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
world premičre recording
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) NAXOS 8.571371 [56:02]
I wonder if this disc marks the start of a trend. Will we see more Naxos collaborations with BBC Radio 3 and the BBCSO? A couple of months ago studio recordings of the two Chagrin symphonies were broadcast by these forces on consecutive afternoons on Radio 3. Whether the content of the present disc is identical to what Radio 3 listeners heard I do not know. However, if there is to be more joint working on unusual repertoire then bring it on. Martyn Brabbins is always up for re-mapping the periphery of the repertoire as he has proved with allure and conviction time after time on Hyperion.
As for Francis Chagrin, this Rumanian, one of the migrant composers hosted by the British Isles, can be counted in the same company as Mátyás Seiber, Hans Gál, Roberto Gerhard, Berthold Goldschmidt and Egon Wellesz. He put his roots down in the UK in 1936. While he may not be an entirely familiar quantity he is far from completely unknown. His host of cinema scores are sampled as part of Chandos' treasurable British Film Music series (reviewreviewreview). There's plenty of concert music too including a Roumanian Rhapsody written for and recorded by Larry Adler. For years Chagrin was a catalogue presence on account of his Helter Skelter overture on Lyrita (reviewreviewreview). He is no pastoralist or melody-centred romantic that's for sure; adjust your expectations accordingly. His music can be abrasive. Alongside a great deal of very precisely calibrated and finely textured writing there's as much violence and disturbance in it as we can hear at times in the symphonies of such diverse composers as Kurt Weill, Benjamin Frankel and Egon Wellesz. If Chagrin touches base with Vaughan Williams then he takes as his starting point the Fourth Symphony; that was the road he took. You can also draw parallels with the nightmare PTSD episodes in George Lloyd's Fifth Symphony. He was no po-faced aesthete though. He contributed generously as a participant in the Hoffnung concerts and wrote the soundtrack music for the Halas and Bachelor Hoffnung cartoon films. A frequent visitor to BBC radio from the 1940s through the 1960s he put in appearances as a contributor of incidental music, as a composer and in Francis Chagrin Ensemble broadcasts. Chagrin's two half-hour symphonies, each in four movements, were written in the composer's last two decades.
The First Symphony is dedicated to Jo and Lawrence Leonard; the latter a conductor prominent on UK radio in the 1940s and 1960s. The final revision of the work was premiered at Odeon Swiss Cottage on 15 March 1966 as part of that year's St Pancras Arts Festival when the composer conducted the Royal Philharmonic. The first movement revels in roughly tangled textures yet there are quasi-romantic moments; try 4.40. The Largo sports a grim, desolate and sorrowing smile. The signature of the Presto scherzando is to be found in the striding and leaping power of the strings. Also memorable are strained and distressed episodes such as the dancing writing at 1.58 (a touch of Petrushka) and echoes of de Falla and Alwyn Symphony No. 4 in the movement's potent stamping motion. The finale ripples with fast nervy writing that finds part of its consummation in the thudding energy presented in the previous movement. The music then flies along on febrile wings until wound down by the harp's intimately confiding and glassy farewell gesture.
Roughly a decade later came the Second Symphony. First impressions had me thinking of the somewhat heartless music of Igor Markevitch — as resplendently recorded on Marco Polo and then on Naxos by Christopher Lyndon-Gee. It feels as if it is driven by the furies - at time like early Peter Mennin. There are many peppery episodes and plenty of effective lightly transparent scoring. The second movement suggests tortured and questing uncertainty. The solo wind writing is redolent of another American, William Schuman. The penultimate movement goes for playful angularity: approachable, often rushing and sardonic. The finale pursues the journey with writing of bitter determination and grit rising to exclamations of cataclysmic energy.
The music is well recorded - not a luxury item but clear, honest, transparent and powerful. The documentation is very good with notes by Philip Lane. You can, by the way, access the composer's own programme notes on the Naxos website.
There we have it then. This music is not epic-heroic in any obvious sense. What we hear is challenging, stimulating and otherwise unrecorded; just what the adventurous Naxos and the admirable BMS should be doing. A significant, thoughtful and certainly not bland addition to the catalogue.