University of Bristol Symphony Orchestra/John Pickard – Hamish MacCunn, Havergal Brian & William Walton

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood
Symphony No.19 in E minor
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

University of Bristol Symphony Orchestra
John Pickard

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 December, 2012
Venue: Victoria Rooms, Bristol

Havergal Brian (1876-1972)Concerts by John Pickard and the University of Bristol Symphony Orchestra tend to feature more than the occasional unexpected piece to liven up the increasingly moribund concert repertoire, and here proved no exception with only a second hearing (36 years after the first) for the Nineteenth Symphony by Havergal Brian.

Composed in the autumn of 1961, soon after the composer had heard his vast Gothic Symphony performed for the first time, the Nineteenth is the second of three in which Brian reverted to a nominally ‘classical’ format following the one-movement endeavours of the five preceding symphonies. Typical in its modest duration (just under 20 minutes) and its sizable forces (including triple woodwind and some nine percussionists), the piece is surely one of the most directly appealing among his later symphonies – its main ideas clear-cut without being predictable, and the evolution of each movement throwing up a fair number of formal quirks which enhance rather than circumvent the intelligibility of the overall design.

Pickard and the musicians certainly had the measure of the opening movement – with its brusque though systematic take on sonata precepts in which the assertive and martial intertwines with the reflective and lyrical, while taking in an eventful development and forthright coda – even if a degree of short-windedness was perhaps unavoidable. The central Adagio is the work’s highlight, not least in the way that the emotionally intense main sections are complemented by two intermezzo-like episodes whose distinctive scoring and whimsical demeanour could only be Brian in their oblique opening-out of an expressive range that comes impressively into focus with the movement’s nobly wrought culmination and inward coda. Nor is the finale in any sense an anti-climax – its infectious theme a foil to the more equivocal elements with which it alternates on the way to a heady apotheosis that crystallizes the tonal trajectory of the work. Throughout, the players surmounted the music’s technical difficulties with conviction and relish.

Walton’s First Symphony (1935) has latterly re-established itself among the most-played of twentieth-century symphonies, but it remains a tough challenge even for the most seasoned of professionals. While it would be idle to pretend that the present account was not without its shortcomings, the level of commitment sustained for the greater part was admirable – not least in a first movement whose remorselessly cumulative momentum reached across what (as Pickard pointed out) is a perfectly realized one-movement design (comparable to Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, though with a demonstrably greater melodic definition and rhythmic impetus) such as could have been justified on its own terms. If it lacked the last degree in visceral immediacy, the scherzo’s unbounded vitality was hardly in doubt and also found a meaningful contrast (as is not always the case) with the rapt pathos of the slow movement – Pickard setting a measured yet never sluggish tempo such as amply encompassed the compassion suffusing the music prior to its anguished climax and desolate close. Equally gratifying was the finale’s capping of the whole not merely in terms of expressive overkill but with an underlying sense of affirmation, maintained through a coursing double fugue then on to a surging peroration. Invidious as it may be to single out specific musicians, Rupert Cole’s timpani-playing was of a clarity and articulation rare in performances of this work.

As a late addition to this programme, Hamish MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887) was a welcome revival of a piece which stands relatively little chance of returning to favour now that overtures have been largely banished from the concert hall. Although its ‘received’ sonata form may be a little gauche (though not nearly as much as George Bernard Shaw opined in his facetious review of the first performance), the sheer freshness of its main themes – not least the indelible second subject – remains undimmed after 125 years, and this account made up for its rough edges with an ardency that underscored just why its composer was so highly regarded during that eventful era near the outset of the British Musical Renaissance.

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