This review is divided into three parts. The first is a description of the music itself, intended for new listeners or those who have heard the Gothic Symphony only once or twice; it is not written for the hardcore “Brian-ite,” and indeed is not written by one either. When I saw this concert live at Royal Albert Hall, it was my first experience with the symphony. The second part is a review of the performance, again not really for the devotee since it does not compare the Brabbins Gothic to the Naxos recording or the previous live performances of which recordings survive: notably by Adrian Boult, Ole Schmidt and John Curro. The third part turns its attention to the preparation which Hyperion has done for this CD release, and compares the disc to the concert itself and the streaming version offered by BBC online afterwards. After the conclusion, an appendix lists various helpful links and a selection of quotations which have aided me in my own quest to understand this enormous symphony. Feel free to browse or skip various sections as desired; I’ve bolded the headings for ease of navigation.
Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony has a reputation as a massive, unwieldy behemoth - a sort of mad-scientist symphony decocted from obsession. Some of the critics who saw the symphony at the Proms on 17 July, 2011 agreed with this assessment, and a few uncharitable writers hoped that a CD release of the concert would satisfy the symphony’s fans and eliminate the need for any further Gothic performances.
They will get half their wish. The CD is now out, but it is hard to see how this is anything other than a major step in the rise of Havergal Brian to respectability and, perhaps someday, even importance. The audience reaction to the Gothic Prom was beyond enthusiastic; there were slow-claps and foot-stomps and whistles and a man behind me saying, “That’s the Prom of the year, then.” I caught the fellow next to me, who like me and indeed like many of our neighbors was in his early twenties, staring at the stage with his jaw hanging open in astonishment. The proverbial cat is out of the bag, and this CD release gives us all—worldwide—the best opportunity yet to really assess the worth of the Gothic. And this is where the critics’ wish will go unfulfilled: Brian’s neglect is not as unjustified as, say, Mahler’s once was, but if the Gothic enters the fringes of the repertoire, it will be on merit and not on novelty.
I.i. The Music (General Thoughts)
The first thing to clear up is a misconception. Because this is the longest symphony ever written (edging Mahler’s Third by ten minutes or so) and the largest symphony ever written (suggesting though not strictly requiring many more performers than Mahler’s Eighth: here we have two augmented orchestras including twenty-four percussionists, four offstage brass bands, eight more offstage trumpeters, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, nine choirs, and organ), most new listeners expect the Gothic to be a megalomaniacal monstrosity. As the symphony opens, with a gruff theme which I (and later The Economist as well) called “Mahler-meets-Jaws,” this idea seems not far wrong. But wrong it shall be proven, for much of the Gothic is intimate, some passages feel curiously afraid, and there are a cappella stretches which harken to the full, glowing polyphony of the Renaissance.
To illustrate: there is not a single moment in the whole symphony—none in 107 minutes—when all the thousands are playing and singing at once. The closest we get is when every orchestral player, every brass band, and every adult choral singer, but not the four vocal soloists or the children’s choirs, deliver the world-shattering close of the fifth movement (“Judex”). In addition there is a single moment in the finale when the full orchestra, plus the four brass bands, play a chord which is immediately followed up by the full choir singing a response. By contrast, there are at least seven moments when only one performer is at work: the violin solo in the first movement, an exchange of commentary between tubas to begin the second (and a bass clarinet solo to end it), a hunting-horn in the third, the offstage soprano in “Judex,” and the oboe d’amore at the very beginning and near-end of the finale. Who writes a piece for one thousand performers and makes so much of it so quiet, so chamber-like?
The answer, as many commentators have astutely pointed out, is “Hector Berlioz”. His Requiem and Te Deum displayed a similar combination of restraint and abandon. Havergal Brian learned from this example and it makes the piece far more effective than an hour and a half of daft bombast would have been. The Gothic Symphony holds many of its enormous forces back until the most critical junctures. As a result, when nearly all the thousands erupt together at long last at the end of “Judex,” a primal thrill ensues which cannot be put into words.
Brian’s restraint is, it should also be mentioned, a means of deliberately confounding expectations. I’m indebted to the conductor Kenneth Woods for putting forward this line of thinking. Woods suggests that the symphony is all about offering the tantalizing prospect of closure and satisfaction only to take those things abruptly away again: the third movement’s extraordinary climax abruptly turning to silence, the way that “Judex” seems to end one bar too soon, the blazingly triumphant episode of the finale cut down in its prime to be replaced by a clarinet march-jingle. But fear not, listener: there will be closure. There will be reassurance. The genius of Havergal Brian in the Gothic is that he does not let us taste this closure until the very last chord.
