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. That event was dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Charles Mackerras who himself conducted and recorded a number of Brian’s symphonies. This performance was said have been filmed for an ABC documentary The Curse of the Gothic Symphony. I wonder if we will ever see it? Brabbins is very close in timing to Curro and Ole Schmidt in London in 1980.
As Hyperion have reminded us, on 17 July this year over 800 performers gathered in London’s Royal Albert Hall to perform Havergal Brian’s Gothic as part of the 2011 BBC Proms. Tickets were sold out within 24 hours. Hyperion now make this extraordinary event available to all making this the third on disc. It’s also overall the most successful. It amounts to the second Gothic collaboration with a commercial record company. The last release (Testament) was focused on Boult’s 1966 extravaganza – which like Ole Schmidt’s (unrecorded) Gothic also took place in the Royal Albert Hall.
Allowing for a dismantled Dance Symphony Brian’s Gothic is his first numbered symphony. It dominates his 32 at the start of their mountain range in the way that Beethoven’s Ninth towers over his nine at the other end of his career. It carries a dedication to Richard Strauss but the music is not Straussian except in terms of the indulgent opulence of the orchestration. It’s a work about which much data is draped. It was written in response to a suggestion by Sir Henry Wood that Brian should write a piece for the fullest range of instruments. This he did.
The Allegro Assai with its ruthlessly rolling propulsive drums is the first of three purely instrumental movements once played by Sir Charles Groves as a self-contained work in its own right. Brabbins, in an outright committed reading, makes the most of the opportunities with the strings stabbing dramatically at 5.19 and with solo instrumental voices picked out by the engineers as never before at 5:47. At 8:14 the sweetly outlined solo violin speaks in verdant greenery. I am not sure whether the player is Lesley Hatfield of the BBC Welsh or Cynthia Fleming of the BBC Concert. At 9:55 the gruffly barked out and sheerly exciting massed sound delivers the effect of brutalising militaristic energy. The Lento (II) seems horror-struck rather than calming. It is no surprise when at 6.00 we are treated to a Baxian lurching north-western swell. This rises to a massively shuddering climax weighted with tragedy and extraordinary nobility. The stabbingly precise and violent lunges at 9:43 are the best prepared to date. For all of its beetling passionate crags these discs pick up on some delightful quiet music. Try the communing of the horns at 10:40: sweetly caught. The Vivace (III) starts amid a rustling Sibelian power and an etiolated echo of the drum assault that launched the first movement. At 3.40 Brian delivers fragile sonorities perhaps related to Sibelius’s music for The Tempest. Franz Schmidt’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Book of the Seven Seals) are paralleled at 7:35. Though overwhelmingly excellent I thought that the counter-subject at 8:30 went for less than it could. Then at 9:09 comes one of the most famous incidents from this extravagantly invested work: the xylophone’s frantic complexity accelerates into a shriek and wild-eyed fanfaring. How Bernard Herrmann would have loved this work. I wonder if he was in the audience for the 1966 Boult concert. The movement closes with brass fanfares echoing back and forth in exhausted expiation … but of what?
We then come to the great Te Deum and the choirs enter a cappella. The orchestra soon weaves in and out of the vocal fabric. Combers of sound ascend and crash down until we reach the great fanfares (1:53) that usher in an episode that is more positive and less horror-occluded. It offers a sense of choral redemption. The cries of ‘Sanctus!’ are delivered with elysian delight. They echo with the sort of Howells-like complexity found in his Missa Sabrinensis and accentuated in its effect by the tingling celesta at 4.50 (tr. 5). An elaborately populated dust-cloud seems to swirl as if turning on some constantly shifting axle. There’s a magical touch of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus here (again at 13:40) and of Schmitt’s exultant Psalm. Quiet fanfares echo across green pastures at 10:55 providing more material for reflection. This is remission before a great wall of choral sound arrives (11:12) with the sense of a seismic and sinuous shifting of the ground and of Russian plainchant (15:00). The music is packed tight with barbed invention – note the Waltonian complexity of fanfares at 5:50. The tumble of incidents makes you lament the lack of minute tracking within movements – a feature which is a strength of the only studio recording – the one conducted by Ondrej Lenard (Naxos). There’s a Tippett-like rapture and real verve at the start of the Te Ergo which rises to Olympian joy at 13:33. Euphoric singing from the women is garlanded by the xylophone. Serving to prelude the famous vocalised march (la-laala-la-lahlah) the orchestra prepares the ground with pregnantly syncopated tension (16:55). The march arrives at 18:12 with interlaced waves of delight sweeping in rising to the unleashing of joy starting at 19:31 in a modern echo of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The music shouts, skips and capers (20:19, 21:00) in a celebration of life. Minatory demonic forces return at 31:06 and scream across the elysian plains. A holocaust of drums ushers in images of bloody war - red in jagged tooth and saw-edged claw. Even this passes. After a Metamorphosen pre-echo in the strings at 33:54 Brian ends with head-bowed reverence. How Rozhdestvensky at his indomitable peak would have relished conducting this! Like Brabbins he also would have picked up on the deep Rachmaninovian basses who take the work into the depths and into silence on the words Non Confundar In Aeternum.
All members of orchestras and bands and choirs are listed in the booklet. We are also treated to the full sung Latin and a translation. Calum Macdonald’s latest essay on The Gothic also appears. I wonder if he groans when a new one is commissioned - something fresh to say? His is a fine piece to illuminate and accentuate The Gothic experience.
This set includes what I take to be the world’s longest applause track faded down at end. It was a vintage Proms season which included a paradigm-shift exultant Bax Second Symphony conducted by Litton to vie with Fredman, Handley, Thomson and Lloyd-Jones. It too needs to be issued on disc as does the Sinaisky Moeran Symphony from 2009. How about it BBC Music Magazine?
For all the RAH’s lively reverberation this recording of The Gothic is very good indeed – the best yet - and captures a sensational amount of detail in a performance that resets the clock. Hyperion have done us proud. The only jangling noet is the cover which just isn’t Hyperion but everything else is “comme il faut”.
see also disc review
by Nick Barnard
see also Christopher Gunning's review
of the Prom Concert
Brian’s Gothic on MusicWeb International
Gothic and its neglect - Brian Reinhart
Gothic - commentary and article
Naxos - reissue 1 - John France
Naxos - reissue 2
Testament – Boult, 1966
1 Part 1 No 1: Allegro assai [12'09]
2 Part 1 No 2: Lento espressivo e solenne [11'54]
3 Part 1 No 3: Vivace [12'15]
4 Part 2 No 1: Te Deum laudamus. Allegro moderato [17'47]
1 Part 2 No 2: Iudex crederis esse venturus. Adagio molto solenne e religioso [16'13]
2 Part 2 No 3: Te ergo, quaesumus. Moderato e molto sostenuto [35'47]
3 Applause [8'40]