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
rec. 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
rec. BBC, live broadcast, 5 May 1976, Royal Festival Hall, London. ADD. Stereo (Vision); Mono (Symphony)
LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM.1124 [66:48]
I refer readers to John Quinn’s previous review of this disc for fulsome information on the background to The Vision of Judgement and some first-hand knowledge on the actual genesis of the recording. I’m more of a newbie to these works, having heard of Peter Racine Fricker but not being familiar with his oeuvre, so I’ve set out on this in the spirit of entirely new discovery.
Paul Conway’s booklet notes open with comment on “the extreme vicissitudes of celebrity, critical acclaim and popular taste” with regard to the decline in Fricker’s profile after the 1950s. At the time he was commissioned to compose an oratorio for the 1958 Leeds Triennial Festival his star was very much in the ascendant, and you can sense this is a work into which Fricker threw just about everything.
The Vision of Judgment is uncompromisingly tough and gritty, but without turning its back on the audience. Fricker “was among the first composers in Britain to be influenced by the music of Bela Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky”, and while his personal style is paramount, a recognition of this wider sphere is key to understanding the musical language in this work. ‘Englishness’ is here too, but rarely if ever in that immediately recognisable idiom around the music of most pre-WWII UK concert music. Freed from these sorts of expectations, the expression and drama in The Vision of Judgement snaps into place quite clearly.
Fricker never wrote an opera, but there is much that is operatic about The Vision of Judgement. The balance between choral and orchestral weight and solo characterisation and narrative would have to swing a good deal for this oratorio to be considered anything other than what it is, but the dramatic rise and fall and feel of onward-pushing narrative is also palpable. The music has a descriptive or pictorial function, but the images rarely slow down let alone stand still, and the whole thing is more often turbulent and even precipitate than it is reflective or static. Fricker is too restless with his themes and text settings to allow for stately unfolding, or to take up the opportunity to have everything stop for a ‘hit’ aria or some set-piece abstraction. The tenor’s big solo Then it shall come to pass is uneasy in its imagery as it is in its vocal lines, though the final bars form a sublime apotheosis that softens us up for the choral Libera me that forms the emotional heart of the work. Despite the doom-laden content, the ultimate message is one of hope: Theirs is the home that never shall know end. Fricker holds onto his tensions right to the end, setting the text with no lapses into sentimentality and delivering his finale with some remarkably triumphant gestures and a sound that must have been breathtaking in the live venue. The performance is magnificent though not without the occasional moments where vertical alignment may have wobbled just a little. The balance is also surprisingly good, though the brass instruments have some advantages in terms of clarity. The recording betrays one or two moments where the limits of the analogue equipment are being approached or mildly overshot, but the general impression is of high BBC standards at work.
With the mono recorded Fifth Symphony we do have to accept certain limitations in terms of sound quality, though the qualities in the work and the performance still come through well enough. This work was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall, and his inclusion of the venue’s organ was essential from the start: “The thought of having that organ sitting there doing nothing was repugnant to me.”
This is by no means an organ concerto, though its part is a significant one and you would be excused for thinking of the work in this way at several moments. In some ways the symphony might be considered as more of a ‘concerto for orchestra’, with its effective and indeed often spectacular use of each orchestral section. The dedication “to the many fine musicians with whom I have had the pleasure of working so happily in the Royal Festival Hall” reinforces this impression of a work that is as much a celebration of the orchestra and organ as it is of the specific venue. One might imagine certain crowd-pleasing London-based themes being thrown in for such a work, but Fricker sticks to his own personal musical guns, throwing out a virtuoso compositional spectacle that deserves a Hi-Fi renaissance after this introduction. The performance is powerfully led by Colin Davis, though there are a couple of quieter moments where intonation proves to be an issue. Like small cracks on valuable antique pottery such imperfections can easily be overlooked, and the experience as a whole is of greater significance than any minor glitches inherited from the concert environment.
On this showing, Peter Racine Fricker’s music is powerful and impressive, and though by no means ‘easy listening’ is also far from having the impression of being difficult or unapproachable to the extent given by many mid-20th century creations. Lyrita’s releases from its founder Richard Itter’s own recorded archive go from strength to strength, and we can but hope that these and other mighty but forgotten works will re-emerge in more frequent modern performances as a result of having their profiles raised via this medium.