BBC Proms reviews

Prom 4: BBCNOW & BBCCO/Brabbins @ Royal Albert Hall, London

17 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

It is thirty-one years since Havergal Brians Symphony No. 1 in D minor was last performed in Britain, and, like the vast majority of audience members, this was the first time that I had ever heard it live. It is an incredible work that I suspect requires many hearings to make any real sense of from a strict musical perspective. Fortunately, however, just one is all that is needed to become fully aware of its magnitude, impact and sheer brilliance.

Composed between 1919 and 1927 the hundred minute Gothic Symphony, the longest in the entire symphonic repertoire, is divided into two parts, each possessing three movements. The first is based loosely on the first part of Goethes Faust when the Gothic figure thirsts for knowledge. The second, which introduces the singers, is a setting of the Te Deum, the demands of which go some way to explaining why performances are so rare. Alongside the four soloists, it requires two large double choruses, four brass bands, and an orchestra larger than anything that even Mahler ever demanded. While Faust and the Te Deum may seem an odd combination, it should be remembered that Brian began writing the Symphony straight after the First World War. Many religious convictions had been shaken, and amidst his memories of war the composer was embarking upon a new search for God.

From an early age he had been captivated by the Gothic cathedrals of NorthernEurope and his Symphony can be seen as an attempt to reproduce their architecture and atmosphere in music. Adrian Partington, chorus-master of three of the choirs performing, even likens Brian to a medieval stone mason. His endeavours may have been deep, serious and religiously inspired, but he was not averse to introducing elements of humour, if not downright ugliness, in his work.

On the night the BBCNOW, the BBCCO, the nine choirs that stretched far into the audience stalls, and conductor Martyn Brabbins certainly delivered the goods. Though much of the Symphonys impact can be attributed to Brians original composition, the contribution of this specific performance should not be underestimated. The first movement could not have opened more terrifyingly with the timpani and brass bursting forth. An extraordinary contrast was then effected as a solo violin played in D flat, but the power exerted at the end of the movement as the organ was introduced represented a step up even from the beginning.

The second movement in 5/4 was full of foreboding, while the thirds march-like and brutal qualities vividly recalled the battlefield. It was to these sounds that the four soloists walked on so that their very entrance felt as if it might herald an intense confrontation with the audience. Suddenly, however, everything changed with the third movements coda of infinite calm, and the subsequent start of the Te Deum. It is characterised by praise, radiance, overwhelming forces and quiet, and Brabbins did a superb job in controlling orchestras and choirs alike to capture so astutely the required array of effects.

With some timpani and brass placed in the audience stalls at right-angles to the stage, anyone in the arena must truly have experienced a live stereo effect. So overpowering were some of the passages that listeners and performers alike frequently broke into smiles that signified joy or ultimate contentment. Where Brabbins skill really came to the fore, however, was in capturing such precise note endings and dynamic unity in both the quietest and most cacophonous passages, and in achieving such smooth transitions from one to the other. With well over six hundred singers this was no mean feat.

Moments for quieter contemplation included the exquisite xylophone playing that Brian introduces on occasions, and those when Susan Grittons beautiful soprano voice soared across the Albert Hall from on high. All four soloists Gritton, Christine Rice, Peter Auty and Alastair Miles are highly renowned, but even they seemed so caught up in the occasion that it felt as if they were singing as they had never sung before.

Brians Gothic Symphony is undoubtedly crazy, and just as certainly a work of total genius. Though the evening revealed exactly how glorious it is, I fear that performances will remain few and far between. For that reason, you are strongly advised to catch a repeat broadcast of this one while you can, and I certainly hope that we will be treated to some of Brians other thirty plus symphonies over the next few seasons.

This performance will be repeated on Tuesday, 18th July at 14.00 on Radio 3, in addition to being available on iPlayer for a week.

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More on Martyn Brabbins
Prom 35: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Brabbins @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 17: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Brabbins @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Nash Ensemble / Brabbins @ Wigmore Hall, London
Prom 4: BBCNOW & BBCCO/Brabbins @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 73: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Brabbins @ Royal Albert Hall, London