> Benjamin Frankel - Symphonies Nos. 1 - 8 [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 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]
Overture to a Ceremony (1971)
A Shakespeare Overture (1956)
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]

This is the first and to date only intégrale of the eight symphonies of Benjamin Frankel. CPO have also recorded the concertos, a selection of the film music including the complete score for The Battle of the Bulge, the complete string quartets and various chamber and string orchestra works.

Frankelís music suffered neglect following his death in 1973. The sole exception is his beautiful Violin Concerto Op.24 (1951) once also available in a semi-commercial recording on the Canadian Rococo label. Hyperion included his Clarinet Quintet Op.28 (1956) in a collection of British clarinet quintets (Hyperion CDA 66428).

Frankel studied in Germany during the inter-war years and on returning to the U.K. he had to earn his living as a jazz pianist, violinist and arranger while continuing his musical studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London where he later became professor of composition. He also was much in demand as arranger and musical director for many shows in Londonís West End. During all these years he wrote a number of chamber works, some of which were heard in an all-Frankel concert in 1933. From 1934 onwards he also regularly wrote for films; his last film score being The Battle Of The Bulge in 1965. After the Second World War he turned more regularly to concert music, still with many chamber works including his first four string quartets. This period culminated with his Violin Concerto Op. 24 of 1951 dedicated "To the memory of the Six Million". This was championed by Max Rostal ("A work we cannot afford to forget").

In 1958 he composed his Symphony No. 1 Op.33 which was followed in a fairly quick succession by seven further symphonies of which the last Symphony No.8 Op.53 was completed in 1972. In 1973 a few days before his death he had completed the short score of his opera Marching Song which was orchestrated by his pupil, the late Buxton Orr. The eight symphonies and the five string quartets are undoubtedly the backbone of his concert output. They represent a sizeable body of work of fine quality and great beauty.

The main reason for the neglect of Frankelís music is the same as that which has held back the music of Racine Peter Fricker, Daniel Jones and Humphrey Searle. These composers share a number of common characteristics, the most significant being their attempt to reconcile serialismís formal requirements with a real will to communicate. They all developed a personal view of serialism without accepting all the implications and consequences of the 12-note dogma. By so doing they fell between two stools and were considered either too modern to certain ears or too reactionary to others. The time has been ripe for a highly deserved reappraisal of their music for their respective outputs are important milestones in the musical history of their times. It is to be hoped that this cycle will help set the balance straight.

The earliest work on the first CD is the overture May Day Op.22 written in 1948 and performed at the Proms in 1950. It is comparatively light - full of vitality and colour. It would have become a popular item, had it been performed more regularly. The Symphony No. 1 Op. 33 completed in 1958 is much weightier and a very fine achievement. It is in three movements with a shorter energetic scherzo placed second. (Be warned that it is longer than stated in the notes!) Both outer movements move at a more moderate tempo, though with no shortage of contrast. Each movement builds up towards its climax without undue haste. The effect of the music is carefully calculated so as to make its point effortlessly. This may be the result of experience gained in writing for film. The first symphony contains most of Frankelís symphonic manner. "The presentation of the material (e.g. the exposition of the tone-row of the first movement of the first symphony) is above all melodic in the generally understood sense of the word ... These melodies are temporarily submerged and the tone-row shapes and reshapes itself only to reappear either in the original form or with some new and unexpected slant" (Buxton Orr).

This symphony is a deeply serious work. By contrast the Symphony No.5 Op.46, written in 1967, is a relaxed piece. It is again in three movements, the second of which is a gentle scherzo. The third movement is full of energy and concludes the work in a more positive mood. Both symphonies are powerfully expressive works.

The performances are very fine, committed and convincing whereas the recording is superb and the production of the best quality possible. The introduction is by E.D. Kennaway and there are illuminating comments on the music by Buxton Orr. Music examples are also given.

The second instalment of CPOís Frankel symphonic cycle offers further contrast.

The Second Symphony was completed in 1962 and was written over a period of personal distress though Frankel, in his spoken introduction, evidently does not want to go into detail about that period of his life. Whatever the emotional background the Symphony has to be listened to as an abstract piece. The prevailing mood of the Second Symphony is one of darkness and bitterness. The mainly slow, musically substantial outer movements enclose a somewhat shorter Scherzo in which the percussion (including the dropping of chains on a wooden box) is to the fore. This Scherzo is about "giants and monsters" but is not as affirmative as its composer would have lead us to believe. It is rather tense and turbulent music which may provide dynamic variety but certainly does represent a change of mood. It serves to release some of the accumulated tension of the first movement. On the other hand the predominantly slow final movement does not bring any solace either. The work ends questioningly with enigmatic, rarefied sounds. As a whole Frankelís Second Symphony is a sizeable piece of music, a considerable achievement and obviously a deeply personal utterance.

The shorter Third Symphony is simpler, both technically and emotionally, though certainly not a slight work. Structurally it is in one continuous movement enclosing several sections. It is a fine example of Frankelís symphonism in that it has a row cohabiting with some overtly diatonic material. To a certain extent this provides variety but the coexistence of chromatic and diatonic material does not result in eclecticism, at least not in this work which I find completely convincing.

