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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 1 The Gothic (1919-1927)
Eva Jenisová (sop), Dagmar Pecková (alto), Vladimir Dolezal (ten), Peter Mikulás (bass)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak National Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Bratislava City Choir, Lucnica Choir, Bratislava Childrenís Choir, Youth 'Echo' Choir
CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondrej Lenard
rec. Concert Hall, Czechoslovak Radio, Bratislava, 29-31 March, 16-22 Oct 1989. DDD
NAXOS 8.557418-419 [59.11+54.56]


†Very full details and links from the Havergal Brian Society

That Brian wrote thirty-two symphonies is reasonably well known. Many of these were written in old age.

This is the first and so far the only authorised recording of this Symphony. It was a massive enterprise from the first long-sustained flush of Brian confidence. It crowned the period charted from the composer's death in 1972 to the end of the Simpson-driven cycle of BBC broadcasts of the symphonies in 1989.

Boult conducted the work in 1966 and this was broadcast on the BBC. Tape machines whirred and by 1978 the Aries company had issued a pirate version of that tape on LP-2601. It was in pretty decent sound too - certainly the best that company ever achieved. There were some abysmal sounding LPs from Aries - try the Aries LP of Brian's Symphony No. 2 !

In 1980 I travelled to London to hear The Gothic live. Ole Schmidt conducted again at the RAH. It was a shattering experience. Of course there have been other performances including some heroic but amateur efforts. However these were not recorded.

If you must have a historical and cultural nexus for this work then surely it is the Great War. The sometimes crushing violence of The Gothic surely reflects that conflict as well as the long litany of deaths both among the Allies and the Germans. I mention Germany because, like many British composers, (Elgar and Holbrooke are other examples among many) Brian had a great affection for German culture. The war created loyalty tensions in the musical world as much as anywhere.

The notes for this Naxos set, reduced by Keith Anderson from the original Marco Polo issue, are by Brian and Foulds champion, Malcolm Macdonald. The sung Latin texts are printed in full with parallel translations. The work is liberally tracked so that you can follow the structure, incident by incident.

Has there ever been a First Symphony as ambitious in intention, grasp and achievement as Havergal Brian's Gothic. Of course there have been remarkable firsts; I think of Prokofiev's and Shostakovich's works. None of these however have stormed the heavens or stared unblinking at the great philosophical and spiritual issues in the same way as Brian's symphony. Ambition amongst composers is the needling drive to create. Ambition is not an unusual quality; it is the extent to which it is matched or excelled by mental reach and creative grasp that distinguishes the greatest composers. Brian had both ambition and preternatural ability and this Symphony is the evidence. Across its almost two hours it neither falters nor blinks. Great time-span does not spell intrinsic greatness. It can spell prolixity and garrulous meandering. Brian uses his almost two hours because that is exactly the time-span required to set out his ideas and develop them at every level.

Violence and Peace stand close to each other throughout. Try the last section of the first movement for the pacific voice made eloquent in the solo violin. This is Brian's reaching for The Lark Ascending. You find a similar tune in the first movement of Brianís Third Symphony (Hyperion - Helios). For Violence we can cite the Mars-like dynamic established by the rapped-out timpani attack impelling the work forward at the start of the first movement; itís just one example. That figure is recalled later in tr.15 CD2 where it rises to a crashingly emphatic statement.

The layout of the Symphony some may find disconcerting. However it does work. The first three movements are entirely orchestral. In fact they work as a 'conventional' symphony and have been played in that form (I have a tape of Charles Groves conducting a performance of that part of the work in a Crystal Palace concert in 1974). The second part is a massive setting of the Te Deum for multiple soloists, choirs, full orchestra and brass ensembles.

Massive effects are only part of the picture - perhaps the smallest. In the first part of the second movement at 2.38 listen out for the affecting orchestral detailing in the left hand channel. Delicacy is one thing but there is also the racking and scorching pain of the workís great cortège of death rising to a liberal cargo of dissonance at 5.54.

You may well think of other composers as you listen. For example in the second movement you will encounter a 'ticking' figure linking with the snowy ambience of Baxís Fifth Symphony. Gloriously glowing horns call out above the magnificent din put up by the rest of the orchestra in a piece of music that seems to define heroic on the fly.

