Brian occupies a somewhat awkward position - he is not what you would call a conservative composer - but he never wrote the kind of atonal music fashionable in the 1960s - so therefore he has ended up stranded between two camps. It is easy to come to Brian with all sorts of expectations - is it like Elgar, or like English pastoral composers - or like Bax - or is he like Pettersson or Langgaard - tortured composers of extremely expressive music.
To be quite honest, on first hearing this music, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Brian's music (each separate work) has a tendency to seem dangerously episodic to begin with, but with repeated hearings, it takes shape and becomes very original and interesting. It becomes clear over time that Brian has a style all of his own - idiosyncratic and with a strong flavour. It will appeal greatly to some, and will be hated and despised by others, rather like a strong Stilton.
The Violin Concerto here is maybe the most substantial work - written in Brian's middle period, and very much in the large-scale style of Symphonies 3 and 4. It clearly takes the Romantic concerto as a model, in three movements, with at times a distinct Elgarian nobility. However the profusion of ideas can only remind me of Charles Ives. This concerto combines extreme complexity with simple folk-like melodies in such a way that I've only heard in Ives' music. It is at times very violent, and even militaristic - the violin is doing battle with the orchestra.
The Symphony No. 18 and The Jolly Miller Overture are later works, and considerably denser in their expression. They are both well worth hearing. The Jolly Miller has a lot of nice tunes, but they are combined together, and considerable complexity has been added in a manner that again reminds me of Ives. Symphony No. 18 is very interesting. I particularly enjoyed the 2nd movement. This music is again very dramatic, with violence in the outer movements, and a powerful beauty in the central movement. It again has moments that remind the listener of Elgar.
In this music there is a lot to get your teeth into - and if its your thing you will get a lot out of it. You won't find music much more violent, dramatic or abounding in ideas than Brian's. It is not background music, and it is not something you will like the first time you hear it, because it is too complex. To begin with it seems like Brian has got a hyper-active imagination that results in his music being incoherent - one could say the same thing about Ives. But it does come together....
The orchestra has made a good job of what is clearly very difficult music to play - and the soloist in the concerto does a good job of playing a very difficult violin part.
I recommend this wholeheartedly - but there will be those who don't like it.