I’m reminded of a non-musical example. In the celebrated Richard Loncraine production of Richard III, Ian McKellen’s scheming Richard does not sit down for even a second until he is crowned king. He has a few close calls with chairs, but his villainy is so animated that it cannot be contained or seated. When he finally does take his seat, on the throne, the effect—and Richard’s facial expression—are, so said my old Shakespeare professor, “orgasmic”. Nothing about the Gothic could be called “orgasmic,” it’s far too austere for that, but if your ears ever despair of reaching a sense of completion, rest assured that the symphony’s ending will indeed feel like sitting down after a lifetime only able to stand.
I.ii. The Music (Movement By Movement)
The first movement is by far the most conventional. It is cast in a more-or-less recognizable sonata form, with a first subject (“Mahler-meets-Jaws”) which will reappear at various points in the symphony, mostly in the cellos and basses. This subject initially piles up in a rather ugly fashion but it then gives way to the second theme, a sort of sweetly faux-Chinese melody for solo violinist. Only a minute in and we must recalibrate our expectations for the symphony’s hugeness—a main theme given in a solo! These motives are developed closely and the movement’s coda provides the satisfying first entry of the organ, which helps the orchestra to a triumphant final chord.
The second movement is a funeral march, but not a dirge—that is, in terms of funeral marches, its predecessors are not the slow plods of Chopin but the swirling emotional activity of Dvor(ák’s Third, the Eroica’s fugue, and (more obviously) the manic grief of Mahler. It begins with two morose tubas and builds to feverish climaxes, feverish in the old-fashioned sense of sweating and quaking and scarcely being able to walk straight. Some passages are rather loud and obtuse, some terrifying. The writing from 5:00-7:00 is particularly delirious and multi-colored.
We get the tubas together again at the end, and a lonely bass clarinet, before the foreboding opening to the third movement (vivace). I wonder if, when some admirers of the symphony have qualms about passages that sound like “horror-film music”, they’re referring to this movement: the menacing oboe solo at the beginning (revealed later to be an echo of the Mahler/Jaws tune), the introduction of a jarring four-note motif for contrabassoons and basses which will recur throughout the final three movements (it actually comes from the funeral march), the mind-boggling xylophone solo, the descending contrabass trombone motif. This movement is episodic, in a sense; it is also not at all episodic, in a sense. I picture Brian setting up a series of dominoes, like the recurring horn-calls, the contrabass motif, the oboe tune, the early snare-drum episode, and a fleeting Schubert quote, and then at 8:50 he flicks the first domino and all of them fall in rapid succession. The flick which sets all the dominoes flying is a jaw-dropping xylophone solo, purportedly the hardest ever written, here dispatched with joy by Chris Stock of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. My spot in the arena on 17 July gave me an unobstructed view of Stock playing this solo, and it is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in concert. The oboe tune is then transformed for full orchestra, and soon the music builds to an emphatic C major chord—which is a bit of a problem, as the symphony is in D minor, but no fear. In five gut-wrenching seconds, Havergal Brian uses a sort of almighty full-orchestra gear-box to plunge the music from C to F-sharp and then to D minor. It is one of the most stunning moments in a symphony full of them.
That mammoth D minor chord cuts off into silence, punctuated only by double-bass pizzicato and the horn-calls from earlier on - which will, like the Mahler/Jaws, contrabass, and xylophone motifs, reappear throughout the rest of the symphony - before the orchestra very quietly achieves a moment’s resolution. For some amateur ensembles, and for the judges of the 1928 International Columbia Record Competition, this was the ending of the symphony; the judges, by the way, awarded this half of the Gothic second-prize in the England division.
But now the children’s choirs enter with Te deum laudamus and the fourth movement has begun. It’s not totally right to speak of an orchestral “half” and choral “half” to the symphony, since the three orchestral movements total 37 minutes and the three choral ones total 70. The fourth is filled with a cappella moments and numerous episodes in which the huge choirs are supported by the lower brass, along with, near the end of the movement, muted strings.
The fifth movement, “Judex”, may well be the most remarkable in the whole symphony. Over the course of its sixteen minutes the choir obsessively repeats just four words: “Iudex crederis esse venturus” (loosely, “We believe you will come to be our judge”; Brian mistakenly spelled the first word as “Judex”). The singers are alone in a Renaissance-polyphony sound-world for the first five minutes, after which a clutch of trumpeters reveal themselves - in the top gallery of Royal Albert Hall, in this performance - leading to an orchestral interlude. The four brass bands stationed in the concert hall finally roar to life in the movement, each entering separately to accompany a different section of the choir, until they have goaded chorus and orchestra into the enormous breath-taking climax - with thunder machine and “scare crow” - which has everyone but the children and vocal soloists come together for a few ecstatic seconds.
