When the young Robert Simpson joined the BBC Third Programme staff in 1954 the die was cast for an extraordinary initiative: the broadcast of all 32 symphonies by Havergal Brian. Amid this company the Gothic is emblematic but it was by no means the first to in the queue. Its huge forces and long duration militated against early programming. Instead the first in the line was a February 1954 relay of the 22 minute Eighth by the BBCSO and Boult.
became a concert reality on 24 June 1961 in a semi-pro performance at Central Hall, Westminster conducted by Brian Fayrfax. The first fully professional performance was the one preserved here. Testament have secured a licence to issue the first legitimate appearance of the tape of this live Royal Albert Hall which took place on 30 October 1966 in the presence of the composer who had another six remarkably eventful years to live.
has seen light of day before in pirate form
on LP (Aries LP 2601); quite apart from what I seem to recall
were several rebroadcasts by the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Aries was issued in the late 1970s and was the best sounding
of that series. I still have the gatefold double LP and it lists
only Boult as the conductor. Discretion is the better part of
valour no doubt though that label issued more Brian on LP than
anyone else - always under weird noms du disques
. The sound
was, in my experience, abysmal as my LP of the Second Symphony
discloses. As to the underlying awesome gritty-tragic-heroism
that Boult-conducted professional premiere cannot be beaten in
comparison to the 1990 Naxos set under Ondrej Lenard.
From the biting and driving opening to the thunderously indefatigable Lento espressivo
with its rumbling and gruff-rolling progress to the Sibelian-Walton macabre rustling of the Vivace
one is pitched into an irresistible torrent of symphonic imagination. Episodes that grip are numerous - how about the down-stepping tuba counterpointed confiding of the woodwind at 3:58 onwards in the Vivace
. Then there’s the pastoral ecstasy painted in by Hugh McGuire's lead violin in the first few minutes of the work shortly after it is catapulted into action by that unique accelerating drum and brass barked pattern that launches this 108 minute work. The mezzo-forte
horn fanfares at 6:12 and 11:20 in the Vivace
are memorable. But so are the shifting banks of beatific string sound we hear at 5.03 et seq
in the Te ergo quaesumus
. Those first three purely orchestral movements work well in isolation. Charles Groves performed them as such with the New Philharmonia on 10 October 1976 perhaps as much because the expense of a full performance could not be stretched to as for their structural and emotional cogency.
The massive tapestry becomes more complex still with the last three movements which add to the massive orchestra all the choirs and soloists. The vaulted magnificence of the Te deum laudamus
at 3:45 onwards looks forward to Walton and his Te Deum
. Tinkling enchantment recalls Holst's Planets
but these are just fleeting details in an astonishingly rich, incident-thronged vision which predicts the future and references the past. The thrumming valedictory singing by the basses of the words Non confundar in aeternam
brings us full circle with heads bowed.
There are some parallels with Brian’s later symphonies. There’s the Siegeslied
(No. 2) with its choral storm in full Biblical storm. There’s the otherwise untitled Third and its moments of pastoral ecstasy. Never as flamboyant or as extravagant but certainly as imaginative as The Gothic
is the concise Deirdre-inspired Sinfonia Tragica
(No. 6). Allowing for these The Gothic
in scale and the inspirational ambit is essentially unlike any other Brian work; I’ll for now allow a caveat to this statement until we get to hear his massive choral-orchestral epic Prometheus Unbound
– the full score of which has been lost since the 1940s.
speaks in a language that is accessible to anyone who enjoys Holst's Planets
and Hymn of Jesus
, Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
and the Requiem
s of Berlioz and Verdi. The terraced choral entries at the start of Judex crederis
sound uncannily like Ligeti at times.
The concert took place in the RAH - the same venue I experienced for Ole Schmidt's performance of The Gothic
on 25 May 1980. The sound is remarkably direct but there are inevitable moments of analogue congestion when the choirs are singing at full stretch with the orchestra baying at hunt.
The sung Latin texts are included and there are multilingual versions of Malcolm Macdonald's background note. There are some wonderful session photographs included in the booklet all from the collection of Lewis Foreman.
What to recommend? This is a special recording and utterly indispensable to Brian and Boult specialists. Those who want a memento of the concert or who have a penchant for the swashbuckling professionalism and atmosphere of the Corporation steered by giants such as Boult and Simpson in those far-off days will also need to add this to their shelves.
If you must have the best possible digital sound then go for the even less expensive Naxos
recording made by Lenard in 1989 in Bratislava. It is very good indeed and no slouch in matters of emotional engagement. Even so it lacks the sense of play-through continuity and the final wattage of incandescence that we hear in this remarkable recording.
The compact little interview of the composer by J Behague (who he?) adds local colour and insight. Perhaps the questions are of their time but Brian’s answers are helpful. It is worth reminding ourselves that it took place at a time when the composer was putting the finishing touches to his 27th symphony and with the performance of the Gothic lying nine months in the future.
An historical document from the 1960s but also a spiritual reflection faithful to contemplation, to awe, to tragedy, to the blast of insurrection and to indomitable humanity.
: 2 piccolos; 6 flutes and alto flute; 6 oboes and bass oboe; 1 oboe d'amore and 2 cors anglais; 6 clarinets; 2 corni di bassetto; 2 bass clarinets; 1 contrabass clarinet; 3 bassoons; 2 contrabassoons; 8 French horns; 2 cornets; 4 trumpets; 1 bass trumpet; 3 tenor trombones; 1 bass trombone; 1 contrabass trombone; 2 euphoniums; 2 tubas; 2 timpanists (three drums each); 2 side drums; 2 bass drums; long drum; 6 pairs of cymbals; gong; 2 tambourines; 2 triangles; glockenspiel; xylophone; tubular bells; chimes; thunder machine; chains; bird scare; celesta; 2 harps; organ; 20 first violins; 20 second violins; 16 violas; 14 cellos; 12 double-basses. Plus 4 extra brass bands at the four corners of the hall, each containing 2 French horns; 2 trumpets; 2 tenor trombones; 2 tubas; and 1 timpanist playing three drums. Total minimum number of players approx. 200 including about 20 percussionists. Te Deum
finale additional 4 vocal soloists; boys' and girls' choir of about 100 voices; and 2 adult double choirs of about 400, totalling at least 500 singers