Francis CHAGRIN (1905-1972)
Symphony No. 1 (1946-59, rev. 1965) [28:01]
Symphony No. 2 (1965-71) [28:01]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London, 14-15 November 2014
Recording made with assistance from The British Music Society Charitable Trust (Michael Hurd Bequest)
world premičre recordings
NAXOS 8.571371 [56:02]

He started life as Alexander Paucker in Bucharest in 1905. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, he spent the last thirty-six years of his life in the UK. Like his contemporary Mátyás Seiber, he was one of a group of European émigrés who greatly enriched British musical life.

He initially pursued an engineering degree in Zurich at the behest of his parents, who ran a family business; he had other ideas. Upon graduation, to escape family pressures, he made his way to Paris and enrolled at the École Normale, funding himself for two years by working as a cafe pianist. His teachers were Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas. It was here that he changed his name to the French-sounding Francis Chagrin, a move that signalled a break with the past. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, as a Jew and seeing the writing on the wall, he visited Britain. It was love at first sight, and the rest is history. In London he studied with Mátyás Seiber and, now married with two sons, worked for the French section of the BBC Overseas Service for the duration of the war. It was around this time that he founded the Committee (later Society) for the Promotion of New Music, enabling young composers to have the opportunity to have their music heard – beneficiaries included Alwyn, Arnold, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davis. A year after his death in 1972, the Society established the Francis Chagrin Fund for Young Composers.

For much of his life, Chagrin made plenty of money in work for films, television and commercials. Yet, he could turn his hand to serious music, producing an oeuvre that consisted of a piano concerto, chamber music, numerous songs and the two symphonies we have here, each receiving its world premičre recording.

The First Symphony was a long time in the making. Begun in 1949 the final version was not finished until December 1965. A short brooding Largo introduction ushers in an opening movement with plenty of attitude. It’s dramatic content is strident, angular and violent. The underlying hostility is assuaged somewhat in the following Largo, where a sense of loneliness and isolation is portrayed by somber lyricism. Even the Presto scherzando seems troubled, with a discordant quasi-Viennese waltz interjecting at one point. There’s no let-up in the unsmiling finale either.

Chagrin’s Symphony No. 2 dates from 1965-1971 and was premičred by the composer with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth on 20 May 1971. This performance is available on Youtube, and offers a potent, well-managed account of great intensity and emotional urgency, though in less than ideal sound. The work asserts itself from the beginning with an unsettled opening movement, angst-ridden and uneasy. The slow movement, for me, has all the hallmarks of a film score in its evocative atmospheric credentials - hardly surprising. In the brief Scherzo Chagrin shows a virtuosic hand in the expert handling of orchestral colour, whilst in the Finale the dramatic forces are unleashed once again.

It is to be hoped that this important release reawakens an interest in this long-forgotten and neglected composer. In top-notch sound, the Maida Vale Studio acoustic confers a warm, sympathetic ambience. Martyn Brabbins proves an enthusiastic advocate in these persuasive accounts. Philip Lane's well-written annotations supply helpful, informative background.

These recordings were made at the instigation of the British Music Society, who now issue their new recordings on Naxos, together with reissues of some of their back catalogue.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Michael Wilkinson

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