On record: New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves – Havergal Brian: In Memoriam & Gothic Symphony Part 1 (Heritage Records)

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves

Brian
In Memoriam (1910)
Symphony no.1 in D minor, The Gothic (1919-27) – Part One

Heritage Records HTGCD172 [59’31”]
Producer Robert Simpson

Recorded 10 October 1976 in live performances at Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. Released by arrangement with BBC Studios, with funding from the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label renews its archival coverage of Havergal Brian with this disc of works given at the last concert of those centenary events in 1976, including what is still the only professional account of Part One from the Gothic Symphony heard separately, as sanctioned by the composer.

What’s the music like?

Following three concerts at Alexandra Palace, this final one took place at the Royal Albert Hall. even if a planned performance of the Gothic had to be shelved through financial considerations, a second half featuring Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise and his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale was no easy option. At the helm was Charles Groves who, having recently given the Ninth Symphony at the Proms, proves a Brian interpreter of real perception. Such is evident in his account of the tone poem In Memoriam, among the best of its composer’s earlier works and unheard for almost 55 years. Whether prompted by thoughts as to the end of an era, or by more personal considerations (its initial title having been ‘Homage to an Artist’), the trajectory of its three continuous ‘scenes’ from impulsive vehemence, via searching contemplation, to sustained affirmation is a striking one made more so through the finesse of Brian’s tonal thinking and his resourceful scoring. These are qualities to the fore with Groves’s interpretation, as convincingly shaped as it is eloquently rendered, and most likely the finest that this work has so far received.

If the performance of Part One of the Gothic Symphony is not quite as good, it more than makes the case for this to be heard as an autonomous entity. Tempi are slightly more measured overall than those of Sir Adrian Boult (Testament) or Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion) in their live readings at the same venue, but this enables Groves to wrest unity from the three movements – not least by bringing those extremes of motion and mood of the Allegro into closest accord, while ensuring a cumulative momentum across the whole. The Lento has all the necessary ‘expressiveness and solemnity’, and at a speed flexible enough to contain its volatile progress towards a powerfully rhetorical climax then a lingering postlude. The Vivace more than fulfils its function as a finale: Groves is mindful to integrate the increasingly disjunct scherzo-and-trio episodes, then keeps a firm hold on its explosive central outburst and surreally imagined ‘night flight’, on the way to a peroration of a grandeur intensified by its tonal audacity and afforded pathos in its limpid coda. That the rather bemused applause has not been retained is maybe of no consequence in context.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brian always did things his way so that his music often pivots between the visionary and the reckless, yet one where he is almost always justified. Certainly, Groves’s In Memoriam is preferable to the well-paced if technically limited account by Geoffrey Heald-Smith with the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Cameo Classics), as also the capably played if most often stop-go approach of Adrian Leaper and the National Symphony of Ireland (Naxos). There is no other version of the Gothic’s Part One, in which Groves’s trenchant advocacy vindicates the decision.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The (unnamed) remastering engineer has done an admirable job of enhancing the BBC sound, not least in minimizing the bronchial audience contribution on that autumn evening now almost 45 years ago, and John Pickard’s booklet notes are a model of reasoned enthusiasm.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website. Heritage also offer a recording of Brian’s first opera The Tigers here, and the first commercial recordings of the composer’s music here