Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
The Vision of Judgement, Op. 29 (1957) [47:27]
Jane Manning (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor). Leeds Festival Chorus, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves
BBC broadcast, 14 October 1980
Symphony No. 5 for organ and Orchestra, Op. 74 (1976) [19:21]
Dame Gillian Weir (organ)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
BBC, live broadcast, 5 May 1976, Royal Festival Hall, London. ADD. Stereo (Vision); Mono (Symphony)
LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM.1124 [66:48]
Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio, The Vision of Judgement is a piece which I have long been more than curious to hear yet I have never heard it until now. Performances are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth – are any of our readers aware of a performance in recent years?
Though the present performance was broadcast in October 1980 I think it took place a few years earlier. Our Editor, Rob Barnett has kindly pointed me in the direction of the Radio 3 schedule for 16 January 1975 which shows the performance as the second half of a concert given in Leeds Town Hall in April 1974 as part of the Leeds Musical Festival. Rob believes that the 1980 broadcast, which was recorded off air by Richard Itter, was probably a repeat of the 1975 broadcast, aired as part of a Fricker retrospective series on Radio 3 in honour of his sixtieth birthday.
For information on the background to the work I am indebted to the characteristically excellent booklet note by Paul Conway. It’s fitting, I think, that the Leeds Festival Chorus was involved in this performance for, as Mr Conway relates, the work was a commission from the Leeds Triennial Festival to mark its centenary in 1958. By then Fricker had composed but a handful of choral works, all of which were fairly short so, on the face of it, the Festival was taking something of a gamble in offering him this prestigious commission. Yet Paul Conway draws attention to a number of works in other genres which suggested that Fricker was suitably equipped for this undertaking.
Fricker devised his own libretto. His principal source was the eighth century epic Anglo-Saxon poem Christ by Cynewulf. Fricker took verses from this poem which described the Last Judgement and he included also some words from the Latin Requiem Mass. The work is scored on a lavish scale, requiring triple woodwind, a full complement of brass, a generous amount of percussion, two harps, organ and strings. In addition Fricker specifies two off-stage brass groups; could he have had in mind the precedent of Belshazzar’s Feast, itself a Leeds commission, one wonders? The premiere was given in the imposing Victorian Town Hall in October 1958 during the Leeds Centenary Festival with that doughty champion of modern British music, John Pritchard, not then knighted, at the helm. Sir Charles Groves, another conductor who merits the description ‘doughty champion of modern British music’, was in charge of the present performance.
The Vision of Judgement is in two parts, which play without a break. In between the two parts is an unaccompanied movement for tenor solo and choir which, as we shall see, occupies a pivotal position in the work’s structure. Lyrita helpfully divide the work into seven tracks.
The work opens with a stark passage for chorus and orchestra announcing the beginning of the Day of Judgement. Fricker’s music is full of foreboding and conveys a sense of the smallness of man in the face of Divine Power and Judgement. Into the midst of Cynewulf’s text Fricker inserts the Latin words, “Dona nobis pacem./Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.” These lines are sung beseechingly by the two soloists. There follows an extended Allegro that is dreadful in the true sense of the word. The music is highly dramatic and forceful, the brass brazen. When the off-stage brass is heard for the first time (track 1, 4:50) their intervention is telling. This is a tumultuous passage which I’m sure is very challenging to perform, not least for the chorus. Not for the last time the words are not always easy to pick up. I don’t blame the chorus for this. I think it’s partly to do with the fact that they’re set back behind the orchestra in the resonant acoustic of Leeds Town Hall. The other factor is that Fricker’s scoring is very full indeed and his choral writing doesn’t always make it easy for the choir to enunciate and project the text. Is this a sign, perhaps, of his relatively limited experience of choral composition?
The tenor soloist sings the ‘Agnus Dei’ and after this a slow, quiet march-like episode begins as the choir sings “Then shall be heard a people sorrowing” (track 2, 1:38). Hereabouts the music is full of apprehension. The soprano soloist heralds the coming of Christ (track 2, 3:39). Christ’s presence inspires Fricker to fill his orchestral textures with light but this is a light that is dazzling rather than radiant. The writing for the soprano soloist is dramatic and imposing. Then we hear an extended highly charged section involving the choir and orchestra, beginning at “Then shall creation’s depth resound” (track 3, 2:11). Here Fricker depicts the destruction of the sun, moon and planets. As you might expect, this is all illustrated with music of tremendous power and rigour. The brass - both on- and off-stage – make a massive contribution, as does the percussion section. Fricker’s invention is very intense, even graphic, but what impresses just as much is the way in which he conveys the awesome majesty of the Judgement. In this section a lot of the choral writing sounds fearsomely difficult and, once again, it’s not always possible to hear the words. Referring to the angels blowing their trumpets, the choir sings, unaccompanied, “Of all great sounds, this shall be the greatest” and then a huge climax is achieved (track 3, 8:02). The words that are heard immediately thereafter, “bringing fear to men” are set very quietly, again imparting a sense of dread. A passage led by the tenor soloist, beginning quietly but growing in volume and intensity, leads to a sorrowful and subdued ending to Part I.
