Review of performance - Lewis Foreman Brian’s Symphony 6 (Sinfonia tragica) and works by Beethoven and Brahms. Royal Holloway Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Taylor. St John’s Smith Square, London, 8 March 1997
In 1947 Brian explored J M Synge’s play Deirdre of the sorrows as an opera, but his intention was frustrated when it was discovered that Karl Rankl was already at work on the same scenario as his entry to the Arts Council Opera Competition for the Festival of Britain - of which in the event none of the nominally successful works were produced. Indeed. Rankl’s opera went completely unheard until 1995 when the performance of extracts revealed a glorious score.
Whether Brian would have been put off so easily had he realised that at that date there were already several previous settings of the same text it is difficult to say. As it was, Brian wrote an extended Vorspiel or Prelude to his unwritten opera which, completed in February 1948, became a work in its own right, the Sinfonia tragica - but it was not included as one of his numbered symphonies until 1967, after its first performance.
Sinfonia tragica - seeming much bigger in performance than its compact design suggests - is a work that has grown in stature over the years. I vividly remember listening to the broadcast of its first performance and how gripping and new it seemed then, an impression reinforced by the Lyrita recording. Now, hearing a live performance many years later, it was good to find how newly minted it seemed, my response unchanged.
When the Brian revival started in the late 1960s, a number of semi-amateur and student orchestras mounted Brian’s music, with very mixed results, though even the least good were important as stepping stones to later performances. So knowing the difficulties, in comparison this was a remarkably assured view of one of Brian’s undisputed masterpieces, conductor Matthew Taylor having a splendid feel for the pacing, with the light and shade of the music convincingly drawn, the thrust of the drama vividly projected.
Brian’s exposed lines - the opening a case in point - were confidently taken, the flute and trumpet remarkably good, the climaxes tremendous, the insistent tread of the tragedy given a bracing inexorable quality. The strings of the Royal Holloway Orchestra beautifully projected the soul-searching long cantilena for the tutti muted violins which Malcolm MacDonald rightly calls the ‘very heart of the symphony’.
The Brian was preceded by Brahms and followed by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In Brahms’ Tragic Overture any weaknesses in the playing were to be found in the strings: but, a couple of horn fluffs apart, which did not really impede enjoyment, I must say the Brian really brought out the best in the orchestra, and all told was really well done, a most enjoyable performance - with particular bouquets to the wind and brass.
NL131 © Lewis Foreman 1997
Newsletter, NL 131, 1997