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Alexander BRINCKEN (b. 1952)
Orchestral Music - Volume 1

Symphony No.4 in G minor, Op.27 [53:33]
Capriccio for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, Op.11 [ 22:10]
Alexander Brincken (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rainer Held
rec. 2019, RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The inclination is to ask, where has this glorious, rich, ravishing and at times passionate music been all my life? There is so much here which seems tailor-made to bring the lovers of Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius and Wagner on board alongside those hosts of people who simply love expressive and richly colourful music, that one wonders why it has not found its way into the playlists of those myriad radio stations around the world who offer “beautiful music” by the bucket-load. And with opulent sound and top-notch playing from the ever-remarkable Royal Scottish National Orchestra. this should be an all-time winner. But Brincken has, as a composer, rather slipped through the net, and while this release of two of his lush orchestral scores might turn the tide, I very much doubt it.

The problem is that Alexander Brincken does not quite fit into the scheme of things in the tidy way we like. His music is unashamedly romantic and the gorgeous Fourth Symphony belongs firmly to that late 19th century sound world in which Rachmaninov excelled – and was, at the time, largely castigated by the critics who felt that a 20th century composer should not be writing in a 19th century idiom. How would they react to a 21st century composer (the Symphony was completed just five years ago) who seems almost more-backward facing that Rachmaninov? Luckily, we live in more forgiving times when quality in musical creation is usually counted above obeisance to current fads. But it is as if the 20th century, with all its isms and trends had never been.

Born in Leningrad and trained at the city’s famous Conservatory under Orest Yavlakhov and Sergei Slonimsky, Brincken writes about his early passion for the great German romantic masters - Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss - and his “largely imposed on me” brushes with “musical modernism” (by which he means Hindemith and Berg, Bartók and Stravinsky). This is very much a composer whose influences are rooted in the distant past, and who is not in any way afraid to confess it in his words or proclaim it in his music. It is that unashamed self-confidence which I find most attractive about this music, which from a composer with less confidence in his own musical voice, might sound dangerously pastiche.

Brincken has to date composed five symphonies, the first begun during his student days in 1971 but not completed until 1981, and the second dating from 1989. The other three all were written after he had emigrated to Switzerland in 1992, the Fourth written between 2014 and 2015. The composer writes profusely in the booklet notes, but I am not sure he offers much help to the listener trying to get to grips with this somewhat unexpected time-warp. He tells us, for example, that the Symphony uses a “more astringent musical language”. I don’t hear it. This is firmly rooted in tonality, packed full of highly accessible ideas and powerful effects which, while not particularly tuneful, are thoroughly rooted in late 19th century Romanticism. Conceived on a large scale and written for what he describes as “a fairly large orchestra” (the puff on the booklet contradicts this by stating that it is “written for a huge orchestra”) the Fourth Symphony makes a powerfully dramatic impact in its first movement, building from a shimmering atmospheric depiction of dawn (although the composer’s own note puts this as “shifting between depression and burgeoning hope”) to a triumphant climax by way of an exuberant Fugue and some particularly ravishing horn playing.

A heart-wrenchingly beautiful horn solo above a soft cushion of velvety strings sets the scene for the magical slow movement; one of those slow movements you just want to sit back and luxuriate in and hope it will never come to an end. I do not so much hear the composers’ “unsullied optimism” here as deep calm and great tranquillity, while the tight fugue which opens the rhythmically-driven scherzo pays testament both to the composer’s Hindemith-inspired interest in Neo-Classicism and his fondness for Mahler; it also shows Rainer Held’s impressively firm control over the RSNO and his fine sense of musical architecture as he works up over a 10-minute crescendo to the final great climax. The final movement starts full of nervous energy, which the composer suggests is a “social critique” of the “hectic activity of our modern civilized world”. He also suggests certain passages evoke jazz and rock, but the overriding impression is of a great, majestically crafted monument to a fine orchestra in all its vicissitudes and colours. This is a symphony I can see myself returning to time and time again.

The much earlier (1985) Capriccio for piano and chamber and orchestra has less immediate appeal, even in this heavily committed performance with the composer as soloist. The composer alludes to the personal troubles he was experiencing at the time and the difficulties he felt in coming to terms with writing music in the later years of the Soviet state, and the musical language is impressionistic and, at times, strongly reminiscent of Scriabin. The dovetailing of piano and orchestra is masterly handled by Held, and the often elusive and fragmentary nature of the writing keeps the RSNO athletically on their collective feet. It might just be worth noting that with an orchestral force of almost three dozen players, this stretches the definitions of a “chamber orchestra”, yet Brincken often uses these forces sparingly and it certainly does have, at times, a nimble-footed chamber quality to it. However, with copious timpani glissandi and a stirring militaristic march leading up to the surprisingly abrupt ending, the work is very much in the tradition of big Russian piano concertos, despite the absence of any real “big tune” to give the ending real impact

Marc Rochester

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