Choirworks and Musical encounters

The Gothic and other Brian work on BBC Radio 3

David J Brown

The Gothic and other Brian work on BBC Radio 3 - David J Brown Here are transcripts of what seems worth preserving in the introductions to the current [mid 1995] mini-spate of Brian recordings on BBC Radio Three. As noted already, The Gothic was the main work in the Choirworks programme starting at 9.15pm on Sunday 14 May. It began with the ‘lush, multi-layered opening of Judex crederis’, as the introducer Brian Wright put it, noting the unprecedented demands of this ‘extraordinary’ work. The performance was not from the Marco Polo discs, as previously we had thought it was to be; instead, the producer David Gallagher chose the 1980 Royal Albert Hall performance, which he felt had greater cumulative intensity (though this was not said on the radio!).

Brian Wright went on: ‘I was in charge of the team of rather fraught chorus-masters on that occasion, and later we’ll be hearing from the overall boss of the proceedings, the Danish conductor Ole Schmidt…’. A quote from Malcolm MacDonald’s book, that The Gothic ‘is less like a late-Romantic effusion than some complex marvel of Renaissance polyphony: one thinks of Tallis’s great forty-part motet Spem in alium, made the link to the other item in the programme - which was indeed Spem in alium.

After this came the brief interview with Ole Schmidt…

Brian Wright: I spoke to him last week on a line from Copenhagen and he told me how the original producer of tonight’s performance, Robert Simpson, had first involved him in the project.

Ole Schmidt: What happened actually was I was sitting back in my home in Copenhagen; in the morning the telephone rang and it was Bob Simpson and his first words were ‘I think Ole that I have found a work which will satisfy your power complex’ [laughter] and, er, I didn’t know what he had in mind but then be said ‘Have you ever heard of the symphony by Havergal Brian called The Gothic’? ‘No, I’m afraid not.’ He said ‘I’ll send you a score as soon as possible because I’m sure this will interest you.’ And then he talked about it, that it was the biggest work ever composed for orchestras and choruses, and then a few days later the score arrived, and I was absolutely thrilled and very scared at the same time, of course.

But never mind, and I sat down for a week’s time and studied very carefully, and I remember, I really couldn’t foresee how all this could be organised because it takes an enormous orchestra, and not only that but some very rarely played instruments such as pedal clarinet and bass oboes and things like that. And then he also wants four brass orchestras, and where were they supposed to sit in Albert Hall? Behind me, yes, absolutely. And then we had four choruses, huge choruses, enormous choruses. As far as I remember twelve different choirs worked together to get all this done. And then this huge orchestra; as far as I remember we were 156 players on the platform, and all this was just about being too much.

I really couldn’t see how we could get sufficient rehearsing time, but in the end of the day knowing how well your orchestras work and how fast you are working, knowing that the choristers would be very well prepared, I finally accepted the offer.

Ole, I remember you were extremely patient in dealing with such vast forces. What problems do you find dealing with so many people posed for the conductor?

First of all, you have to show people that you can be absolutely confident. If I show the slightest sign of being nervous or anxious or anything like that this will immediately have a very negative influence on anyone involved. So I had to come in and show myself as very very quiet, very peaceful, very very optimistic, if you like.

I also remember you were extraordinarily clear with everything. Now I’m fairly tall and you I know are even taller [laughter]. It strikes me that for once being physically tall helps as our gestures are naturally sort of fairly expansive on these occasions.

Absolutely, that helps a lot, particularly when you have these four bands sitting behind you which only can see my back, so to speak, and I only have time to turn very quickly half to the right or to the left side in order to cue them, and then hoping that they will follow my beat - which they did perfectly well.

And so, what of the music, Ole? I mean the hardest thing about Brian’s music it strikes me is the multitude of different styles there are there. I sometimes think he woke up the next morning feeling different and so he just sort of changed his style in the next bar. Do you have that sort of feeling?

Yes - to begin with, I had that feeling but later on I thought I came to realise that exactly what you are talking about is a part of his personality, of his style, and again, if you like, an example of total freedom, liberty to do whatever I want any time.

It’s a very free work, isn’t it, in many ways? [Yes, yes] And yet there’s a tight structure, you feel?