Before Part II commences the tenor and the chorus sing an a cappella setting of words from the Latin Mass for the Dead: “Libera me, Domine.” The writing is often complex. I’m not entirely sure I concur with Paul Conway’s description of this section as “a point of repose” for the music is impassioned at times. However, a good deal of it is restrained, certainly in comparison with what we’ve heard in the previous 28 minutes or so of music, and this section undoubtedly turns the work on its axis. It acts as a bridge between the terror of the Divine Judgement and the joy of those who are spared by the Judge.
As Part II opens the choir depicts the triumphant progress of the Saved towards eternal glory. (“Then unto Zion’s hill a mighty host, radiant and blessed, shall ascend together.”) This is followed by a rapturous duet for the soloists in which Fricker gives them their most ingratiating music. That section becomes ever more intense until it culminates in repeated, nimble cries of “Alleluia”. The choir takes over, initially singing the same words, “Theirs is the home that never shall know end” (track 7, 3:19). Their music starts quietly and builds gradually. Much of the music in these closing minutes moves at a steady, majestic pace but even if the speed is measured there’s still a strong sense of exaltation. As the end approaches and the choir sings “Alleluia” repeatedly the pace becomes much faster and there’s a tumult of joy and praise enhanced by another intervention from the off-stage brass. The sonorous, majestic conclusion is left to the orchestra and organ. The Yorkshire audience greets the performance with cheers which are very swiftly faded out.
Having at last heard The Vision of Judgement what is my reaction to it? It’s an undeniably impressive score which makes a huge impact. Fricker has chosen a hugely ambitious subject but His musical invention doesn’t fall short in the face of the challenge posed by the subject matter. The language is firmly tonal but laced very strongly with dissonance. The score is intensely dramatic and very powerful. He’s particularly successful in pointing the contrast between the terrors of Part I and the jubilation of Part II. So far as I can tell, given that the work was completely new to me and I haven’t seen a score, the performance is as assured as it is committed. The soloists sing demanding music with ringing commitment and the orchestral response is vivid. The chorus acquit themselves with distinction in the face of what is obviously a tremendously challenging score; clearly their chorus master, Donald Hunt had prepared them exceptionally well.
In the booklet Paul Conway expresses the view that The Vision of Judgement “deserves to be heard more often, preferably in a cathedral where its potent mix of grand spectacle, broadly conceived paragraphs and spiritual intensity can be experienced to full effect.” This summing up of the “potent mix” of the score is right on the money. However, I don’t think that I’d agree about the ideal place in which to hear the work live. A cathedral would provide ambience, for sure, but it would also provide a very resonant acoustic. I strongly suspect that such resonance, which would be even greater than that of Leeds Town Hall, would significantly blunt the cutting edge of the music and make Fricker’s often-teeming textures sound even more dense. No, if the work is to be heard live it needs the clarity of the acoustics of a modern concert hall such as Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Sadly, however, I’m not going to hold my breath because the lavish scoring and heavy rehearsal demands of the score would make any concert promoter very thoughtful indeed about mounting a performance. I’m sure any such putative promoter would be very apprehensive about filling the hall for this little-known work. All of which must make us even more thankful that The Vision of Judgement is at last available in a commercial recording and one, moreover, that does justice to the piece.
The other work on the disc is Fricker’s last symphony. His Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 25th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall and the commission specified a work of no more than twenty minutes – a requirement that Fricker met with some forty seconds to spare. He decided to make use of the large organ in the RFH, which he himself had played in the past. This recording of the Fifth Symphony preserves the work’s first performance. Paul Conway describes the work, aptly, as “terse and direct”. The intention was not to write a quasi-concerto for organ and orchestra and so while the organ is very prominent at times elsewhere it is either silent or used to give an added dimension to the orchestral textures. As with The Vision of Judgement a large orchestra is specified and Fricker’s scoring is consistently interesting, not least the significant amount of powerful writing for brass and the colourful use made of the percussion battery.
The symphony is a one-movement work, cast in three sections that play continuously. The first section contains a good deal of vigorous writing and also some sonorous climaxes. The slow central section is serious in countenance and the organ is only in evidence during the second half. There’s a lot of strongly rhythmic music in the final section though there is a calmer central passage which includes solos for the cor anglais and trombone. The organ is often prominent in this last section, not least in the last couple of minutes, which are fast and extrovert. The applause is again swiftly edited out but the little we hear suggests a respectful reception rather than the cheers that greeted the end of the oratorio. Though this commission was intended to mark an anniversary I don’t get the sense that Fricker responded with a celebratory piece; the overall impression is of seriousness. This is a score which I respect but it doesn’t excite me in the way that the oratorio does. Nonetheless, it’s extremely valuable to have it on disc, not least because this is another work which I suspect is likely to be very elusive in the concert hall.
Richard Itter’s off-air recordings have been transferred and restored with great success by Mike Clements. Paul Conway’s notes are invaluable, both in terms of background information and in explaining – and advocating - the music. This is another important release from Richard Itter’s treasure trove.