Brian • Symphony No.1 in D minor, "The Gothic"

Susan Gritton, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Peter Auty, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; nine adult and children's choruses; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; BBC Concert Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins conducting
Hyperion CDA67971/2
Two CDs



by Richard Freed | February 22, 2012

phenomenal and very long work, more talked about than actually performed, brought to life now by some 800 musicians -- four vocal soloists, more than 500 choral voices, an organ, and an orchestra of 210 players, including six timpanists, 17 additional percussionists, four brass bands and eight offstage trumpets -- in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, with a huge and enthusiastic Proms audience: if that doesn’t call for "surround sound," what does? Well, this live recording of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is not on SACD, but it is nonetheless a wonderful showpiece for a serious playback system, and for demonstrating how much good old two-channel Red Book CD can deliver in respect to spaciousness, definition and all-round realism.

Brian (1876-1972) composed a great deal of music in many forms, including 32 symphonies. "The Gothic," which took eight years to set down (1919-1927), became No. 1. Though several of his symphonies, including this one, have been recorded, they remain otherwise largely unknown. The performance on Hyperion, taped during last year’s BBC Proms, was only the fourth given for an audience since the work was composed.

Like his lifelong friend Sir Granville Bantock (whose fascinating orchestral works were recorded so persuasively on Hyperion by the late conductor Vernon Handley), Brian showed great skill and imaginativeness in exploiting the resources of the modern orchestra. He dedicated his Gothic Symphony to Richard Strauss, who had only good things to say about it, but he did not imitate Strauss or Berlioz or anyone else: he achieved a style that is urgent, dramatic and compelling in a way entirely his own. Some near-parallels, though, between this work and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony may be observed, in their overall layout and the sources of the vocal content o both works.

Mahler’s Eighth, which also calls for very large vocal and instrumental forces, is choral throughout its two movements, the first a setting of the old Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, and the second, about twice as long, a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust. Brian put two lines from that scene on the title page of the score of his Gothic Symphony, which is also laid out in two parts, but with Mahler’s content reversed: the three movements that constitute Part I are said to be based on those two lines from Goethe, but without using actual words, while the three that constitute the longer Part II have the huge chorus in a different old hymn, the Te Deum. In respect to the performing forces, it is the Brian that is closer to being an actual "Symphony of a Thousand."

Was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony even known to Brian when he composed his Gothic Symphony? Mahler conducted the premiere of his Eighth in Munich in September 1910, enjoying the greatest success he ever experienced as a composer. The score was published the following year, the year of his death. Brian saw military service in WWI, and began work on the Gothic Symphony shortly after the war ended. Apart from the coincidences of the Goethe material and the old hymns, a closer model was actually provided by Mendelssohn’s curious Symphony No. 2, the Lobgesang ("Song of Praise"), whose symphonic movements constitute an extended cantata on a Biblical text.

Such precedents, in any event, are little more than footnotes. Brian was simply an "original," in the best sense, and was apparently far less concerned about getting performances for his symphonies than with simply getting them written. There seems to be no record of his having said anything like Mahler’s famous "My time will yet come," but he did live long enough to hear some of his works performed. The premiere of the Gothic Symphony was a semi-professional presentation in one of London’s lesser halls in 1961, some 34 years after Brian completed the score.

As Calum Macdonald observes in his comprehensive and valuable annotation for the new recording, all three subsequent performances have been given at the Royal Albert Hall, and were "mounted by the BBC": Sir Adrian Boult conducted the augmented BBC SO there in October 1966, with the 90-year-old composer present; Ole Schmidt conducted the LSO there in May 1980, and then came the work’s first appearance in the BBC Proms, "the performance enshrined in this recording."

That’s an interesting choice of verbs, and in the event a fitting one, though what counts for more than its enshrinement is that this is a performance built on absolute belief in the music and carried of on a remarkably high level of assurance and brilliance. In another piece preceding Macdonald’s note, Martyn Brabbins gives a detailed report on how this performance came about, and how during the year preceding it, the various performing entities in England and Wales began preparing and eventually came together for joint rehearsals.

There was obviously so much that could have gone wrong in such an ambitious undertaking -- capturing such a vast and complex and simply long work in a single take, as it were, without the usual opportunities for make-up patches -- but apparently nothing did. While little was left to chance, the element of spontaneity captured here is hardly less remarkable than the high level of conviction and assurance that makes the work so compelling and the recording of it something to be enormously admired.

The sound is splendid in every respect, and the work’s soft, fade-away ending is allowed to register by an appropriately sustained silence of about 15 seconds before the tumultuous applause and cheering break out. I personally do not care for applause in a recording, and in any event eight and a half minutes of it are just too much. Hyperion has been thoughtful enough to put it on a separate track, but without it all three sections of Part II could have been accommodated on the second disc.

In the face of what has been accomplished here, however, such considerations are simply beside the point. Everyone involved in this production -- the BBC and its various entities, the enthusiastic and insightful Martyn Brabbins, and Hyperion’s recording team as well as all the singers and instrumentalists -- can take pride in this achievement, for which the term "glorious" is definitely not hyperbole.

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