Well, I think that in the end of the day, when you deal with all these changes of tempi, and all that, and you understand that ‘very slow’ is very slow and ‘very fast’ is very fast, then I think when all these little parts, all the patterns are done rightly, then the whole movement will be in, I would say, almost a perfect balance.

Brian Wright went on to give the familiar details about the compositional and performing history, though not mentioning the Marco Polo recording, and described the nature of each of the six movements in some detail. He ended: ‘According to Robert Simpson, the ending of the Gothic Symphony is deeply characteristic of Brian’s true restraint and profound realism. Where the climaxes of the ebullient Strauss and the self-tormenting Mahler spread themselves almost rapaciously around the listener, Brian’s knot themselves tightly with taut thews, tense as a coiled spring.’ All the performers were listed, of course.

I wasn’t able to listen to the whole performance again, but I was in time to catch the end, and note that something miraculous seemed to have been done to eliminate the dreadful cougher who on the night and on my live tape mined the unaccompanied quiet choral conclusion.

The next transmission was of Symphony No 5 Wine of Summer on Musical Encounters at 11.05 am on Wednesday 24 May. This was preceded by an introduction noting that ‘over the next few weeks you’ll be able to hear no fewer than eleven of Brian’s symphonies on Musical Encounters, stretching from the Fourth Symphony which he wrote in the ’30s to his 32nd Symphony which was finished shortly [!] before his death in 1972.’ After a few facts about No 5, the announcer went on:

‘Robert Matthew-Walker knew Havergal Brian very well and has just published his reminiscences of the composer. Robert tells me that, while writing the fifth, Havergal Brian and Lord Alfred Douglas actually met. Brian needed the author’s permission to set his poem, and the two men got on very well despite their different backgrounds. After he finished his fifth symphony, the two met again. Brian played his new work through on the piano to Douglas, singing the solo baritone part himself!’ Radio Times committed a particularly wince-making typo in listing the conductor of the performance as ‘Dean Lee Pope’. Recorded at one of the Alexandra Palace Brian Festival concerts in 1976 with Brian Rayner Cook in the solo baritone part, it was indeed a poignant reminder of Stanley Pope’s equally fine contribution as conductor.

At about the same time the following morning, it was the turn of No 10. This time the announcer ‘looked in the BBC library notes on the work and wasn’t surprised to find them say that Brian’s 10th Symphony is one of the least fathomable, but one of his most gripping works. It’s gripping, I think, because it has a very strong sense of drama.’ A description of the symphony’s main sections followed, and the introduction ended with a note that it was the first of Brian’s symphonies to be commercially recorded. The performance was that recording on the Unicorn-Kanchana CD reissue, by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Loughran.

No less than three were broadcast the following week: No 6 on Monday 29 May, from the Lyrita LP by Myer Fredman and the LPO recorded in 1975; No 8 on Wednesday 31 May, and No 9 on Friday 1 June. These were the two performances by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Charles Groves - the EMI recording made in 1978. On Thursday 7 June came No 16, the companion work from the Fredman/LPO Lyrita LIP, and the following morning found the very next in the sequence - the first broadcast in this series, interestingly, from the Marco Polo cycle.

On Wednesday 14 June Das Siegeslied was broadcast in the Slovak performance from the Marco Polo cycle conducted by Adrian Leaper, and on Friday 16 June it was the turn of No 31, the RLPO/Mackerras [EMI] performance. The introduction to No 4 quoted Malcolm MacDonald’s conclusions about the three levels of meaning in the work: ‘first, a formal celebration of victory in the tradition of Handel and Brahms, second an apocalyptic denunciation of state militarism, and third a call to fight the good fight - the enemies to be scattered, he says, are precisely those dark forces whose goose-stepping marches the music evokes so vividly’.

The last performance in this unprecedentedly concentrated broadcast survey of Brian symphonies was the Marco Polo performance of No 32 by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Adrian Leaper on Wednesday 21 June. While one could have hoped to see some new home-grown BBC performances amongst them, not to mention some representation at a more accessible time of the day and week, it was another step in the right direction.

© David J Brown 1995 / NL119

Newsletter, NL 119, 1995