Martyn Brabbins / BBC Concert Orchestra / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Havergal Brian: The Gothic Symphony

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Havergal Brian: The Gothic Symphony Review

by Blair Sanderson

For many listeners, British composer Havergal Brian is almost exclusively identified with his Symphony No. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic" (1919-1927), a Guinness record holder for its extraordinary length and breathtaking scale, and the most controversial of his 31 symphonies. Considering the enormity of the work and the difficulty of mounting performances, even under the best circumstances, there are precious few recordings available, so the appearance of any at all is news for devotees of this mammoth work. Martyn Brabbins' 2011 live recording on Hyperion with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra is decidedly a vital addition to the catalog, and anyone who wants a terrific sounding recording should give this double disc a try. Everything is startlingly detailed and transparent, despite the density of Brian's scoring and the vastness of his forces, and the clarity of the music is a big selling point when comparing this rendition to older performances, which had muffled sound or other defects of live reproduction. The only problem listeners face is in the nature of the music itself. "The Gothic" is an example of post-Romantic excess pushed to the extreme, and it really is a love it or leave it proposition. Either Brian's dark and brooding score will hold interest precisely because of its gigantism and complexity, or it will be repellent for the same reasons, and there really is no middle ground. Fortunately for aficionados of this symphony, this is one of the best conceivable interpretations and performances money can buy, and it deserves high marks for the impressive achievement.

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