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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor The Gothic (1919-27) [106:07]
Susan Gritton (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo), Peter Auty (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass)
The Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Brighton Festival Chorus, Côr Caerdydd, CBSO Youth Chorus, Eltham College Boys' Choir, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, Southend Boys' and Girls' Choirs
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; BBC Concert Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. live, 17 July 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67971/2 [54:07 + 60:41]

Experience Classicsonline


Three cheers for the BBC, I say. Without a doubt the ‘event’ of the 2011 BBC Proms was the performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony preserved on these discs. The interest generated by the concert was evident in the fact that it sold out within twenty-four hours of bookings opening. So for anyone not lucky enough to have been there this is ideal - and swiftly released - compensation. Hyperion have been rather canny; from what I can glean, this appears to be the BBC’s in-house engineering which has in effect been licensed to Hyperion. The engineer given the daunting task of capturing - if not taming! - the huge forces on hand was Huw Thomas and he and producer Tim Thorne deserve as much credit as the performers for such a successful realisation. There are so many layers to this work with off-stage and antiphonal brass, huge choirs including children’s voices, organ and a vast orchestra. The sheer scale and daunting grandeur of Brian’s conception demands a recording that can cope with voicing both inner detail and massive dynamic range. My guess is that this is a work impossible to record ‘perfectly’ let alone with the added pressure of a live now-or-never context but by that measure alone this is a stunning achievement. This is a good business venture too for Hyperion - the BBC are carrying the bulk of the cost and with 800+ amateur singers probably wanting a copy of their involvement in such a special occasion sales will get a good boost even before the rest of the collecting world turn their attention to it. Both the conductor Martyn Brabbins and BBC Controller of Music Roger Wright contribute personal notes to the liner before the obligatory and predictably excellent analysis from Calum MacDonald - a new and quite different note to that he wrote for the Marco Polo recording - which was just possibly even finer - and this emphasises the almost missionary zeal at work from all involved. Hurrah for the BBC because - as Roger Wright points out - they are just about the only organisation in the world who have the logistical experience and human resources on hand to mount such a concert - for once this really is a symphony of a thousand.
 
This is not the first commercial release of the Gothic Symphony - that palm went to the performance on Marco Polo - re-released on Naxos - from various Slovakian forces conducted by Ondrej Lenard. That was followed by Testament issuing a famous live performance again courtesy of the BBC - this time the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult from 1966. I do not intend to try any kind of detailed comparison of these versions or indeed of the work itself. For the interested collector new to this work this release is pretty much self-recommending. There is a significant price difference between Hyperion and Naxos - the latter turning up for around £7.00 with the new set hovering around £20.00. It is worth noting however that high quality FLAC downloads are available from Hyperion’s own site for just £12.49. On its original appearance the Ondrej Lenard was very highly praised but now opinion seems to be eclipsing it wholly in favour of the new version. So perhaps it is worth placing a few markers. The new set is the best engineered and best orchestrally played of the three. Interestingly, there are several passages where I find the choral singing of the Slovak choirs to be more impressive and indeed I like Lenard’s soprano Eva Jenisová very much - she sang the title role of The Cunning Little Vixen under Charles Mackerras in a production at the Théâtre du Châtelet. That gives you some idea of both the quality of her singing and the ringing brilliance of her timbre. More interestingly the three versions offer strikingly different interpretations of significant portions of the piece. Overall Boult is more trenchant and rough-hewn, Brabbins more mercurial and sophisticated in his handling of the extraordinary diversity of the material and Lenard excellent at giving the sprawling Te Deum shape and coherence. MacDonald points up in both his sets of notes - I do not know if his original Marco Polo notes made it to the Naxos reincarnation - that this work is a massive sampler of orchestral timbre and texture. In much the same way that Schoenberg sought to create complete chords within instrumental groups in his Gurrelieder Brian does the same here hence the need for thirty-two woodwind players alone but to assume that the score is over a hundred minutes of chaotic cacophony is quite wrong. The ‘big’ moments are certainly just that and very exciting to boot but what Brabbins made me realise was just how effective the lightly scored music here is. Brian is like a child set free in an orchestral toyshop gleefully experimenting with combinations of instruments and resulting textures that would never be found in any guide to orchestration. The famous extended xylophone solo is unique - certainly for the date it was written - but what interests me is the way Brian has the instrument chasing a pair of flutes like some marauding cat after a particularly excitable flock of birds - the sound of this ‘chase’ is quite unlike anything else I can think of. It - and numerous other passages - are quite brilliantly executed by the combined BBC orchestras. The sheer fecundity of Brian’s inspiration is both the work’s strength and its source of confusion and annoyance for some. That said, Brian was never seeking to continue or advance the Germanic symphonic tradition through any kind of use of standard musical forms. As a listener you have to embrace the evolutionary concept of much of his handling of structure rather than yearning for neat and tidy sonata form.
 
