fri 28/11/2014

BBC Proms: Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBCNOW, Brabbins | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBCNOW, Brabbins

Big, long and very short on great ideas: a monsterpiece well done, but to what end?

Record numbers: the ranks of choirs overflowed into the stalls - part of Havergal Brian's sound and furyAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

From Middle-earth, middle England and Nibelheim they came, adventurers anxious to acclaim an Unjustly Neglected British Masterpiece. Praise, or curse, their persistence in steering the BBC and the Albert Hall back to Havergal Brian's biggest work after 31 years; hail by all means conductor Martyn Brabbins's flexible command of nine choirs and two orchestras. All I can say is that before I sat through nearly two long hours of continuous music last night, I proclaimed that this was exactly the sort of thing the Proms should be trying. Now I'm hanging out the garlic and spraying the air freshener to keep Brian's other 31 symphonies at bay.

Leviathan-like length and size shouldn't get in the way of quality, provided you have brilliant ideas to fill the spaces, as Mahler always did. Brian, at least in the 1920s when he composed this epic, seems to have commanded only hollow gestures and an eclecticism that never goes quite far enough. The Gothic Symphony often feels like the work of a hyperactive child let loose on those famous Hollywood drawers of mood music for films marked "holy", "fearful", "peaceful", "stormy" and pasting the results together any old how. I've nothing against the kind of anti-symphonic thinking which traffics in far-flung contrasts: last year Rued Langgaard's Music of the Spheres did just that. But the quality of Langgaard's invention through all the peaks and troughs held my imagination spellbound; here I fidgeted and sniggered like a naughty schoolboy at the back of my box - and I didn't go into the hall intending to behave like that.

 

It may well be that once you get to know the music, it feels - as Brabbins described it in interview - like Brian is creatively wrong-footing the listener, heading off in weird and wonderful directions. Given the first-time immediacy of the experience - which is all most of us are going to get - it just seemed for the most part like a terrible, inchoate mess. While the outer movements of each of the two parts at least kept us listening for the occasional moments of celestial refinement between the thrashes, the centrepieces felt nightmarishly turgid - which is part of the point, surely, post-World War One, but again we all need footholds. It didn't help that the vast choral forces kept sagging in pitch - at one point angelically redeemed by distant soprano Susan Gritton - or that, once past an opening which sounded like a crumpled version of Elgar in angry mood, you kept noticing how Brian over-employs xylophones in excelsis and tubas at the bottom of the pile.

Martyn_Brabbins_-_Prom__2011The ever-underrated Brabbins (pictured right) kept his usual focus and drive through even the most preposterous flails and twiddles, but it was hard not to wish him better (say with a work like Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, heard on the First Night of the Proms, a masterpiece premiered in the same year as the Gothic's completion, 1927; any one of its ideas in this context would have had me sitting bolt upright). Likewise the quartet of soloists, whom you'd have been happy to encounter in Beethoven's Ninth. Italianate tenor Peter Auty and stalwart bass Alastair Miles did what they could to stand guard at either end of the endless sixth-movement ramble; for the second time in two days a mezzo - in this case the admirable Christine Rice, who deserves to shine - drew the short straw in terms of what the composer had given her to sing.

Spatial effects made for visual as well as aural spectacle, with children's choirs, timps and extra brass taking up the side rows of stalls where the punters usually sit; but for me there was more magic in the two brief horn calls from the gallery in the previous night's concert performance of Rossini's William Tell than in anything on offer here. The choirs could have done with a stronger backbone of male voices - some senior tenors stood out unflatteringly - but did keep us company with comforting full-throttle triads and unexpectedly electrified in a sudden blaze getting over the final hurdle, where, with a pointedly banal little march leading the way, Brian showed originality in idea as well as scope. But it was a bit late by then. "Whoever strives with all his might/ Him can we redeem" run the lines from Goethe's Faust which Brian engaged as an epigram to the initial conflict. With art over decades, unfortunately, that's not enough. Is it time to put out a recording of this vivid performance to satisfy the enthusiasts, and lay "the Gothic" to rest forever now?

Comments

With friends like Martin Anderson, who needs enemies? And such people always want the last word. Ignore, David.
