BRIAN Symphony No 1 'Gothic'
The Gothic Symphony is a fabulous work in every sense of the word. Of epic scale and the stuff of myths, several gently deflated in Calum (aka Malcolm) MacDonald’s excellent booklet-note, it has been performed entire just seven times since its completion in 1927; by hook or crook I have managed to hear all bar Bryan Fairfax’s 1961 world premiere. The present twofer enshrines (to borrow MacDonald’s word) the seventh, given at the 2011 BBC Proms, and – I can unequivocally confirm – far and away the finest it has received. It is not perfect, for sure: no performance, however well prepared, could manage that (Brabbins and MacDonald both write eloquently of the challenges), so there are some instances of intonational drift in the many exposed unaccompanied choral passages. These are minor and do not detract from the musical flow or the effectiveness of the interpretation. In a sense, Hyperion’s release is a perfect one, of a great event, a magisterial work and an encapsulation of the enormous difficulties of the project as a whole.
How does it compare with its competitors? (To those with long memories the notion of three rival accounts beggars belief.) Boult’s, like Brabbins’s a BBC-mounted event in the Royal Albert Hall, smoothed out Brian’s extremes of tempi whereas Lenárd’s accentuated them. Boult is swifter than Lenárd by almost a quarter-hour; Brabbins lies between, closer to Boult but emphasising the kaleidoscopic variety of speeds, texture and invention in the score. Aided by Hyperion’s sensational sound, details which barely registered before sound crystal clear. True, Boult’s soloists remain the best quartet assembled for the Gothic but Brabbins’s are fine enough, Gritton the pick.
It is a shame that Toccata Classics’ second Brian disc should be so overshadowed by Hyperion’s monumental release, especially as it brings into the light much fine music heard just once before. Garry Walker again produces committed playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The two suites from Brian’s second opera, Turandot, are full of fascinating material, the Three Pieces from Act 1, MacDonald’s Suite from Acts 2-3. Toccata’s gems are the climactic ‘Night Ride’ from Faust and electrifying Symphonic Variations from The Tigers. But it’s the Gothic to which I will return most often and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Reading BBC Proms Controller Roger Wright’s introductory note, one question remains: why on earth did they not video-record it? What an omission!