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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


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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]

Superbudget


 

CPO have shown relentless dedication in project after project. Their Loewe, Atterberg, Rangström, Korngold, Křenek, Milhaud, Pfitzner, Reger and Siegfried Wagner cycles are the clearest evidence of steadiness and of an imagination decoupled from convention and fashion. Almost surreptitiously, and without fanfare, they have built a catalogue that is as unique as the very style-sheet that proclaims itself from each CPO cover. The process shows no sign of abating. Their Frankel symphonic project began in 1994 and was completed with the fourth and final disc (Symphonies 7 and 8) in 2001. The present set simply boxes up, slip-cases and shrink-wraps the four separate discs. The only difference I detected was that the original discs, issued singly, had spines printing black characters on a white ground while these use the now customary orange on black.

Frankel's music is lyrical in the manner of Berg rather than Schoenberg. His violin concerto (also on CPO) is among the finest works of the century and can easily stand compare with the Berg and the Schuman works. The film music, of which there are many scores mix the conventional (in the best traditions of British light music) with the fibrous and barbed thickets of beloved of horror and sci-fi practitioners. Frankel marginally softens his pallet for cinema audiences. Interesting that Elizabeth Lutyens made money from using her avant-garde style for horror films.

A glance at the dates of the symphonies shows a tight clustering around the 1960s with an early outlier in Number 1 and two symphonies dating from the very early 1970s. Ignoring two discarded unfinished symphonies written much earlier than 1958 and a little known Dance Symphony, Number 1 is the composer's recognised first symphonic statement. By then he was a Brahmsian fifty-two years of age. Rather like the Fourth Symphony this work starts with a gentle twelve-tone theme. The world instantly announced by Frankel is close to the Berg concerto and to Alwyn's tense and astringent Second Symphony. This is music closer to Roger Sessions than to William Schuman. While we are on the American ‘theme’, Frankel is also given to Copland-like dynamism (try the garish middle movement molto ritmico). This is an impressive first symphony; a work of crystal clarity, micro-gestures and grand sweep amid sourness, disillusion and sadness - a not uncommon cocktail in Frankel's case. The recording shows excellent bass extension.

The cheeky, scathing and ironic Fifth Symphony comes from almost a decade after the First. As the notes (Buxton Orr) declare, there are small remembrances of the pastoral Mahler and Beethoven. The grazioso is naggingly familiar. I couldn't place it at first. In fact it is a matter of language and the language here is uncannily close to the later (mid-1950s onwards) Havergal Brian - from the Ninth Symphony forwards.

The Second Symphony is the longest of the eight. The three movements are prefaced by quotations from Wordsworth. This is a work of swaying tread: a moving subtle tapestry of small interjections and pointillist gestures. The second movement ends in remarkable reflection amid a drizzle of bell strokes and soured sweetness. Bell sounds are part of the character of this work as much as they are in the symphonies of Malcolm Arnold however the resonance and frequency is much closer to Arnold 7 and 9 than to Arnold 2 and 5.

The Third Symphony wastes no time and announces itself with a 'door knocking' figure that is both Stravinskian (Pulcinella) and Sibelian. It is a single movement construct of wondrous clarity, cleanly orchestrated as are all the works here. It rises, via some cataclysmic gestures, to the slowly turning and blooming glories you find also in Silvestrov's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Only in this work was I left wondering whether the performance was all it might be. Surely it should be more frantic. The music is in constant and kaleidoscopic motion which sometimes defeats the sense of line. The mid-air mid-step ending does not feel like a full resolution and probably this is not intended. I wondered about comparison with other single movement symphonies but this work shares little with tonal works such as Harris 7, Rubbra 11, Sibelius 7 or Brian 22. Of all such works Alwyn's Fifth is the closest in feel but while that work ends in totally convincing resolution the Frankel is more evasive and ambiguous.

In the Fourth Symphony, which is the one I would play to any Doubting Thomases, Frankel created one of the supreme triumphs of the dodecaphonic literature. At the start watery notes lap and whisper like an irregularly-pulsed liquid heartbeat and similar material appears in the second movement. This gentle smiling coup of the imagination is comparable with the breath-stilling opening of the Berg Violin Concerto - a world created in evocation within two bars. The strings (centre-stage in this work) sing a searing song. There are passages that remind you of another film composer-symphonist, Malcolm Arnold. In the first movement's conflict-ridden moments Arnold's Sixth comes to mind - perhaps with a touch of Tippett. I am sure that this symphony (and the Seventh) will hold your attention and encourage you to persist.

