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89 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally! From Marco Polo to Naxos. And affordable!, 1 Aug 2004
By 
Bob Zeidler (Charlton, MA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
Klaus Heymann, the founder of these two labels, was courageous a number of years years back, when he released Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony on his full-price Marco Polo label. I would guess that the album has been a steady, if slow, seller over those years, as it has been the only available recording of this marvelously idiosyncratic work. My own copy, played at least annually (almost ritualistically so) has served me well for most of those years.
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!
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Frequently Brilliant Work From A Neglected Composer., 8 Nov 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
World's Largest Symphony, at nearly two hours and involving vast musical forces: Havergal Brian's Symphony 1 is certainly long overdue for live broadcast performances. In the mean time the reappearance of this pioneering recording at budget price means there's no excuse for not taking the plunge.

More than any other work by Brian commonly available on CD, the Gothic illustrates why his neglect is such a mistake. The symphony is not without 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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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unreliable history, 10 April 2011
By 
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
Update: The recent Hyperion release of the performance from the 2011 Proms under Martyn Brabbins, Brian: Symphony No. 1 The Gothic, leaves this disc superseded. Naxos did a great service with keeping this mighty symphony in the public domain, despite its somewhat poor acoustic and recording quality, until such time as someone saw fit to give it the treatment it so thoroughly deserved, which has now most certainly come to pass.

A few weeks ago, on the Amazon Classical Music threads I hazarded the vain statement that `life is too short for all these second order Brit composers'. Then, perversely enough, I ordered Brian's Gothic, just to make sure, and now find myself happily obliged to eat my words. This is one of those works that causes one to question just how reliable history has been as a filter of what is best for transmission to posterity. On first hearing the obvious comparisons are with Vaughan Williams. The first of the work's six movements indeed unfolds as a balanced dialectic between the bitterly anguished Vaughan Williams of the 4th and 6th, with all their jarringly overwrought polyphony, and the English pastoral idylls of the 3rd and 5th. But one very soon realises that the Vaughan Williams pigeon-hole is simply not adequate. Just when we think we know where Brian is going, he wriggles out from under us, and hits us with the most extraordinary surprises. There are heaving Mahlerian sighs, little squiggles of Schoenberg, and chord progressions that one has never heard before, but that you feel you have known all your life, somewhat reminiscent of Bruckner. Strauss and Wagner are in there. In fact, if one were to remove the more overtly Vaughan Williams inspired passages one would be left with music very similar to that of another criminally neglected Briton, and Brian's late-life champion, Robert Simpson, but Simpson rendered on an insanely ambitious scale. Indeed there is something insane about this Guinness Book of Records `biggest symphony in the world', written by an autodidact, entirely without any realistic prospect of performance.

The work is in two parts of three movements apiece, the first being purely orchestral, while the second is a Te Deum that adds huge choral forces. It takes a couple of listens for the architecture of the work to stand revealed which, from in among the trees, can initially feel relentlessly episodic. Marches of various hues occur frequently throughout the work, without becoming clichéd or humdrum, and both the second and third movements feature music of intense savagery, with brazen brass and thundering timpani of often overwhelming power. The first choral movement is one of unalloyed and angelic optimism, at variance with so much of what has gone before. The climax of this movement is truly spine-tingling, and causes watery things to take place at the corners of my eyes, in a way I knew so well in younger days, but that rarely happens any more. The last two movements are as long as the first four and continue to explore increasingly exotic territory. It is in his choral writing that Brian is at his most harmonically daring, with the polyphony become very intense at times, reminiscent of the awe and beauty of the Bruckner masses, but conjoined an Eastern Orthodox element that adds a quite unique exoticism. Throughout much of the second part one feels a distinctly Eastern European pull, with moments of Janacek or Szymanowski. I don't know if the work is a masterpiece. It might simply sprawl just a little too much to qualify as that. But certainly the closing pages are those of a complete master. There is no doubt that he uses the outrageous forces at his disposal to do things that could not otherwise be done, and the finale is some of the strangest music I know that still remains tonal. My first experience of the ending was actually a visceral shock, with the thought, `no he can't end it there', not for any failure of artistic judgement, but for the shear audacity of the ambivalent statement being made. The strange apocalyptic ending of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis comes to mind as a comparison.

There is a weird acoustic that comes to the fore in some of the more sparse sections of the recording, though not quite enough to mar it. It could well be to do with the technicalities of recording such massive forces, and the properties of spaces big enough to contain them. If there were alternate modern recordings then I would give one a try, and I might have ended up knocking a star off this versions for its recording quality. But there isn't, so as this is the best we have at the moment, it keeps its five stars. But if one of the fine British labels like Chandos or Hyperion were to try and do full justice to this extraordinary work then that would be a significant step along the road of its urgently needed rehabilitation.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite an experience!, 15 July 2009
By 
N. Shepherd (Prague, Czech Republic) - See all my reviews
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Mr Zeidler's erudite and informative review probably says all that is needed about this fascinating recording. That said, I would like to lend my voice in his support, and offer some comments of my own.

I suspect that anyone who knows of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony is here to see if the performance and recording are any good, having already discovered the symphony. So the answer in terms of the performance is yes, absolutely - the Slovak forces play as if their lives depend on it and under the skilful direction of Lenard Ondrej, they are equally convincing in the soft, lyrical passages as they are in the huge climaxes. The brass are resonant and powerful in the latter, and the chorus deserve a special mention as they are uniformly excellent. The soloists too, though they have relatively little to do, add to the atmosphere of a dedicated performance.

