Symphony No 1 of thirty-two; but it is a key work. Havergal Brian (1876-1972), composed his Gothic over some eight years and completed it when he was over fifty. "It eventually gave him his greatest public triumph at its first professional performance in 1966, but was most responsible for the damaging and undeserved reputation he acquired as an eccentric composer of huge and unperformable works" (The Havergal Brian Society). I attended that still well-remembered performance under Sir Adrian Boult, at which the composer, in his nineties, strode confidently onto the Royal Albert Hall platform looking like a fit and prosperous farmer.
Despite efforts by Robert Simpson and others, who achieved wide exposure to the limited BBC Third Programme loyalists, Brian has never quite attained his posthumous due. Mahler's choral symphonies #2 & even #8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") are given regularly now to capacity audiences, but Brian's gigantic Gothic, the Largest Symphony (Guinness Book of Records) remains a rarity. Its requirements outdo those of Mahler and Berlioz at their most extravagant, ideally needing 200 players, brass bands, and double chorus (six choirs in this 1989 recording!); all credit to Slovakia, Ondrej Lenárd and to Naxos for releasing this landmark recording from the Marco Polo catalogue. It sounds very well.
Brian has a strikingly individual voice, still arresting some eighty years on - tonal and contrapuntal, but essentially forward looking, with a gruff cragginess, unexpected juxtapositions and apparent non sequiturs. Within a short span he can encompass grandiosity and heart melting lyricism. Prefaced with a quotation from Goethe's Faust, The Gothic is a huge structure, taking nearly two hours in performance, during which it moves from D minor to conclude in E Major. The Faustian Part 1 is orchestral; Part 2, a three movement Te Deum, is a huge edifice suggesting a grand Gothic Cathedral, eventually reaching a 'racked and agonized but not-quite-despairing conclusion' which ultimately leaves us with 'a mysterious radiance that abides as a light in the night' (Malcolm MacDonald). But on the way it is continually inventive and eventful. One movement, a setting of a single sentence, amasses four choirs in overlapping triads to form chord clusters, and they go on to create a dividi passage of 'fantastic complexity and fierce dissonance' in twenty parts!
This double CD, released in UK at Naxos' standard £4.99 per disc, is perfect for study purposes, with unfussy, easy to read black-on-white texts in Latin and English, and detailed tracking. In Malcolm MacDonald's authorative commentary, edited by Keith Anderson, the 46 tracks are conveniently cited one by one. Why do not all record companies learn about presentation from each other?
An essential purchase which should tempt the curious to further exploration of this indefatigable British individualist whose composing career, spanning eighty years, must be one of the longest ever. We are told that there has been a spasmodic growth of interest in Brian since the '50s, but this may well have passed by many readers? The sound is grand and the huge forces balanced carefully under the supervision of Günter Appenheimer. It is a new jewel in the Naxos catalogue.
Copyright © 2004, Peter Grahame Woolf