The Sixth Symphony is at the most immediate level drier. It gives up its messages more stubbornly. In the finale however a curvaceous and elegiac 12-tone melody bends and undulates through a desolate terrain of protest and negation. In the first movement the anger of the music is of the sort you may recall from Vaughan Williams' Sixth or the vituperative violence of Panufnik's symphonies - especially the middle movement of the Elegiaca. None of these symphonies end in outright triumph. It is as if the composer has seen and known too much for that sort of victory to be an option.

The Eighth, might almost be a 'concerto for orchestra'. There is some well calculated and very beautiful music for the tuba pp against strings in the first movement (track 7 8.15). Havergal Brian's stuttering termagant marches are also suggested and, in the final movement, (6.20) William Alwyn's funereal spirit, most evident in the Hydriotaphia symphony, is there for all to hear. Still this is not easily assimilable music. Be warned - you will need to persist. This warning is far less relevant in the case of the Seventh. Frankel seems, for this work, to weave a poem for silvery violins, for romantic horn solos (Dennis Brain would have made great play with the solo in the first movement), with seemingly endless lyrical lines, of a Bergian caste, with the singing of malcontented souls and with the fife and drum satire of Arnold's Eighth Symphony. Frankel was to have written a Ninth for the BBC Proms but this never came to anything.

Now to the smaller concert works. The Overture to a Ceremony, might from its title, be expected to latch onto the romping heroics of works like the concert overtures of Chagrin, Leigh, Reizenstein and Ferguson. In fact Frankel does little to soften the serial blow. The music is portentous, projects the usual long-limbed Bergian lyricism, and in its fractured dramatics, recalls Nielsen 4 and 5. From 15 years earlier comes the Shakespeare Overture which is marginally more relaxed - demonstrating a filial relationship with Walton's Olivier films. With this I noticed, at 5.29, a long march pointing back towards Frank Bridge's masterwork Enter Spring. All ends care-freed at 9.30.

The Mephistopheles work is phantasmagoric. This is like Arnold's Tam O'Shanter gone to the deliriously dissonant dogs. The Mayday Overture is a work of cleanly blown crystal fanfares, militaristic, bustling, not carefree, even the final triumph glares and whinnies. The dedicatee is the conductor Hugo Rignold. Rignold was a little regarded conductor who was especially active in Birmingham. In fact his Lyrita recordings (not yet liberated from vinyl purgatory) of the Bliss John Blow Meditation is every bit as good as the highly-prized Handley version and even better recorded. His Music for Strings rivals the famous EMI Boult recording.

It is interesting to compare Frankel’s five string quartets (often somewhat evocative of Tippett’s ecstatic delivery). These cluster around the 1940s with bookend excursions into the flanking decades. They are lyrical and generally welcoming with some superbly sustained contemplative lentos and bustling fruitful energy. CPO have recorded the quartets (neatly contained on another CPO set 999 420-2). Frankel’s works achieved as much neglect as William Alwyn's (another British film music composer whose true metier lay in the symphony); the difference being that Alwyn used his film music money to fund recordings. The picture for Frankel in the late 1960s and early 1970s might have been transformed had it been possible for royalty income to have been directed into a sequence of Lyrita LPs.

The last disc in the set is fully populated with music - playing for over seventy minutes. The others are logically arranged though less generous in playing time. The final disc also has the strength of including two overtures and two symphonies. Of the two symphonies the Seventh stands with the steely Fourth as Frankel's most sturdily impressive pieces.

This is all extremely thoroughly documented. We must now hope that CPO and the BBC will strike an agreement for the issue of the 1980s broadcast of Frankel’s and John Whiting’s opera Marching Song. The opera was left in short score at the composer’s death. The orchestration is by the Frankel pupil, the late Buxton Orr who wrote the set’s background notes for each work. The excellent and detailed biographical notes are by Dimitri Kennaway. They are repeated across each disc in the set.

If you have not collected these symphonies along the way then here is your chance to acquire the lot at an attractive price. The symphonies stand in direct line with those of Hartmann and Vermeulen - different but just as rebellious; just as given to melody, distilled by serial technique, malleably emotional, lambently orchestrated, concise and, at their most masterful, flooded with light.


Rob Barnett  


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

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)

 

See also bargain box of the complete string quartets


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