For some tastes Frankelís symphonic manner may be too single-minded and, appear monochrome and stuck in stolid emotional equanimity. His orchestral mastery ensures that his music is beautifully crafted and apt to the point. The building-up of climaxes is carefully calculated so that each is reached effortlessly at the right moment. Moreover in spite of the evident emotional charge of the music Frankel avoids the mere pathos associated with heaping climax on climax.

This CD offers a very moving bonus in that we have Frankel introducing his symphonies. These spoken introductions come from early broadcasts of these symphonies on the BBC Third Programme in the early 1960s.

The third disc opens with Frankelís short but effective Mephistophelesí Serenade and Dance Op.25 subtitled ĎA Caricature for Orchestraí. It was composed in 1952. This short, engaging work is a most welcome addition to Frankelís discography. It displays his customary orchestral mastery as well as some touches of somewhat wry humour. Humour is also in the composerís own programme note quoted by Buxton Orr in his informative notes. Orrís splendid annotations are a constant asset across the CPO-Frankel series.

The Symphony No.4 Op.44 was completed in 1966. It is an impressive achievement in which most of Frankelís hallmarks are present throughout: tightly knit structure, coherence of symphonic argument, highly effective orchestral writing, a wonderful sense of organic growth as well as sure pacing of the music. It is in three movements: two predominantly slow outer movements framing a short Scherzo. Most of the opening Moderato is based on the continuous interplay of two elements: the series stated in the first bars (a white note scale on the strings and a black note remnant on the trombone) and another scalic idea heard later. The fairly easy-going idea that opens the Scherzo is regularly interrupted by loud outbursts from brass and percussion. The final, mostly elegiac Lento is also particularly remarkable for the chamber-like quality of most of the music. The Fourth Symphony is a powerfully impressive and deeply felt piece of music.

Completed three years later, the Symphony No.6 falls into five movements; a slow movement followed by an urgent, aggressive allegro followed by the slow central movement of some intensity. By way of contrast the fourth movement is a lighter Allegretto and the symphony ends with a mixed movement alternating "rhythmically irrational outbursts and solemn contrasts. These elements begin to merge until a long tranquil Adagio is heard to dominate despite the occasional violent outbursts from brass and percussion that, nevertheless, have the last word as they taper off into nothing" (Buxton Orr).

Frankelís symphonies are the backbone of his entire concert output as well as some of his most personal statements. Each work clearly reflects the composerís mood at the time of writing. This is particularly evident in the substantial Seventh Symphony. Its four movements echo the composerís feelings on the passing of Time, as reflected in the Ďclock mechanismí of the second movement Allegretto. This is a fleeting and whimsical Scherzo in all but the name. It may also be influenced by his disillusion with the very same fickle contemporary fashion which rebuffed and excluded outcast composers of Frankelís inclinations. There is a shadow of this in the bleak and sinister march-like third movement. The outer movements are powerfully impressive dramas with much contrast and conflict. Near the end of the fourth movement, there is a magical episode for solo strings "weaving a tender regret" (the composerís words) before the final, relentless ticking of the clock hurrying the movement to its breathless, abrupt conclusion. The Seventh is an emotionally complex work, and - to my mind - Frankelís most enigmatic symphony.

The Eighth Symphony followed hard upon the heels of the Seventh, but is a quite different proposition. It remains in four movements. The predominantly slow, though at times troubled, first movement is followed by a lively, nervous Scherzo in a more extrovert vein than that of the Seventh Symphony. The slow movement, subtitled Reflections on a Christmas Eve, is a deeply-felt meditation of great beauty. The last movement is again "in the spirit of a march", but this march is of a more assertive kind, though some disrupting episodes remind us that, as Kennaway rightly remarks, "the questioning may still be there".

A Shakespeare Overture Op.29 does not refer to any specific Shakespearian drama, but is rather some sort of "musical blueprint" of any Shakespearian play. It characteristically blends "dramatic outbursts of rhetoric, impassioned speeches and moments of contemplation. It is one of the composerís most straightforward and approachable concert works. Its present absence from the concert hall is incomprehensible.

Overture for a Ceremony Op.51, commissioned for the St Ceciliaís Day Royal Concert in 1970, has much in common with the Seventh Symphony. The common denominator is the rather ironic nature of much of the music with its snatches of the National Anthem and its provocative mixture of march and waltz rhythms which often run riot. On the whole, this is a brilliant, though enigmatic piece which provokes and delights.

This set is yet another feather in CPOís cap. Werner Andreas Albert clearly has the full measure of the music, and conducts thoughtful, committed readings.

Frankelís symphonies have now - at long last - been given their due; and all concerned in this courageous venture deserve our gratitude for their dedication, inspiration and achievement. We must now hope that CPO will be able to record the opera Marching Song.

Hubert Culot

The discs in this set can also be purchased separately:-

CPO 999 240-2 (Symphonies 1 and 5)

CPO 999 241-2 (Symphonies 2 and 3)

CPO 999 242-2 (Symphonies 4 and 6)

CPO 999 243-2 (Symphonies 7 and 8)


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