ESTIMATES vary on the scale of participation at this summer’s BBC Proms performance of Havergal Brian’s outrageously extravagant Gothic Symphony. Brian wrote it just after the First World War with around 600 musicians in mind. Publicity surrounding July’s Royal Albert Hall performance put the number somewhere between 800 and 1,000.
“Actually, the total on the night was 990,” says conductor Martyn Brabbins. He had the unenviable task of coordinating the two BBC symphony orchestras, six adult choirs, three children’s choirs, four soloists, organist, four brass bands and eight offstage trumpets, which together raised the rafters with a musical creation so epic, it had only ever previously been performed a handful of times.
For those present on the night, the sheer spectacle of the occasion was breathtaking. If you missed it, then I can recommend the live recording captured by Hyperion Records, which is released this month on an absolute thriller of a double CD.
To be honest, we’re not talking about a neglected masterpiece here. Like so much of Brian’s music, the overall impression is of an unceasing stream of consciousness that is impetuous to the point of intoxication, and a musical personality that rarely settles into a groove – a torrent of influences ultimately leaving you none the wiser as to where the composer’s stylistic allegiances actually lie.
That in itself, however, is part of the allure. It’s as if Brian was teeming with ideas he simply had to get down on the page, without worrying too much about how they might be knitted together.
In the first few minutes alone the idiomatic onslaught is quite unhinging. No sooner has the opening flourish tossed us into an Alpine Mahlerian landscape, than Brian whisks us off to the exotic realms of whole-tone orientalism, with perhaps a hint of Gamelan, before making yet another wild detour to an oceanic wash reminiscent of late Vaughan Williams. And that’s just for starters.
From the exclusively instrumental Part 1, based on lines from Goethe’s Faust, the work continues with a heaving hour-long setting of the Te Deum, uncompromising in its vast tracts of a cappella polyphony (the tuning impressively maintained in this recording), and indebted to an English choral tradition as varied as the thick-set multi-choral cathedral style of the Victorians to the astringent lyricism of Walton or Britten.
Feeding through all this is a strangely elusive, almost subjective quality – Ivesian in its abstract stubbornness and boundless freedom – that, by its very pervasiveness, becomes a defining, as well as compelling, factor.
To appreciate this, it helps to know something of the composer’s background. Brian was born in 1876 in Staffordshire into a family of pottery workers, and had little formal musical education after leaving school at 12. He was active as an office clerk and church organist (he fancifully changed his Christian name to Havergal after the hymn writer Henry J Havergal), before gaining brief recognition as a composer in the years before 1914.
That reputation waned after the war, by which time he had become better known as a critic, although he completed the Gothic Symphony between 1919 and 1927, by composing quietly in the evenings.
The Gothic lay unperformed until 1961, by which time his music, with the help of the composer and influential BBC producer Robert Simpson, had witnessed a revival, leading to an astonishing Indian summer of creativity that saw Brian write the last 21 of his 32 symphonies beyond the age of 80.
By the time he died in 1976, his Gothic Symphony, numbered Symphony No 1, had also been performed under Sir Adrian Boult in 1966 as a 90th birthday tribute, from which a commercial recording exists.
“One of the most remarkable things about this symphony is that Brian sat up in his bedroom night after night composing something for which there was no prospect of performance,” says Brabbins, who believes it to be “one of the most remarkable pieces of British music.”
“When Proms director Roger Wright approached me two years ago about doing this work, I knew it by reputation only, but was fascinated at the prospect of putting such a massive project together,” he recalls. “Roger’s original idea was to do it entirely with amateur musicians, but when I looked at the score – especially those extended a cappella sections in the Te Deum – I told him he was asking for trouble. There could be no chance of error, so I persuaded him to go the professional route.”
Wright agreed, and the final line up included the first ever joint performance by two BBC orchestras (the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra), and a 500-strong combination of top choruses that included among others, the Bach Choir, the London Symphony Chorus, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Brighton Festival Chorus, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
The result is genuinely convincing – a symphonic roller-coaster ride complete with the visceral thrill and excitement provided by the odd inevitable imperfections that feed into any live recording.
And Brabbins is being purely factual, rather than boastful, in considering this as “the new definitive version” of the work, in relation to the 1960s Boult recording with an expanded BBC Symphony Orchestra, or the more recent Naxos recording by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Working on it, he says, was like captaining a supertanker, requiring meticulous planning, and a total belief in the music.
“I’m less sceptical of it than some,” he says, conscious of the mixed critical reaction that followed July’s performance. “We paid particular attention to the composer’s tempo markings – very specific tempo relations that were ignored in these earlier recordings. It was also important to have time to balance things, to adjust everything that was going on, so that we could achieve exactly what the composer wrote and intended.”
Altruism aside, the Hyperion recording represents for Brabbins a priceless souvenir of a night he will simply never forget. “This is the actual concert,” he says, reminiscing on the occasion that he and almost a thousand musicians awoke a sleeping giant.
My own view is that Brian’s symphonic colossus is less a masterpiece, more a genuinely fascinating curiosity. But either way, you have to hear it to believe it.
• Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is available now on Hyperion, www.hyperion-records.co.uk