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Hyperion Records

CDA67971/2 - Brian: Symphony No 1 'The Gothic'
CDA67971/2
Recording details: July 2011
Royal Albert Hall, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Thorne
Engineered by Huw Thomas
Release date: December 2011
Total duration: 114 minutes 45 seconds

INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW 'OUTSTANDING' AWARD

'Far and away the finest [performance] it has received … in a sense, Hyperion's release is a perfect one, of a great event, a magisterial work and an encapsulation of the enormous difficulties of the project as a whole … aided by Hyperion's sensational sound, details which barely registered before sound crystal clear' (Gramophone)

'This recording is the best yet … the recorded sound succeeds phenomenally … superb orchestral playing right across the board. All four soloists excel at seizing the moment in their few, but spectacular opportunities … memorable listening indeed' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This recording comes from the work's first, thrilling and bizarre BBC Proms performance in July … the enormous, almost mystical sound of the chorus, the intriguing vocal colours, wacky instrumentation and sheer vastness of the enterprise give it an odd cult appeal: truly epic' (The Observer)

'A final track of applause lasting nearly nine minutes isn't excessive … it remains one of the oddities of the English symphonic repertoire, but Martyn Brabbins and his legions of players and singers do it proud' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This release looks set to be the primary recommendation well into the future: conveying the fullest extent yet of a flawed masterpiece that risks so much in staking out the listener's awareness of its greatness' (International Record Review)

'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 … 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' (MusicWeb International)

Symphony No 1 'The Gothic'
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On 17 July 2011 over 800 performers gathered in London’s Royal Albert Hall to give a rare performance of Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1 in D minor—‘The Gothic’. Tickets for this Prom sold out within 24 hours, and so it gives us great pleasure to make this live recording available to all.

It’s a pretty phenomenal work. Responding to the challenge set by Sir Henry Wood, the composer has thrown just about every known orchestral instrument into the mix, then adding a double chorus of over 500, plus children’s choirs, for an hour-long Te Deum—the church’s blazing Hymn of Thanksgiving—which makes up the symphony’s finale.

Whether or not you were lucky enough to be there on the night, this is a recording not to be missed.


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Havergal Brian’s Gothic symphony is usually described in superlatives, routinely listed as both the longest symphony ever written, and the one that demands the largest number of performers. Neither of these statements may in fact be true, but the statistics of duration and performing forces speak for themselves. By any measure this is a very big work. In fact, shortly before conducting the live performance recorded here at the 2011 BBC Proms, Martyn Brabbins was quoted in interview as saying: ‘My hope is that people are dumbstruck with a kind of awe and admiration that such a piece exists and a composer spent years of his life putting this thing on paper with no real hope or prospect of performance.’

The son of pottery workers (the eldest survivor of seven children, of whom four died in infancy), Havergal Brian was born in Dresden, Staffordshire, now part of Stoke-on-Trent. A child chorister, he left school at the age of eleven but gained a thorough tuition in harmony and counterpoint. He had been christened William Brian, but adopted the name Havergal, after the Victorian hymn-collector W H Havergal, in his early twenties when seeking to make a career as a church organist. As a composer Brian was essentially self-taught, his early influences being the great Midlands choral festivals and brass bands, the Hallé Orchestra under Hans Richter, the splendour of Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz and Richard Strauss, and the new British music of Edward Elgar. The young Brian was one of Elgar’s earliest champions in the Midlands, and Elgar in his turn was encouraging about Brian’s first works. During the 1900s Brian gained recognition as a promising figure among the new generation of British composers, began a lifelong friendship with Granville Bantock, was acclaimed for orchestral works performed by Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall Proms, and gained the temporary patronage of a wealthy Staffordshire pottery magnate.

These early successes were evaporating by 1913, when Brian moved to London after the collapse of his first marriage. During World War I, after a brief spell of soldiering, he was employed listing the effects of Canadian troops killed in France; the experience helped trigger his burlesque anti-war opera The Tigers (1916–18). Supporting a growing second family by hack-work, music-copying and journalism, he followed this with The Gothic (1919–27), but by the late 1920s he was largely a ‘forgotten composer’. Nevertheless he was very active as a critic and advocate of new music throughout the inter-war period, especially as deputy editor of Musical Opinion, while he continued to compose large-scale works without immediate hope of performance. After World War II (during which he worked as a clerk for the Ministry of Supply) Brian experienced an unprecedented ‘Indian summer’ of creativity, composing four operas and no fewer than twenty-seven symphonies (out of a lifetime total of thirty-two) after the age of seventy. In 1958 he moved from Harrow to Shoreham, Sussex, where he died as a result of a fall at the age of ninety-six.

