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Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
Symphony No.2 Op.14 (1951)
Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)

Symphony No.1 (1951)
Robin ORR (b.1909)

Symphony in One Movement (1960-63)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir John Pritchard (Fricker)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult (Simpson)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Sir Alexander Gibson (Orr)
Recorded in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 13 and 14 August, 1954 (Fricker)*
No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 24 and 27 January, 1956 (Simpson)*
City Hall, Glasgow, Summer 1965 (Orr)
*Mono ADD
EMI BRITISH COMPOSERS 7243 5 75789 2 9 [72’17]

Here’s an interesting disc, symphonies by a post-war generation of composers who struggled for recognition amidst the folk-inspired style that had held sway for some decades. Their influences tended towards the continent, which had been understandably frowned upon, and they are all linked (to a degree) by a feeling of fundamental symphonic tradition and tight musical architecture. I was not familiar with any of these works, and was glad to make their acquaintance.

The disc opens with the Symphony No.2 by Peter Racine Fricker, and it strikes me overall as the most impressive here. There is clear evidence, from the start, of Fricker’s sympathies with elements of the Second Viennese School, Berg in particular. The opening melodic line has a sinewy, angular shape and resolves onto a recurring chord that is also reminiscent of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. The organic growth of his germinal material is impressive, though it is possible to sense that the twisted, thorny counterpoint needs a climactic release, something it never gets. The lyrical andante recalls Bartók, particularly the little duet for two trumpets at 3’35, straight out of the ‘Play of the Couples’ from the Concerto for Orchestra. What is lacking is Bartók’s rhythmic adventurousness, though a nagging pulse does provide unity. The extrovert finale is a fitting conclusion, even if one feels that here, as elsewhere, the Liverpool orchestra (particularly the strings) struggle valiantly with Fricker’s difficult lines and fairly dense textures. Recording is mono and hiss levels pretty high, but brass emerge clearly and balance is generally good.

Simpson’s First Symphony is also worth hearing. The forward impetus and muscular melodic lines hint at Nielsen (not surprisingly), as well as the brooding. monolithic structures of Bruckner. I first got to know Simpson’s symphonic work via the mature Ninth, but this is recognisably the same composer. The heroic trumpet blasts in thirds that open the work portend something grand, and indeed the work, though in three sections, is a single, cathedral-like structure. Organic growth of tiny cells is once more of chief concern to the composer and, like Sibelius, this takes precedence over pretty surface detail. Some critics have felt that Simpson’s work threatens to collapse under its own seriousness, but the integrity and sheer craftsmanship on display here is pretty impressive. The performance is much more secure than the Fricker, and helps in a real appreciation of the piece. Boult and the LPO obviously had more time to get on top of the material, and it is a pity the recording is not in stereo, where the antiphonal exchanges of wind and brass would have been even more effective Nevertheless, sound quality is full-bodied and well detailed.

The Robin Orr Symphony is also in a single movement, and also reminiscent of Sibelius, though the Sibelius of nature. It is the shortest of the three, and is a tightly controlled, concisely argued work. The melodic material does not have as much sheer personality as Sibelius, but is an attractive, well-orchestrated piece. Bird-like woodwind cries, horn calls and flashes of trumpet fanfare intersperse the rather sombre, brooding material (originally conceived as incidental music for a Cambridge production of Sophocles’ Oedipus). The Symphony was originally championed by Norman del Mar and the BBC Scottish Orchestra and notched up a number of performances. On this recording, Gibson and the RSNO make a good case for the piece, though like the Fricker, one feels a really first-rate, well prepared modern performance would do the piece even more justice. Still, this is recorded in true stereo and set in the warm ambience of Glasgow’s City Hall.

Excellent notes by Calum MacDonald complete what is a desirable, cheap issue for English enthusiasts, as well as those wondering what some of the forgotten music of the post-war years actually sounds like.

Tony Haywood

see also Peter Racine Fricker by David Wright


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