Classical CD Reviews

HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor “The Gothic” – BBC National Orch. of Wales and BBC Concert Orch./ Soloists/ David Goode, organ/ choruses/ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion (2 CDs)

The real "Symphony of a Thousand."

Published on February 23, 2013

HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor “The Gothic” – BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Concert Orch./ Susan Gritton, sop., Christine Rice, mezzo/ Peter Auty, tenor/ Alistair Miles, bass/ David Goode, organ/ The Bach Choir/ BBC National Chorus of Wales/ Brighton Festival Chorus/ CBSO Youth Chorus/ Côr Caerdydd/ Eltham College Boys’ Choir/ Huddersfield Choral Society/ London Sym. Chorus, Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs/ Martyn Brabbins –  Hyperion CDA67971/2 (2 CDs) 114:48 **** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]

Conductor Martin Brabbins’ comments in the program notes for this double-CD set says it all, “Having accepted in early 2010 the invitation … to conduct “The Gothic” at the Proms, a musical ‘supertanker’ was launched … Two marvelous BBC orchestras … were to be the bedrock of the performance. An enormous roster of extra players had to be engaged. The Gothic’s orchestra comprises 210 musicians: 17 percussionists (in addition to six timpanists), 68 brass and 32 wind players, to name but a few.”

Actually, somewhere over 800 performers (around 600 were choristers) were involved in this whopper of a symphony recorded in Royal Albert Hall, London,  July 17, 2011, and produced in association with BBC Radio 3 plus the two BBC orchestras performing at that concert. Plaudits to Martin Brabbins for pulling together this diverse group and making  dramatic sense of this truly a symphony of a thousand. Sorry Gustav…

Since we are dealing with an immense group of musicians, the sonic impact is spectacular. It would be even more so had the decision been made to record “The Gothic” for SACD. There seems to be some peculiar microphone set-ups. For example, the combined orchestras are in-your-face, yet the choral performers sound as though they are at some considerable distance. The result is not ‘realistic’ as some two-channel stereo aficionados would have it. From the photograph of the concert in the booklet, it is clear that we are talking about a lot of performers in a large space. It maybe that the sound picture provided is what the engineer saw.

Brian (1876-1972) created this monster between 1919 and 1927. The Gothic title refers to the Gothic age with its magnificent architecture and ‘man’ seeking answers to mysteries and hidden knowledge.

The symphony is comprised of three purely orchestral movements and a setting of the Te Deum in the remaining three movements. The orchestral movements are related to Goethe’s Faust, Part 1. The last three movements are an impious, but not irreverent setting of the Te Deum. Brian was a non-believer in any traditional sense.

There have been few performances and even fewer recordings of this symphony. In 1966 it got its first professional performance under Sir Adrian Boult in Royal Albert Hall. A stereo tape was made by the BBC and that performance was recently released on the Testament label. There was one additional performance in 1980, but it did not  generate any recording. There is another recording now on the Naxos label (originally on the Marco Polo label) with Ondrej Lenard at the baton with the usual Marco Polo/Naxos Slovak forces in 1989.

Brian was born in Staffordshire. Christened William Brian, he appropriated the name Havergal, after W.H. Havergal, a Victorian-era hymn collector. Though he had some early instruction in harmony and counterpoint, he was self-taught as a composer. Composers who influenced him include Beethoven, Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Elgar. The Gothic Symphony provides snippets of Hindemith, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Wagner. Brian ‘s gift with orchestration always keep the listener on his or her toes.

If you haven’t heard this work and you like Romantic music, then this is a fine recording to get familiar with it.

—Zan Furtwangler

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