Either you're being over-sensitive or I've touched a nerve: we can cross intellectual swords and still maintain personal courtesy. Anyway, shouting anyone down is not part of my armoury of discourse. I just don't see what's boorish about being surprised that a professional critic would take the opinions of others as enough of a reason not to do his own homework. I bet that's the case for a lot of the other critics who panned the piece as well. Case closed for me, too, unless you wish to add something. This discussion notwithstanding, I look forward to your next Prokofiev volume with much enthusiasm.
You're being boorish now, Martin, and shouting me down discourteously just for the hell of it. I went with reasonable - not exaggerated - expectations, I listened with growing disbelief, I took away something from the very end, which is clearly enough for one HB enthusiast on another site - but this is just insulting. It must be clear to all that I'm not your 'old mate'. That's the matter closed for me, and I don't wish to pursue it elsewhere either. If anyone else has a sensible question or challenge, fine.
David, I am slack-jawed in amazement. You write: "I reasoned that if I did pre-listen, I might be so turned off that I’d feel obliged to pass the review on to one of my colleagues, and I did want to experience so massive a piece live". You deliberately kept yourself in a state of ignorance just so you could enjoy the gig live? That, my old mate, is irresponsible: our duty as writers is to our readers, but you put yourself first, and now you blame poor old HB for your lack of comprehension. But it's yourself you let down with your last comment: "I won’t be opening my ears to this again". How sad that you should react to any complex music in that way. I thought for twenty years that Baroque opera had nothing to offer me and then in 2000 I went to Göttingen to cover the Handel Festival for _The Independent_ and Nick McGegan's account of _Rodelinda_) had me repeatedly in tears. If your open confession of closed-mindedness -- or closed-earedness -- is sincere rather than a debating position, I really am sorry for you! There's no happier come-uppance than enjoying a piece of music that previously didn't "speak", and yet in this instance at least you've set your teeth against that pleasure. It says something of the attitude with which you went into the hall on 17 July -- all or nothing. And you've come away with nothing. Relax, and open up.
I agree with Martyn and Martin in that much in music is very subjective. I think that we get far too hung up over the question about what is or is not a masterpiece. Mozart was undoubtedly a genius but whether The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece or not as Euterpe contents, I cannot answer. Mozart generally doesn’t make it into my personal list of favourite composers. I prefer Don Giovanni to The Marriage of Figaro, and do still love the Requiem and some of the piano sonatas. However, I still respect the opinion of people who might think that Mozart’s music is the pinnacle of musical achievement. At one time in the 1970s Mahler used to be my favourite composer, and I couldn’t get enough of his music. I still enjoy listening to Mahler, but again, he wouldn’t currently make it into my personal top 10 or possibly even 20. Let’s not forget that very many of the composers whom we regard as being great were not always held in such high regard. Mahler’s music at the time that it was written was regarded as being vulgar and stretched the boundaries of acceptable style far too much. Hans von Bulow who was a highly respected conductor and keen advocate of new German music at the time was interested to hear Mahler perform a piano rendition of the first movement from his 2nd symphony. When Mahler stopped playing, von Bulow is famously quoted as saying “If what I have heard is music, I understand nothing of music. Compared with this, Tristan and Isolde is a Haydn symphony.” In today’s modern world we would have trouble comprehending that sentiment, but it was very real at the time. When in the 1970s I first came across the music of Havergal Brian, I didn’t appreciate it. Its style seemed strange to say the least, and I initially dismissed it. A couple of years later, I happened to hear some more, and surprisingly found that there was something in this music which interested me. Since then, I have come to know Brian’s output very well, but looking back, I find it hard to imagine why I found it so strange initially. The point I am trying to make here is that we should all try to be more open minded and less dismissive about music that we don’t know. Like it or not, there is clear evidence that there large number of people who are interested in listening to the music of Havergal Brian, and that ought to be welcomed. People’s tastes vary in music as much as with anything else, and I am very grateful to the BBC that they have been willing to put on this performance for a sizeable minority of enthusiastic people.