After such an extraordinary—and extraordinarily loud—moment, the sixth movement has no choice but to begin with a gentle solo, for the oboe d’amore. This is a good time to point out that Brian’s symphony deploys a whole lot of obscure instruments; the pair of contrabassoons was just the beginning. There is a bass oboe, a contrabass clarinet, bass and contrabass trombones (I’m assuming these are heard in the third movement during the xylophone solo, as well as in the fourth), two euphoniums, two basset horns, an African long drum, and an oil drum filled with metal bits, responsible for that grinding-crashing sound in Judex’s final bars. The oboe d’amore is probably the most prominent of these players, though, with its long, beautiful solo here and again near the end of the sixth movement.
This movement is twice as long as any other in the symphony, at 36 minutes, and necessarily divided into quite a few smaller episodes. All the past motifs—the xylophone solo, the French horn calls, the Mahler/Jaws tune and so on—pop up here and there during the epic span. One episode that’s hard to forget is the jaunty march for all the clarinets and basset horns, evocative (perhaps?) of the similarly humorous march in Beethoven’s Ninth; on its first appearance here, the theme leads the chorus to indulge in some bizarre vocalizing (“la-la-la-la”) before the music gradually builds to a climax of Brucknerian glory and scale. The climax doesn’t actually materialize—as soon as we’re sure it is going to arrive and the symphony is going to end, the clarinet march returns and the symphony takes one more dark turn. How, when all is at its bleakest, the Gothic manages to heal itself at last is a discovery best left to the listener.
II. The Performance
Those Gothic fans who have heard several or all of
the symphony’s recorded performances to date tell me that Martyn
Brabbins’ account, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC National
Orchestra of Wales, and no fewer than nine choirs, is the ‘cool,
precise’ account, that is, the performance which tries not to
add any more histrionics and emotional glosses onto the already
plentiful histrionics in the score. Brabbins, a conductor of
great modesty whose CD catalogue to date is totally devoid of
warhorses and famous composers (according to ArkivMusic, Brabbins’
most-recorded composer is Cyril Scott), turns out to be exactly
the man for this gargantuan job. The Guardian calls
him an “anti-maestro” and a Welsh singer I talked to in a pub
after the Gothic concert agreed: it’s the anti-maestro persona
which made bringing a thousand musicians together possible,
and it’s the persona which makes this performance so objective,
so unwilling to cave into momentary pleasures. This is a performance
truly on the scale of a Gothic cathedral.
Not that there aren’t momentary pleasures: there are. Chris
Stock’s xylophone solo ought to earn him some sort of 2011 Prom
Musician of the Year prize, and the snarling trombones, tubas,
big drums, and flutes which punctuate it are perfectly terrifying.
Peter Auty has an absolutely beautiful reading of the sixth
movement’s big tenor solo, and soprano Susan Gritton copes extremely
well with her odd offstage solos. The brass bands scattered
around the auditorium are perfectly in sync with Brabbins and
his on-stage ensemble, an impressive logistical achievement.
Indeed, one of the things I remember thinking while seeing this
performance live was, “shouldn’t there be more mistakes? Shouldn’t
this be rougher-sounding?” No doubt there are plenty of flubs
to be heard in the master tape somewhere in BBC’s archives,
but somehow the orchestral forces managed to know this sprawling,
zany music and play it well. A mute was dropped on the floor
at the end of the third movement, but this has been removed
for the CD release.
The same can be said for the chorus—mostly. In the opening a
cappella minutes of “Judex”, Brian divides the choir into 32
(I think) separate voices at one point, in chromatic passages
of dizzying complexity and with spatial games - different groups
of singers passing lines back and forth - which had me, in the
hall, looking back and forth from one choir to another like
a spectator at a tennis match. This is truly mad writing—a friend
asked three singers what they thought of the symphony and the
first thing they all said was, “It’s hard!”—and organist David
Goode issues a few unscripted reminders to keep the forces in
tune. It doesn’t always work, but singers and Goode give it
their best effort.
The only other reservation I have about the performance concerns
the climactic modulation in the third movement, when the music
lunges from C major to F sharp and then to D minor in three
gigantic chords. It’s a little too fast, I think; the D minor
imparts - and imparted in the hall - a sense of the entire world
shifting beneath one’s feet, but the shift to F sharp ought
to do the same thing, with an added sense of danger and fear.
