First symphonies are interesting things. Sometimes they clearly
foreshadow - and are in an obvious linear relationship with - ones to come.
Sometimes they are in a style that the composer clearly had trouble with and
thereafter abandoned. Sometimes they have such a troubled gestation that the
composer leaves it at that and never returns to the form again.
That last description hardly fits Swiss composer Fritz Brun who,
between 1902 and 1953 composed no fewer than ten full length symphonies.
Championed over the years by Brun's compatriot, the conductor Adriano (see here
), several of them have been reviewed on this website.
My colleagues’ verdicts were, as ever on such occasions, both
lucid and enlightening. Listeners of a cautious musical bent or those
simply fancying a quiet evening of relaxing music with a fireside glass
or two of Cabernet might well, I suspect, have taken fright at Rob Barnett's
references to "subtle early Schoenbergian dissonance", "the spice of
dissonance" and the influence of the "acrid poignancy of Schmidt" (see
) or at Ian Lace's allusion to "brief stretches of atonality
and dissonance that may seem daunting at first hearing" (see
) and his suggestion that another pair of the symphonies makes
"challenging listening for the adventurous" (see
The good news for such listeners, however, is that there is
absolutely nothing in this first symphony that could possibly frighten the
horses. That user-friendliness is largely because Brun is working here in a
conservative, very Brahmsian idiom: indeed, in the course of writing the
score he apparently stated that he perceived himself to be continuing the
older composer's symphonic tradition.
I ought to point out that, in emphasising that strong link to
Brahms, I run the risk of falling foul of Adriano himself who has written
the CD's comprehensive and generally illuminating booklet notes. Dismissing
both "malicious musicologists and critics" and those - presumably less
ill-motivated - people who simply "know little or nothing of Fritz Brun's
music", he observes that, taking the composer's symphonic oeuvre as a
it is clear that there is much more to it than what we
might call Brahms-plus. It seems to me, however, that Adriano has himself
fallen into the trap of seeing even Brun's earliest works from a perspective
that is anachronistically cognizant of, for instance, that subsequent "early
Schoenbergian dissonance". Given that he has already recorded several of the
later symphonies, his point of view is quite understandable, but in adopting
it he minimises the significance of those early musical elements that do not
fit in with later developments. This represents a sort of musicological
variant, as it were, of the largely discredited "Whig interpretation of
history". While I hope not to be categorised as a malicious critic, I do
hold by my suggestion that, in this first
symphony at any rate,
Brun's musical idiom will be appreciated by any listener who enjoys the
symphonies of Brahms.
From its very opening bars, it is obvious that Brun has something
serious and weighty to impart. Its atmosphere often tends to the serious and
heavy: an early reviewer, quoted in the booklet notes, emphasised its
"tragic", "pessimistic" and "masculine" elements.
Thus, the opening movement contrasts strongly presented passages of
forthright drama with rather more relaxed episodes very reminiscent of
you-know-who-I-mean-by-now (1:49-3:15 and 7:26 onwards). The succeeding
adagio non troppo
- of which the composer was, it seems, especially
proud - is a dreamy, lyrical Romance, which even a comparatively agitated
intervention by the brass (5:43-6:07) proves unable to disrupt and which
features some beguiling writing for solo violin (6:40-8:24 and 9:02
onwards). A generally jolly third movement includes, not unexpectedly,
moments of a more downbeat and contemplative nature too, before we arrive at
the allegro con brio
finale. The latter quickly offers up a very
attractive "big tune" that eventually reappears in grandiose form but proves
not to be destined to provide a final peroration after all. Instead, the
symphony concludes quietly and rather unexpectedly in what Adriano himself
describes as a "strange and bitter ending".
The Overture to a Jubilee Celebration
was written almost
fifty years after Brun's first symphony and - as acknowledged by the three
contemporary reviewers quoted at some length in the booklet notes - shares
its generally conservative musical idiom. It thus makes an appropriate
filler, if a rather short-weight one: the CD's total running time is just
47:15 as it stands and it is disappointing that Guild could not have at
least partially filled the remaining 30 minutes or so of available capacity.
Nevertheless, this is a disc to be warmly welcomed. Both pieces -
but especially the symphony - are very attractive discoveries and the
performances on this disc are first rate. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra
plays with both utter conviction and great skill and deserves the highest
praise. On the basis of this release, I might well be inclined to explore
this series of Brun symphonies further - early Schoenbergian dissonance and
the acrid poignancy of Schmidt notwithstanding.