I mentioned that you will think of other composers. A further example comes in the first part of the Te Deum where the profound basso depths of the Rachmaninov Vespers are hinted at. This climaxes into a picture of the seraphic hosts streaming across the sky. Continuing this image we can refer forward to CD2 tr. 18 where the suggestion of conflict in the heavens has Satan cast down but not before a great conflict in the skies. This is music that rattles with Hieronymus Bosch horror and awe.

The Judex (tr. 1 CD2) features yet more extraordinary writing. The wheeling choral passage is like Holst's Hymn of Jesus - itself one of the most extraordinary works in all musical history.

Tr. 2 CD2 has a brutal lumbering march with the sound of raw fanfares and brass bands rolling and echoing around the great space of the Slovak Concert Hall. Once again however Brian leaves us in awe with the Mother Goose iridescent delicacy and joyful glitter of the women's voices and silvery tinkling percussion (tr. 10 CD2). The mood then switches in tr. 13 to a jaunty, slightly Mahlerian, march for nine clarinets. This is perhaps an echo of the open air values of the hiking movement of the 1920s and 1930s. That very march is carried over into a wordless vocalising that, in its spirited cheeriness, seems to look back to the columns of troops singing patriotic if irreverent songs as they went up to the Front. At other times it might link with pictures of children hiking through the Alps (tr. 14).

The work finds quiet though not placid consummation in words intoned with deep reverence: 'Non confundar in aeternam'. The singing is rich and resonant in bass definition. Not that Alexander Sveshnikov and the USSR choir would not have made even more of a dream-team ending.

As a recording it is amongst Gunter Appenheimer's best and of course it was captured in the exemplary grand acoustic of Bratislava's world-standard concert hall. I have already commented on this extraordinary hall when reviewing the Alexander Moyzes series of twelve symphonies, also on Marco Polo.

Enthused by The Gothic and want to know where to go next? There is nothing like The Gothic but the Second Symphony (on Marco Polo) and the Third (Hyperion, Helios) are similarly grand though much shorter. We await a recording of the Fifth The Wine of Summer for baritone and orchestra (superb almost expressionistic work - think Zemlinsky and Delius). The Sixth is compact but outstanding - possibly the next best Brian symphony but it is still consigned to vinyl perdition on a Lyrita LP (c/w No 16) LPO/Myer Fredman. A case of Prokofiev 6 meets Bax. The other Marco Polos are listed below and are all well worth exploring. However you need to be aware that Brianís language became more elliptical and gnomic as time went on. There are no miniature Gothics although Symphony No. 22 lasting just over eleven minutes is extremely impressive. The EMI Classics double album of Brian symphonies 7, 8 and 9 is well worth having and is also a good place to go stepping off from The Gothic.

Brianís Gothic is a massive asseveration of confidence by someone who stood as an outsider to the musical establishment unblessed with private resources or a public school education let alone a formal musical training. It is a work of staggering scale and substance.

Rob Barnett

John France has also listened to this recording

Is there a helpful listening strategy for the longest symphony in the repertoire? Is there some way of approaching this gargantuan work that will enable us to fit it into a workable frame of reference?

Apart from operas and oratorios this is the longest piece of music I have listened to at a single sitting. I understand that many people could well give up at the end of the first couple of tracks. It is quite definitely a musical marathon.

I believe that there is a way to approach this work in a satisfying manner. Now normally I would argue that any musical work should be listened to as a unity. I have never liked excerpting favourite movements of concerti or symphonies. However I am not sure that this present work needs to be taken at one bite; I do not hesitate in thinking that the extended time commitment required is likely to put the listener off and make them more enthusiastic about making a cup of tea or coffee.

I think the correct approach to this symphony is based around the fact that this work is divided quite clearly into two sections - not related to the two CDs. Part One is inspired by the legend of Faust and Part Two has the great Christian hymn, 'Te Deum' as its raison d'être. I remember reading a review in which the author contends that if only 'part one' existed, we would have a fine example of a British Symphony that would entitle the composer to immense respect. Furthermore there is an obvious hiatus between parts. The first is for the orchestra alone, the second is a massive choral work.

A little bit of background is helpful. Havergal Brian composed the Gothic Symphony over a period of seven or eight years. He was over fifty years old when it was completed so it reflects his mature musical personality. The symphony brings together two huge, contrasting projects that had been casting around the composerís mind for many years. The first was based on the legend of Faust and the second was a 'symphonic' vision of the Gothic Age (1150-1560) as a 'period of almost unlimited expansion of human knowledge, both secular and spiritual, both glorious and terrible.' It is as if pagan and Christian were being set in opposition.

