weight and inexorability is central to all three passages."
Not having heard Handford's performance, I'm in no position to judge, but I don't agree with MacDonald's implication that Leaper's "Allegro vivace" sounds rushed. The passage depicts the progress of God's "20,000 chariots"--although it should be menacing and a bit lumbering and massive, it shouldn't be exactly slow, either. At any rate, to me, Leaper's tempo conveys the image adequately. MacDonald goes on:
"These minor carps apart, there's a great deal to enjoy... Though the [Leaper] Siegeslied is somewhat less monumental than the Handford and Poole performances, the quasi-baroque clarity that Leaper brings to it allows many of the details to stand out more clearly than they have before, and powerfully illuminates one side of this many-sided work which has so far been obscured. And it's a joy to hear so much of the choral textures, and so much of them (if not all in tune)."
The only competition this No.4 has at present is from HBS of the first public performance (10/13/1974), conducted by John Poole. Marco Polo's DDD sound of course offers a quantum improvement in textural clarity and isn't plagued by the broadcast noise and dropouts of the Poole. I, for one, am grateful to NAXOS/Marco Polo for the chance to hear a modern recording of this work in a well-prepared professional performance, and all associated with it may be proud of their achievement. Not having access to a score, I personally can't speak about the quality of the performance with absolute authority, but I detected no obvious hesitations or "singing in the cracks," and generally, MacDonald seemed pleased with it.
In contrast to most of Brian's lengthy early symphonies (1-4 and 7), Symphony No.12 is only 11 minutes long. It is in a highly compressed single movement, and is, generally, a gentler work than No.4. In the eerily quiet opening, fragments of phrases scrabble about. This "soup" congeals into a lop-sided lurching march, the idea of which (if not exactly the same material) keeps turning up throughout the work. The music progresses with Brian's typical abrupt juxtapositions of contrasting brief ideas. Some writers have called this discontinuity, but this is very much the way human beings talk--we pause, hesitate, move forward, stumble, alter our pace, digress. We make discoveries as our thoughts lead us here and there, we make sudden leaps and ellipses without detailing the processes in between, while still keeping our minds on the forward progress of our main argument. At the end, Leaper allows the music to dissolve quietly into a soft stroke of the gong, and the work is suddenly over before one realizes it. MacDonald points out that the gong stroke is not nearly loud enough--I presume from this that in the score this gong stroke is marked to be played loudly. I was reminded of some of the more quizzically surreal canvasses of Paul Klee.
Of course the main item here is No.4, which at first may look like it's going to be a lot like the "Gothic". It's actually very different--much more aggressive, more constantly harsh, and even, I think, deliberately ugly (but then, so is the subject matter). It's certainly much more difficult to wrap one's mind around than the "Gothic." I strongly recommend it to the adventurous (this is not a piece for everyone), but be prepared to be intimidated and scared out of your wits.