Gothic Review

Introduction

 

This long document is an attempt to write a fair review of the Gothic symphony by Havergal Brian. There have been few performances of this large work. Nevertheless, most of them have been recorded for posterity. I am in the lucky position of having access to most of these recordings.

 

Let me first of all state that I will let my “ears do the walking”. I will intentionally not refer to Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent CD notes, nor the studies available by Harold Truscott and Paul Rapoport or the excellent notes available on the web pages of the Havergal Brian Society. This is a personal review of the work based on what this layman, and I stress the word layman, hears.
 

Recent Reviews

 
Trawling the internet, I find very few reviews of the recent Brisbane Gothic. In contrast, I find many reviews of the Proms Gothic. All reviews fall into 3 main categories:
 
·         Uninformed – and proudly so
·         Supposedly informed but actually not
·         Highly knowledgeable or willing to listen
 

Let’s dispense with the first category. I will start with a quote from The Symphony edited by Robert Simpson. In one of the introductions, Simpson states the following:

 

“If I appreciate the kind of expression Schoenberg achieved, my sense of tonality, though it may be deliberately anaesthetized for the time being, is by no means abolished.”

 

The footnote to the above statement says: “I happen to dislike it, but that is irrelevant to my appreciation of its accomplishments.”

 

These are telling words, indeed. Simpson has the ability to differentiate between “I like” and “It is” - unlike the reviewers in the 1st category. They all say “I don’t like it and therefore the music is rubbish” or “I am paid to write pithy articles for a newspaper, so let me make some funny statements which have got nothing to do with the music”.

 

The second category is an interesting one. It is typified by statements equivalent to “I do not know the work, could not be bothered to listen to it, but this will not affect my ability to comment on it in great detail”. This is dangerous stuff. It is like asking me to write a review of Mahler’s 8th – the only one of his symphonies that I do not know backwards.

 

The 3rd category reviews are, of course, the only ones worth reading as they provide an insight into the work that one may not have otherwise had. Indeed, it is only in two of these articles that any mention is made of the Brisbane Gothic. Both Richard Whitehouse and Christopher Gunning have written excellent reviews, but neither of them appears to have heard the Brisbane performance. Hopefully, a commercial or internet release of the Brisbane Gothic will allow wider exposure to this version.

 

The Work

 

One review of the work states that the Gothic is not a symphony. Such a statement is hard to understand. To paraphrase Robert Simpson, a symphony is a work with major elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and tonality. If this does not describe the Gothic, I do not know what does. If I am to dismiss the Gothic, then I should certainly have to dismiss Mahler’s 3rd and Shostakovich’s 4th as not being symphonies either. The 1st movement of each of these symphonies is (a) long (b) episodic and (c) contains abrupt transitions.

 

One cannot listen to Brian as if he is Mozart/Haydn or Mahler/Shostakovich and it is naïve to think that you can. Brian has his own way of constructing movements, sometimes Sonata form, sometimes episodic. The only way to understand Brian is to listen again and again. Once this has been done, many objections disappear. There are many good tunes in the Gothic, and a lot of them are easy to “hum along to”.

 

Of course, having said this, is the Gothic a masterpiece? Probably not, but this does not and should not matter. Is the work perfect? Probably not, but it does contain some of the most moving music ever written. Like all musical works, it is good in parts. Everyone will find bits they do not like. However, they will probably find more bits they do like if they bother to put in the effort to listen to the work without prejudice.

 

Available Recordings

 

I will “compare and contrast” the following:

 
1.     Boult 1966              Bootleg LP and CD reissue
2.     Schmidt 1980          CD version
3.     Lenard 1989            Naxos CD
4.     Curro 2010              24 bit master file and 4MBS stream, recorded in MP3 format, on the internet
5.     Brabbins 2011         BBC iPlayer stream and 16 bit version, in FLAC format, on the internet
 

This is an interesting list. It shows that we have 3 problems understanding the work. Firstly, there is no real performance tradition, due to lack of recordings. The Boult recording was only reissued within the last 12 months or so. The Schmidt version is not generally available. The Curro version has only been broadcast once and will probably only ever be broadcast once more. The Brabbins version will stream for only 7 days. In contrast, I have multiple versions of all Mahler symphonies and can easily compare performances.

 

The second problem is that 4 of these 5 versions are live. Each of these 4 versions has parts where the choirs and/or soloists got lost or were less than perfect. As one of the recording engineers on the Curro version, I regret that we were unable to retake some of the bits that did not come off well in the concert. Only Lenard had the ability to fix the errors, and this is obvious in what he achieved.

