Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic'

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Adrian Boult / Shirley Minty / Honor Sheppard

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Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' Review

by Blair Sanderson

Perhaps the ultimate expression of post-Romantic gigantism, Havergal Brian's Symphony No. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic" (1919-1927), is certainly the composer's vastest symphony, dwarfing any of his other 31 symphonies in length and size of forces, and challenging to any ensembles, soloists, and choruses that attempt to perform it. Indeed, the nearly two-hour symphony, a Guinness Record holder, requires so many instrumentalists and singers its performances are few and far between and recordings are even scarcer. "The Gothic" waited over 30 years for its full premiere in 1961, and five years later the performance by Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was the first recorded. This Testament reissue of the live concert held at the Royal Albert Hall on October 30, 1966, presents the symphony on two CDs, and offers improved sound over the LP issues, which tended to muffle and distort the sound. Details, while not exactly crisp, are much clearer here, and the improved sound reveals much more of the placement of the musicians. Because the controversy over this symphony has not yet been resolved -- it's really a love it or leave it proposition -- listeners will either be enthralled or repelled by Brian's dense and even bloated score. Yet this recording is an important document in the history of British music, and anyone interested in studying the long, uphill career of Havergal Brian should confront this immense work head-on before accepting the conventional wisdom. This CD also includes an interview with the composer, taped for the BBC on January 1, 1966.

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