Havergal Brian – The Gothic Symphony/Boult [Testament]

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in D minor (The Gothic)

Honor Sheppard (soprano), Shirley Minty (contralto), Ronald Dowd (tenor) & Roger Stalman (bass)

BBC Chorus, BBC Choral Society, City of London Choir, Hampstead Choral Society, Emanuel School Choir, and Orpington Junior Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult

Recorded 30 October 1966 in Royal Albert Hall, London

Also included is “Havergal Brian Interviewed for the BBC by J. Behague on 1 January 1966”

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: March 2010
SBT2 1454 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes [including the 7-minute interview]



Of all the sleeping giants of music, none is perhaps more famous or indeed infamous than Havergal Brian’s mammoth Gothic Symphony. One only has to mention it, without naming the composer (1876-1972), to get at least some reaction! Sometimes it might not be a terribly enthusiastic response, which despite having mulled over the score some years ago I have to admit was mine, but hearing this recording has completely transformed my reaction. This is a release that should be on the shelves of anyone who cares not just about the highways and byways of British music, but for anyone interested in hearing a truly remarkable piece, which might only appear in the concert hall once or twice in one’s lifetime (if at all). Even more remarkable is the fact that this is a recording of the first-ever professional performance, mounted in the Royal Albert Hall, almost forty years after Brian completed the eight-year-composed symphony (he would go on to write thirty-one more).

This performance is indeed a revelation – Sir Adrian Boult paces this huge work extraordinarily well. The opening, even allowing for the age and circumstances of the recording, is electrifying, the music surging forward with a huge amount of rhythmic energy and yet it never gets even remotely out of control. Boult’s tempos and grasp of the work’s structure never slacken – the scherzo bristles (the bizarre xylophone solo coming off magnificently), whilst the slow movement has real depth and gravitas. The immense choral, three-section, 67-minute finale is frankly awe-inspiring – nothing else to be said!

In this account it is certainly the orchestral playing that comes of best, Havergal Brian’s virtuoso scoring holding no terrors for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This may be the biggest symphony ever written, both in terms of length and in its requirement for gargantuan forces, but much of the scoring is of chamber-music-like delicacy, more than well realised here. The choral contributions come off slightly less well (the BBC Chorus clearly not the disciplined group it is today), the pitches wobble and the challenging multi-divided parts test all the choristers, as indeed they would today, but the final result would no doubt be more secure. Similarly, the solo singing is at times less than distinguished, but such is the force of Brian’s conception, complemented by Boult’s command of this mind-boggling score, that these blemishes don’t get in the way of what is a towering achievement.

Testament’s booklet is nicely produced and includes some interesting photographs of the composer as well as Sir Adrian Boult at rehearsals (Boult complete with megaphone, addressing the massed forces at rehearsal), and not forgetting Malcolm MacDonald’s informative and elegantly written liner note. There is a wonderful quote from Sir Adrian who tells how he used a particularly long baton – “and the usual is pretty long”, he says! An added attraction is an interview with the composer, taped by the BBC on 1 January 1966 in which the composer responds to a series of rather silly questions with good-humoured and matter-of fact directness. Aside from the stereo channels having been reversed in the transfer (I understand this has been corrected on subsequent pressings), this is a wonderful release.

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