Royal Albert Hall, London
Thanks to his vociferous admirers, Havergal Brian has been installed as the British archetype of the unjustly neglected composer, and his First Symphony, the Gothic, has become the symbol of that neglect. It's over 30 years since the complete work was last performed in the UK ? whole generations of concertgoers have never had the opportunity to decide for themselves whether Brian was in fact a real original, or just another 20th-century English eccentric, like John Foulds and Kaikhosru Sorabji, whose talent never matched their musical ambition.
For this Proms performance Martyn Brabbins conducted the combined BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, four vocal soloists (Susan Gritton, Christine Rice, Peter Auty and Alastair Miles), three children's choruses and six adult choirs ? nearly 1,000 performers, who are all unleashed for the second half of the work, a gigantic setting of the Te Deum text. The first three movements are purely orchestral; there are moments of striking originality, particularly the sparer, more spectral ideas, but much more is either entirely unmemorable or simply grotesquely odd, and often hopelessly over-scored. Ideas come and go; for a work that lasts nearly two hours, the music is surprisingly short-winded.
That unevenness is accentuated in the three choral movements, whose sheer vastness, with extra brass groups and timpanists weighing in on all sides and weird eruptions from a hyperactive xylophone, does achieve a kind of barmy grandeur. Even so the disjunction between the text ? a hymn of praise ? and the apocalyptic trajectory of much of the music is profound. Bruckner is an obvious model; there are occasional glimpses of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, and most of all of Franz Schmidt's The Book with Seven Seals, but Brian's music lacks their consistency and personality. Brabbins and his hordes did a truly magnificent job, and those who were there are unlikely to forget the experience, but the Gothic Symphony is no spurned masterpiece.