|1. Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic', Part 1 - Peter Mikulas|
|2. Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic', Part 2 - Peter Mikulas|
I've long wanted to introduce this work to friends, but for some of them cost, and, to an extent, availability, have stood in the way. No longer! Heymann has done the right thing by releasing this album on his budget Naxos label, and it is now affordable to all. And, as I note later, it is better than the Marco Polo original in more than just price.
The 'Gothic' may well be the most talked-about-yet-not-listened-to classical work ever. Many seem to have opinions on it whether they've listened to it or not (in which case, the work may well hold two records: the largest symphony in terms of orchestral forces, and the most misunderstood as well). The 'Gothic' inevitably gets compared, largely incorrectly, with a handful of other works with which it has little in common: Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony ('The Symphony of a Thousand') most often, but also the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, the 'Grand Messe des Morts,' 'Te Deum' and 'La Damnation de Faust' of Hector Berlioz, and even, on occasion, Arnold Schoenberg's early 'Gurre-Lieder.' But such similarities exist mostly at the margins; the 'Gothic' is a true sui generis work owing no measurable debt to these.
The greatest similarity is to the Mahler work. Both are divided into two unequal parts, in roughly 1/3 to 2/3 proportions; both utilize Goethe's 'Faust' and medieval hymns for inspiration (but Brian and Mahler invert the order of these two sources), and both call for huge orchestral and choral resources. But comparison ends there; the 'Gothic' hasn't the cumulative inevitability of the Mahler work, and is quite different in all other respects.
Nor has the 'Gothic' the granitic architectonics of Bruckner's symphonies (although there are a few brass chorale passages reminiscent of Bruckner), or the equally idiosyncratic brilliance of the three Berlioz works despite the 'Gothic' being inspired by 'Faust,' having some of its orchestral forces spatially arrayed as in the 'Grand Messe des Morts,' and having its massive Part II set to the 'Te Deum' text.
Anyone familiar with British music of the period the 'Gothic' was written in will recognize this as a British work: Except in the most idiosyncratic places (of which there is no shortage), the work is British to the core, with passages that alternately remind one of an entire host of such composers. Bax, Butterworth, Holst and Vaughan Williams come to mind, and Elgar is seldom far away. (While Brian came from a working class background and had been, at least in part, an autodidact, he was already known and respected by his British peers prior to the 'Gothic.')
To be sure, the 'Gothic' is a huge, sprawling work, seemingly evolving as a series of tableaux full of original themes and orchestrational touches, as well as choral writing that was years ahead of its time in its harmonic daring and vocal density. The episodic style, and the frequent punctuations of the 'Gothic' by march music, remind me as much of Mahler's 3rd Symphony as the work reminds others of Mahler's 8th Symphony. (One such march, a quirky one scored for nine unison clarinets and side drum, is particularly intriguing.) Moreover, there is a 'long arc' to the work not unlike the Mahler 3rd that could be said to represent a journey from 'darkness into light.' Brian began the work in the shadow of the end of the Great War; to him, 'Gothic' symbolized the emergence from the Dark Ages into something better and brighter. But, whereas the Mahler work ends in a blaze of glory, the 'Gothic' ends, after its journey of considerable length, in a softly diatonic yet enigmatic sense of a capella choral repose. To me, it is as if he is uncertain that the 'enduring timelessness' of the Gothic cathedral, as metaphor, is all that enduring, following the horrors of the Great War he experienced first-hand.
This is not an easy work, so rich with ideas as it is, to grasp at first hearing. (A wealth of information on the work, as 'symphony qua symphony,' and as metaphor, can be found at musicweb.uk.net/brian/sym1.htm.) But it is certainly not difficult to enjoy it, and, over time, build one's own cumulative sense of its logic. The high quality of the performance belies its origins and makes a splendid argument for the work's own qualities.
This Naxos release is an improvement over its Marco Polo predecessor in ways other than just cost. The sound is noticeably clearer, particularly in the densest passages, which had a fair bit of congestion and distortion. (This improvement comes at the expense of recording level, which is slightly, but observably, lower, probably by 4 - 6 dB.) The album is now in a 'slimline' 2-CD jewel box that takes up less shelf space. There has been no significant attempt at cost cutting for the booklet, which faithfully duplicates the material in the Marco Polo release, save for brief notated musical examples and two color photographs. In exchange, the Naxos notes include even more information on the forces used in the recording, with biographical details about the vocal soloists and further information on the orchestras and choruses. As before, the discs are generously indexed, with musical references to the index points (a total of 46) clearly stated in the booklet notes. For many coming upon this work for the first time, these notes and index points will help them understand this weird yet wonderful work.
VERY highly recommended!
More than any of the half dozen other works by Brian, commonly available on CD, the Gothic illustrates why his neglect is such a mistake. The symphony is not without a couple of longueurs, but don't turn away for a moment, because just when you least expect it, Brian conjures music of such eloquence and beauty that there can be no doubt the man was touched by genius. Under those circumstances, the great music, of which there is a lot, strikes one as being all the more precious.
The symphony seeks to gather up all of western music within it. I hear music rooted in the English lyric tradition; vocals that resembles Gregorian then Russian Orthodox chant; hints of Delius; pure nineteenth century romanticism and also the kind of complex, dissonant choral singing and ferocious war music that belongs to the twentieth century alone. A vast dynamic range is exploited, from one elevated singer or lonely woodwind, to ferocious tuttis that make Mahler sound domestic. Above all, no piece of music conveys such an intense feeling of religious awe.
Mighty, beautiful, eerie, terrifying, seductive, earthy, sublime, desolate, fantastic. Don't miss.
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