One final word from me, Martin, unless another questioning challenge like yours crops up (and by the way, aren’t digressions and offshoots part of the flexibility of comments sections like these?). I did seriously think of listening to the 1966 or Polish recordings with a score – if I could get one – before attending the Prom. But friends whose opinions I respect thought – like rather more onlookers than you seem to credit – that the Gothic was just awful. So I reasoned that if I did pre-listen, I might be so turned off that I’d feel obliged to pass the review on to one of my colleagues, and I did want to experience so massive a piece live. I also think, as I wrote below, that even if you don’t understand a work sufficiently at one hearing, you take away with you sounds and ideas that are striking enough to make you want to hear it again. After two decades of professional and – I hope – still unjaded concertgoing, I trust my ears and am aware of my prejudices enough to say, I don’t like this, but I can see it’s good. Which, with the exception of the last two minutes, I really couldn’t. What I’ve said here and elsewhere is that the glimmer of a more polished realisation at the end would lead me on to explore some of the later symphonies, and I’ve had recommendations for those. Which I will do. But I won’t be opening my ears to this again
This argument is proceeding in non-sequiturs and digressions. Martyn Becker's basic point is that some music you like and some you don't. Some music you don't know can, on first acquaintance, be filed in the like or don't-like drawers (and liking or disliking a piece or a composer, dear Euterpe, is not coterminous with high or poor quality: you can dislike a piece and recognise its achievement at the same time). It is highly improbable that a piece as complex as _The Gothic_ would be assimilated on first hearing, although the wildly enthusiastic reaction of many thousands of people suggests that if you're on its wavelength the impact can indeed be immediate. I've known the piece for over 30 years now, and am still discovering entire new aspects of the music, all adding to its depths and accomplishment. So it's not a question of whether _The Gothic_ is successful or not: it plainly is, since the audience reaction has been, on balance so very favourable. It's interesting that the professional critics have been much sniffier than the wider public, but it's their privilege, as much as anyone else's, not to like the piece at all. The difference is that, since they are being paid to voice their opinions, they have a duty at least to be relatively familiar with the music they are criticising: not even critics can be expected to swallow _The Gothic_ whole in one first sitting. So, David, it's not unfair to ask you how often you had listened to either or both of the two commercially available recordings before you went to the Albert Hall last Sunday.
At the risk of flogging a dying horse, Mr. Becker, QED. No-one's saying Frederick Forsyth should never have been published; no-one's saying Havergal Brian should never have been performed. But, to quote the helpful Euterpe, 'you would be an imbecile' if you claimed Forsyth's Day of the Jackal was up there with Tolstoy's War and Peace. These are two different things, of course: I'm not going to change my notion that Brian, in this piece at least, had massive ambition and individuality and lacked the means to execute it properly, whereas Forsyth - and Robert Harris, and Jeffrey Archer - write what they think an audience wants. Which can also be done with great craft. At least HB was authentic, but that doesn't make him great.
@euterpe, No, how can there be objective standards for music? Who decides what's 'more deserving'? That's like saying you must have objective quality standards for what's published in the written world. If that was the case, we'd have had no 'Day of the Jackal' (as just one example) as it was rejected by 19 publishers before it became a smash. Who are we to pre-define what art or genius in art is? And who are you to call anyone who doesn't like The Marriage of Figaro an imbecile? You have to add 'in my opinion' to Brian, but not to Mozart? Mr Nice, you have a colleague!
@Jeffrey Davis The full quotation in which Brian articulates his discomfort with Latin (which I attempted to put a slightly humorous spin on and probably shouldn't have) is from a letter to Granville Bantock, quoted on the Brian Society website; " I know nothing of the Latin language—I know something of Italian and have used this knowledge in deploying the words in syllables—but they may be wrong and if so may appear foolish. The Te Deum is written in three sections. The first Vocal Score is copied out. Do you think you would have the time just to look it over and see that my excursion into Latin is OK.” [Havergal Brian to Granville Bantock, 27 June 1926. Quoted from Kenneth Eastaugh, Havergal Brian – the making of a composer, London 1976, p 251.] You can see the quote and the citation here: http://www.havergalbrian.org/threebs.htm Obviously, the piece inspired a mixture of wonder, perplexity, doubt, outrage and admiration in me during the concert. What it left me with afterwards was a great deal of curiosity, and surely the fact it has inspired so much debate and discussion is a sign that it does what great art should. Music is probably the most relevant when it divides opinion the most violently. Mr Nice was surely right when he said "this was exactly the sort of thing the Proms should be trying."
Are there, then, to be no objective standards at all about what’s worth performing and what should be tried out once or twice and passed over in favour of something more deserving? Is Brian equal to Bach and Mozart because his vociferous fans who seem so disproportionate here and on other websites say so? Mozart doesn’t do it for two of you, fine, though a bit of a loss for you, but you would be an imbecile if you denied that The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece (though it always helps to try and say why when asserting that). Whereas if you say the Gothic Symphony is a masterpiece, you do have to add ‘in my opinion’, because the majority of music-lovers will not agree with you.