In addition to symphonies and operas Brian wrote other orchestral works, concertos, choral music, some piano pieces and many songs. Starting in the 1950s, when he was befriended by the BBC producer Robert Simpson, interest in Brian’s music revived. His music has always been difficult to characterize: he developed from the stylistic basis of the late Romantics, but a pronounced streak of scepticism led him to question their heroic assumptions and to counterbalance their harmonic opulence with a muscular, ‘objective’ polyphony and ironic juxtapositions of contrasted and mutually subversive kinds of music, continually undercutting the listener’s expectations. Contrary to legend, few of his works are for outsize forces or are unusually long; but their use of apparently traditional idioms in a profoundly untraditional way makes them more challenging—even disconcerting—on first hearing than those of his British contemporaries.

In 1907–08 Brian had composed a burlesque programmatic work which he called A Fantastic Symphony. Almost immediately he destroyed half of it, keeping just two movements as independent works, yet in light of this The Gothic was first published as ‘Symphony No 2’, and it was only in 1966 that Brian re-numbered his early symphonies so that it became ‘Symphony No 1’.

On the printed title-page of The Gothic stand two lines of verse from the final scene of Goethe’s Faust:

Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
Den können wir erlösen.
(Whoever strives with all his might
That man we can redeem.)

In his enormous symphony, Brian had indeed striven ‘with all his might’ to create a monumental work of symphonic architecture at a time when he was beset by personal and financial difficulties and his professional career was in the doldrums. It is also a tribute to all the music that Brian had known and loved, and all the people he cared about. ‘This work’, he wrote to his friend Granville Bantock on 27 June 1926, ‘has been inside my heart for a lifetime and naturally there is inside it all those who have been very dear to me—who helped and moulded me.’ On another occasion he spoke of the fifth movement (the ‘Iudex’) as his personal memorial to Hans Richter, whose conducting of the Hallé Orchestra had been such an inspiration to Brian in his youth. So The Gothic is an acknowledgement of debts to the past, and a manifesto for the future: a massive reaffirmation of the idealism of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ which had been so cruelly shaken by the 1914–18 war. We may speculate, too, that its moments of violence and terror relate directly to the experience of that war.

Brian once told his friend the composer and writer Harold Truscott that the work came to him in a flash so intense that he wanted to cram the whole of it into about twenty bars. The remark tells you something important about Brian. He was not an extravagant or self-indulgent composer. On the contrary, he was a very concise one. In The Gothic he was composing-out an intense moment of vision as briefly as he knew how. One aspect of this—and it is a characteristic that persisted through all his later works—is that he hates elaborate transitions: he doesn’t smooth the way between one idea and the next, and he composes essences, not passages of filling.

The orchestra contains many unusual extras: oboe d’amore, bass oboe, corno di bassetto, pedal clarinet, cornets, bass trumpet and euphoniums among them. Brian attributed this to a suggestion Henry Wood made to him in 1907, that he should write a work to include the complete families of all the different wind instruments—all the oboe family, all the clarinets and so on. Brian uses these, though, not to get a huge undifferentiated noise, but to gain an unprecedented range of subtle instrumental colour.

‘Completist’ in its approach to instrumental timbre, The Gothic is also an encyclopedic compendium of musical styles, from evocations of Gregorian chant and Elizabethan church music to near-atonality and (in the ‘Iudex’) vibrant cluster-chords. Brian poured into it everything he knew; and one of the things he knew from his earliest years was that crack virtuoso competitive choirs could perform the most complicated test-pieces with pinpoint accuracy. The orchestral players are set some severe challenges in The Gothic (the xylophone solo in movement 3 is something like a transcendental étude for the instrument, for instance), but these are child’s play compared to some of the choral writing, especially the intense chromatic polyphony which is one of the Te Deum’s hallmarks.

Brian was fortunate in finding a publisher for his symphony in the London office of the German publisher Cranz, who in 1932 issued the full score in two gigantic (and error-riddled) volumes. Though the published score bears a dedication to one of Brian’s lifelong heroes, namely Richard Strauss—who after a perusal of the score pronounced it ‘magnificent’ (‘großartig’) and expressed his hopes for a speedy premiere—very little of the work (some passages in movements 1 and 3, perhaps) shows much of Strauss’s influence. Berlioz—particularly the Berlioz of the Grande messe des morts—is a more relevant progenitor. The Gothic is in fact the most extreme example of the perilous hybrid genre that Beethoven initiated with his Ninth Symphony.