 

The third problem is that the Brabbins version available today is a live mix and has severe compression issues which need to be fixed. The BBC balance engineer did a fabulous job on the day, much better than I achieved on the day with my 2 track mix. However, there are places where, for example, the celeste and xylophone are obviously artificially boosted such that they sound unnatural and the soloists are often too loud. I will discuss the compression issue later.

 

Let us hope that one of the major record companies takes the BBC recording and issues it after the balance and compression issues are fixed. In an ideal world, the CD issue would be a 6 CD set including the Schmidt and Curro performances as well. No doubt, monetary and copyright issues will prevent this from happening. In this internet era, maybe the best we can hope for is downloadable versions being available via your friendly internet store.

 

Analysis

 

Simplistically, assuming that all 5 versions are playing the same notes, the major control the conductor has over the performance are tempi, dynamics and individual orchestral/solo levels. In this regard, the quality of the recording does not affect the tempi but has a major impact on the dynamics and individual “spotlights”. The following analysis will make this clearer.

 

I once sat through a fascinating 2 hour lecture on Bartok’s 3rd String Quartet where Arnold Whittall spent the first hour discussing the last 6 chords of the work. I will take a leaf out of his book and start the analysis of the work and its recordings with Movement 5, Judex. One could argue that this is the heart of the symphony. It is certainly representative of most of the music and has probably the largest climax of the work.

 

The movement starts with the choirs singing the 4 words “Judex crederis esse venturus”. This section lasts for 3-5 minutes and is interrupted twice by the soprano solo, once singing the same words and once with a distant ethereal melody that could have come straight out of Vaughan Williams 3rd symphony. Here is a chart of the start of the Lenard recording.

 

Wavelab 5 Image of Lenard Judex
 

The “diamond” markers are:

 

·         Start of the 2nd a Capella choir section after the 1st soprano solo

·         Start of Soprano wordless melody

·         Trumpet fanfare followed by the horn restatement of the soprano wordless melody

·         Start of 1st orchestral section

 

Here are the start times for each of the 5 versions:

 

Boult                1.14      3.25      3.58      5.13

Lenard              1.46      5.06      5.44      6.48

Schmidt            1.32      4.28      5.13      6.30

Curro                1.22      3.40      4.11      5.15

Brabbins           1.31      4.31      5.13      6.32

 

None of the choirs have any troubles up to the end of the 1st soprano solo. In the 1st choir section, the singing is tonal and is quite easy to understand despite some Ligeti-like sound effects. However, now it gets difficult. The 2nd choir section is almost unsingable in practice. I submit it is also made harder when the tempi are slowed down. Boult and Curro saw this, I suspect. Their timings are within a hairsbreadth of each other, and if a bit went wrong, well at least it was left behind quickly. If I were to make any comments about this movement, this is the bit that I wish Brian had chopped down by a minute or so. No doubt it looks good on paper, but for me this section is too long.

 

Why didn’t Brian revise this? Sibelius, Nielsen, and Vaughan Williams all made extensive revisions in some of their symphonies – but only after they first heard them! Brian was 45 or so when he composed this, and yet he did not hear it under Boult until he was 90. I must admit, if I had been Brian, I would have probably done the same thing and said “To hell with it – let it stand – warts and all”.

 

Lenard gets away with a really slow tempo, in terms of disasters, as he had the luxury of endless retakes. However, I am not convinced that this slow tempo improves the listening experience. In general, Schmidt also got away with it but unfortunately, Brabbins did not. By the end of this section, the Brabbins choirs have all gone flat and the poor soprano sounds decidedly off-key as she enters, even though she was the only one on-key, of course.

 

What is also disconcerting about the Brabbins recording is that you can easily hear the organ playing a low volume “continuo” role. As far as I know, Schmidt used the same trick in his version. Let’s face it, how else are you going to keep the choirs at pitch for this long, atonal section? Let us hope that in the CD release of the BBC recording, if it ever appears, that someone removes as much trace of the organ as possible in the final mix.

 

As an aside, the Brisbane Gothic sound designer used a high tech approach to this problem. Offstage in the Judex was a keyboard player with a TV monitor showing Curro.

 

Gothic Choir Layout
 

The back row of the choir had the best singers for each section and each had an in-ear headphone which relayed the keyboard “continuo”. Each singer, some 30-60 (I lost count), had their own mic and their sound was fed to a large mixing desk which then fed some fold back speakers so that the rest of the choirs could hear what the back row was singing. None of this fold back sound was audible to the public or on the recording. This was an ingenious way to solve the problem of a Capella choirs and in general it worked well.