There's a lot of point-missing going on here, I think; it's not about whether Brian was a genius or incompetent. Or even to do with Brian at all really. In our age, we tend to over-compartmentalise music; this is Classical, that is Thrash Metal, or Garage, or House, or whatever else. There are really only two kinds of music when you boil it all down: the kind you like and the kind you don't. You can see opinions on both here. Where the discussion comes (and was it ever thus even in Beethoven's time and before) is those in a position of publishing power stating an opinion regarding what's good or bad about a particular piece music as if it's The Absolute And Objective Truth. This used to be a bit cowardly, actually, in the days where there weren't web mechanisms for people to agree or disagree. It's even worse still when the person in question gets gratuitously insulting about a particular piece of music (and those who like it - such as the insulting references at the start of the piece), as here. There's nothing more deplorable than someone in a position of publishing power who foists an opinion (yes! Personal opinion! Not fact!) on the public that is no more valid than mine is. And then to top it all, Mr Nice chastises Mr Anderson for not including 'in my opinion' when aforesaid Mr Nice has failed to do exactly the same thing in his original article. Such hypocrisy is regrettable, especially when you are in a position to tout your views as Gospel. For the record, I'm with Mr Anderson. I also consider the Gothic a work of genius and fail to see what all the fuss is about with Mozart's music. But I appreciate that people do like it, and that's their choice. It's not my choice, but I wouldn't think of insulting the people who want to listen to it any more than I would want to insult those who want to listen to Metallica or Lady Gaga.
David, you are being disingenuous: anything you or I say about music or anything else is patently our opinion; if we had to qualify our every utterance, we would never get anything said. Anyway, you don't get _The Gothic_; fair enough. I have my own deaf spots -- much Mozart, for example, and most Italian opera. As to your point about Brian's not understanding the text he was setting, you miss my earlier point: the Te Deum gave him his target. That's also why -- I think -- the piece is conceived on such a large scale: Brian was taking on God, and so he needed the rest of humanity at his flanks.
The claim that Brian admitted that he didn't know what the Latin words meant appears in the Kenneth Woods 'View from the Podium' website. The notes for the Boult CD include 'I had intended using Latin, German and English words. I am using only Latin words, for my German prayer book is with my books in Stoke...' I am by no means sure of the ultimate status of Brian's Gothic Symphony, but I was riveted to it during the concert and I'm not sure that the apparent non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions etc were not assets rather than liabilities. For me, the unpredictability of the work is part of its great appeal and I think that we should at least respect the views of others on this controversial work. I did not agree with many of the points made in your review - but I liked your 'They came from Middle-earth' comment!
With respect, Martin (and that usually means the opposite, but I mean it), the claim 'one of the supreme achievements of the human imagination' urgently needs an 'in my opinion' added to it. As I think we ended up agreeing after our little spat over Taneyev's On the Reading of a Psalm, another work I wanted to like more than I did when I finally heard it live. I appreciate the aims, I agree it all makes a fascinating case history - and I'd like to read Calum McDonald's book on this maverick figure - but I still don't hear genius in the end result. One point still fascinates me, and I wonder if anyone can clarify: I can't remember where I read that Brian claimed not to understand the Latin text of the Te Deum he set at greater length than anyone else. Can that be possible? It would seem to me to be symptomatic of the general vagueness of purpose.
David Nice is a friend of mine and I respect his judgement -- most of the time! But Brian's _Gothic_ is one of the supreme achievements of the human imagination and David seems to have walked straight past without noticing. As a profound statement of musical humanism it has, as far as I can see, no peers. It was, I contend, the product of the four years of unforeseeable slaughter of WW1: Brian's three orchestral movements are a commentary on and response to its militaristic bombast and chaos and the three movements which set the Te Deum text his humanist answer. Brian said that "The Te Deum thrust itself forward as the only possible text" (something like that) because he wanted systematically to undermine its praise of an all-powerful, benign godhead. His treatment of the text is full of clues, most obvously at the start of the 'Judex'. Judges are supposed to impose order, but here the choirs enter one by one, in an expanding dissonant cluster -- the very opposite of order. The final 'Non confundar' can be heard not as a subdued cry of despair but a realistic assertion that mankind can look only to itself: we will not be confounded.
