> Benjamin Frankel - Complete Symphonies [GSD]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Benjamin FRANKEL (1906-1973)
Symphony No. 1 (1958) [25.33]
Symphony No. 2 (1962) [35.36]
Symphony No. 3 (1964) [17.24]
Symphony No. 4 (1966) [25.02]
Symphony No. 5 (1967) [18.03]
Symphony No. 6 (1969) [28.21]
Symphony No. 7 (1970) [28.03]
Symphony No. 8 (1971) [24.14]
Overture: May Day (1948) [9.26]
Mephistopheles Serenade and Dance (1952) [6.09]
A Shakespeare Overture (1956)
Overture to a Ceremony (1971)
The composer introducing his symphonies 2 and 3
Queensland SO/Werner Andreas Albert
rec ABC Studio 420, Ferry Road, Brisbane, Australia, May 1993, Apr 1994, Oct 1994, Sept 1995, April 1999
CPO 999 661-2 [4CDs: 53.24+59.18+60.03+70.27=243.12]

With eight symphonies to his credit, several of them of great authority, Benjamin Frankel is a major British composer by any account. Still relatively little known, this boxed set will hopefully further the appreciation of Frankel's work, which in recent years began with this very series of recordings. The four CDs here were recorded between May 1993 and April 1999, with each containing two symphonies and all but one also featuring one or two shorter additional pieces. Each disc is packaged with photographs, the same excellent essay on the composer by Dimitri Kennaway (the composer's step-son, without whose efforts Frankel's music would be still less well known than it is) and notes on the music by Frankel's friend and former pupil, Buxton Orr. The exception is the disc containing the final two symphonies - as Orr died in 1997 the notes are either by Kennaway, or are Kennaway's revisions of Orr's or Frankel’s original programme notes for the premiere performances of the symphonies.

Apart from an outer card slipcase the four discs are exactly as one might buy them separately. It's a small quibble, and one that presumably would have cost CPO too much to change, but due to the order in which the works were originally recorded and released the symphonies appear slightly out of sequence, even though they could all easily fit on four discs in the correct order.

Benjamin Frankel was born in London in 1906 and had a very varied musical life, studying at London's Guildhall School of Music, working as a jazz pianist and fiddler and having a very successful career as a film composer before retiring from the cinema in 1965 following his epic score for Battle of the Bulge (also recorded on CPO) to concentrate completely on his concert music. The first performance of his serious music is thought to have been at the composer's own studio in December 1933 - a series of chamber works - while Frankel did not turn to the symphony until 1958. During the 1950's Frankel also adopted 12-note serialism, a technique which informs each of his symphonies. It is however, a modified, personalised and less austere form of the technique than might be imagined. After a long struggle Frankel has won me to his point of view; I have long held with his contemporaneous colleague in film music, Miklós Rózsa, that serial music is fit only for the devil.

If as I have you find the Symphony No.1 somewhat nebulous, may I suggest approaching the eight symphonies as a body of work, playing through each to familiarise yourself with the style; each work is focused to the same ultimate end, a musical-philosophical quest which ended with the composer's premature death. May I also suggest turning to the Symphony No.2, at 35 minutes the longest work by a fair margin, and a musical odyssey of fearsome emotion and drama. It is, I would suggest alone with No.8, the key to unlocking the questioning nature of the symphonies, a piece written as the composer notes in 1962 during a time of emotional distress and turbulence. It is a deeply personal work, dedicated to the composer's late wife, Anna; though the emotional contents we can only guess at. However, this intensity makes it the most immediately striking of the symphonies.

In a spoken introduction on the CD Frankel talks of the vague magical/poetical ideas behind the creation of the second symphony, a work prefaced with quotations from Wordsworth. The first movement seeks spiritual reconciliation, speaking of a "dark inscrutable workmanship" yet the second movement journeys through a dark landscape which might as well be Lovecraft as Wordsworth. The relentless pulse, the uncompromising brass, the inventively scored percussion, all contribute to a virtuoso exploration of an unquiet spirit. Parts of this music are truly unnerving, suggestive of a darkness which is no mere flirtation with the depths, but a clear eyed stare into the abyss. After this the finale comes as a relief, a lengthy adagio which seeks a peaceful resolution but is left fading into the night. The atmospheric writing towards the end asks more questions than it can answer, pointing to the very different Symphony No.3.

