Random listening

One of the benefits of tripling my hard drive space is that I can now add more of my CD collection to my iTunes. The fact that I long ago exceeded my old iPod’s actual capacity frees me up to add whatever I like, and now I have room to do so.

So until I can get over to the dark and cluttered corner that is my old CD collection and go through to see what I’ve been missing, Handel’s Water Music springs to mind, I simply snatched up a stack of CDs from the floor and transferred them to my van. I figure I need to at least listen to them again before deciding I need them on tap.

I seem to have purchased a great deal of Havergal Brian. I know I got his huge “Gothic” Symphony back in the day, and it begins well. And I think I had a few of his smaller symphonies on LP even, from the estimable Music Heritage Society.

Who is he? He has his own website and his own Wikipedia page: a composer more respected than loved (although his Society seems fairly idolatrous), and whose music tends to exasperate more than clarify.

Anyway, this particular CD is of the “Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme” and the Symphonies No. 20 and 25. Performance is by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Andrew Penny. So there.

His music is challenging to say the least. It’s nominally tonal, but without a diatonic center. Themes tend to be dark and noodling, and there is nothing like development, just constant exploration, never looking back. Mood swings are precipitous and neverending. Suddenly, we’ll swing round a corner and hit a major chord, and then just dissolve away into the next vista. Movements don’t end, they just stop.

This might be fascinating, but it’s not, at least not so far.

I do have to say that the “Fantastical Variations” is a lot of fun, but it’s easier to hear because it is weaving incredible elaborations on a very familiar tune. (I won’t say what. Ask me to play it for you next time you’re around the fire.) The man had a gift of invention and of orchestration, to be sure.

And one has to admire his doggedness. Almost none of his music was performed, and none of it very often. He lived to be 96, and eight of his 32 symphonies were written after he was 90. None of his symphonies were recorded until he was 95. It is history such as this that makes me wonder whether I should hang it up, like Charles Ives, or keep going, as poor Havergal Brian did.

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