David Nice is too kind to this piece of well meaning junk, but the BBC were right to give it a second chance.
Thanks for taking the time to clarify your point of view with detail, Daniel, which not all the commenters firmly in the Brian camp here have bothered to do. But surely the one comparison with Mahler and Bruckner which is not unhelpful is that which dares to judge what use is made of the forces available. I continue to maintain that the actual substance of what Brian writes - and now I've listened again - is thin, for all the intriguing twists and turns. Idea and execution are everything; intention counts for little. And the notion of 'chacun a son gout' which has been much touted recently suggests everything is relative. It isn't: there is great music which is worth its salt, music maybe not of the very front rank which expresses an individual consciousness vividly, and music of the third rank which expresses itself poorly. I still maintain that last of the Gothic, though as I said I'm going to listen to more of the later works with scores to hand. As for not being able to judge properly on a first hearing, a point which has been so often raised, what I believe after three and a half decades of avid concert-going is that even if you don't understand a work properly to begin with, you have to go away with an idea or a passage that excites you and makes you want to return. I'd say the last two minutes of the Gothic, which accounted for the rapt silence, did that for me - but really, after nearly two hours, is that enough?
I have listened to the Gothic Symphony many times on disc, and was at the performance on Sunday. Any similarity with Mahler or Bruckner is really purely superficial, and any comparison unhelpful. Brian's music is far more episodic, and constantly changes its character. Not just the Gothic, but even the later symphonies have a ridiculous amount of juxtaposed material. It is constantly undercutting the late Romantic expectations of the listener. Brian's music does not obey any of the 'rules' of music and therefore is somewhat reliant on a subjective response. Its episodic and eclectic nature will be interesting to some, and unconvincing to others. Charles Ives and Allan Pettersson spring to mind as composers far closer to Brian. - Ives in that he messed around with symphonic structure and was ridiculously eclectic (Symphony No. 4), and Pettersson in the highly personalised, subjective nature of the music. But - in terms of structure, all Brian's music becomes far more convincing on repeated hearings - and that includes the Gothic - unfortunately I suspect most people have never heard the Gothic the necessary number of times - and probably never will. I think the Gothic is definitely going somewhere - these days when I listen to it, it seems, believe it or not, that everything has a point - It is the summing up of an age and an artistic representation of its destruction. The first three movements serve as an introduction and the fourth as a hymn of praise - almost like the glory of European culture. - the fifth and sixth progressively become more tortured and destroy the confidence of the fourth movement - the music is no longer directed at God - but becomes focussed on man and the loss of his ideals. The final five minutes is an apocalyptic statement. After WW1, Brian was obviously cynical of Romanticism and this trend of European culture - the Gothic represents its summation and then destruction. Brian's later symphonies are equally uncomfortable - if you don't like the episodic nature of the Gothic, you probably won't like them either.
I was at the performance on Sunday and thoroughly enjoyed it. If people expect Brian's music (esp. The Gothic) to do what they want it to do, they'll be disappointed. The Gothic, as an item of musical expression, is something that deliberately set out to encompass diverse and eclectic musical styles. The main point I have made on another forum is that the piece is an "experiment", in exact keeping with the 'ethos' of the historical gothic age. The piece does this well; it achieves that aim. Brian is a talented composer certainly. Obviously we cannot judge him on one piece (anyone who does this to composers isn't being fair to them: listen to a LOT of his music, and not just symphonies, before coming to a conclusion!). Having said that, The Gothic is an effective piece in that it works as an experiment in sound. Personally I would hate it if he'd done a Mahlerian pastiche with all those instruments. It's more raw and a bit primitive in places, which is welcome in the stuffy world of middle-class concert goers. This is speaking from experience both on and off the concert stage. Brian's individuality in compositional style and his idiosyncracies should be thought of as his features rather tha negatives. The Gothic will always sadly be the one and only piece that most people remember him for and a proportion of those people will label it as a messy piece and be done with it. That's fine, but I just feel the work, as a piece of art, deserves a bit more respect. Also, how could anyone NOT warm to Brian when all of the forces came together at the end? Awesome sound, pure and simple.