In what sense is Brian’s work a ‘Gothic’ symphony? He doesn’t use the word with its comparatively modern meaning of ‘horrific’, though some dark and terrifying things do happen in the work’s course. He means the high and late medieval period (approximately 1150–1550), the Gothic era as we understand it through its defining creation, the Gothic style of architecture, whose ultimate expressions are the great Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe. This was the age that excited the imaginations of the great Romantic artists, to whose achievements Brian was heir. And into that age, into the stones of its cathedrals, was etched the ultimate certainty that life is a struggle between good and evil.

Composed through a period of seven or eight years (mainly at night, while Brian worked as a music-copyist and journalist and at various odd jobs through the day), The Gothic unites two long-contemplated schemes—a work on Goethe’s Faust and a setting of the Te Deum—in a symphonic vision of the Gothic Age as a period of almost exponential expansion of human knowledge, both secular and spiritual, glorious and terrible. The first three movements, for large orchestra, relate in a general way to Goethe’s Faust, Part 1 (Faust as the archetypal Gothic-Age man, aspiring mystic and seeker after hidden knowledge). But they are merely a prelude. The fourth, fifth and sixth movements encompass a gigantic, hour-long setting of the Te Deum, and here Brian requires four vocal soloists, two large double choruses totalling about 500 voices along with children’s choir, four brass bands, and an orchestra that out-bulks the most extreme demands of Mahler, Strauss or Schoenberg. Taken literally, the score requires at least 32 woodwind, 24 brass, two timpanists, a percussion section involving 17 players, two harps, celesta, organ, and an enlarged string section of at least 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 14 cellos and 12 double basses. This is for the main orchestra. The brass bands each comprise an additional two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, two tubas and a set of timpani. At minimum, therefore, Brian envisaged about 750 performers. The 2011 Proms performance was the first to reach and surpass that number in near-ideal conditions: altogether over 800 singers and players were involved.

Three different levels of musical argument—dramatic, tonal, motivic—create the work’s musical logic. On the expressive plane, Part 1 is dynamic in the familiar symphonic sense, a logical development from the achievements of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss, Elgar and early Schoenberg. Part 2, however, becomes cultural drama, evoking the totality of Western Music around one great familiar unifying text. The overall tonal progression is a strikingly rich and dramatic example of what is sometimes called ‘progressive tonality’, moving from an initial D minor (the principal key of Part 1, which ends in D major) to a new centre of E major. Intermittently foreshadowed in Part 1 and established during movement 4, it is then frequently threatened by other keys but survives into the darkly glowing choral murmur of the work’s final bars. The keys are, however, often interpreted very freely, expanded by chromaticism or modal inflection.

The first movement opens with a thrilling orchestral gesture that propels us into a modified sonata-allegro with a terse, wiry first subject in D minor. Its initial shape—a leap of a third and then, from the same base note, to a fifth—is a germinal motif, encapsulating the drive to expand outwards, that will grow and change throughout the entire work. A lyrical ‘folk-like’ second subject, announced by a solo violin in D flat and later turning to D major, makes an extreme contrast. A tough development section seizes fragments of both themes and the orchestration takes on a fantastic quality. The recapitulation starts with a beautiful violin cadenza that recalls the second subject, now in E major. The first grandiose entry of the organ is a surprise Brian reserves for the final bars.

The second movement is a haunted processional in 5/4 time. Two elements—a dotted-note rhythm heard on tubas and timpani and a noble, flexible march-melody stated by violas and cellos immediately afterwards—are developed in association and in competition. The music rises to climactic statements of the march-theme: the grandest of these climaxes subsides suddenly into the shadows, and a bass clarinet leads directly into the Vivace scherzo-finale of Part 1. Here a rushing Bruckner-like ostinato in D minor kicks off a series of contrasted episodes at different speeds, establishing a huge, relentless, underlying momentum. The work’s principal motif recurs as a mysterious, glowing horn-call, and becomes a bass for violent, warlike developments, full of march-and-fanfare images. These culminate in a fantastic transformation of the ostinato, weirdly scored, with a bizarre xylophone cadenza that is eventually sucked into a skirling polytonal heterophony. Four descending trombone pedal-notes, amplified by all the low brass instruments, plunge into a thundering climax that is the logical culmination of the earlier battlefield imagery. A crushingly decisive cadence hurls the music back into D minor; it is suddenly cut off for a coda of unexpected calm, ending on a last shimmering triad of D major that also opens Part 2, the huge three-movement Te Deum.

