19 Jul 2011
Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony
The BBC Proms has given Havergal Brian’s Symphony no. 1 the best and most extensive exposure the composer has ever enjoyed.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
The BBC Proms has given Havergal Brian’s Symphony no. 1 the best and most extensive exposure the composer has ever enjoyed.
Havergal Brian (1876-1972) is a cult figure in British music who attracts an intense following, even though his music is rarely performed and existing recordings are of not of the highest standards. He’s better known by reputation than by listening experience. Indeed, it’s this very air of exclusivity that’s part of his appeal. BBC Prom 4 was a historic watershed in Brian reception, because it gave Brian maximum possible publicity, and the best performance to date.
This was a truly spectacular, extravagant event. Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony is apparently in the Guinness Book of Records for being the biggest symphony ever written, and only the BBC Proms can provide the resources to do it justice. Thus, this Prom was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a historic occasion that wasn’t to be missed. It was a form of total theatre that will be remembered for decades.
One third of the massive Royal Albert Hall was reserved to accommodate the sheer number of performers, almost a thousand in all. Nine choruses, no less, visually impressive, especially the women’s choir in lavender, and the children’s choirs in white. Two main orchestras, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Two “timpani orchestras”, as opposed to “symphony orchestras”, positioned at the sides of the auditorium, between the choristers and audience. Those sitting near them may be deaf for days. And, like a Colossus above them all, the mighty Royal Albert Hall Willis organ, with its 9,997 pipes and 149 stops, the largest in Europe.
Martyn Brabbins conducted the gargantuan forces with aplomb. He’s braved the dense jungle of this score like a fearless explorer mapping unknown territory. He’s clearly prepared the work thoroughly, searching out the main features in this bewildering terrain. Brian’s “Gothic” is a strange Leviathan which has defeated the best efforts of many, so Brabbins deserves a medal for persistence and dedication.
Brabbins focuses on the many details which build up to form the dense undergrowth. A flurry of harps, for example, and a bizarre chorus of xylophones, springing out unexpectedly, like exotic birds startled into flight. The whole symphony seems to be built from details like this, an accumulation whose object is to amass as many pieces as possible — not a jigsaw, for the ideas don’t really cohere. So Brabbins’s carefully thought out detail brings out the endless proliferation that gives this symphony its charm.
Brian was a self-taught, almost eccentric character who wasn’t particularly bothered by the practicalities of performance. There are many ideas in this symphony, but they are briefly glimpsed and don’t develop. On paper, they may look good, but they don’t necessarily make much sense in practical performance. For example, the timpani orchestras, backed by very loud brass. At first they call out to each other across the expanse of the auditorium. Then one falls more or less silent thereafter.
Brian’s Gothic has been compared to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, on the basis that the latter was marketed as the “symphony of a thousand”, but the comparison is nonsense. The label was a PR ruse. Mahler’s focus was on spiritual meaning. Although Mahler’s structure is unorthodox, there’s a powerful trajectory that pulls it forward. The inspiration behind Brian’s symphony isn’t consistent. Liturgical texts are used, but the thrust isn’t particularly spiritual. Brian is certainly ambitious, quoting Goethe’s Faust on his title page, (“Whoever strives with all his might, that man we can redeem”), but the energy dissipates.
For example, in the final movement, the ‘Te ergo quaesumus’, Alastair Miles intones lines that waver upwards and down, perhaps in homage to Orthodox chant, but the orchestra then plays a parody of jazz swing. Sometimes contrasts have reason, but in this symphony they seem to exist for variety’s sake. When Susan Gritton sings ‘Judex crederis esse venturus’ from way up in the rafters, it’s a truly sublime moment — magnificent singing, magnificently theatrical. But the rest of the movement consists of that 4-word sentence alone, and it’s quickly dispensed with in favour of meaningless extended vocalise. In all three major Proms concerts so far (Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Rossini’s William Tell) the tenor parts have been fiendishly difficult. Peter Auty deserves recognition for valour, since he surmounted Brian’s extreme demands for his part. Christine Rice sang part well, but Brian leaves the part curiously underwritten.
This performance of Brian’s “Gothic” symphony was hugely enjoyable because it worked remarkably well as theatre. Brian himself may not have anticipated the concept of sonic architecture quite in the way that others — including Stockhausen, whom Brabbins also conducts well — but the BBC Proms and the Royal Albert Hall can work wonders. Brabbins and his multitude deserve a great deal of credit, but so too, do the organizers who made this possible in the first place — a thousand performers and a huge array of instruments. Moving this army must have been a logistic nightmare. Many of these choirs are major names on the choral scene, and were brought in from all over the country.
Hopefully, Brabbins’s Proms performance of Brian’s “Gothic” will be recorded, if only to recoup the enormous costs. It’s a superlative way into the symphony particularly as so little of this music is available. Fortunately, the Havergal Brian Society website is so comprehensive that now everyone can become familiar with his work even if they haven’t heard it.
Every single concert in the BBC Proms 2011 series is broadcast live online and on demand for several days, complete with facsimile programmed notes. For more details, please visit the BBC Proms website.