In a single movement half the length of its immediate predecessor, Frankel's Symphony No.3, dates from 1964. The mood is less dark, even at times optimistic, though melodies still turn to fragments, a work without resolution. The opening themes are diatonic, the formal plan of the work the transformation of that material into serial form. If this is in a sense an exercise compared to the monumental work of 1962, there is a tightly argued logic which displays an often alpine grandeur, a sense of new vistas to be explored, ever new horizons to be reached. There is a bold majesty on the verge of self-immolation, an indomitable urgency which is by turns exhilarating and intellectually haunting. One can only speculate as to what drove Frankel to this unease.

The Symphony No.4 surprises after what has come before with its very positive and sunny opening. Two further years have passed, it is 1966 and the three movement, 25 minute symphony seems to paint an indomitable picture. However, after the stirring introduction, we find the work becomes a tribute to its dedicatee, the violinist Olive Zorian, her death being directly referred to in the gentle Lento finale. Between life and death comes a terse five minute Quasi Allegretto, the elliptical almost-melody looking both backward and forward, suggesting brief nostalgic reflection subsumed by a bold, near fugal march theme with typically rich and glittering orchestration. After this the finale is paradoxically uplifting in its quietude, introspection and resolutely powerful crescendos.

At just 18 minutes the Symphony No.5 (1967) is as short as it is enigmatic. The opening two movements both suggest gently disturbed landscapes, impressions but which soon shift out of focus. Then the brief Allegro brillante finale comes along, in under five minutes upsetting any expectations with an ironic smile and bright shards of gleaming colour. Brass and woodwind race to the finishing line dispelling all doubts yet leaving the listener with the knowledge that this cheerfulness is quite uncharacteristic of the previous symphonies. One almost senses the composer teasing the audience; setting a riddle and saying, "solve me" if you can.

There are five movements lasting just shy of half-an-hour to the Symphony No.6 (1969), the lyrical opening bars of the Andante giving way to a sense of a perfectly hermetic musical world looking to a future outside of its time. There is a feeling of disengagement with the 20th century, a personal retreat into a domain of perpetually circling questions. The woodwind writing is eloquently otherworldly, the strings presenting a controlled turbulence which explodes in the following Allegro. There is a reigned fury to this writing suggestive of a world about to cycle out of control, the conflict finding its inevitable consequences in the longest movement, a central Adagio. This however is no lyrical lament, but a desolate, barren earth, the haunted textures indicative of some final and irreversible catastrophe. Given the date of composition one may well be drawn to imagine the Cold War come to horrible fruition. In the woodwind writing which opens the Intermezzo await ghosts of Stravinsky, a Rite of Spring turned to stark winter with little human warmth. Leavened with cold ironic wit, the finale "Allegro alternating with Adagio", is exactly what it says, a dark joke torn between dancing and despair. A grimly uncompromisingly symphony, according to taste one may find it among the least accessible or most profound; perhaps both.

The Symphony No.7 (1970) followed immediately from No.6. Frankel notes it stands between two lines of Marlow: "That time may cease and midnight never come" and "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike." The music was written between periods of dangerous illness opens in reflectively mystical mood with an Andante tranquillo which seems in the composer's more modern language to pay passing homage to The Planets. A dark cosmic grandeur infuses every passage, while of the second movement Frankel suggested that the listener "may imagine oneself contemplating a vast temporal clock-mechanism, with strange chiming devices and a rather hypnotic action." This description could not be bettered, this visual thinking perhaps the legacy of the composer's long association with cinema; the result a vivid tone poem which one cannot but see as informed by a science fictional-visionary imagination in the tradition of the works of Olaf Stapledon. One even wonders what 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) might have been like had Mr Frankel met Mr Kubrick. The third movement again evidences Frankel's defiant spirit, an almost military redoubt replete with combative snare informing the music. The finale balances between "imminent threat" and nostalgia, and again in the composer's words "There are processional moments of a certain splendour and strange echoings of such processions in ghostly imitation." It is stark and grave writing without a safety net, the clock has reached two minutes to midnight.