In the Te Deum Brian’s inspiration was the great Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe, whose architecture (and the music that was sung in them) had transfixed his imagination since he first saw Lichfield Cathedral as a child chorister. But Brian was not a believer in any doctrinal sense. His is not a religious but a secular Te Deum, an interpretation of the text as a human and communal drama; no conventional expression of praise but an evocation of the human spirit struggling against immense odds, where the will to rejoice is threatened at every turn. It is this that makes the quotation from Faust on the symphony’s title-page so apposite.

This Te Deum attempts a new, freely evolving conception of structure while making use of the widest possible range of stylistic resources. It spans a great arch from neo-medieval vocal polyphony to shattering brass outbursts of purely twentieth-century barbarity. Writing in 1962 in The Penguin Book of Choral Music, having heard only the work’s first, semi-amateur performance, the late Deryck Cooke described Brian’s setting as ‘a dithyrambic paean of complex neo-medieval counterpoint like nothing else in music’, that ‘reveals the mind of a truly visionary genius’.

Here Brian employs his full forces in the most disparate kinds of music, and the text itself becomes a unifying force, relating the various musics to the central stream of thought. So the symphony’s fourth movement is concerned with praise and statements of the acts and nature of God. The radiant opening introduces first the choruses, then the vocal soloists. After a big orchestral fanfare the full forces are unleashed in a fantastic musical act of multitudinous rejoicing. From here the music evolves through a series of contrasting episodes which impose a formal logic on the treatment of the text while the mood darkens.

Movement 5 sets just one terrifying line of text: ‘Iudex crederis esse venturus’ (‘You are believed to be about to come as judge’). It opens boldly with the four choruses singing in overlapping triads, creating dense, glowing chord-clusters. The solo soprano sings the complete text, and the choirs launch into polyphony of fantastic complexity and fierce dissonance, divided in over twenty parts. After a wordless vocalise for solo soprano and a thrilling fanfare for eight trumpets, the orchestra enters for the first time with a grim juggernaut of a march. The four choruses, supported by separate brass bands, each proclaim the text with intervening orchestral refrains. A vigorous orchestral development follows, gradually becoming more intense. Eventually a thunderous outpouring of sound from the full forces (brass bands included) resplendently confirms the final E major.

The sixth movement is the longest of all, containing the greatest contrasts of material, expression and scoring. A solo oboe d’amore introduces a floridly expressive tenor solo (‘Te ergo, quaesumus …’). A kind of celestial dance begins in the orchestra, brilliantly and brightly scored, with wordless participation from the choirs. Gradually Brian builds up the most texturally complex passage in the whole symphony, with a huge climax for the full forces. ‘Salvum fac populum tuum’ brings a return to antiphonal chanting of the kind heard in the fourth movement. After further episodes, nine clarinets in a row present a jaunty marching song that introduces a joyously tuneful setting of ‘et laudamus nomen tuum’ which builds to a roof-raising climax of forthright splendour.

The mood darkens for an anguished, imploring bass aria (‘Dignare, Domine, die isto’) followed by a rapt double-fugue for choirs alone, whose subject harks right back to the opening of the symphony. This cadences sadly into E minor, and then all hell is let loose. The full brass of the orchestra and the bands, with six timpanists and percussion, unleash two diabolically dissonant assaults upon the ear and provoke two agonized choral cries of ‘non confundar in aeternum’. The coda, with its impassioned cello line, is as desolate a voice from the depths as any in music. But the final choral murmur is in E major, serene and unaffected: a mysterious radiance that, as Thomas Mann has it in Doktor Faustus, ‘abides as a light in the night’.

Owing to its extraordinary array of forces, The Gothic requires an especially spacious venue. The premiere took place thirty-four years after its completion, at Central Hall, Westminster, on 24 June 1961, with semi-professional forces conducted by Bryan Fairfax. The first fully professional performance, mounted by the BBC, came five years later, when Sir Adrian Boult conducted the augmented BBC Symphony Orchestra on 30 October 1966 in the presence of the ninety-year-old composer at the Royal Albert Hall, the only venue which has heard the music more than once. On 25 May 1980, The Gothic returned to the Royal Albert Hall for a second BBC-sponsored presentation, with Ole Schmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and its third presentation there was its first performance at the BBC Proms, in 2011: the performance enshrined in this recording.

Calum MacDonald © 2011

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