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Guy Rickards
Gramophone, October 2011

BRIAN: Symphony No. 1, ‘The Gothic’ 8.557418-19
BRIAN, H.: Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 (Ukraine National Symphony, Penny) 8.572641

Brian awareness grows apace with further reissues

I write this a few days before the Gothic’s Proms premiere, its first complete performance in the UK for 31 years. So this year’s 21st anniversary reissue of Ondrej Lenárd’s pioneering Marco Polo recording, on Naxos (with the rebranded Slovak—not Czechoslovak—RSO, I notice) in a limited Ondrej Lenárd’s pioneering Marco Polo recording, on Naxos (with the rebranded Slovak—not Czechoslovak—RSO, I notice) in a limited edition, is most timely. Michael Oliver was lyrical in his original review of both work and performance, which overcame his previous misgivings about the music and its creator. Lenárd’s account still sounds well in Günter Appenheimer’s expert recording, though since then it has been challenged by Testament’s archival release of Boult’s 1966 professional premiere. I outlined the pros and cons of both in my review of the latter last year so won’t repeat myself; suffice it to say, though, that both recordings serve Brian’s vision superbly, and both grace my shelves.

No alternative versions have yet been released of Symphonies Nos 20 and 25 or the early Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. The last-named, along with Festal Dance (coupled with Symphonies Nos 17 and 32), is all that remains of Brian’s original First Symphony, a (probably) never fully realised spoof symphonic treatment of “Three Blind Mice” which is worked up into a delightfully Straussian yet rather off-beam quasi-symphonic poem. Tovey thought highly enough of it to include it in his Essays in Musical Analysis, and Michael Oliver once again gave a warm welcome to the original issue on Marco Polo, justifiably in my view, as the disc juxtaposes three works from different periods in Brian’s career: early for the Fantastic Variations, (late)middle for No 20—one of the more expansive of Brian’s later symphonies with its wonderful slow middle movement—and (early)late for No 25. Penny produced fine accounts with the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra, for whom the idiom was quite alien. Occasionally that shows in the playing but it is no more of an issue than for a British orchestra performing, say, Kalinnikov. The sound is still of high quality and the restoration of these recordings, especially at super-budget price, will be immensely welcome to the Brian Society as well as to those coming anew to this famously incalculable composer.



Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, July 2011

I recently re-read the book on Sibelius by his secretary Santeri Levas. It presents one of the most personal and personable portraits of the composer. Amongst the many anecdotes and observations was one relating to the long silence from Järvenpää. Levas made the point that Sibelius was 61 by the time he completed his last major works and that the vast majority of composers had completed the bulk of their oeuvre by that age anyway or had died. Whether or not there is illumination in that point there are always exceptions: take Haydn, Hovhaness and Havergal Brian. His old age was alive with challenging symphonic invention. The Naxos series has reminded us of that point but has also looked at the works of his ‘younger age’. The Gothic was completed when Brian was 51 at about the same age as Brahms when he wrote his first. Thus while Brian was astonishing productive of symphonies well into his eighties he started late (we’ll ignore a false start or two).

Has there ever been a First Symphony as ambitious in intention, grasp and achievement as the Gothic. There have been remarkable firsts; I think of those by Enescu, Prokofiev and Shostakovich yet none of these have stormed the heavens or stared unblinkingly at eternity in the same way. Across its almost two hours it never falters. Violence and peace stand close to each other throughout. Try the last section of the first movement for the seraphic voice made eloquent in the solo violin. For Violence we can cite the Mars-like dynamic established by the rapped-out timpani attack that impels the work forward at the start of the first movement. The layout of the Symphony some may find disconcerting. However it does work. The first three movements are entirely orchestral. In fact they work as a ‘conventional’ symphony and have been played in that form. The second part is a massive setting of the Requiem for multiple soloists, choirs, full orchestra and brass ensembles.

You may well think of other composers. For example in the second movement you will encounter a ‘ticking’ figure which for me links with the snowy ambience of Bax’s later Fifth Symphony. Gloriously glowing horns call out above the magnificent din put up by the rest of the orchestra in music that defines heroic. The Judex (tr. 1 CD2) features yet more extraordinary writing. The wheeling choral passage is like Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. Tr. 2 CD2 has a brutal lumbering march with raw fanfares and brass bands rolling and echoing around the great space of the Slovak Concert Hall. Once again however Brian leaves us in awe with the Mother Goose iridescent delicacy and joyful glitter of the women’s voices and silvery tinkling percussion (tr. 10 CD2). The mood then switches in tr. 13 to a jaunty, slightly Mahlerian, march for nine clarinets. The work finds consummation in words intoned with deep reverence: ‘Non confundar in aeternam’. The singing is rich and resonant in bass definition. Not that Alexander Sveshnikov and the USSR choir would not have made even more of a dream-team ending.

As a recording it is amongst Gunter Appenheimer’s best and it was captured in the exemplary grand acoustic of Bratislava’s world-standard concert hall.

The more than just useful notes for this Naxos set, reduced by Keith Anderson from the original Marco Polo issue, are by Brian and Foulds champion, Malcolm Macdonald.

The sung Latin texts are printed in full with parallel translations. The work is liberally tracked so that you can follow the structure, incident by incident.

The Gothic has had quite a blooming of late. It was performed in Brisbane, Queensland, on 23 December 2010 with John Curro conducting the Queensland Youth Orchestra and many other artists. The performance was dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Charles Mackerras who himself conducted a number of Brian’s symphonies. This performance was said have been filmed for an ABC documentary The Curse of the Gothic Symphony which will debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011. Then on Sunday 17 July 2011 it will have an extraordinary Proms premiere conducted by Martyn Brabbins who recorded Brian’s Symphonies 10 and 30, the Concerto for Orchestra and the English Suite No. 3 with the RSNO for the magnificent Dutton.

Brian’s Gothic is a massive asseveration of confidence by someone who stood as an outsider to the musical establishment unblessed with private resources or a public school education let alone a formal musical training. It is a work of staggering scale and substance and is not let down in any way by the present recording.




Penguin Guide, January 2009

The first of the Havergal Brian symphonies here receives a passionately committed performance from Slovak forces. Despite a few incidental flaws, it conveys surging excitement from first to last, helped by a rich recording, which gives a thrilling impression of massed forces. The final Te Deum, alone lasting 72 minutes, brings fervent choral wiring of formidable complexity, with the challenge taken up superbly by the Slovak musicians. Originally on Marco Polo, this is now a very real bargain in its Naxos reissue.



Bob Zeidler
Gothic Silk, August 2007

Finally! From Marco Polo to Naxos. And affordable!

Klaus Heymann, the founder of these two labels, was courageous a number of years back, when he released Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony on his full-price Marco Polo label. I would guess that the album has been a steady, if slow, seller over those years, as it has been the only available recording of this marvelously idiosyncratic work. My own copy, played at least annually (almost ritualistically so) has served me well for most of those years.

I’ve long wanted to introduce this work to friends, but for some of them cost, and, to an extent, availability, have stood in the way. No longer! Heymann has done the right thing by releasing this album on his budget Naxos label, and it is now affordable to all. And, as I note later, it is better than the Marco Polo original in more than just price.

The ‘Gothic’ may well be the most talked-about-yet-not-listened-to classical work ever. Many seem to have opinions on it whether they’ve listened to it or not (in which case, the work may well hold two records: the largest symphony in terms of orchestral forces, and the most misunderstood as well). The ‘Gothic’ inevitably gets compared, largely incorrectly, with a handful of other works with which it has little in common: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony (’The Symphony of a Thousand’) most often, but also the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, the ‘Grand Messe des Morts,’ ‘Te Deum’ and ‘La Damnation de Faust’ of Hector Berlioz, and even, on occasion, Arnold Schoenberg’s early ‘Gurre-Lieder.’ But such similarities exist mostly at the margins; the ‘Gothic’ is a true sui generis work owing no measurable debt to these.

The greatest similarity is to the Mahler work. Both are divided into two unequal parts, in roughly 1/3 to 2/3 proportions; both utilize Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and medieval hymns for inspiration (but Brian and Mahler invert the order of these two sources), and both call for huge orchestral and choral resources. But comparison ends there; the ‘Gothic’ hasn’t the cumulative inevitability of the Mahler work, and is quite different in all other respects.

Nor has the ‘Gothic’ the granitic architectonics of Bruckner’s symphonies (although there are a few brass chorale passages reminiscent of Bruckner), or the equally idiosyncratic brilliance of the three Berlioz works despite the ‘Gothic’ being inspired by ‘Faust,’ having some of its orchestral forces spatially arrayed as in the ‘Grand Messe des Morts,’ and having its massive Part II set to the ‘Te Deum’ text.

Anyone familiar with British music of the period the ‘Gothic’ was written in will recognize this as a British work: Except in the most idiosyncratic places (of which there is no shortage), the work is British to the core, with passages that alternately remind one of an entire host of such composers. Bax, Butterworth, Holst and Vaughan Williams come to mind, and Elgar is seldom far away. (While Brian came from a working class background and had been, at least in part, an autodidact, he was already known and respected by his British peers prior to the ‘Gothic.’)

To be sure, the ‘Gothic’ is a huge, sprawling work, seemingly evolving as a series of tableaux full of original themes and orchestrational touches, as well as choral writing that was years ahead of its time in its harmonic daring and vocal density. The episodic style, and the frequent punctuations of the ‘Gothic’ by march music, remind me as much of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony as the work reminds others of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. (One such march, a quirky one scored for nine unison clarinets and side drum, is particularly intriguing.) Moreover, there is a ‘long arc’ to the work not unlike the Mahler 3rd that could be said to represent a journey from ‘darkness into light.’ Brian began the work in the shadow of the end of the Great War; to him, ‘Gothic’ symbolized the emergence from the Dark Ages into something better and brighter. But, whereas the Mahler work ends in a blaze of glory, the ‘Gothic’ ends, after its journey of considerable length, in a softly diatonic yet enigmatic sense of a capella choral repose. To me, it is as if he is uncertain that the ‘enduring timelessness’ of the Gothic cathedral, as metaphor, is all that enduring, following the horrors of the Great War he experienced first-hand.

This is not an easy work, so rich with ideas as it is, to grasp at first hearing. (A wealth of information on the work, as ’symphony qua symphony,’ and as metaphor, can be found at musicweb.uk.net/brian/sym1.htm.) But it is certainly not difficult to enjoy it, and, over time, build one’s own cumulative sense of its logic. The high quality of the performance belies its origins and makes a splendid argument for the work’s own qualities.

This Naxos release is an improvement over its Marco Polo predecessor in ways other than just cost. The sound is noticeably clearer, particularly in the densest passages, which had a fair bit of congestion and distortion. (This improvement comes at the expense of recording level, which is slightly, but observably, lower, probably by 4 - 6 dB.) The album is now in a ’slimline’ 2-CD jewel box that takes up less shelf space. There has been no significant attempt at cost cutting for the booklet, which faithfully duplicates the material in the Marco Polo release, save for brief notated musical examples and two color photographs. In exchange, the Naxos notes include even more information on the forces used in the recording, with biographical details about the vocal soloists and further information on the orchestras and choruses. As before, the discs are generously indexed, with musical references to the index points (a total of 46) clearly stated in the booklet notes. For many coming upon this work for the first time, these notes and index points will help them understand this weird yet wonderful work.

VERY highly recommended!



Bob Zeidler
Gothic Silk, August 2007

Finally! From Marco Polo to Naxos. And affordable!

Klaus Heymann, the founder of these two labels, was courageous a number of years back, when he released Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony on his full-price Marco Polo label. I would guess that the album has been a steady, if slow, seller over those years, as it has been the only available recording of this marvelously idiosyncratic work. My own copy, played at least annually (almost ritualistically so) has served me well for most of those years.

I’ve long wanted to introduce this work to friends, but for some of them cost, and, to an extent, availability, have stood in the way. No longer! Heymann has done the right thing by releasing this album on his budget Naxos label, and it is now affordable to all. And, as I note later, it is better than the Marco Polo original in more than just price.

The ‘Gothic’ may well be the most talked-about-yet-not-listened-to classical work ever. Many seem to have opinions on it whether they’ve listened to it or not (in which case, the work may well hold two records: the largest symphony in terms of orchestral forces, and the most misunderstood as well). The ‘Gothic’ inevitably gets compared, largely incorrectly, with a handful of other works with which it has little in common: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony (’The Symphony of a Thousand’) most often, but also the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, the ‘Grand Messe des Morts,’ ‘Te Deum’ and ‘La Damnation de Faust’ of Hector Berlioz, and even, on occasion, Arnold Schoenberg’s early ‘Gurre-Lieder.’ But such similarities exist mostly at the margins; the ‘Gothic’ is a true sui generis work owing no measurable debt to these.

The greatest similarity is to the Mahler work. Both are divided into two unequal parts, in roughly 1/3 to 2/3 proportions; both utilize Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and medieval hymns for inspiration (but Brian and Mahler invert the order of these two sources), and both call for huge orchestral and choral resources. But comparison ends there; the ‘Gothic’ hasn’t the cumulative inevitability of the Mahler work, and is quite different in all other respects.

Nor has the ‘Gothic’ the granitic architectonics of Bruckner’s symphonies (although there are a few brass chorale passages reminiscent of Bruckner), or the equally idiosyncratic brilliance of the three Berlioz works despite the ‘Gothic’ being inspired by ‘Faust,’ having some of its orchestral forces spatially arrayed as in the ‘Grand Messe des Morts,’ and having its massive Part II set to the ‘Te Deum’ text.

Anyone familiar with British music of the period the ‘Gothic’ was written in will recognize this as a British work: Except in the most idiosyncratic places (of which there is no shortage), the work is British to the core, with passages that alternately remind one of an entire host of such composers. Bax, Butterworth, Holst and Vaughan Williams come to mind, and Elgar is seldom far away. (While Brian came from a working class background and had been, at least in part, an autodidact, he was already known and respected by his British peers prior to the ‘Gothic.’)

To be sure, the ‘Gothic’ is a huge, sprawling work, seemingly evolving as a series of tableaux full of original themes and orchestrational touches, as well as choral writing that was years ahead of its time in its harmonic daring and vocal density. The episodic style, and the frequent punctuations of the ‘Gothic’ by march music, remind me as much of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony as the work reminds others of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. (One such march, a quirky one scored for nine unison clarinets and side drum, is particularly intriguing.) Moreover, there is a ‘long arc’ to the work not unlike the Mahler 3rd that could be said to represent a journey from ‘darkness into light.’ Brian began the work in the shadow of the end of the Great War; to him, ‘Gothic’ symbolized the emergence from the Dark Ages into something better and brighter. But, whereas the Mahler work ends in a blaze of glory, the ‘Gothic’ ends, after its journey of considerable length, in a softly diatonic yet enigmatic sense of a capella choral repose. To me, it is as if he is uncertain that the ‘enduring timelessness’ of the Gothic cathedral, as metaphor, is all that enduring, following the horrors of the Great War he experienced first-hand.

This is not an easy work, so rich with ideas as it is, to grasp at first hearing. (A wealth of information on the work, as ’symphony qua symphony,’ and as metaphor, can be found at musicweb.uk.net/brian/sym1.htm.) But it is certainly not difficult to enjoy it, and, over time, build one’s own cumulative sense of its logic. The high quality of the performance belies its origins and makes a splendid argument for the work’s own qualities.

This Naxos release is an improvement over its Marco Polo predecessor in ways other than just cost. The sound is noticeably clearer, particularly in the densest passages, which had a fair bit of congestion and distortion. (This improvement comes at the expense of recording level, which is slightly, but observably, lower, probably by 4 - 6 dB.) The album is now in a ’slimline’ 2-CD jewel box that takes up less shelf space. There has been no significant attempt at cost cutting for the booklet, which faithfully duplicates the material in the Marco Polo release, save for brief notated musical examples and two color photographs. In exchange, the Naxos notes include even more information on the forces used in the recording, with biographical details about the vocal soloists and further information on the orchestras and choruses. As before, the discs are generously indexed, with musical references to the index points (a total of 46) clearly stated in the booklet notes. For many coming upon this work for the first time, these notes and index points will help them understand this weird yet wonderful work.

VERY highly recommended!




Paul Rapoport
Fanfare, November 2004

This is the only legitimate recording of possibly the most important choral-orchestral work since Beethoven’s Ninth.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.








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