> FRANKEL Symphonies [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Boxed Set Crotchet   AmazonUK   Mid price

Symphonies 1 & 5 Crotchet  Full price
Symphonies 2 & 3
Crotchet  Full price  
Symphonies 4 & 6
Crotchet   Full price   
Symphonies 7 & 8
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Benjamin FRANKEL (1906 - 1973)
Symphonies and other orchestral works

Symphony No.1 Op.33 (1958)
Symphony No.2 Op. 38 (1962) (includes composer's spoken introduction)
Symphony No.3 Op. 40 (1964) (includes composer's spoken introduction)
Symphony No.5 Op. 46 (1967)
Symphony No.7 Op.50 (1970)
Symphony No.8 Op. 53 (1971)
Overture "May Day" Op. 22 (1948)
A Shakespeare Overture Op. 29 (1956)
Overture to a Ceremony Op. 51 (1970)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Werner Andreas Albert
Recorded in the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 1993 (Symphonies 1 and 5, May Day), April 1994 (Symphonies 2 and 3), April 1999 (Symphonies 7 and 8, Shakespeare Overture, Overture to a Ceremony).
CPO 999 240/241/243 - 2 [4CDs: 53.24+59.18+60.03+70.27=243.12]

Like the discs of chamber music and concertos I reviewed recently, Benjamin Frankel's symphonies, as evidenced by these issues, represent a highly significant and important part of his output. They stand as a testament to both his artistic integrity and his commitment to melody whilst working within the constraints of his own highly personal interpretation of serial techniques. It is also worth noting that the first one was only completed when he was in his early fifties so they clearly represent his mature, fully-formed voice.

Probably the best disc to start with is the one coupling the second and third symphonies (CPO 999 240 - 2). It was awarded a rosette in the Penguin Guide and, as well as the idiomatic performances themselves, features helpful archive recordings of the composer introducing them (obviously the symphonies rather than these actual recordings). The second, of 1962, is cast in three movements and ends, as is quite often the case in Frankel, with a slow movement. Like the opening movement, it is marked Adagio, the two being separated by a Scherzo-like Alla marcia. Frankel used quotations from Wordsworth ("Dust as we are…." etc.) as a "guide to the emotional atmosphere of the music" (he actually reads them in the first of the archive recordings). The work as a whole has an impressive stylistic unity being based on a twelve note row introduced very early in the first movement. This lengthy movement builds to an impressive climax before subsiding back to the atmosphere of its opening. The middle movement is more aggressive, slightly sinister in places, and includes, in the percussion section, the sound of "the dropping of chains on a wooden box"! After this shorter but more explosive section, the final movement is more meditative, an extended Adagio which contemplates various facets of the aforementioned note row, often through the solo voices of strings and woodwind. After this profound utterance (unsurprising in that it was dedicated to the memory of his late wife Anna), the third symphony, written two years later, comes across as a somewhat lighter conception. It is much shorter and is written as a single movement. It opens with a fairly restrained but tuneful fanfare and develops into a piece of truly melodic and, later, rhythmic invention, perhaps turning many conceptions of what serialism is on its head. It actually reminds me in places of late Sibelius or Roy Harris, in others of Stravinsky. Frankel is certainly not out of place in such exalted company.

