Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 1 The Gothic (1919-1927)
Eva Jenisová (soprano), Dagmar Pecková (alto), Vladimir Dolezal (tenor), Peter Mikulás (bass)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak National Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Bratislava City Choir, Lucnica Choir, Bratislava Children’s 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
Previous reviews including from John France
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. His old age was alive with challenging symphonic invention. The 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 recording.

Rob Barnett
A massive asseveration of confidence, staggering scale and substance by an outsider to the musical establishment.

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