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I recently re-read the book on Sibelius by his secretary Santeri
Levas. It presents one of the most personal and personable portraits
of the composer. Amongst the many anecdotes and observations
was one relating to the long silence from Järvenpää.
Levas made the point that Sibelius was 61 by the time he completed
his last major works and that the vast majority of composers
had completed the bulk of their oeuvre by that age anyway or
had died. Whether or not there is illumination in that point
there are always exceptions: take Haydn, Hovhaness and Havergal
Brian. Brian's old age was alive with challenging symphonic invention.
The Brian Naxos series has reminded us of that point but has also
looked at the works of his ‘younger age’. The Gothic was
completed when Brian was 51 at about the same age as Brahms
when he wrote his first. Thus while Brian was astonishing productive
of symphonies well into his eighties he started late (we’ll
ignore a false start or two).
Has there ever been a First Symphony as ambitious in intention,
grasp and achievement as the Gothic. There have been
remarkable firsts; I think of those by Enescu, Prokofiev and
Shostakovich yet none of these have stormed the heavens or stared
unblinkingly at eternity in the same way. Across its almost
two hours it never falters. Violence and peace stand close to
each other throughout. Try the last section of the first movement
for the seraphic voice made eloquent in the solo violin. For
Violence we can cite the Mars-like dynamic established
by the rapped-out timpani attack that impels the work forward
at the start of the first movement. 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. The second part is a massive setting of the Te Deum for
multiple soloists, choirs, full orchestra and brass ensembles.
You may well think of other composers. For example in the second
movement you will encounter a 'ticking' figure which for me
links with the snowy ambience of Bax’s later Fifth Symphony.
Gloriously glowing horns call out above the magnificent din
put up by the rest of the orchestra in music that defines heroic.
The Judex (tr. 1 CD2) features yet more extraordinary
writing. The wheeling choral passage is like Holst's Hymn
of Jesus. Tr. 2 CD2 has a brutal lumbering march with 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. The work finds
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 it
was captured in the exemplary grand acoustic of Bratislava's
world-standard concert hall.
The more than just useful 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.
The Gothic has had quite a blooming of late. It was performed
in Brisbane, Queensland, on 23 December 2010 with John Curro
conducting the Queensland Youth Orchestra and many other artists.
The performance was dedicated to the memory of the late Sir
Charles Mackerras who himself conducted a number of Brian’s
symphonies. This performance was said have been filmed for an
ABC documentary The Curse of the Gothic Symphony which
will debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011.
Then on Sunday 17 July 2011 it will have an extraordinary Proms
premiere conducted by Martyn Brabbins who recorded Brian’s Symphonies
10 and 30, the Concerto for Orchestra and the English Suite
No. 3 with the RSNO for the magnificent Dutton.
Brian’s 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 and is not let down in any way by the present
also previous reviews including from John France
HAVERGAL BRIAN ON NAXOS/MARCO POLO
Symphony No. 2 - Marco Polo 8.223790 now Naxos 8.570506
Symphony No. 4, 12 – Marco Polo 8.223447 now Naxos 8.570308
Symphony No. 11, 15 - Marco Polo 8.223588 now Naxos 8.572014
Symphony No. 17, 32 - Marco Polo 8.223481 now Naxos 8.572020
Violin Concerto and Symphony 18 - Marco Polo 8.223479 now Naxos 8.557775
Symphony No. 20, 25 – Marco Polo 8.223731 now Naxos 8.572641 (just issued)