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
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
see also Peter Racine Fricker
by David Wright