The first symphony of 1958 is coupled with the fifth of nine years later. This disc also includes the earlier overture May Day which is a delightful piece, managing to combine echoes of both Beethoven and jazz, among other influences, without ever seeming incongruous. It was described as a "panorama" by Frankel and it is easy to see why, all human (musical) life seems to be here. Both symphonies are three movement affairs - the first being another example of one with a slow final movement (Lento), and also having the distinction of being Frankel's first truly serial work. It begins lyrically and is quick to reveal the composer's mastery of symphonic writing. The movement is constructed in a loosely palindromic style so once we enter its second half, on the other side of a central "point of rest", the note row from the opening appears in reverse order. The two versions are finally resolved as the movement ends. The second movement is also quite lyrical and melodic but in a rumbustious melodic way. Comparisons here, with some of Walton's (or even Arnold's!) comedy overtures are apt. The final movement starts off in valedictory but understated mood, an elegiac trumpet, playing alone and then with clarinet, is then joined by the orchestra creating a slightly unsettling, crepuscular atmosphere. The subtitle Vigil seems highly appropriate for that is indeed what it resembles the soundtrack to - echoes here maybe of Frankel's parallel career as film composer. The fifth symphony's first movement is as warm as the first's final one is chilly. The composer himself described it as "essentially lyrical … the underlying feeling is pastoral with the atmosphere romantic in sentiment", Don't expect Vaughan Williams, well at least not the VW of symphonies three or five, but this is some of Frankel's most overtly positive and emotional music. It is still bristling with energy but the booklet notes also rightly mention the almost Mahlerian mood, especially noticeable perhaps, in the closing passage. The Scherzo is marked Grazioso and is certainly a movement of some delicacy and melodic charm. Quite folksy even, if that doesn't require too vivid an imagination in the context of a serial piece. The final movement is unusual among Frankel's in that it is both faster and more positive and extrovert than is normal for him. It seems like very much a kindred spirit to the first symphony's scherzo and provides a fine end to a symphony that once again proves beyond doubt that tonality, melody and serialism can not only coexist happily but actually work together to very positive ends.

The last disc containing the seventh and eighth symphonies begins on a very genial note with the Overture to a Ceremony, commissioned for the 1970 St. Cecilia's Day Royal Concert. It is an infectious, witty but also lyrical piece, incorporating numerous references to God Save the Queen and generally succeeding in its intended purpose, i.e. to entertain. The other short work on the disc is A Shakespeare Overture, first performed in 1956 and, perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, dedicated to Gerald Finzi. It turns out that the two composers were actually close friends although obviously their muses were acted out rather differently. It is, however, perhaps as close as Frankel got to being inspired by Elizabethan idioms and the piece does share some stylistic features with Walton's Shakespearean music. The overture is also notable for being the last pre-serial orchestral composition. Whatever, it is, as usual, beautifully put together and by no means as slight as the title might suggest. In his very useful notes (reprinted from the programme of its 1970 premiere), the composer tells us that the score of the seventh symphony is prefaced by the following words from Marlowe "That time may cease and midnight never come" and ended with "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike". This gives a fair idea of what the symphony is about. It begins quite quietly but as it progresses the orchestral climaxes become rather more frequent until, in the last minute of its six, it returns to the reflective feel of its opening. The second (Allegretto, Piacevole) is described by Frankel with words like "contemplative" and "tender" but also "hypnotic" which all fit with the feel of its opening and closing pages, either side of the more aggressive central section. The third movement interpolates some martial percussive elements with more gentle woodwind passages and is without a doubt possessed of some beautifully melodic material. The final movement is more serious, solemn even, ending on an explosive, percussive note.

The eighth symphony, following in the wake of a period of much ill-health, opens in what is, for Frankel, a quite rhapsodic mood. It is important to state that the lyricism that characterises most of his work would not normally attract that description. Percussion soon enters to accelerate the momentum although the underlying mood remains contemplative. The second movement waltzes along, at times at breakneck speed, with the tuba putting in an unusual appearance. The third movement carries the subtitle Reflections on a Christmas Eve, and unsurprisingly, but without resorting to cliché, it is opened by chiming bells. Its whole atmosphere is one of "solemn and tender beauty", to quote Buxton Orr's notes, and one is reminded, if not musically then at least in the common inspiration, of Finzi's masterpiece In Terra Pax. The final movement echoes that of the fifth symphony in its positivism, forward momentum and inherent tunefulness. A great pity that this represented Frankel's last published effort in the form, as he died not much more than a year after its premiere.

On the whole, then, it seems shameful that it has taken this long for such an important body of work to reach the recording studio. Werner Andreas Albert and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, not forgetting the CPO and ABC technical staff, have done Frankel proud at last. Everything from the cover art to the exemplary notes of Buxton Orr and E.D. Kennaway (including numerous musical examples) is beautifully conceived and executed.

A final plea then, if serialism is a closed book to you then try to hear at least one of these discs and then decide if such a "black and white" viewpoint still holds or remains useful. Happy and interesting listening.

Incidentally, these discs are now available as part of the complete symphonies box set at a very reasonable price. I shall hopefully be reviewing the remaining issues in CPO's Frankel series in the near future.

Neil Horner

See also review by Rob Barnett

Benjamin Frankel website


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