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Francis CHAGRIN (1905-1972)
Symphony No. 1 (1946-59, rev 1965) [28.01]
Symphony No. 2 (1965- 19.71) [28.01]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, 14–15 November 2014
NAXOS 8.571371 [56.02]

This is a significant CD, with world premiere recordings of two valuable symphonies, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, now perhaps the leading contender as Vernon Handley’s replacement as the master of British music.

Chagrin was British only by adoption. He is best known for his work in Britain as a composer of film music, with over two hundred scores, including the soundtracks of The Colditz Story and An Inspector Calls. There is an excellent compilation of film scores, conducted by Rumon Gamba on Chandos CHAN10323. He was born in Bucharest as Alexander Paucker, studied engineering in Zurich to please his parents, married unhappily and moved to Paris in 1928 to work in music. His family disinherited him, though they were willing to give some financial support. He earned a living playing in night-clubs and cafés-chantants and writing popular songs. Partly to reflect his annoyance, he chose ‘Chagrin’ as his new name. He saved enough to become a student of Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, and wrote a few film scores. As a Jew, he was concerned by the imminence of war, and took a trip to Britain to investigate writing film scores, fell in love with the country and settled, composing not only for films, but also for commercials and one episode of Dr Who. His fluency in English, as well as French, German, Russian and Rumanian was a help. Most notable was his personal generosity, a generosity that would lead him to create what became the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

It is right that the British Music Society should repay that generosity by sponsoring this recording. It needs to be emphasised that the interest of his two symphonies is not simply historical. They are remarkable utterances, not particularly British in tone, but perhaps owing more to the rather neo-classical Parisian background. Nothing outstays its welcome – musical argument is tight and controlled, but with a range of moods in a short compass. Take, for example, the second movement of the First Symphony. It begins and finishes slowly, even sombrely, quietly and ruminatively dwelling in the strings, touching depths of profound feeling. Suddenly, at 2.59, there is an irruption, followed by a melancholy solo violin. At 4.30, the tone, while still dark, becomes more lyrical, but with an underlying and profound sadness and sense of loss. Compare this with the second, molto lento movement of the Second Symphony. The pace is similar, there is a similar quietness, but this time more impassioned and – to my ears – something less grieving. One notices moments of reflection, always with wonderfully lucid textures.

Movements of the symphonies display a range of different feelings and tensions. Unity is created partly by re-workings of underlying themes. One is aware that the composer has absolute mastery of orchestration. More importantly, he has something significant to say. There is no sense of just note-spinning. Each moment is artfully designed.

This is a special recording. The commitment of both Brabbins and the BBC Orchestra is evident. Informative notes are by Philip Lane, although the biographical content is almost identical to the material on the Chandos recording. In many ways this new recording is more significant than the latter. To listen to this is to hear Chagrin writing what he wants to say, without needing to conform to the extraneous demands of film, though I would not be without either CD.

This is powerful music – and it matters.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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