BRIAN: Symphony No. 1 in d "The Gothic."
Susan Gritton (soprano); Christine Rice (mezzo); Peter Auty (tenor); Alastair Miles (bass); David Goode (organ); The Bach Choir; Brighton Festival Chorus; CBSO Youth Chorus; Côr Caerdydd; Eltham College Boys' Choir; Huddersfield Choral Society; London Symphony Chorus; Southen Boys' and Girls' Choirs; BBC Concert Orchestra; BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/Martyn Brabbins.
Hyperion CDA67971/2 TT: 114:48 (2 CDs).
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OMG. It must have been crowded in the Royal Albert Hall when this performance was recorded at the BBC Proms, and not just with ticketholders. Choirs, subchoirs, brass choirs all around the hall jostled with a huge onstage contingent. For this performance, 800-900 players took part. Incidentally, the hall seats 5250. Obviously, performances of Brian's "Gothic" will run rare on the ground. There just aren't that many venues for the participants to rehearse it, let alone present it. Against the odds, I heard an NPR airing of Boult's 1961 BBC broadcast when I lived in New Orleans, but I can't say that it hooked me. The sound quality may have had much to do with it. Incidentally, the BBC Proms is one of the few organizations that can afford to program music this extravagant. In the U.S., "proms" generally mean Broadway Nite. Not that I'm complaining.

Of all the questions I could ask, why Brian wrote it at all interests me the most. It's a very time-consuming symphony, at least an hour and a half. It long had the reputation as the most gargantuan ever written, but Brian expert Calum Macdonald apparently has found even bigger ones. It took Brian about eight years to complete, necessarily working on it part-time because he needed the paying jobs of music copyist and music journalist, which at least kept both him and his family alive. In the 1900s, he had written A Fantastic Symphony, based on the tune "3 Blind Mice." Dissatisfied with it, he cannibalized two of its movements -- a theme and variations and the scherzo -- as separate pieces, the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme and the Festal Dance. He jettisoned the rest. So the "Gothic," twenty years later, stands as his first official symphony. Why so big? Brian, while an idealist, was no idiot. He was well aware of the problems of getting it performed, let alone published. None of his other symphonies run this long or this large. First, following a suggestion made by the conductor Henry Wood, he wished to write something that made use of complete families of wind instruments -- all the clarinets, all the flutes, etc. Second, like Mahler in the Symphony No. 8, he wanted to write a musical work inspired by Goethe's Faust as well as a Te Deum. Indeed, he even set Faust's prologue in 1956. Third -- and most important -- the vision of the entire symphony came to him in a flash. A composer can't afford to ignore when stuff like that happens.

But the usual critical emphasis on size amounts to trees obscuring the forest. Quite simply, this magnificent work thoroughly justifies Brian's call for resources. I think it the equal or even the better of the Mahler Eighth. It's far more direct and maintains its visionary blaze more brightly. By the way, one often encounters the term "visionary" in writing about this score. Yet for all of its length, for all of its performing battalions, the symphony remains a very compact work in terms of its materials and how it develops them. The large orchestra seldom plays all at once, and Brian uses his instrumental horde for spatial effects and kaleidoscopic color shifts rather than for big bow-wows. It's a shame that, due to the economics of the music business, one will probably hear this only through recording. How I envy the concert audience that night.

The symphony consists of six movements in two parts, three and three. Part I, slightly more than a third of the score, is purely instrumental. A complete choral Te Deum comprises Part II.

The first movement, "Allegro assai," begins with a headlong, angry march such as you'd find in Mahler. The main ideas are a sharply dotted rhythm, a pitch shape (D-F-D-A), and (for the second subject) a sharply contrasting, lyrical pentatonic theme, announced in a violin solo. In his later work, Brian can get far more complicated with, for example, three subject groups continuously varied. Here, he's quite straightforward. Although there is thematic variation, the ideas are sufficiently distinct that you have few problems figuring out where he takes you. The movement seems to fly by.

Macdonald describes the second movement ("Lento espressivo e solenne") as a "haunted march." I can't do any better. At least, it begins that way. It quickly becomes anguished and agitated, as peak after emotional peak crests and breaks. It contains one principal idea, which you quickly recognize as a variant of the D-F-D-A of the first movement. Subsidiary ideas get thrown against it, including the first notes of the Dies irae. To me, it amounts to a lament for all the dead young soldiers of World War I, a protest against the criminal waste of generations. After a massive outcry, the music subsides into a bass clarinet solo which leads directly to the third-movement "Vivace."

The wildest stretch of the first part, this scherzo begins with a low, rapid ostinato à la Bruckner and the tension that comes from waiting for impending disaster. That disaster hits -- an infernal battle in music -- wild dissonances, tangles of counterpoint, and in many places a demonic, gibbering orchestra (featuring a jaw-dropping xylophone solo) -- based mainly on yet another variant of the first-movement subject and on the ostinato. Suddenly the whirl subsides into a radiant D-major chord, taken up by choral voices, and we find ourselves at the beginning of Part II and the Te Deum.

As powerful as Part I has been, Part II can fairly be described as musically visionary. One of the most difficult things to do in any art is to discover basic ideas or tropes. Brian does so time after time in this score. You will hear sounds, all stemming from a late Romantic idiom, you have never heard before. The counterpoint exhibits frankly incredible complexity. Brian came to believe, mistakenly, that counterpoint largely determined the worth of a composition. Counterpoint became the default mode of his musical language. Here, however, he ramps it up, apparently besotted by counterpoint. Bach, the generally-acknowledged master of Western counterpoint, seldom gets beyond six independent voices. Calum Macdonald asserts that, in certain passages of Part II, Brian creates textures of twenty independent voices within an Elgarian idiom. Pace, Brian, but this is not in itself a good. After all, it could ooze like a mass of indigestible aural porridge, a slog of sound. In the Brian, such passages amaze me because, despite their paper complexity, they drive home expressive points.