I attended the last performance at the Royal Albert Hall some 30 years ago and came to the same conclusion then as David has now. Mahler's 8th is a towering masterpiece by a composer who knows how to use, and why to use, such vast forces. Brian's is an incompetent and inflated bore. Luckily he must have known this as none of his later symphonies even attempt to repeat this ego trip. I should imagine, though I admit I've never heard it, that his 10 minute symphony seems the right length for his talent.
If Brian has found a new advocate in Martyn Brabbins, I look forward to him exploring some of Brian's other symphonies. I'd be happy to discover that many of his symphonies, even if not the Gothic, are worth exploring.
That comparison with The Rite of Spring is patently absurd. Quite apart from lack of correspondence between aims and ends, the Rite was quickly hailed after the noisy premiere (not least in concert). As Roger Neill mentioned below, even in 1966 a great deal of people thought the Gothic a waste of time. We've had plenty of chances to reassess now. But glad it was worth the trip for you.
Interesting discussion: reminds me of the post-performance arguments in re the premiere of Rite of Spring. Another piece of junk, according to numerous critics of the time. Brian is in good company there. I came all the way from Arizona specifically for this performance, and I am not departing disappointed. What draws me to Brian (and not just to the Gothic) is that he never fails to suprise me. I quite like Mozart, and Brahms, and Tchaikovsky (and Tveitt, and Vincent, and Klami, etc.), but they never surprise me. Engagement yes; surprise, no. Name me another British composer whose work (here in the Judex) prefigures Ligeti. Of course, there are many folks who don't like surprises. They desire predictability with their espresso. Reassurance. Comfort food. And certainly brewed their way, to their specific satisfaction. Myself, I prefer as much intrigue in my music as I do in my chocolate. Brian supplies that.
Dr Jenner: well argued, and I'll be trying some of the later Brian symphonies with scores in spite of what I said, but you have completely ignored my remark that I don't have a problem with mosaical construction, least of all in Langgaard. It's what's said - or not - in the process that interests me (again, or not). Gary, surely flinging the word "junk" is more offensive than anything I've written, when I've tried to be honest and explain the way I came to it? And propagandist for what, for heaven's sake?
I am amazed that junk like this by David Nice got published. It wasn't so much a critical review as outright propaganda, and I must admit that I personally found it quite offensive. I would suggest that the comments made by David were more a reflection of his ignorance than an intelligent analysis of the piece or the performance.
Having finally attended a Gothic performance where the CDs of it (both versions) had me agreeing with one friend that the first purely orchestral part (performed separately at the Proms in 1976, Brian's centenary year) was the best part, I'm now pleasantly converted by the most stupefying performance of any orchestral work I've attended. Its only rival was for me a two piano performance by George Benjamin and Peter Hill of Messiaen's Visions de L'Amen at Hudddersfield in 1988. I'm not a Brian apologist. David Nice might recall the late Michael Oliver's words. How could an idea of breathtaking beauty, even genius, be abruptly traduced by a wholly different, disjunct one in a Brian symphony, namely the 8th and 9th under review? From Symphony 6 (1948), Brian is more compressed, and his dislocated but arresting world grows each time you hear it. It's simply a question of listening again, as one has with Bax (David Nice might not welcome this, but Bax is more fully rehabilitated). Brian's 11th Symphony impressed again heard on Friday, and the 20th on Saturday. Brian refuses to relax into linear symphonic thinking (I often wish he would). He's a mosaic developer. Sibelius famously did something with that in the 2nd. But Brian zig-zags. It's a deliberate choice. The Gothic is flawed, but the second part really does own great power (in flashes and more sustained flights), and the first part wouldn't be criticised if it wasn't for the second half. The Gothic bears a relation to the National Theatre's current production of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean, a closet drama of crucial importance, everyone agrees, to drama, but almost unstageable because of length, though decisively not quality. Ibsen can be edited down, and is. Brian's retrospective editing is the bagatelle-length by comparison of his Symphonies 6-32. His 22nd lasts 10 minutes! The best don't jar in the wrong places. The Gothic however is considerably better than I imagined. There's more melodic distinction than I could hear at first. It's overwritten and the composer doesn't trust his melodic inspiration save at key exposed passages for solo instrument or voice which had almost passed me by till now. A CD of this performance would help persuade many. Listen again, as the BBC put it.