 

Anyway, back to the music. After the trumpets “call to arms” and the horn solo, the 1st orchestral section starts in earnest. This is angry, martial music. It is as if the orchestra is saying, we do not like your dissonant plainsong, we want some harmony and “normal” dissonance. All the major themes for the movement are present in this section.

 

The choirs now return and the bass string section of the Orchestra then plays “Judex, Judex” as an accompaniment. The choir and their brass retaliate, and the strings then play the main theme instead in unison. More “Judex” from the choirs and brass follow. The orchestra does not give up. It once again tries to reinforce the theme. Not to be outdone, the choir and their brass end this section.

 

The orchestra now has its own interlude. It is trying to establish some normality and indeed the main theme returns in a major key after about 30 seconds. The orchestra moves from major to minor and back again. The theme and “Judex, Judex” are developed but the music does not get any closer to a resolution. This is a very clever section with great writing for brass and strings. However, it is in this section that we come to a great divergence in the recordings.

 

After about 30 seconds, the horns proclaim “Judex, Judex” and the development starts after 40 seconds or so. One would have thought that with all the moaning about lack of cohesiveness and structure in Brian that the last thing anyone needs at this point is an abrupt tempo change. However, that is exactly what we get from Lenard, Schmidt and Brabbins, who accelerate as if they are running for the last bus. Schmidt and Brabbins rein in their tempi as we reach “Judex, Judex” as stated by the whole orchestra. Boult and Curro generally maintain their tempi and the effect is more magical as a result. This section is a slow build up to the calm before the 1st apocalypse and I think it should be enjoyed as such. Curro is even more measured than Boult at this point. Boult has a gentle increase in speed as he approaches the end – Curro does not. Curro is saving himself for the climax and he is not going to allow this movement to peak early.

 

Let me state at this point that I have no access to the score and do not know what tempi markings are shown at this point. Nor do I particularly care. If I can misquote something that Boulez once said: “The composer proposes and the conductor disposes”. In other words, composers are mostly right, but not always. For me, this passage “works” as played by Boult/Curro and does not work in the other versions.

 

Compression

 

We now come to the bane of the recording industry – namely, compression. Here is the last half of “Judex” with Brabbins. Boult and Schmidt are similar. Indeed, the Boult CD is worse than the Boult LP.

 

 

Here is the same plot from Curro. Lenard is very similar but more compressed towards the end. Note that the 4MBS internet stream mentioned earlier and the master file shown below were similar.

 

 

To put this in perspective, my production of the Curro is very slightly compressed! As you can see, in all the versions except Lenard and Curro the engineer has used all his dynamic headroom way before he got to the climax – and what a climax it is.

 

The choirs return with “Judex” while the woodwind interject with nervous twittering above them. The music becomes more impassioned and finally the brass lets loose with the organ joining in. We get one climax with the full choirs and the organ, the orchestra/brass give us one last moment of respite and then the entire ensemble, with “scarecrow rattle” and full percussion let loose with “Judex” and a final crescendo from the choirs with accompanying orchestral chords.

 

This effect is probably mind-blowing in the hall. It is certainly terrifying with headphones on! Of the available recordings, Boult and Schmidt are live mixes – so you get the mix from the night. The Boult recording has too much tape hiss. The Schmidt is better in this regard. Both have lots of coughs and grunts from the audience. Lenard is a “studio” recording, but the hall/recording is over-reverberant and suffers accordingly. It is only in the Curro and Brabbins that we have had the ability for a multi-track recording to do this movement justice. As I have stated earlier, the BBC balance engineer played it safe on the night just like I did – probably because, like me, he had no idea what on earth was really going to happen. Let us hope that, as I stated earlier, this recording gets remixed and released on CD or SACD in an uncompressed format.

 

Movement 2

 

If “Judex” is the highlight of Part 2, then the Lento 2nd movement is the highlight of Part 1. The movement starts with hushed timpani, tuba and brass followed by the achingly beautiful main theme played by the strings and then the woodwinds. This is magical stuff. How anyone can accuse Brian of not being able to write a “good tune” is beyond me.

 

The music becomes more impassioned and atonal as the development starts before subsiding into a quiet passage with harp, and later with more brass and woodwind. The music builds again until interrupted by full brass. The strings restate the theme with ever more interjections from the brass until a new section starts. However, this false jollity cannot dispel the underlying funereal mood and it is finally interrupted by the return of the brass section. The atonal theme is heard again and the music builds to the climax with repeated notes and clashing cymbals, at which point the organ joins in.