A cappella children's choirs begin the fourth movement ("Allegro moderato") with a theme that recalls the traditional Te Deum chant. Guess what? It also relates to our old friend, the pitch-motive that has shown up in every movement of the score so far. To me, this represents symphonic planning at a level I couldn't begin to guess at. The four soloists enter, also a cappella, intertwining with extremely florid counterpoint. The brass then herald the rejoicing of heaven in a glorious sea of praise. This clarifies to one corner of heaven calling and responding to another, and we're off.

Brian's fifth movement, "Adagio molto solenne e religioso," sets one line of text: "Iudex crederis esse venturus" -- we believe you will come to judge us. It begins with women's voices singing a cappella, followed by the men singing a cappella, in a kind of chorale, except that the chords have a way, like sticking organ keys, of turning into dissonant tone clusters. Brian uses the latter in two ways -- the dissonance suddenly resolving into pure chord, the dissonance gradually resolving (like an image coming gradually into focus). I must mention one gorgeous effect (of hundreds): a full choral chord "melting" into a solo soprano, unaccompanied. In the vast spaces of the Albert Hall, some of the audience, at least, must have forgotten to breathe. The entire movement cruelly tests the choir, expected to carry off long patches of chromatic harmony without instrumental support and to remain on pitch when the orchestra finally does return. Trumpets announce the last judgment, but not with the usual ceremonial fanfares. It's more like alarums before and during a battle. The music depicts Christ striding over the earth to judge the quick and the dead. The textures get incredibly thick, and, trust me, you won't be able to unsnarl them. But, unlike most such occurrences, they simply add to the power of Brian's vision. I can understand why an artist would want to express something so magnificent, even if he weren't a believer. I can also understand when the artist might either shrink from the challenge or fall short. However, Brian does neither. To me, this and the Verdi Requiem are the musical equivalents of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The sixth movement, marked "Moderato e molto sostenuto," runs at least twice as long as any of the others. After a poignant introduction by the solo oboe, the tenor implores God's help in "Te ergo, quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni" (therefore, we pray you to help your servants). The orchestra becomes increasingly agitated, until it makes way for a tender solo by the English horn. The tenor finishes his part of the prayer. The harmonies here stretch the ears. A restless transition, which features what I've come to recognize as Brian's totally individual use of percussion, arrives at the alto solo, abetted by the choirs who pray to be numbered with the saints in eternal glory, of which Brian gives us quite a glimpse -- lots of brass and especially a skirling xylophone. A double men's chorus, in heaven knows how many parts a cappella and discreetly supported by the organ, pray for salvation. The women take up the prayer, and finally we have antiphonal choirs of all sorts -- male, female, children's, mixed. A jaunty march on nine (!) clarinets accompanied by nothing but a snare drum catches the rapture of the heavenly host (the choir singing nothing but "ahs" and "las" at this point) praising God's name forever. Again, Brian stands out here in his incredible use of percussion. It's not the volume of noise that excites, so much as the singing and colors of the mallet instruments. This rather long passage -- or, rather, series of passages -- for me represents the emotional and the aesthetic highpoint of the symphony.

The music returns to earth, with the prayer of the bass soloist to God to keep us without sin and to have mercy on us, an odd mix of resolution tinged with a bit of chromatic anguish. Brian caps all of this with a choral double fugue (2 simultaneously expounded subjects instead of the usual one) based on our old pal, the symphony's primary pitch motive. Then the orchestra unleashes a hellish fury, which the choir manages to keep at bay with the plea "non confundar in aeternum" (let me never be confounded). An orchestral lament leads to an a cappella choral benediction, with the peace that passes understanding, thus bringing to an end more than a piece of music. This is not only one of the greatest British scores from the Tudors on, it's nothing less than one of the great monuments of Western music -- along with the b-minor Mass, the Missa Solemnis, the Ring cycle, and the Mahler Ninth. It is a work to come back to again and again. Some listeners will feel a spiritual replenishment. I'm not one of them, but I am no less drawn by its aesthetic attraction. At the least, it will find a place in many mental jukeboxes.

Because the economics of the classical-music industry are what they are, this is necessarily a live performance. I don't believe anyone will ever mount a studio recording. Of course, there are hitches, unfocused sections that could likely be cleaned up in a studio, especially by the virtuosi of the mixing boards. The forces are so large and so spread out, that occasionally the left side and the right side don't quite sync. But it amazes me how little of this, in a work so complex, one encounters. Brabbins has at least earned laurels for superb conducting technique. That he also offers an exciting performance is the equivalent of winning the Powerball lottery. The BBC made an expensive bet which paid off beyond, I suspect, their hopes. The soloists are superb, negotiating Brian's complex lines expressively and with assurance. There's no desperation in the singing. The choirs -- all of them, including the children's choirs -- nail their parts. The orchestras drive much of the performance, if nothing else as the tactus that keeps Brian's massive vision together. They also play as if they can't wait to take a bite of the next phrase. I feel as if they greatly enjoy the work. The CD includes nine minutes of the Albert Hall audience going nuts. Normally, I'm not a fan of including such things, but in this case, I thoroughly understand.

Undoubtedly, one of my recordings of the year.

S.G.S. (March 2012)