Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia Tragica)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Nicholas Braithwaite [Cooke]
Recorded in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London – Brian on 10 April 1973, Cooke on 7 January 1974
Reviewed by: Jimmy Hughes
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: LYRITA SRCD.295
Duration: 60 minutes
The early 1970s witnessed the start of a revival of interest in the music of Havergal Brian (1876-1972). The present recordings of symphonies 6 and 16 were pivotal in raising awareness of Brian’s unique voice, in part because the performances (the first Brian symphonies to be recorded with a top-flight professional orchestra) were excellent, and the recordings technically outstanding. With its huge dynamic range and vast palette of tonal colours, Brian’s music demands confident playing and rich, detailed sound. Stanley Goodall, a Decca engineer, working in the bright, clear acoustics of Walthamstow Assembly Hall, certainly met the challenge, capturing sound of great power and depth.
Brian’s Sixth symphony, Sinfonia Tragica, was composed in 1948 and scored for large orchestra (the percussion includes Brian’s trademark three side drums). The music lasts a little under 20 minutes and was actually conceived as the prelude to an opera based on Synge’s “Deirdre of the Sorrows”. It is by turns brooding, angry and dark, with the odd surly outburst and a powerfully-lyrical central climax. Despite its operatic origins, the music feels and sounds like a real symphony – albeit one that’s highly compressed and concentrated.
Symphony 16 dates from 1960, and (like the Sixth, along with many other Brian symphonies) is cast in a single movement – albeit one that carries within it the suggestion of individual movements, much like Sibelius 7. However, like the Sibelius, it’s often hard to say where one section ends and a new one begins. The music seems to stretch and twist as it constantly reinvents itself. Although Brian did not say this symphony had any extra-musical inspiration, he did mention that, while writing it, he had been re-reading Herodotus’s account of the Persian Invasion under Xerses, and their catastrophic defeat by the Spartans and Athenians. The music does at times have an inexorable military quality – hard to avoid when you marry heavy brass and side drums with march rhythms! – but the music is not programmatic in the normal sense.
Arnold Cooke’s Third Symphony dates from 1967. It is cast in three movements and lasts about 23 minutes. When Cooke (1906-2005) was 23, he went to Berlin to study under Paul Hindemith. There certainly a kinship between Cooke’s music and that of Hindemith – a similar harmonic idiom, allied to a liking for counterpoint – and this is apparent in the bustling Allegro energico first movement of Symphony 3. There’s also a hint of Hindemith’s visionary transcendental qualities, such as one hears in works like “Mathis der Maler” (opera or symphony). Nevertheless, Cooke’s music remains independent and individual.
All three performances are committed and powerfully played. The recordings are also very fine, with a craggy burnished richness, and plenty of detail, Some of the heavier climaxes in the two Brian symphonies sound a little congested, as though the tape were being pushed close to saturation. On LP it sounded like the pickup was having a hard time tracking the groove – and no doubt it was. But, listening on CD, you can hear things ‘cramp-up’ a bit just like the LP – the sound loses a little of its ease and transparency when things get loud. That said, the reproduction is still great. Cooke’s symphony was taped slightly later than the two Brian works, and was made using different engineers (including the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson). Cooke’s scoring and dynamics are not as extreme as Brian’s, and perhaps for this reason the sound here is a shade cleaner and more comfortable.