The final symphony, No.8 (1971) begins with restrained resolve, again a powerful snare seems to indicate a refusal to surrender, the Moderato grave apparently being inspired by the composer's solitary city walks. The brief second movement is relentlessly propulsive, ever questioning, seeking an answer in the third movement, subtitled "Reflections on Christmas Eve". According to Buxton Orr "Each year there is the ever renewed offer of Christian rebirth - Man's gaze flickers and is caught for a moment, only to turn back once again, fixed on the old paths." But is this what Frankel meant? And does the music accept the offer, or merely contemplate it? We can never be sure, but certainly the eight symphonies offer a quest which is at core spiritual; a determined seeking for "the answer". Had Frankel finally become, like C.S. Lewis, the most reluctant convert in all Christendom? Who can say, other than that there is an unusual sense of optimism to the concluding Allegro moderato, a sense of tension dissipated in brighter colours and joyful progression. It is the converse of the despairing No.6, the unflinchingly horrific No.2. A choral ninth was to have followed and was almost complete in the composer's mind at the time of his death. Perhaps had he lived to write it, his choice of text would finally have revealed if he had found his answer.

And so to end at the beginning. The problem of coming fresh to the Symphony No.1 is that even Frankel's questions are in the process of being formulated. The work remains elusive, spectral, and if fascinating, hard to hold in focus. A composer experimenting with his new voice, the restless and unresolved nature of the writing points only forward, and in and of itself fails to satisfy completely. It is, as I have said, better to approach these symphonies as a body of work; to return to the beginning at the end and wonder again at the distance travelled, the sheer commitment, and the compelling gravity of the writing. Nevertheless this is a long, challenging and often dark journey. Initially the eight symphonies seem impenetrable, uncompromisingly beyond the simply human in scale. But then one finds a way in and the works begin to reveal their secrets; music with a cryptic heart wrought on an epic scale.

The entire cycle offers a vision greater than its individual instalments, a vision at once intensely hermetic and monumentally cosmological, a gesture against the inevitable and a portrait of a vast unknown world beyond our time and place. In a tradition from Holst, Langgaard and Scriabin to the visionary literature of the 20th century, Frankel holds a place which has yet to be acknowledged. There is great music here, still waiting to be explored and fully understood.

Throughout CPO's recorded sound is a model of detail and clarity. The precise orchestrations gleam with under the insightful baton of Werner Andreas Albert, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra deliver these complex scores with great finesse and dramatic richness. A more challenging yet rewarding odyssey through the work of a still under valued mid-20th century composer is hard to imagine.


The set also contains four shorter works. Mephistopheles’ Serenade and Dance is subtitled "A Caricature for Orchestra" and is a playful six minute piece which ranges through mock orchestral jazz to jaunty rhythms not inappropriate to an Ealing comedy, while at other moments hinting at the optimistic sobriety of Hovhaness. A curious blend which takes its subject not entirely seriously enough for some tastes. In very marked contrast the Overture: May Day comes from 1948 and offers a straight forward, expertly crafted patriotic celebration with a smattering of folk-inspired melody. Filled with light and colour, the piece is a delight. Commissioned for the St. Cecilia's Day Royal Concert in 1970, Overture to a Ceremony starts forebodingly but soon develops into a more exuberant piece laced with witty references to "God Save the Queen". While the nature of the ceremony remains a mystery one senses the composer approached it with a good nature. A Shakespearean Overture is dedicated to Frankel's close friend, Gerald Finzi and was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956 (the year of Finzi’s death, Ed.). The notion was to convey, as much as possible in ten minutes, the essence of Shakespeare's drama. The music is full of colour, tension, suspense and imagination, and was the composer's last work before his adoption of serial methods. The direction of his future work can be clearly heard, and the tension between more traditionally tonal writing and this brave new world provides an isle full of most enjoyable noises.

Gary S. Dalkin

Also see Review by Rob Barnett

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