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 Recording of the Week  Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony

The performance of the ‘Gothic’ Symphony by British composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was one of the most eagerly anticipated Proms this summer. Tickets were sold out within 12 hours as the work was receiving its first ever Proms performance and indeed its first performance anywhere in the UK for nearly thirty years. It is one of those works which is often mentioned but seldom heard and is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest symphony ever composed. Calling for an orchestra of over 200 and a choir of 600, it has unsurprisingly only ever received a small handful of performances and I’m told this was the first performance to actually use the size of choir that the composer asked for. It is released today on Hyperion and seems likely to become the top recommendation of this huge but strange symphony for many years to come.

Havergal Brian
Havergal Brian

Havergal Brian wrote an impressive 32 symphonies, and enjoyed a remarkable late flourishing with 20 of them coming when he was over 80 years old. His ‘Gothic’ Symphony though was his first and was much earlier – written in the years immediately after the First World War. It is in six movements, the first three last around forty minutes and are for orchestra only (almost a symphony in their own right). Then the choir and soloists join in for the final three movements in a setting of the Te Deum hymn of praise.

I’ve listened to it a number of times now, and I would say the war element is quite strong throughout. A lot of it sounds angry to me and some passages (particularly when the offstage brass and timpani let rip) are genuinely terrifying. Mixed with this are moments of quiet repose and tenderness. The choral writing is fiendishly hard but some of the pianissimo a capella (unaccompanied) phrases do have an air of magic about them, and the children’s chorus create a wonderful sense of innocence and hope in the final movement.

Much of it is so weird and thematically incoherent that I’ve found it quite hard to get my head round it to be honest. Some of it sounds almost like spooky film music, some of it quite funny. I’m not sure it is meant to – maybe it is, but is supposed to be ironic in some way or deliberately banal. I suppose Richard Strauss, Bruckner, perhaps Elgar, perhaps early Schoenberg would be the composers which might come to mind as possible influences, but Brian seems to have a unique voice of his own and I can’t think of any passages anywhere in this symphony which sounded like they could have actually been written by any one of those composers.

Brian employs a huge orchestra including virtually the whole families of each wind instrument (for example oboe d’amore, bass oboe and cor anglais in addition to the normal oboe), but like Berlioz in his Grande Messe des Morts (which I wrote about a few months ago), these are used more for increased range of instrumental colour than the noise they can create when all playing together.

Havergal Brian enthusiasts (and there are quite a few of them) often describe this work as an unjustly neglected British masterpiece. Personally I wouldn’t say it is a masterpiece – too much of it just meanders along without any clear direction for that – but it undoubtedly has some great moments. It maybe deserves a performance more that once every thirty years, and I’ll certainly listen to it again.

The BBC Proms is one of the few organisations which is capable of putting on a performance of this epic work, and I was thrilled to learn that Hyperion would be releasing it. It is well worth hearing. Sound samples as usual are on the website, although in this case I’m afraid six minutes out of over a total of over a hundred aren’t going to give you the greatest idea of what the symphony contains!

Brian: Symphony No. 1 'Gothic'

Susan Gritton (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Peter Auty (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass) & David Goode (organ), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Concert Orchestra, The Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Brighton Festival Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, Côr Caerdydd, Eltham College Boys’ Choir, Huddersfield Choral Society & London Symphony Chorus, Martyn Brabbins

Available Format: CD