 

I should note at this point that a friend of mine has told me that my use of the word “atonal” here is not correct. He assures me that Brian uses a lot of augmented fourths which undermine harmonic orientation and that tonality is still there, but under attack. I would be better off describing this as “angular writing”. You see, I told you I was a layman!

 

This climax is brilliantly written. The funeral march is heard with the horns playing the original woodwind theme over accompaniment from the strings and organ. Paradoxically, compared with the “Judex”, it is Curro who takes this at a faster speed compared with Schmidt/Brabbins. Boult is halfway between the two, as is Lenard. This is not apparent when you listen to the Curro version as a whole as the tempo seems right in relation to his measured approach to this whole movement. Once again, it is a case of Schmidt/Brabbins accentuating overall tempo differences rather than letting the music take, what for me, is its natural course.

 

After the climax, the horns have a lovely melodic section, with the tuba and lower brass underneath. This is exquisite writing for the horns. It may not fit nicely under the fingers, but what has that got to do with it? Horn players cannot expect everything to be written in E flat J

 

The movement closes with a Shostakovich like solo from the bass clarinet before the movement moves directly into the next.

 

Recording quality is similar to what I have already stated for “Judex”. Curro is clearest today but we can expect Brabbins to be the equal of this if/when the BBC recording is remixed.

 

Movement 1

 

In comparison with what I have described so far, the opening movement is straightforward and should provide no problems for any listener. Lenard starts like an express train, Curro is a close second, Brabbins is close behind, and Schmidt/Boult bring up the rear. After about 40 seconds, all are pretty much in agreement, apart from Lenard who is determined to win this part of the race. The 2nd theme, for solo violin, with harp/string/woodwind accompaniment, is similar on all recordings, with Lenard dragging the chain a bit.

 

After the violin solo, we get a lovely Vaughan Williams-like section which develops the theme. The brass closes this section before we are back to the 1st theme again. After some more development, we get some more beautiful woodwind writing, then the violin solo returns after some “Lark Ascending” moments.

 

The music becomes more impassioned before a drum roll makes us realise that we are approaching the home stretch with full orchestra and brass restating the 1st theme. The music builds before the woodwinds and then the strings restate the 2nd theme. The final crescendo ensues with full orchestra and the organ joining in.

 

Here we have a fascinating difference in the final chord. Boult and Schmidt give us the major chord as a “normal” conclusion. Brabbins lets it really drag. Lenard gives us a punch and Curro gives us a slightly longer punch but with more even more wallop due to his larger dynamic range. This version makes me want to ask Curro if he knows Berkeley’s 3rd symphony, which also ends with a similar, triumphant, brilliant and even sharper wallop. Stirring stuff!

 

Movement 3

 

I will not cover this movement in detail. Better minds than mine have already done so. Once again, we have Brian in a Vaughan Williams but episodic mood. There are more lovely themes, easy to sing along to. I will also skip the strange middle section and go straight to the infamous xylophone solo. Brabbins is clearest here. The balance engineer has artificially boosted the xylophone volume with a spot microphone. What is also very noticeable is the detail in the brass and the double bass ostinato which keep thundering in the background. Curro is not far behind. His double bass ostinato are also clear but the growling brass is not as menacing.

 

However, now we get two entirely different sets of performances. As the side drum starts its rat-tat-tattting, Schmidt and Brabbins are off like a rocket. Boult and Lenard take this at middle pace and Curro takes it slower. Does Curro’s tempo work? I think it does, but that is a personal opinion. I find the pace of Schmidt and Brabbins too rushed here. I want a great climax and I am not sure I want it dispensed with so quickly. In terms of recording dynamics, Brabbins is flat lined as usual, as is Boult. Lenard is good, and surprisingly, Schmidt is much the same as Curro.

 

After the climax settles down, all versions give us the lovely horn section with pizzicato bass, followed by the final chord that prefaces Part 2. Only Curro gives us the Part 1 chord and the Part 2 chord. Curro played Part 1 then Part 2. Brabbins went straight on to Part 2. I did not have the heart to cut the lovely harp runs which only exist in the Part 1 chord – so I split my production accordingly.

 

Movements 4 and 6

 

Lest the reader assume that I think Curro can do no wrong, the 4th Movement is where his version lets us down. There is no doubt that the choir, and to a lesser extent the soloists, are the weak link in this version. This is something that some of the choral associations of Brisbane should hang their heads in shame for. As it was, Curro needed some slight sound reinforcement to help the choir compete with the large orchestral forces in the hall. In general, the Schmidt choirs are very good, as are the Brabbins choirs. Let’s face it – they both had twice as many people in the choirs as Curro did. I make no further comments re Movement 4. This movement is not my favourite and I have not studied it closely enough to offer any useful thoughts.

