Brian: Symphony No. 1 (Gothic)

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WORKS: Symphony No. 1 (Gothic)
PERFORMER: Eva Jenisová (soprano), Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano), Vladimír Dolezal (tenor), Peter Mikulás (bass); Slovak Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Lúcnica Chorus, Bratislava City & Children’s Choir, Youth Echo Choir, Slovak PO & Choir, Slovak RSO/O
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557418-19
Self-recommending. Whatever the critical verdict, positive or negative, whatever the comparisons with Beethoven 9 or Mahler 8, Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (1919-27) is the boldest throw of vast imagination in the British symphonic repertoire. Three gripping, purely instrumental movements lasting about 40 minutes are succeeded by a three-movement setting of the Te Deum nearly twice that length, for orchestral and choral forces that dwarf almost everything ever written, and spanning a stylistic gamut from post-Romantic drama, through neo-medieval polyphony, to Varèse-like brass outbursts and Ligeti-like choral clusters. There is still no British recording: only this Slovak one. While hardly the last word interpretatively (some of Ondrej Lenárd’s tempi are rushed, some vital detail goes unpointed) it is easily good enough to give a vivid realisation of Brian’s dumbfounding score. With the combined forces of two orchestras, choirs and four sterling soloists, the performance is at least one of blazing belief. Some ingenuity in the engineering creates the necessary separation in a studio setting. The rather cavernous acoustic, not ideal for the orchestral movements, comes into its own with the extraordinary textural complexities of the Te Deum, some of the most amazing sonic phenomena to emerge from stereo speakers. This was a surprise runaway best-seller at full price. Now it’s reissued at bargain price, no one who claims the slightest interest in 20th-century British music has any further excuse to be without this thrilling, astonishing work. Calum MacDonald