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).
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.
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
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
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
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
Undoubtedly, one of my recordings of the year.
S.G.S. (March 2012)