Brabbins sails by this too quickly and calmly; the small flotilla
of timpani don’t get a chance to pound their rhythms out properly.
Broadly speaking, though, this performance is a titanic achievement
on everybody’s part. Nothing obvious went wrong, only one mute
was dropped, and the music never spun out of Brabbins’ formidable
control. The solos are all dispatched well, not just on xylophone
but violin, viola, tubas, euphonium, oboe d’amore, and others
I am no doubt forgetting. The cello line near the symphony’s
end is heart-rending. The choir’s delivery of the final chords
is pure magic, and the silence Brabbins got after it in the
Hall—about thirty seconds of silence—was extraordinary. Then
the crowd erupted in some of the most enthusiastic applause
I’ve ever seen, all of it deserved …
III. The CD Release
… and seemingly all of it captured on this Hyperion CD. There
is a nearly nine-minute-long applause track at the conclusion
of the two-disc set, accurately capturing the exuberant welcome
the symphony and performance got. If you want to hear the feet-stamping,
cheers, whistles, and slow-claps, listen away, but I can’t say
I am sure who, exactly, will want to play the full applause
track. The only really revealing thing about it is its extraordinary
length. The Royal Albert Hall went mad with joy at the end of
this piece, but I don’t particularly want to hear that on my
The only other real complaints to make about the CD release,
though, are either trivial or impossible to address. The trivial:
the cover design is awful. The all-black background, the mismatched
typefaces, the mismatched colors, the credit all given to Martyn
Brabbins (as worthy as he is): nothing whatsoever has gone right
on this cover. The back cover just adds another typeface to
the mix, although the listing of performers rather pleasingly
resembles the lengthy credits on a film poster!
The impossible complaint concerns the sound. I noticed, in the
concert hall, something I had never felt before: in the loudest
passages of the symphony’s second half, my own ears
were insufficient to process the extraordinary noise being made
around me. I couldn’t even hear everything that was happening
in person, at least twice feeling my senses being sort of swallowed
up in an ocean of pure sound. If a human brain isn’t fully capable
of processing parts of the Gothic, microphones have
no chance. Sadly, this is especially true of the ending of “Judex”;
if you haven’t seen that titanic moment live, recordings like
this really cannot tell you what it sounds (and feels)
They’ve done the best they possibly can, though. Compared to
the BBC’s broadcast version, this disc beefs up the timpani
and bass response, and gives greater prominence to the organ.
The clarity which is achieved within this enormous ensemble
is extraordinary: parts of even the first movement are hair-raising
in their detail. The timpani are still shorted at the end of
the apocalyptic vivace, but the organ makes itself
felt. What really has me marvelling is the extraordinary definition
in the bass; the BBC broadcast had a sort of low dangerous rumble,
now made brilliantly clear. Really I ought to name the men who
helped make this recording, captured live in one of the world’s
most cavernous halls, sound so extraordinary: recording engineer,
editor, and post-production supervisor Huw Thomas, producer
Tim Thorne, editor Mike Cox, and executive producer Simon Perry.
Rounding out the package, aside from that hideous cover, is
an excellent liner-note by Calum MacDonald, probably the world’s
foremost expert on this music. There are also short introductory
notes from Roger Wright, the director of the BBC Proms, and
conductor Martyn Brabbins, as self-effacing and informative
as ever, explaining the way this event was planned. I’d be unsurprised
if this turns out, in the long view, to be the most important
classical release of 2011. Critics of this symphony have spent
years trashing the work as undisciplined, gaudy, or just plain
mad, but now anyone with a stereo has access to a grippingly
powerful argument for the Gothic’s place in the classical canon.
I have heard from organizers of an amateur Gothic performance
which took place in Brisbane in 2010 (under the guidance of
John Curro) that they would very much like to release their
version on CD. It has received high acclaim for its fire and
passion among the symphony’s advocates, and it was similarly
well-captured for posterity - recorded finely enough, an informant
says, for SACD release - but the Brisbane Gothic people
have been unable to surmount the logistics of a compact disc
release and financial costs demanded by the work’s publishers.
I have also heard from members of the Havergal Brian Society
that Hyperion was one of two record labels bidding for the rights
to release the Proms performance on CD. I’m not sure it would
be wise of me to reveal the other label’s name, but they know
who they are, they release SACD hybrids, and they may want to
think about placing a call to Australia.
See links to previous reviews below:
Appendix: Useful Links and Quotations
The Havergal Brian Society’s Gothic
Barnard’s and Rob
Barnett’s reviews of this release for MusicWeb International.
Barnard’s is especially useful if you have the Naxos recording
and wish to make a comparison.
