Notes and Editorial Reviews
An historical document and a spiritual reflection faithful to contemplation, to awe and to the blast of conflict and turmoil.
When the young Robert Simpson joined the BBC Third Programme staff in 1954 the die was cast for an extraordinary initiative: the broadcast of all 32 symphonies by Havergal Brian. Amid this company the Gothic is emblematic but it was by no means the first to in the queue. Its huge forces and long duration militated against early programming. Instead the first in the line was a February 1954 relay of the 22 minute Eighth by the BBCSO and Boult.
The Gothic became a concert reality on 24 June 1961 in a semi-pro performance at Central Hall, Westminster conducted by
Brian Fayrfax. The first fully professional performance was the one preserved here. Testament have secured a licence to issue the first legitimate appearance of the tape of this live Royal Albert Hall which took place on 30 October 1966 in the presence of the composer who had another six remarkably eventful years to live.
Gothic has seen light of day before in pirate form on LP (Aries LP 2601); quite apart from what I seem to recall were several rebroadcasts by the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s
. The Aries was issued in the late 1970s and was the best sounding of that series. I still have the gatefold double LP and it lists only Boult as the conductor. Discretion is the better part of valour no doubt though that label issued more Brian on LP than anyone else - always under weird
noms du disques. The sound was, in my experience, abysmal as my LP of the Second Symphony discloses. As to the underlying awesome gritty-tragic-heroism that Boult-conducted professional premiere cannot be beaten in comparison to the 1990 Naxos set under Ondrej Lenard.
From the biting and driving opening to the thunderously indefatigable
Lento espressivo with its rumbling and gruff-rolling progress to the Sibelian-Walton macabre rustling of the
Vivace one is pitched into an irresistible torrent of symphonic imagination. Episodes that grip are numerous - how about the down-stepping tuba counterpointed confiding of the woodwind at 3:58 onwards in the
Vivace. Then there’s the pastoral ecstasy painted in by Hugh McGuire's lead violin in the first few minutes of the work shortly after it is catapulted into action by that unique accelerating drum and brass barked pattern that launches this 108 minute work. The
mezzo-forte horn fanfares at 6:12 and 11:20 in the
Vivace are memorable. But so are the shifting banks of beatific string sound we hear at 5.03
et seq in the
Te ergo quaesumus. Those first three purely orchestral movements work well in isolation. Charles Groves performed them as such with the New Philharmonia on 10 October 1976 perhaps as much because the expense of a full performance could not be stretched to as for their structural and emotional cogency.
The massive tapestry becomes more complex still with the last three movements which add to the massive orchestra all the choirs and soloists. The vaulted magnificence of the
Te deum laudamus at 3:45 onwards looks forward to Walton and his
Te Deum and
Belshazzar. Tinkling enchantment recalls Holst's
Planets but these are just fleeting details in an astonishingly rich, incident-thronged vision which predicts the future and references the past. The thrumming valedictory singing by the basses of the words
Non confundar in aeternam brings us full circle with heads bowed.
There are some parallels with Brian’s later symphonies. There’s the
Siegeslied (No. 2) with its choral storm in full Biblical storm. There’s the otherwise untitled Third and its moments of pastoral ecstasy. Never as flamboyant or as extravagant but certainly as imaginative as
The Gothic is the concise Deirdre-inspired
Sinfonia Tragica (No. 6). Allowing for these
The Gothic in scale and the inspirational ambit is essentially unlike any other Brian work; I’ll for now allow a caveat to this statement until we get to hear his massive choral-orchestral epic
Prometheus Unbound – the full score of which has been lost since the 1940s.
The Gothic speaks in a language that is accessible to anyone who enjoys Holst's
Hymn of Jesus, Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, Berlioz's
Symphonie Fantastique and the
Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi. The terraced choral entries at the start of
Judex crederis sound uncannily like Ligeti at times.
The concert took place in the RAH - the same venue I experienced for Ole Schmidt's performance of
The Gothic on 25 May 1980. The sound is remarkably direct but there are inevitable moments of analogue congestion when the choirs are singing at full stretch with the orchestra baying at hunt.
The sung Latin texts are included and there are multilingual versions of Malcolm Macdonald's background note. There are some wonderful session photographs included in the booklet all from the collection of Lewis Foreman.
What to recommend? This is a special recording and utterly indispensable to Brian and Boult specialists. Those who want a memento of the concert or who have a penchant for the swashbuckling professionalism and atmosphere of the Corporation steered by giants such as Boult and Simpson in those far-off days will also need to add this to their shelves.
If you must have the best possible digital sound then go for the even less expensive
Naxos recording made by Lenard in 1989 in Bratislava. It is very good indeed and no slouch in matters of emotional engagement. Even so it lacks the sense of play-through continuity and the final wattage of incandescence that we hear in this remarkable recording.
The compact little interview of the composer by J Behague (who he?) adds local colour and insight. Perhaps the questions are of their time but Brian’s answers are helpful. It is worth reminding ourselves that it took place at a time when the composer was putting the finishing touches to his 27th symphony and with the performance of the Gothic lying nine months in the future.
An historical document from the 1960s but also a spiritual reflection faithful to contemplation, to awe, to tragedy, to the blast of insurrection and to indomitable humanity.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 "Gothic" by Havergal Brian
Shirley Minty (Alto),
Honor Sheppard (Soprano),
Ronald Dowd (Tenor),
Roger Stalman (Bass)
Sir Adrian Boult
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1919-1927; England
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