Finally a critic with ears! Admittedly this wasn't a concert to stand through, as I did, but by the end of the piece I was grateful to be released for musical as much as physical reasons. Compositionally the piece is a mess, let's face it; fragmented and tangental with a sense of profundity that it neither possesses nor deserves. In fact, I couldn't help but feel that Brian's "He who strives with all his might, him can we redeem" nonsense was more an excuse for his insipid and indulgent symphony than a source of inspiration. Well done for coming up with the vision, any 16-year-old composer can do that, but now maybe time for a lesson? When you leave a concert praising Mahler's economy of material and orchestral forces, you know that something has gone wrong!
In your opening sentence you say that 'I appreciate the range of comments made so far...' This I fully respect - but the implication, in the third paragraph, that anyone who admires Havergal Brian must be (for example) trying to compensate for some kind of low self-esteem issue suggests otherwise. You yourself express an admiration for the music of the Danish composer Ruud Langgaard (one that I fully share) - surely here is a relatively unknown composer who deserves greater attention. They do exist and clearly some of us believe that Havergal Brian, despite any flaws in his music, is one of them. Why not change the title of the 'comments' section to 'congratulatory comments' if that is all you are interested in?
Responding to David Nice's post of 10:23 Ah, so only the first-rate will do for Mr (oh, the irony is almost too great!) Nice.What a wealth of musical near-riches he is denying himself as a consequence. Before slinging mud at those who dare to have an opinion different from his own, perhaps he should ponder the psychology of critics belonging to his particular sub-species: incapable of producing even tenth-rate material themselves, so choosing instead to wield the playground-bully power of destroying reputations by making a "virtue" out of their wilful abandonment of a perspective that is the very hallmark of maturity: the perspective that recognises that "I do not like this" is not the same as "this has no merit".
Well said, David Nice. There's definitely a small strand of music lovers for whom rarity (and often sheer size and impracticability) is a qualification for unfairly neglected greatness. For these people, being part of a tiny minority of initiates makes them feel superior. So those of us who think Brian was actually just a fantasist of modest musical talent are by definition unable to understand his greatness.
I appreciate the range of comments so far, and I can sympathise to a degree with the remarks that the reviewer should get to know the piece better before the performance; I felt the same when colleagues around me at the Royal Opera performance of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki ('The Tsarina's Slippers') said they'd never heard a note of it before and went on to damn it on the evidence of the performance. That, however, is a problem piece by a major composer. This is a problem piece by a problem composer who seems to have taken up an inordinate space in the public interest. I came to it fresh and hopeful, like probably a quarter of an audience which so obviously had its fair share of fanatics. I imagine they'd have shot to their feet at the end no matter what, but yes, I did respectfully stay to applaud the performers and I agree they deserved the accolade for their effort. The Havergal Brian enthusiasts, I'd argue, would do better spending their time finding out how superb a piece of co-ordinated argument a work like Mahler's Eighth is. Or pondering the psychology of lovers of the second- or third-rate: is it a boost to the personal ego, a validation of self-worth, to claim a little corner no-one else really cares about? And Mr. Duncan, if you want to challenge me to a duel at a future Prom - sadly I won't be around for the battle of Bax v Prokofiev - I'll be the one carrying a rolled-up copy of the Beano.
Enjoyed the music more than the review. Mr Nice might have done well to acquaint himself with the Gothic on CD before speculating on how it might be when one gets to know the piece. Yes, it's flawed, but it was written by a self-taught composer who had no thought of it ever being performed. I have to admire his determination - not to mention the achievement of the performers last night. An extraordinary evening - and reassuringly far from perfect!
Having heard one or two of Brian's otherworks in the last few days and excerpts from the Gothic symphony in the previews I approached this performance anticipating that I might be discovering an interesting and original, if not great, new voice. Sadly, although there were a number of beautiful and interesting moments, too much of felt as though I was being pummelled into submission, leaving me begging for mercy. I was more impressed by a couple of his other symphonies, so maybe a few of these ought to be given an airing before completely writing him off. Also, I suspect that this is a work (Turangalila is another) which has a much bigger impact in the concert hall than on the radio.
The experience of standing in the middle of the arena, with a wall of sounds coming from every possible angle, was probably my most enjoyable music experience ever. Absolutely epic in every possible way ... Then again, I'm not a music critic, I just know what I enjoy...