Serotsky’s review of the Naxos recording for MusicWeb International
Symphony at the Proms,” by Kenneth Woods
the Gothic,” “On
Ambition in Art,” and “The
Many Critics of Havergal Brian,” by Brian Reinhart
Probably the longest and most useful (but also most digressive)
online resource on Havergal Brian is the discussion
about him at the Good Music Guide. Consider, for instance,
impressions by Philip
Legge and Luke
Some of the following quotations may contradict each other.
“The whole piece seems like an essay in stasis and discontinuity.
On first encounter, there is precious little development, virtually
no transition, and almost no architectural sense of form—at
least often not one that is articulated for the listener through
any sense of direction or arrival…. New ideas appear and disappear
with disconcerting frequency. It is, on first encounter, about
as far from Beethovenian rigour as you can get…. Was Havergal
Brian critiquing, even deconstructing the Romantic symphony?...
The piece’s stubborn refusal to engage with or to reward the
audience, or to deliver the kind of thrills the giant forces
promise strikes me as very anti-social. It is also part of what
fascinates me about the work.” – Kenneth Woods
“Brian's connection with the past has nothing ‘retro’
about it, and isn’t nostalgic. He was born in the 19th century
and in himself embodies two centuries, two sensibilities, a
grand one, a cool one. That’s what makes him so fascinating.
You can see the same thing in Mahler, too, but in a way he died
too soon. Brian composed well into the 1960s. In his music I
can hear the Romanticism he was born into transform into a sort
of Modernism, and later into something wholly unique, with elements
of both combined. This is what makes his work so difficult to
understand or place….Brian was never a fully paid-up member
of Romanticism, in my view. He is far too knowing and ironic
for that.” – Johan Herrenberg
“…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.” – Nick Barnard
“His composing style has an improvisatory quality. He wrote
quickly, obeying the spur of the moment. The logic underlying
the symphonies is emotional. Brian builds by using sharp contrasts
[which] create and structure musical time.” – Johan Herrenberg
“Its unwieldy structures, the stop-start mannerisms, the chopping
& changing between disparate stylistic ideas, the gluttonous
need for 1,000+ performers—all of these, & more, could be
cited as evidence for a composer in search of a voice, or, at
least, in search of a language. But I think that would be to
misunderstand many things, not least of which Brian’s undeniable
originality of thought, his interpretation of what ‘gothic’
really means, the historical context in which he was composing,
both within England & the wider world.” – 5against4 blog
“I think the most useful point made in the excellent programme
notes had to do with the piece’s connection to World War I.
For me, the most effective music, and some of the music that feels most honest (I know that is a very, very subjective judgement)
in the piece is genuinely terrifying. There are
moments when you feel like this really is a man who has looked,
or is looking, right into the abyss.” – Kenneth Woods
“Brian evidently loved German culture and hated militarism -
if the Gothic is somehow related to the experience of
World War One (and part of me thinks how could it not be) then
maybe it is reflected here. It is the compassion and humanity
of Brian's vision, completely devoid of sentimentality
which I find so moving - and the whole symphony is shot through
with it.” – user vandermolen, Good Music Guide
Two Good Music Guide users debate the symphony’s ending: “Brian's
idea of a Te Deum is a strange one indeed and it seems to me
that ending the work quietly is almost an admission of failure.
Given the forces involved, I would imagine everybody playing
and singing feeling cheated by such an anticlimactic ending.”
/ “I don't think the ending is a failure at all, because
Brian's Te Deum isn't an uncomplicated celebration
of faith. Brian, as far as we know, was an agnostic. The Gothic
could be viewed, too, as a Requiem for the dead of the First
World War. So it ends not with a bang (although a cataclysm
precedes the close), but a prayer: 'Non confundar in
aeternum' - let me not be confounded. Very moving.”
“Imagine walking around, say, York Minster. We are faced with
a plethora of images. There are artefacts from a time period
of many centuries. All of them are vying for our attention.
The best of the new blends in with the original Gothic fabric.
However, the occasional modern feature shouts its protest against
the prevailing style. Sometimes we find a hidden gem; under
a misericord, perhaps; sometimes we are overwhelmed by the loftiness
of the central tower or the massiveness of the buttresses. The
tiny medieval wren chasing a spider in the Zouch Chapel stained
glass window is juxtaposed against the 64ft organ pipes and
the huge new roof bosses in the south transept. All these things
make up the cathedral and create its sense of purpose and spiritual
vitality. Some things are in equilibrium and some in tension.
It is like this in Brian's Gothic Symphony.”
– John France