I am hesitant to comment on the recording, since I have the Marco Polo version. I will say that the recording on this label allows for the scale of the piece while always keeping perspective. The climaxes are plenty loud enough (just a bit!) while the soft passages are clear without over-miking. There is no case here of a solo violin being louder than 20 trumpets, for example, as I have heard elsewhere. I would suggest that you will need decent equipment to get the best out of this, due to the complexity of the climaxes, and if you do, some of this will knock the hits (anagram) out of you. I haven't heard the Naxos version but have enough faith in that label to imagine that their version will be at least as good as the Marco Polo.

When it comes to the piece itself, I have to admit that I can't advocate it quite as passionately as Mr Zeidler. Sure, I would rather listen to one bar of this symphony than the entire oeuvre of almost any pop band you care to mention. There is an advantage in this music too that there is no hint of the awful "amateur choral society" sound that pervades some of the music by greater English composers than Brian. This is certainly not for musical vegetarians, with its German-sounding meatiness. However, let's take the most obvious parallel to this - Mahler 8. Provided the performance is quarter decent you're riveted from the opening "Veni, veni" to the final Faustian chorale. Now I've listened to the Gothic some 15 times and each time I've come away thinking "Wow, should play this more often" but equally, while listening to it I've remembered that I haven't paid the gas bill or something similar. As my Mum used to say, it does wander a bit.

But please, don't take the above as a negative. This is what I'd call Championship League music - not top notch but with plenty of good stuff to offer. Anyone who enjoys Mahler or Bruckner, or generally large choral works with lots of brass, will get plenty out of this. Enjoy!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Michael Wadge of Bristol, 6 Nov 2011
By 
Michael Wadge (Bristol England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
I think this is an admirable double CD and it is priced incredibly reasonably, since its re-release on Naxos. However, it does seem a shame that there is no current modern recording by a British Orchestra with British Performers. This is about to be rectified by the release on Hyperion of the live performance at this Year's Proms broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I understand that this this is scheduled to be on or about the 1st December. The performance conducted by Martyn Brabbins was wildly acclaimed by the audience, if not the critics. I suspect I will be very tempted to buy the Hyperion CDs, despite the fact that they will inevitably be substantially more expensive than the Naxos CDs! Hyperion has already told me its own pricing is going to be just under £26.

I have grown to love the music of Brian since my first purchase earlier this year and I have already acquired five CDs, including the Gothic. I find that all of his music justifies repeated listening and it seems sad that he received so little recognition during his long life and indeed, in the main, since his death. I would urge anyone interested in learning more about him and his music to go to the Harvergal Brian Society's own website, which includes a very interesting critique on the massive difference between the reaction of the audience at this year's Prom Performance and the generally sour reaction of the music critics. It also refers to the imminent release on Toccata of Volume 2 of his Orchestral Music. I already own Volume 1,which is quite superb.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glorious Bombast!, 13 Sep 2011
By 
M. Gray (Galloway, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
Glorious stuff, if you are in to large bombastic pieces (at least the opening movement) followed by a slow musical burn. Reminds me of Mahler's No 8. This is the old Marco Polo recording, of which I already had a copy but as this was bought as a gift for someone that's OK. Another one of those pieces that you need to be in the mood for but I would recommend it if only for the opening bars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is big always beautiful?, 17 Aug 2011
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
An interesting piece of music. Anyone who has taken part in one of the 'big' choral symphonies will know the amount of work that goes into preparing. Havergal Brian's musical knowledge must have been prodigious to be able to combine all of these different musical disciplines.
Whilst it succeeds musically, it failed to inspire me. It is interesting how many of the themes are similar to those of Mahler. Mahler wins in my opinion.
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4.0 out of 5 stars All because a friend sang in it at the Proms.., 22 July 2011
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Mr. I. J. Morgan (Malvern, Worcs., UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
This is an extraordinary work of the art of music, which mixes all sorts of styles in a way that is unlikely to be equalled. I must confess to having bought my copy largely because a friend, who is a member of the London Symphony Chorus, told me that she would be singing as part of the massed choirs at the BBC Proms performance which took place in London last week (17/07/11). However, I was not disappointed. Definitely a recording which all serious collectors of British music, or those who like the more unusual choral works, should hear at least once.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I was so pleased to get this cd after listening to the symphony ..., 7 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
I was so pleased to get this cd after listening to the symphony on the radio it really is great music
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A landmark recording, but soon to be eclipsed..., 4 Oct 2011
By 
Dr. M. Scott (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 1 'The Gothic' (Audio CD)
Well done to Ondrej Lenard for bringing us this, the finer of the two available recordings of the Gothic. I have lived with this for years and love it deeply, warts and all, but it had the socks blown off it by the Proms performance in July. The new Brabbins recording from the Proms is to be released by Hyperion (praise be!) on Nov 28th and I expect the Lenard version will sadly sink away into the sunset. The Brabbins is spectacular and wins by virtue of quality of orchestral forces and choirs, and by actually having the full panoply of bass instruments specified by Brian. And the xylophone solo in the 3rd movement in all its phenomenal virtuosity - the Slovak xylophonist sounds like he just gives up half way through! So all in all, a worthy recording that has filled a whole for 21 years, but time to retire now that Brabbins is on the scene.
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