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Havergal Brian The Gothic Symphony

Jenisova, Peckova, Dolezal, Mikulas
Slovak Opera Chorus
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Ondrej Lenard

Naxos 8.223280-281 [1hr 55mins]

Symphony No 1 of thirty-two; but it is a key work. Havergal Brian (1876-1972), composed his Gothic over some eight years and completed it when he was over fifty. "It eventually gave him his greatest public triumph at its first professional performance in 1966, but was most responsible for the damaging and undeserved reputation he acquired as an eccentric composer of huge and unperformable works" (The Havergal Brian Society). I attended that still well-remembered performance under Sir Adrian Boult, at which the composer, in his nineties, strode confidently onto the Royal Albert Hall platform looking like a fit and prosperous farmer.

Despite efforts by Robert Simpson and others, who achieved wide exposure to the limited BBC Third Programme loyalists, Brian has never quite attained his posthumous due. Mahler's choral symphonies Nos 2 & even No 8 ("symphony of a thousand") are given regularly now to capacity audiences, but Brian's gigantic Gothic, the Largest Symphony (Guinness Book of Records) remains a rarity. Its requirements outdo those of Mahler and Berlioz at their most extravagant, ideally needing 200 players, brass bands, and double chorus (six choirs in this 1989 recording!); all credit to Slovakia, Ondrej Lenárd and to Naxos for achieving this landmark re-release from the Marco Polo catalogue which they have taken over. It sounds very well.

There is a fascinating and detailed account of the making of this recording on MusicWeb and, for those who wish to go into this piece of musical history more thoroughly, a lavishly illustrated book available from the Havergal Brian Society is indispensable. Harold Truscott's detailed analysis is supported by numerous music examples.

Brian has a strikingly individual voice, still arresting some eighty years on - tonal and contrapuntal, but essentially forward looking, with a gruff cragginess, unexpected juxtapositions and apparent non sequiturs. Within a short span he can encompass grandiosity and heart melting lyricism.

Prefaced with a quotation from Goethe's Faust, The Gothic is a huge structure, taking nearly two hours in performance, during which (for those listeners blessed with perfect pitch and long memories) it moves from D minor to conclude in E major. The Faustian Part 1 is orchestral; Part 2, a three movement Te Deum, is a huge edifice suggesting a grand Gothic Cathedral, eventually reaching a 'racked and agonized but not-quite-despairing conclusion' which ultimately leaves us with 'a mysterious radiance that abides as a light in the night' (Malcolm MacDonald). But on the way it is continually inventive and eventful. One movement, a setting of a single sentence, amasses four choirs in overlapping triads to form chord clusters, and they go on to create a dividi passage of 'fantastic complexity and fierce dissonance' in twenty parts! So, rehearsing the Gothic Symphony is not for the faint-hearted!

This double CD, released in UK at Naxos 's standard £4.99 per disc, is perfect for study purposes, with unfussy, easy to read black-on-white texts in Latin and English, and detailed tracking. In Malcolm MacDonald's authorative commentary, edited by Keith Anderson, the 46 tracks are conveniently cited one by one. Why do not all record companies learn about presentation from each other? We are not told here the interesting story of this 'performance', recorded, so we learn, during three days in March and a week in October 1989, nor does Naxos indicate that it was ever released until now.

This is then an essential purchase and should tempt the curious who have not come upon Havergal Brian; it will surely prompt further exploration of this indefatigable individualist whose composing career, spanning eighty years, must be one of the longest ever. We are told that there has been a spasmodic growth of interest in him since the '50s, but this may well have passed by many of our readers? The sound is grand and the huge forces balanced carefully under the supervision of Günter Appenheimer. It is a new jewel in the catalogue of Naxos, a firm which is nothing if not ambitious.

One has to assume that financial considerations determined the location of the recording project in Bratislava had to do with. Will this Slovakian recording, given a new lease of life, actually revive the fortunes of The Gothic Symphony and Brian's thirty and more others? Is he being played regularly in Eastern Europe (some British composers, notably Alan Bush, achieved reputations abroad denied them at home).

Having re-heard The Gothic in this inspiring performance I am tempted to venture what might, at first reading, seem an outlandish and presumptuous suggestion. Musical Pointers is not content to just reflect the present indicators of what the future may hold; it is prepared to offer lateral thinking towards making things happen.

Mahler believed the symphony should encompass the whole world, and his 2nd has filled the musical world of conductor Gilbert Kaplan for a decade. As a testimony to that unique and unequalled single-mindedness he has left us two recordings of Mahler 2, the latter with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, premiering a new edition of his own which he also gave in London with the Philharmonia.

It is time for Kaplan to move on, and whilst Mahler 8 might be tempting for a conductor who thinks very big, the novelty and mono-mania of devotion solely to one chosen composer might pall?

But if Gilbert Kaplan was tempted to put his energy and resources into performing around the world Brian's vast Gothic similarly, the magic might work to put that symphony and its composer onto the international map? Kaplan plus Brian's symphony of a thousand or so might prove a conjunction to fire public and media interest and tip the balance? Occasional performances, and even mini-festivals, can be ephemeral in influencing the 'canon'.

So my serious suggestion is that Naxos, who showed good sense in acquiring the Czech Radio (Bratislava) tapes, should spend a few pounds or dollars and send Gilbert Kaplan this recording, plus the score and the Truscott/Rapoport book, with their compliments and mine! It just might work, whereas left to normal promotional finances, Brian will remain indefinitely a marginal figure on the sidelines, one of 'spasmodic interest'.

How about the BBC offering Kaplan the opportunity to launch my proposed project, one as grandiose as Brian's own, by tempting him to open the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall with Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony? If you have a better suggestion, I am sure The Havergal Brian Society would be interested!

Addendum: News item in The Gramophone August 2004:
The autograph score of 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' has broken the auction record for a song. One of Mahler's most beautiful songs, it was sold by Sotheby's for £420,000 to Gilbert Kaplan, the Mahler enthusiast who has devoted himself to conducting the composer's Second Symphony.

© Peter Grahame Woolf