RECORDS / Double Play: Brian's large forces and Rued's awakening: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson battle over an Englishman, a Dane, and five symphonies

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Brian: Symphony No 4, 'Das Siegeslied'. Symphony No 12 - Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choruses / Adrian Leaper (Marco Polo 8.223447)

IT looks ominous - an English composer setting a bloodthirsty, militaristic psalm, in German, in 1933. But Havergal Brian's Fourth Symphony doesn't sound like a tribute to emergent fascism. From the vulgarised Handelish introduction to the grossly inflated C major cadence at the end, it's an uncomfortable piece; confusing, certainly; contrapuntally over-rich, yes, but with a weird lingering aftertaste. Brian's own conception may seem to blur in places - but just when it does, he springs some wonderful surprise: soft, enriched choral harmonies after a sledgehammer tutti, mesmeric lapping figures for low flutes and harp, a strange, aspiring violin solo, or the disturbed transfiguration of Luther's 'Ein feste Burg' in the finale.

Adrian Leaper and his massed Slovak choirs and orchestra make a brave stab at this terrifyingly complicated score. Some passages could perhaps have done with another couple of rehearsals, but the forward sweep of the piece is understood and projected with force. Soprano Jana Valaskova brings the necessary stamina to the central movement - the finest sustained writing in the work. Judging from the sound, Brian's huge forces took up a fair bit of the Slovak Radio Concert Hall space, but the recording is remarkably clear. And the 12th Symphony? Again, marvellous moments, but for me, ultimately baffling. SJ

PASS the analgesics. The best that can be said of Havergal Brian's answer to his own 'Gothic Symphony' is that there is nothing quite like it. 'Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.' So says Psalm 68; so says Brian. The excesses duly spew forth, one hectoring climax after another. When he isn't raining down hell-fire and brimstone, he can be quite affecting - capable of beautiful, reflective choral writing. The slow movement brings on a strangely elevating alliance of solo violin and melismatic soprano (ideally a purer one than this): the colours are unsettlingly original. But for every window of inspiration are great swathes of the unspeakably banal: pagan marches issue from every orifice.

Mind you, it would take a much finer and better recorded performance to make out a fair case for the piece. A combination of the acoustic and Brian's impossibly dense overscoring makes for textural mayhem; and some of the choral singing is desperate, as well it might be. Symphony No 12 is blessedly concise: one can even make out an argument and some sense of transition. But whilst I applaud Marco Polo's enterprise, I suspect that by the time we've made it through all 32 symphonies (if that is the case), once will be enough, thank you. ES

Langgaard: Symphonies Nos 4, 5, 6 - Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Neeme Jarvi (Chandos CHAN 9064)

THE Danish Havergal Brian - gone but not quite forgotten? Unsung genius or terminal eccentric? Visionary or crackpot? A bit of each, really. Rued Langgaard was no Carl Nielsen. His Fourth Symphony suggests work in progress for a much larger piece, a series of unfinished sketches, loosely strung: a Tristanesque lament here, a Nordic pastorale there, elements of the pictorial and the mystic, echoes of the 18th century; little nuggets awaiting development - in vain.

While listening, one might build up a personality profile of the composer - short-fused, neurotic, irrational, uncoordinated. The Sixth at least exhibits some sense of composerly logic: a serene canonic invention and its distorted mirror-image, a rhetorical clenched fist or two, a series of exorcistic variations. 'Good' ultimately prevails in what can only be described as a protracted parody of some heavenly Hindemith visione. But I'm not buying. Only the Fifth Symphony (the last of the three to be completed) is in any real sense 'whole': direction, development, 18th-century procedures filtered through a Wagnerian sensibility. But still there is madness in the method: don't ask me where the bizarre elfin frolic towards the close comes from. The irrepressible Neeme Jarvi gives Langgaard his best shot. But will it have proved fatal? ES

PROOF that it isn't only the British who can produce fascinating eccentrics. Since his rediscovery in the 1960s, Rued Langgaard has acquired a label - 'The Nordic Ives'. There are parallels, but the world these works open up is like nothing else. Echoes of Nielsen and Wagner in the Fourth Symphony, 'Fall of the Leaf' (1916), swerve suddenly into pre-echoes of much more recent things. In the magnificent Sixth, 'The Heavens Asunder' (1920), diatonic carolling punctuates jagged, non-tonal counterpoint and sonorous hymns - often more than hinting at Janacek.

To a greater extent even than with Brian, there's a sense of a disturbed mind at work. Neeme Jarvi and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra respond with great sensitivity to oddly touching moments like the brief 'Despair' section in No 4. But there's so much to be enjoyed as well - the organ-enriched exultation at the end of No 6 (according to Langgaard, Jesus has just thrown the Devil and his hosts out of heaven) and the wonderful and very individual tunes that fill these scores - and Jarvi and his Danish musicians respond to these as though they'd known them all their lives. The recorded sound is beautiful - just the right atmosphere. SJ