Proms 2011: Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony

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In our first Proms diary of 2011 Nick Shave wrestles with Brian's gargantuan First Symphony

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One symphony, six movements, 200 orchestral players, 800 singers: Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is up there with Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as one of the Goliaths of the symphonic repertoire. And just as the Mahler kicked off last year’s festival, so Brian’s Gothic monster has been let loose on the Proms’s opening weekend of concerts that traditionally outlines the scale and ambition of the season ahead.

Tickets to see this Proms debut had sold out just 12 hours after going on sale – it’s only the sixth time the work has been performed since it was completed in 1927. Filling the extended stage on the night were the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra – and nine choirs, which filled the back walls of the Royal Albert Hall. Both children’s choirs, timpani and brass flanked the stage on either side of the auditorium, taking up seats where the audience would ordinarily sit.

But Brian’s first symphony is far from ordinary. On the contrary, it’s a sprawling and eclectic mix of chromaticism that recalls Wagner, bits of Bruckner, post-war percussion, brass that recalls Holst, medieval plainchant, renaissance polyphony, passing orientalisms, folksong… you name it, it’s all thrown into the mix. But to what end? All stats considered – and did I mention that, at 1 hour 40 minutes long, this is also the world’s longest symphony? – are Brian’s ideas worthy of the resources they’re written for?

In a word: no. Brian wrote 32 symphonies and listening to the Gothic at the beginning of his symphonic journey, it’s hard to escape the sense of a composer who is attempting to find and yet simultaneously assert his own personality. It’s a triumph of quantity over quality, with vacuous themes, turgid orchestral textures and orchestration (a duet between harp and trombones?) that often simply don’t work. (If only these resources had been made available to, say, Ligeti instead.)

For the most part, conductor Martyn Brabbins kept the spectacle in full swing, building momentum towards the climaxes – the first arriving in the first movement when the stage was dramatically lit up to reveal the choir of 800, frantically turning the pages of their scores, looking for their entry, as the four leading soloists – Susan Gritton, Christine Rice, Peter Auty, Alastair Miles – made their entrance onto the stage. There were the occasional lulls, too, particularly during the male-voice exchanges of the Te Deum. But overall, Brian’s heavy mix of counterpoint and bloated choirs, vacuous themes, rasping brass and clunky organ cues captured more of the grotesque than the sublime in Gothic.

 

Prom 4: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, The Gothic; Susan Gritton (sop), Christine Rice (mz), Peter Auty (ten), Alastair Miles (bass); CBSO Youth Chorus, Eltham College Boys' Choir, Southend Boys' and Girls' Choirs, Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Brighton Festival Chorus, Côr Caerdydd, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus; BBC Concert Orchestra; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is Contributing Editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls

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Nick Shave

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Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music...

Nick Shave