Brian: Symphony No. 13 in C

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Havergal Brian
LABELS: Dutton Epoch
ALBUM TITLE: Brian: Symphony No. 13 in C
WORKS: Symphony No. 13 in C; The Tinker’s Wedding: Comedy Overture; Violin Concerto in C; English Suite No. 4 (Kindergarten)
PERFORMER: Lorrain McAslan (violin); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins


To be able to get along with Havergal Brian’s exasperating talent, you need above-average reserves of patience, plus the listening equivalent of a strong digestive tract. You’re unlikely to be enthralled, for instance, by The Tinker’s Wedding, an ominously named ‘comedy overture’ based on JM Synge’s play, whose roguish characters are portrayed by two sections of crass jollity flanking a perfunctory middle section.

Having lost the manuscript first version of his Violin Concerto on a train, Brian re-wrote the work from scratch. The blaringly scored, wildly uneven result offers glimpses of a remarkable composing mind, as in the beautifully scored final variation of the central passacaglia movement. For most of the time, however, Lorraine McAslan’s top-flight musicianship deserves less graceless and erratic material than this.

The similarly unconvincing single-movement Symphony No. 13 confirms the strangeness of Brian’s idea of what sort of composer he really was, because the nine tiny items making up the English Suite No. 4 turn out to be marvels of touch and imagination: the celesta-suffused ‘Jingle’ is exquisite, while the final ‘Ashanti Battle Song’ has something of Grainger’s off-the-wall flair. Ceaselessly up-for-it RSNO playing and Brabbins’s firm direction together make the journey to this point worth persisting with (just).


Malcolm Hayes