Brian's Symphony No 3 was begun in May 1931 and completed about a year later. Like the vast bulk of his output,he never heard it performed but considered it at the time to be his best music to date. It calls for large orchestral forces,(some 120 players were required for the recording under review) and runs to about 55 mins. It is cast in the usual four movements but there is nothing usual about the music which challenges the listener as well as the performers.
The over all style is Romantic and reminiscent of Bruckner and Mahler,more the latter than the former. There are too,moments where one is reminded of Richard Strauss,a composer much admired by Brian's friend Granville Bantock,and,in the final movement Elgar can be called to mind. However,there is a powerful and highly individual musical voice to be heard in this music and it deserves to be known to a wider public than at present.
The first movement opens with a most striking motif followed by a first subject in which two pianos play an important role. Brian originally conceived this work as a piano concerto and the instrument can be heard orchestrally in three of the four movements. The first main subject is somewhat forbidding but the arrival of the second subject brings music of great beauty. Following this the music becomes intense and huge climaxes are built out of earlier material. The great orchestra is deployed throughout the 19 minutes of this turbulent and sometimes violent movement with skill and imagination.
The second movement is,by contrast for the most part,calm and serene,though a huge climax is built towards the end. However,Brian thins down the orchestration to allow solo violin and flute to carry the music forward. The flute reappears to the accompaniment of soft brass chords.
The Scherzo is cast in traditional form. A strident march in quick time gives way to a Viennese waltz,a la Rosenkavalier,before a return of the march,evermore strident and dissonant.
The deeply contemplative final movement is thought by some to be a requiem for a German academic whom Brian much admired and whose death caused him much sorrow. The writing for the orchestra here is superb,even surpassing what has gone before. It has a truly Brucknerian structure and the full orchestra is mustered,to which pianos and the organ are added to form a fitting end to this magnificent work.
The recording of this symphony took place in May 1988 at the Maida Vale Studios of the BBC,immediately following a public performance. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Friend. The recording accommodates the large orchestra well and at the same time allows the solo instruments to be heard. I strongly recommend this disc to anyone who is looking to a British rival to the late German Romantics.
This is perhaps not the most instantly likeable music available but it has the power and passion of an original and committed composer. On repeated listenings the piece becomes strangely compelling - you get drawn into the wayward madness of the thing.
No one has anything to fear from this music. I warmly recommend this CD to anyone interested in large-scale orchestral music, the British symphony, 'serious' classical music; in fact any category you choose!
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