Faust is the main character of a popular legend. He has featured in many different fictional works over the years. The story concerns the fate of a scholarly gentleman who calls up the Devil, usually called Mephistopheles, from the depths of hell. As a result of their meeting, Faust decides to sell his soul to the Devil and the contract is signed in blood. The final fate of Faust differs from story to story.

Faust became the arch-type of the Gothic man seeking after arcane knowledge and spiritual enlightenment. It is not too difficult to transfer the legend to any age; we need only think of the false gods of communism, cpaitalism and fascism that have plagued history over the last 100 years. It is easy to see Hitler or Stalin (both somewhat later than the symphony I hasten to add!) as offering illumination to a 'Faustian' population.

The second part of this work is a massive setting of the Te Deum. This is one of the great hymns of the Christian Church. Its authorship is unknown, yet patristic scholars assume that it is a conflation of two (perhaps more) earlier hymns. It is fundamentally a paean of praise to God the Father and to God the Son; Redemption and Creation. Of course this liturgical text has been set to music by a number of composers; I think of those by Bruckner, Berlioz and DvořŠk as being amongst the best known.

So having looked at the fundamental thesis of the work we can see, perhaps, a way forward. My strategy is quite simple. Take each part as a separate event. The opening 'symphony' does stand alone and repays more than one hearing. The Te Deum compares favourably with the version by Berlioz as a triumph of massive musical invention and genius.

The connection between the two parts of this work can be made by understanding just one thing. Faust was not an inherently evil person - just misguided perhaps. He was in need of redemption - like all of us - be it religious or by discovery of the worth of self. It is these great themes that this work addresses.

However, when all is said and done it is important to realise that this is actually a quite a revolutionary piece of music. In fact, one of its faults could be that it is too eclectic. We move from neo-gothic plainsong themes to 'clusters' prefiguring Ligeti and other later composers. Sometimes we hear an Elgarian tune making head-way only to be displaced by something a bit more Schoenbergian. Yet in some ways it always seems to hang together; there is a unifying thread which, to be honest, is quite difficult to put ones finger on. How do we resolve this?

Perhaps one of the most helpful analogies for this symphony is that of the Gothic Cathedral (which actually is part of the intellectual concept of the work).

Imagine walking around, say, York Minster. We are faced with a plethora of images. There are artefacts from a time period of many centuries. All of them are vying for our attention. The best of the new blends in with the original Gothic fabric. However, the occasional modern feature shouts its protest against the prevailing style. Sometimes we find a hidden gem; under a misericord, perhaps; sometimes we are overwhelmed by the loftiness of the central tower or the massiveness of the buttresses. The tiny medieval wren chasing a spider in the Zouch Chapel stained glass window is juxtaposed against the 64ft organ pipes and the huge new roof bosses in the south transept.

All these things make up the cathedral and create its sense of purpose and spiritual vitality. Some things are in equilibrium and some in tension. It is like this in Brian's Gothic Symphony.

I do not intend to consider the biography of Havergal Brian in this review: the web pages devoted to his life and works present this in great and fascinating detail.
†Very full details and links from the Havergal Brian Society

There is little need to elaborate on the detailed description of the work given in the programme notes by the redoubtable Malcolm McDonald. He is the acknowledged expert on Brian's symphonies and deserves close study.

Neither will I elaborate on all the superlatives of this work; length, number of performers, size of the brass section etc. It is surely not profitable for a work to be listened to primarily for those reasons.

Some reviewers have criticised the quality of the massed forces of performers detailed above. Some have commented on problems of balance and detail. However, at the end of the day this is a fine performance of a work that is truly massive. It is not well known, so rehearsals and performance must have been extremely demanding.

I did not notice any 'drop-offs' or glitches. The sound quality is good, the programme notes superb. There is an enthusiasm bubbling behind the performance. All I do is thank God, literally, that we actually have a recording of this work in the 'can' - and that it is available for only £9.99p.

John France.

 



HAVERGAL BRIAN ON MARCO POLO

Violin Concerto and Sym 18 - 8.223479
Symphony No. 2 - 8.223790
Symphony No. 11, 15 - 8.223588
Symphony No. 17, 32 -8.223481
Symphony No. 20, 25 - 8.223731



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