I have followed with keen interest the releases on the Guild label of the complete symphonies of Fritz Brun (1878-1959), Switzerland's 20th century answer to the great symphonist Anton Bruckner. Brun wrote large-spanned, big-boned music that may require the ministrations of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics to show its stuff. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra, under Adriano, has been soldiering through several releases with mixed results. The first issues were clearly not equal to the demands of the music. The newest release, on Guild GMCD 7372, with Symphonies Nos. 6 &7, shows improvement and comes much closer to the mark in exhibiting in a convincing way the impressive stature of this music. Still, there is an occasional stodginess present that I am inclined to blame on the musical forces, rather than the composer. However, I may be wrong. I will certainly continue to listen because I think there is some level of greatness here. Whatever my reservations, Adriano and his forces capture a good deal of beauty, and I am very grateful to Guild for investing in this important enterprise.
One of the most extraordinary eccentrics of the music world was Havergal Brian (1876-1972), a largely self-taught English composer who wrote 21 of his 32 symphonies after turning 80 years old. I shall forever love this man for having told a Gramophone interviewer, who had gently inquired about the issue of mortality after Brian had turned 90, "I can't die. I just bought a new pair of trousers." The majority of Brian symphonies are now available. So the intrepid Toccata Classics label is bringing out a series of Brian's orchestral music, the first two volumes of which are now available in excellent performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Gary Walker. Volume 1 contains a very substantial Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), written partially in response to Elgar's Enigma Variations and in the works. Volume 2, titled Orchestral Music from the Operas, has substantial excerpts from four of Brian's five operas, all of them yet to be staged. What can one say of this music other than that it is completely unique combination of the archaic and the radical, which is what makes it so interesting and intriguing? Brian employed traditional means in nontraditional ways. If that seems enigmatic, it's supposed to. The music can sound more or less normal for some stretches and then, all of a sudden, arrest you with a startling abruptness or an eruptive outburst of power that leave you wondering what just happened. With concentrated power, the music occasionally congeals in giant exclamation points. The element of surprise is part of the great fun in listening to Brian. I can't think of a better place to start than this new Toccata Classics series.
The Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) is famous enough, but I wonder how many people actually listen to his music. I've been very taken by the chamber music releases I have been listening to, especially of his Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, played by the Tammuz Piano Quartet on CPO 777 06-2. This is riveting music, richly Romantic, with haunting themes. It is highly animated, hard driving, and gloriously melodic – almost overheated, but generally irresistible. The second Quartet is a bit less rhapsodic, but no less dramatic. There is also a wonderful Naxos recording (8.570582), issued several years ago, of an Enescu's Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. In the second Sonata, the cello usually carries the melody – long lines of it, sprinkled with glittering, shattered shards of crystal from the piano. This music is performed with panache by cellist Laura Buruiana and pianist Martin Tchiba.
Hans Gal (1890-1987), whom I have praised to the skies for his refined chamber music, is now finally receiving attention for his symphonies. The Avie label has previously given us his Symphony No. 2, which is a treasure, as well as the marvelous Violin Concerto. Now, it delivers Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3, albeit on two different CDs. The First is matched with Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 6, with the Northern Sinfonia, under Thomas Zehetmair, and the Third with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3, with the Orchestra of the Swan, under Kenneth Woods.
I would've preferred Gal's two symphonies on the same CD, but I understand the point that Avie is making by matching his music with Schubert and Schumann. It is placing Gal in the grand tradition of which he is so obviously a continuation and an expositor. It is not mere hype to title the CD paired with Schubert "Kindred Spirits." The Viennese world of Schubert is still present in Gal. Indeed, it comes as a shock that these two symphonies are here receiving their world premiere recordings. Gal's music was driven underground, after he fled Vienna from the Nazis in 1938. This is clear evidence that the line to the great tradition in music was, in fact, not broken, either by the depredations of Second World War or by Arnold Schonberg. Here preserved intact are the senses of structure, balance, and proportion, not as if in aspic, but living, breathing.
Gal's First Symphony is fresh and engaging, charmingly balletic in places, with some of the effervescence of Prokofiev, though without a Russian sound. In fact, it has a touch of musical chinoiserie. The Third Symphony, which opens with such a gentle, lovely theme on the oboe, then the flute, before the horns zone in more assertively, has simply to be one of the most graceful modern symphonies. There is a haunting Viennese waltz lilting through parts of it. How can anything this lovely – try to resist the gorgeous andante – not have been performed in 55 years, until this superb recording by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan? Both he and Zehetmair are Avie veterans of Gal's music, and they and their forces both do equally well with the Schumann and Schubert pairings. This is music for those who thought the world had ended, and who can now discover that it didn't.