The thirty minute orchestra-alone Part I proves to be totally triumphant in this new version, capped by the Albert Hall organ thundering in for the last few bars. MacDonald makes the point that for all the orchestral demands it is the choirs who are really under the technical cosh. Part II is a setting of the Te Deum, and its second section - Judex crederis - is especially cruel. Not only does Brian have the choirs singing for extended passages unaccompanied but he creates breath-taking sounds with different sections of the choirs piling chords in different keys on top of each other. Indeed poly-rhythm as well as poly-tonality are favourite weapons in the Brian arsenal. Lenard’s forces have the benefit of studio conditions giving them more than one chance - in comparison Brabbins’ massed group sound as if there is some smearing of the harmony - they make an impressive go of it and at the climaxes the sheer number of singers involved makes an exciting impact but it seems clear to me that here the new set must bow to the older. I rather like the Slovak trumpeters who follow straight on - for sure their British counterparts make a more beautiful sound but the edginess of the Slovak brass seems suitably brazen, indeed biblical in a Jericho-esque way that strikes me as wholly appropriate. The darkly sombre and oppressively violent march that follows is one of my favourite passages in the entire work - quite unlike anything else I know - and again both the orchestras and the engineering exploit the potential of this imposing music to the full with detail and power equally apparent. Brabbins’ pacing of this extended complex music is exemplary - in the hall this must have been overwhelming.
 
I have two very minor quibbles. Hyperion’s sleeve design is strangely unimpressive. It looks more like a mock-up or ‘work-in-progress’ rather than the finished item. Also, with such an extended and complex score I am sorry that Hyperion did not choose to follow the Marco Polo/Naxos example of splitting the movements into tracked sections. Having the closing thirty-five minute Te ergo as a single track makes detailed repeated listening to individual sub-sections awkward at best. For sure, hearing this work as a single uninterrupted span is an exciting and involving experience but one of the pleasures of domestic study is the opportunity to fillet out passages for more detailed familiarisation. Indeed it is this final movement that struggles most to cohere - as MacDonald points out it contains the greatest contrasts of material expression and scoring. The unifying link is the text expressing as it does statements of praise. Again, it was here with the stresses of live performance that I wondered if some of the choirs - the sopranos and tenors especially - start to wane under the pressure of such extended high tessitura with the contrapuntal writing becoming somewhat diffuse. That being said - looking at the picture of the stage which is printed on the CDs with singers just about as far as the eye can see - the degree of unanimity is a tribute both to those choirs’ training and Brabbins’ skill in holding it all together. Given his profligate scoring it is something of a surprise that Brian opted for just the standard four vocal soloists. Of these bass Alastair Miles is the most impressive by some distance but then again he has the most impressive solo music to sing. Tenor Peter Auty is heroic but I did not warm to the actual sound he makes. For the life of me I cannot make sense at all of the rum-ti-tum “la-la-laing” [around 18:00 into track 2 CD 2] that Brian has written for the choirs but the whole point of this work - yet one critics of it resolutely fail to acknowledge - is that at no point was it meant to be a polished ‘finished’ work. It is a box of delights and diversions as myriad in its expressions of joy and praise as the text it sets. As is well known, Brian wrote with little or no expectation of hearing this or any of his works performed. The fact that so much ‘works’ as well as it does is the true miracle not the occasional misjudgement. If you are not sure whether it will work for you try the last four minutes or so which encompass just about the entire extreme sound-world of this breathtakingly impressive work from cataclysm to introverted intimacy.

No surprise that Hyperion retains a good nine minutes of applause from the ecstatic audience who until that point have been all but inaudible. Any performance of this work will by its nature be an event but this was a performance which justified the hype and the hope associated with it. I must repeat my admiration for all involved - especially Martyn Brabbins and the technical team. This has already been awarded this site’s 2011 Recording of the Year status and I suspect it will gain many more before next year is out both technically and artistically.

On a music forum site recently Andrew Clements was quoted as saying [in direct reference to Delius’s Mass of Life]; "Hardcore English-music enthusiasts are easy enough to spot. Male, conservatively dressed and middle-aged (you suspect most of them looked middle-aged when they were in their 20s), they invariably have an air of disappointment, as if the music they support so enthusiastically has never quite lived up to the expectations they load upon it.". Well no air of disappointment here - in fact just the reverse, expectations triumphantly fulfilled. The strength of this work is proved by the fact that ownership of any of the three currently available versions will give great pleasure - a great piece will reveal different facets in different hands. If I was allowed to keep only one, I would opt for this new version but the gap between this and the Naxos is a lot less than one might think especially with regard to the choral contribution. Don’t forget the BBC were also instrumental in resurrecting Fould’s A World Requiem (a concert recording issued by Chandos) and so on that note I’ll finish as I began - three cheers for the BBC. 
 
Nick Barnard  

see also review by Rob Barnett  
(November 2011 Recording of the Month - 2011 Musicweb International Recording of the Year)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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