Havergal Brian will probably continue to be most famous for his gargantuan first symphony, the Gothic, but the old adage that his remaining 31 symphonies are, to a greater or lesser extent, spinoffs of that seminal but flawed work is simply false. In fact, as this record shows, the Gothic might not even be his best work in the genre. The composer did not live to hear his third, and it was not performed until 1974, partially because of its length and the huge forces it requires (an absolute minimum of 70-80 players, including an organ (ad libitum but present in this recording though not always audible) and two concert pianists). It is a pity, for it is a remarkable and very satisfying work - a bit overblown, perhaps, but highly personal in style and full of inventive, imaginative gestures, themes and developments. But it is also a somewhat strange construction, partially perhaps because it was originally intended as a piano concerto - as work on it proceeded, however, it apparently became more and more clear to the composer that it looked more like a symphony with an obbligato piano part.
It is, obviously, a massive work, and while it might on first hearing strike one as rather bizarre structurally, Brian's argument is tauter than it might appear, and despite its many twists and turns he always knows exactly where he is taking the music. The huge first movement actually deploys standard sonata form, though Brian fills that framework with a welter of good and individual, though often surprising ideas. The slow movement is atmospheric and glittering, and the scherzo is jocular and sarcastic, twisted and spiteful and wonderfully delicate in turns. The finale cannot always avoid pomp and banality, but is still endlessly fascinating, swaggering on to a magnificently powerful culmination (the movements are divided into multiple tracks on the disc).
Part of the success of the work is due to the marvelous scoring; wonderfully variegated, with glittering and blinking textures and colors. Shimmering meditative movements and pugnaciously martial bombast coexists and yet, fascinatingly, manage to work together to create a rather convincing whole. The technical demands put on the performers are substantial, and I am happy to say that the BBC Symphony rises to the challenge very convincingly; under Lionel Friend's sympathetic and idiomatic guidance, we get all the colors, ravishing details and momentum we could have hoped for. The recording is very good as well, and if the balance is sometimes a little off, that is probably unavoidable given the richness and wide range of effects the composer asks for. A superb release, strongly recommended.