Mr Nice obviously needs to research his material before delivering the outspoken comments in his review. Yes, this is a challenging work on many levels but to say that "I fidgeted and sniggered....etc" is an example of the usual bigotry which seems to inhabit the world of the present - day music critic. No mention was made of the sheer audacity of choosing this work, nor of the hours of work required before performing this work. I assume, also, that you, Mr ( Not very) Nice, were one of the very few who left before the wonderful ovation that this work and the performers received from the remaining well - informed and intelligent audience members. At your next visit to the Proms remember to bring with you your latest copy of the Dandy or Beano so that you have something to read during the interval that equates with your level.
Anticipation exceeded realisation! There was no obvious structure to the piece. Lots of "interesting" detail but too much unaccompanied choral singing for the choirs where the ladies outnumbered the men. I think David's review is very fair. It is not the great work that its reputation led us to believe. William Tell on Saturday improved as time went on, the 'Gothic' didn't.
I think that the review in the Daily Telegraph today by Ivan Hewett is much more balanced and perceptive (and less sprawling). The Gothic has absolutely wonderful and magical sections - it can be difficult to see the structure but the most beautiful hushed chords at the end, retrospectively (for me at least) brought the whole thing together. I stood in the Gallery throughout this performance and found the whole experience to be deeply moving. I thought that the performance was terrific in all respects, certainly better than that delivered by Ole Schmidt at a concert I attended many years ago. How sad that it is given such a mean spirited review here. This does not especially surprise me following a similarly mean spirited verdict on Jurowski's fine performance of Miaskovsky's magnificent 6th Symphony. I shall look forward to the review of the forthcoming prom featuring Bax's Second Symphony alongside Prokofiev's 4th Symphony!
I also do not agree with this review or its tone. Having not heard the piece I listened last night on Radio 3 and was deeply moved at the conclusion. Yes its eclectic and constantly seems to shift mood and fragment but it also contains moments of breath-taking beauty and extraordinary power. However extravagant the forces used it seems to me this great and original work justifies using them-I for one hope the 'Gothic' Symphony is not laid to rest and the work can now be appraised fully and fairly.
Well, the Brian fanatics never allow criticism of their hero's 'masterpiece', but David Nice is right: the Gothic is inflated, undiscriminating nonsense. Now that their bluff has been called and someone has spent the time and money on performing it we can see it for what it is - a load of empty gestures masquerading as serious musical thought. And leave the poor performers alone. It's not their fault that Brian's writing is often so incompetent that making it sound good is impossible.
David’s given his honest reaction, can we ask any more than that? For what’s it’s worth, I stood through the whole thing and joined in the eight minute ovation cited below, but by that point it was for the incredible achievement of the performers and not so much for the mega-monster Frankenstein symphony that I had, to be honest, grown a bit weary of. I can’t help but think that a better composer could have said as much with half the forces (the offstage timps and brass bands are just silly, aren’t they?); it is episodic in the extreme, but there are enough wonderful moments to justify the occasional outing. Very occasional, mind.
What a mean-spirited review. "here I fidgeted and sniggered like a naughty schoolboy at the back of my box" Frankly, this write-up often feels like the work of a hyperactive child let loose on a piece of work beyond their comprehension.
David Nice's response to Brian's Gothic Symphony exactly mirrors my own to Sir Adrian Boult with the BBCSO at the Albert Hall in 1966. I wasn't going to risk a repeat!
There were issues with the performance. Some of which Nice points out accurately. It's hard to call it a bad performance when I have no basis for comparison. But I suspect that to realise the full potential of The Gothic would take much more rehearsal, including rehearsal in-venue. For this reason it would be harsh to criticise the performers here. But it gave mere glimpses of the magnificence and structure of the piece. To understand that Nice would need to understand the piece better (and nowadays that wouldn't have been hard). Then perhaps he'd be able to discuss more reveallingly whether and where he thought the deficiencies lay in the preparation or in the piece itself. As it is this review, like last night's performance, is no where near as revealling as it should be.
Well, it didn't take long for someone to come along and rain on the parade, did it? Congratulations, Mr. Nice on getting to the front of the cue to disparage the piece. It is notable that you conveniently forget to mention the 8 minute standing ovation (not just from the Arena). You are obviously possessed of greater discrimination than those of us who stayed to sheer to the rafters this heroic performance of a great and courageous work. Or did you not bother to stay around for that?

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Use to create page breaks.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters