Monday, 18 July 2011

Brian's Gothic Symphony at the Proms

I remember listening to BBC Radio 3's broadcasting of all of Havergal Brian's Symphonies, probably sometime in the 1980's. And I have a tape of the BBC Broadcast of his opera The Tigers. But I have to admit that Brian's music does not feature heavily in my listening habits. I was certainly unfamiliar with his first symphony.

The forces that the BBC had assembled were truly stupendous, 4 children's choruses (Eltham College Boys, CBSO Youth, Southend Boys, Southend Girls), 6 choirs (Brighton Festival, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Bach Choir, Cor Caerdydd)and two orchestras (BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Concert Orchestra). The personnel overflowed the usual performing area. The adult choristers filled the whole of the rear stage area up to the top level, the orchestra overflowed onto extra platform area which extended into the arena, the children were in the stalls either side of the orchestra, then came the 4 platforms with the extra brass and timpani (organised into 4 brass groups, each with their own timpani). There were also a dozen off stage trumpeters and David Goode on the organ. Oh, and 4 soloists - Susan Gritton, Christine Rice, Peter Auty and Alastair Miles. In charge of all this was Martyn Brabbins.

For the first 45 minutes we had 3 purely orchestral movements, which were tautly written and logically symphonically argued, closes perhaps to Rubbra. Impressive but not necessarily loveable and certainly not with the emotional tug which someone like RVW can bring to the symphony. It was only towards the very end of the third movement that Brian actually used anything like his huge forces.

Now the orchestra was slightly oddly constituted. If we ignore the 4 extra brass bands and timpani, then we had an orchestra with a large number of most things (including 2 euphoniums and 2 tubas), something like 9 horns, 8 trumpets, 2 cornets and 1 bass trumpet. But in the clarinet section (10 or so of them) there was only 1 bass clarinet, 1 contrabass. Similarly there was only 1 bass oboe. I am not sure that I was aware of hearing the contrabass clarinet at any point. I began to wonder whether it was needed. What would be the effect on the orchestration if it went missing? (see Beecham's story about the Joseph Holbrooke piece and the Heckelphone which goes missing) Brian's intention was to create a symphony emulating a Gothic cathedral and you could not help thinking that the sheer size of the orchestration was its point; that like many a Gothic structure, there were many elements which would be perfectly formed but never be seen/heard by ordinary mortals.

Brian's final 3 movements, the choral ones, set the Te Deum and lasted well over an hour. The structure was the sort of omnium gatherum, whole world in a single movement type which is familiar from Mahler, in fact we even got the odd popular sounding melody. The textures were often detailed and complex, I'm not sure that we got all of the detail in the Albert Hall. And Brian used his full forces relatively sparingly. There was a thrilling moment, during the Non Confundar section, when all of the 6 sets of timpani set off, but such moments were rare and tended not to last long. The choral section opened and closed with the choruses singing unaccompanied, something that Brian did a lot of. If his construction reminded me of Mahler, his tendency to juxtapose blocks reminded me of Bruckner.

Brian splits his main choral forces into two double choirs, and some of the choral writing sounded pretty tricky. Communication was obviously difficult across the vast expanses (the rear-most chorenes were a long way from Brabbins; I know, I've sung in a Mahler 8 at the Proms many years ago where the conductor was a dim, distant figure). One or two of the choral entries sounded a tad raw, mainly through over enthusiasm and anxiety for the gesture to tell rather than carelessness. Overall the choral singing impressed immensely.

But I keep coming back to the single worry; what was it all for?

You might have noticed that I've not mentioned the soloists. Susan Gritton provided some lovely singing, particularly in her off-stage moment. Peter Auty seem taxed by the intensely complex solo her was given and Alistair Miles thundered with commitment. Christine Rice's role seemed to be to provide the alto line in the soloists ensembles, she got no major solo. But none of the solo passages were large and you felt that the soloists were not the most important part of the event.

Ultimately, I'm glad we went, it was a truly stupendous experience. But it got me no closer to Brian's music and I am not sure that I feel I need to hear the symphony again sometime soon. (Near to use, one group of people included a guy who proclaimed that he'd last heard the work 40 years ago!).

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