 

The soprano soloist gets precious little to do and the alto has no solo at all. The male soloists get their chance to shine in Movement 6. The movement opens with an oboe solo followed by the tenor solo. Here Brabbins has the best soloist, greatly aided by the better recording compared to the other two BBC efforts. Peter Auty takes his solo without appearing to force his voice like some of the others did. The recording is clear and detailed. Funnily enough, I suggest that Curro is not far behind here. Luke Venables has what I will call a “sweet voice”. He does not have the power of Auty and his vocal range does not always fit what Brian requires. Nevertheless, he does a reasonable job and at least in the Curro recording you do get to hear the entire dynamic range. At the climax of the solo, Venables is silenced by a wall of sound from the orchestra, which is what Curro warned him would happen during the rehearsal!

 

The baritone solo is the penultimate section of the movement. All performances are very similar. Boult and Brabbins are compressed too much, as usual, and the baritone is louder than the full orchestra at times. Surely this is not what Brian intended? Lenard has the baritone in a bathtub and this to me sounds quite unnatural. The Schmidt and Curro recordings do not accentuate the soloist as much. I would probably pick David Thomas in the Schmidt version ahead of Dimitri Kopanakis in Curro’s but it is always going to be a close call. The Curro version also has two PA “whumps” which are quite off-putting. If you want to hear the solo and the accompaniment loud and clear, go with the Brabbins version but be warned, it does not sound like this in the hall. Let’s hope the possible CD release fixes these minor issues.

 

All that remains for me to discuss are the middle section of the movement and the finale. The middle section has the multiple clarinets tune as its opening and closing bars. Brabbins and Curro take this a tad faster than the others and both have a jauntier feel. However, the current Brabbins recording cannot be recommended here as the dynamic range is shot. We are already at maximum volume with the 1st mini climax, leaving us nowhere to go in the middle of the section where the choirs and orchestra really let rip. The playing is great and the choirs/orchestra are well balanced – apart from the xylophone being over-emphasised again. Curro is a bit raggier here but sheer visceral energy wins the day for me. Brabbins will probably win this section when the balance and dynamic issues are fixed.

 

Boult’s recording lets him down again. Schmidt is very exciting. There is a lot of dynamic range and good choirs. This is easily as good as, if not better than the Curro version. Lenard’s woolly acoustic makes this version not preferred.

 

Now we come to the finale. The section starts with just the choirs. Here it is Boult that takes off like he wants to go home early. His tempo sounds twice as fast as any other version. Of the other versions, once again it is Schmidt or Brabbins that sound the best. Curro is not far behind. Lenard sounds nice here and is less woolly in this section without the orchestra.

 

When the 2nd apocalypse starts, (the 1st was in “Judex”), we again get extreme differences. Boult and Schmidt are very slow. Indeed, Schmidt is just revelling in the dissonances he can produce. However, this tempo is maintained and it seems to drag after a while. Curro, Brabbins and Lenard all adopt the same tempo. Brabbins multiple sets of timpani are clearer and better spatially presented. However, Curro wins this section for me when the choirs shout “Non Confundar” twice at their maximum volume. However, in essence, Lenard, Brabbins and Curro provide the same reading.

 

The epilogue starts with the cello section’s plea and ends with the final “Non Confundar”. All versions are similar. The only major differences are the recording quality which we have discussed frequently so far.

 

Conclusion

 

As I reread this review, I see the same points being repeated. In essence, my thoughts are:

 

·         Boult is let down by an old recording.

·         Schmidt has fewer recording problems but tempi issues.

·         Lenard suffers from his acoustic and some strange tempi choices.

·         Curro has the best sound, so far, but the choirs are not as good as Schmidt or Brabbins.

·         Brabbins has good choirs, some tempi issues but mainly recording issues which can be fixed.

 

However, in all cases, the music shines through. Let us hope that the critics of the 1st and 2nd categories detailed earlier can be bothered to sit down sometime in the near future and sit through this work rather than dismissing it out of hand.

 

Let us also hope that the copyright holders can let the world hear all versions of the work, without putting roadblocks in the way. Sometimes, we have to put music before commercialism. I would like to suggest that this certainly applies here. It costs so much in time and effort to mount the Gothic that it is not going to happen again anytime soon. Without easy access to all these recordings, how is anyone going to learn to appreciate this work?

 

 

Mike Le Voi

4MBS Concert Recording Team member

 

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