Benjamin Frankel has at last been artistically and
critically rehabilitated, virtually single handedly, by the sterling
work of German record label Classic Produktion Osnabrück and the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Apart from the publicity generated
by Ken Russell's not so recent Classic Widows feature (the soundtrack
on Chandos is highly recommended), Frankel's posthumous reputation,
until CPO took up his cause, had seemed to lie almost exclusively with
his, admittedly classic, film scores (Battle of the Bulge etc.).
Now, with a significant body of work available on CD, he takes his place
within what I would regard as the long overdue acceptance/appraisal
of a "third stream" of 20th century British classical music,
alongside, for example, Humphrey Searle (also being recorded by CPO),
Bernard Stevens, and, more recently, Alun Hoddinott. Without, hopefully,
resorting to cliché and gross generalisation, it seems reasonable
to suggest that there was a substantial group of composers who shared
little in common with either the received nostalgic tradition embodied
by Elgar or the mature Walton and Bliss(?) or the folk/pastoral idylls
encountered in Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Moeran. The music of many
of these second Viennese school inspired figures has remained, until
very recently, obscure, neglected and poorly regarded. Searle's works
were once (unjustifiably and certainly unhelpfully) described as being
"like listening to the music from Star Wars played backwards
through a washing machine". The critical tide has changed in recent
years though and the most recent Penguin Guide praises Hoddinott for
using serial techniques as "a spur rather than a crutch" and for his
"allegiance to tonal centres". Both these comments are equally applicable
to Frankel and are not a bad starting point for an appreciation of his
Readers who have been directed to Frankel by Rob Barnett's
recent surveys for Musicweb of the complete symphonies and string quartets
may be gratified to know that there is indeed more of his music available
from the same high quality source. Both the discs reviewed here have
been around for a while but are both stunning testaments, in their different
ways, to the neglected genius of Benjamin Frankel.
The solid black booklet cover and the subtitle of the
Violin Concerto may not bode well on the face of it but this
disc is absolutely not one concerned with unmitigated sorrowing. In
fact, Frankel does the "memory of the six million" proud by producing
a work of defiant, scurrying but lyrical energy. Only in the slow movement,
would anyone guess the possible subject matter that inspired this piece.
Despite the fact that this is pre- fully "serialised" Frankel, the most
obvious reference piece is Berg's marvellous concerto. Frankel's is,
surprisingly, less elegiac but no less moving or eloquent and comparison
with the Berg or indeed the much more popular equivalent pieces of Britten
or Walton does him no disservice.
The Viola Concerto, in itself a member of a
relatively rare breed, is later and from Frankel's overtly serial period
but, true to form, he confounds expectation by introducing it with a
long, complex but non-serial movement. The whole piece is, if anything,
more lyrical (an overused but defining term for Frankel's music!) and,
surprisingly, more emotional than the Violin Concerto and is
a wonderful, and often beautiful advert for an often overlooked instrument,
the composer and without question the performer.
The disc is completed with a lighter concertante work
(but ironically also the most "serial" on the disc) which touches on
Frankel's jazz band past, playing with, for instance, Henry Hall (of
Teddy Bears Picnic and VW Partita fame!), and ends the
proceedings on a definite upbeat, although the CD as a whole is hardly
the morbid wallow the uninitiated might have expected. These ears found
it a much easier proposition than, say, the late, also "serial" works
of such popular figures as Copland or Stravinsky.
The disc of clarinet based chamber ensembles offers
music of great distinction. The Quintet, written for Thea King
and previously recorded on a mixed composer Hyperion disc, has been
described as a masterpiece. I would not tend to disagree with that assertion
although, despite its undoubted lyricism (there I go again!) and deft
construction, it would be disingenuous to imply that it is in some way
"easy listening" or even as immediately accessible as, say, the equivalent
pieces of Brahms, Howells or Bliss. The earlier Trio is also
vintage Frankel, pre-serial, of course, here but profoundly melodic
(like everything on this disc and fully supportive of his view that
"Melody is the ineluctable stuff out of which music is constructed".
The two short sequences of pezzi that follow reveal some memorable
tunes and are beautifully put together, whereas the Early Morning
Music is a humorous, "pop" inflected, and very enjoyable throwaway
end to a great disc.
All the CPO Frankel discs are beautifully played and
recorded, cover art is well chosen and the booklet notes, by the very
knowledgeable Buxton Orr (himself a composer who died several years
ago) and E.D. Kennaway, are exhaustive and most clearly a real labour
of love. What are you waiting for? Go and sample as a matter of urgency.
A composer for whom exposure to Delius and Bartók represented
a turning point is clearly someone out of the ordinary. Why then be
surprised at a tonal serialist for whom melody was the thing?