Brian: Symphony No. 1 “The Gothic” (CD review)

Eva Jenisova, Dagmar Peckova, Vladimir Dolezal, Peter Mikulas, soloists; Slovak Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Lucnica Chorus, Bratislava City Choir, Bratislava Children’s Choir, Youth Echo Choir; Ondrej Lenard, conductor, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557418-19 (21st Anniversary Limited Edition, 2-disc set).

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was one of those early-to-mid twentieth-century British composers who refused to believe that the Romantic Age had ended and continued producing music in the Romantic tradition until his death at the age of ninety-six (although, to be fair, the First Symphony uses elements from far-ranging eras, all the way up until his own day). He didn’t complete his Symphony No. 1 until 1927, when he was already in his late fifties, yet he would go on to write over thirty more of them before he died. You might say he was a dedicated man; or a compulsive one.

Brian subtitled his Symphony No. 1 “The Gothic” in part because he found inspiration in the Gothic Age (1150-1560), in the beginning of Enlightenment, and in the massive and imposing structure of Gothic cathedrals in general. Goethe’s Faust, written in the early nineteenth century, also inspired him, so the music owes a lot to previous generations. It also owes a lot to Bruckner and Mahler and probably a dozen other composers, as it appears to borrow from everyone, particularly other British composers like Elgar, Bax, and Vaughan Williams.

The Symphony has the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s “largest symphony,” which is probably the main reason anyone remembers it today. Certainly, there are only a handful of Brian’s other works that anyone might remember. Brian wrote the First for performance by two complete orchestras, augmented by a battalion of choruses and soloists. At almost two hours and utilizing hundreds of players, it is enormous, indeed, one of the few examples in classical music of gigantic forces used to convey essentially spiritual themes.

Naxos recorded the music in 1989, releasing it on their full-price label, Marco Polo, re-releasing it on their Naxos label in 2004, and re-releasing it yet again on Naxos in the present 21st Anniversary Limited Edition in 2011. I recall trying to get through it when it initially appeared and giving up about twenty or thirty minutes in. This time I stayed the course, but I must admit it was still a chore. Brian divides the Symphony into two parts, the beginning purely orchestral, the second a new setting of the choral Te Deum.

In its defense, the piece has a wonderfully propulsive style, always moving forward with great momentum and, obviously, with great weight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have much of anywhere to go in its two hours. It rather meanders from one huge, sometimes wearisome crescendo to the next, punctuated only intermittently in the choral sections by moments of serenity and repose. However, the “moments” are too often far and few between. I daresay a person could play back any one of the set’s forty-six tracks and have no idea where in the first or second half of the work it belonged or how it differed from every other point. Nevertheless, Maestro Ondrej Lenard and his massive forces give it their all, trying perhaps to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. In a way, that’s kind of fun, and for those listeners with the patience to hear it out, there are a multitude of minor pleasures along the way.

Fortunately, the sound is quite good, especially given the sheer size of the forces involved. Percussion, which is understandably prodigious, comes through clearly, with a strong presence; the choirs are often startlingly transparent and real; the dynamic range is huge; and the sense of depth is reasonably natural. Oddly, however, I never got a real feeling for the immense numbers involved. Oh, well, that’s a minor concern.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa