Every BBC Proms season has a few really hot tickets. This year one of them was definitely the rare outing of Havergal Brian’s Symphony No.1, “The Gothic”. How many other symphonies call for four soloists, two orchestras and nine choirs, numbering close on 1,000 performers? Even Mahler’s so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” rarely gets anywhere near.
Composed in the 1920s, but not performed until 1961, “The Gothic” is one of a select band of musical monstrosities that is more talked about than heard. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a symphony – a vast, lumbering mass, created to no pre-existing design and with a sketchy idea of symphonic science, which inspires awe and trepidation in all who know its name.
The first half equates to a traditional orchestral symphony in three movements. Heavy-footed marches trudge past and brass fanfares echo across an epic orchestral landscape. Think armies of trolls on the warpath in some long-forgotten film soundtrack. The second half is an hour-long setting of the “Te Deum”, which adds in the nine choirs and four extra brass bands. For long stretches, Brian’s thick and homogenous choral writing threatens to suffocate the audience in the biggest marshmallow of sound that has ever been cooked up, but there are spectacular moments, too. The four brass bands raise hell with the unholy din they create and the massed choirs soar in glorious affirmation. It is just a shame Brian’s skills did not extend to the pithy musical idea.
Given the portentous weight of the symphony’s tread, the conductor, Martyn Brabbins, did very well to get such vital playing out of the combined forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Concert Orchestra. The nine choirs sounded impressively confident, even when Brian was leading them down tortuous paths. The disembodied voice of Susan Gritton (from inside the organ?) soared like an angel. Tenor and bass, Peter Auty and Alastair Miles, wrestled manfully with long, tuneless solos.
Was it good to hear “The Gothic”? Unquestionably yes. Would it be welcome back again soon? Probably not, though there is little chance of that anyway. Like Frankenstein’s monster, this symphony is an awesome creation and encounters with it are best treated as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.