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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
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.