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Marcel POOT (1901-1988)
Symphony No 1 (1929) [18:10]
Symphony No 2 (1937) [22:56]
Symphony No 3 (1952) [24:20]
Symphony No 4 (1970) [21:36]
Symphony No 5 (1974) [17:53]
Symphony No 6 (1978) [19:43]
Symphony No 7 (1982) [16:09]
BRTN Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Rotman (1)
Belgian National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Franz André (2)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Frédéric Devreese (3, 5-7)
Antwerp Philharmonic/Léonce Gras (4)
rec. 1960-2021, Belgium
NAXOS 8.574292-93 [65:47 + 75:39]

Marco Polo issued in 2000 four of Marcel Poot’s symphonies, conducted by Frédéric Devreese. Naxos now adds the remaining three, two of them in older recordings. Mark Morris’s article on these pages lists neither Poot nor Devreese, a well-known composer – but Poot was significant, what with such a powerful group of symphonies under his belt.

This is the first commercial release of the two oldest symphonies. The First Symphony is enjoyable but perhaps not really successful. Its opening Allegro is brisk and athletic, with a nod towards Stravinsky. The middle movement is an orchestration of the dreamy middle movement of Poot’s piano sonata of 1927. The much longer finale is imbued with the wild abandon of the 1920s big band style or a film score; it is set in a Rondo form, and one of its episodes is a sexy solo for the alto saxophone. The brilliant orchestration must have made quite an impression when the piece was first heard in Brussels in 1930.

Poot was riding high at that time with successful premieres of other orchestral works, including the 1930 Ouverture joyeuse, but he never repeated the language of this first symphony. Eight years passed before he tackled the form again as war clouds loomed over Europe. The Second Symphony received it first performance in 1938. The present recording, described as a ‘Belgium Radio mono recording of 1960’, shows only a few signs of its age. The opening Allegro risoluto has all of the bluster and busyness which I associate with Darius Milhaud; a simple Flemish children’s melody is a contrasting subject. The middle Andante is beautifully ‘tranquillo’. The last part, which starts without a break, is marked Moderato assai but with built-in wildness and exuberance. Its contrasting idea, a long and lyrical Romantic melody, could have come out of a film score.

Seven years after the end of World War II, the Third Symphony appeared. After a solemn opening Lento, we have an excitable Allegro impetuoso. It is here and in the Allegro third movement that I hear an influence of Honegger in motoric, driving rhythms and counterpoint. The contrasting slow movement is elegiac, quiet and atmospheric. I think this is Poot’s best symphony so far.

A striking characteristic of Poot’s orchestral works is the amount of notes. No member of the orchestra must ever feel redundant even if not every detail can be heard. A really clear recording would be ideal. The Fourth Symphony was recorded in November 1971 just after its first performance. The middle movement follows the pattern of others: it reaches a powerful, busy climax in its central section and then fades back into the atmosphere of its opening. Here the sound is congested, as it is a little in the coda of the finale. Poot liked to end his symphonies with a wild abandon, very loud and very full of notes, and that makes the recording problematic. Even so, the Antwerp Philharmonic finds the energy, and the first-movement Allegro con fuoco certainly lives up to its name.

Poot stuck to his well-tried and trusty format in the Fifth Symphony. The first movement is the usual hard-driven Allegro vivo with a strongly contrasted second subject, which is almost romantic in mood. These ideas combine and cross effectively; the central Adagio has the more powerful middle bars. The finale, always marginally the longest, ends with an exciting coda. Oddly enough, Robert Still’s Fourth Symphony often came to my mind, and even some of Benjamin Frankel’s late symphonies – all contemporary with Poot’s Fifth.

A further four years on came the Sixth Symphony. If there were one word to describe a Poot first movement, it could be ‘impetuoso’, as here. The middle movement, with a rather frenzied if brief middle section, has that sense of desolation that one hears in Vaughan Williams’s Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. The finale is quite unusually joyous.

By the time of his Seventh Symphony, Poot had been composing symphonies for well over fifty years, and was now in his early eighties. Even so, the outer movements exude the usual energy and drive we have met in the earlier works. We have here, as in all of these works, the three-movement format; for some reason Poot never wanted to experiment with differing symphonic forms. The opening Molto animato is followed by an Andante moderato, which features an impassioned section at its core and a later wonderful duet for cor anglais and flute. The final Allegro impetuoso feels more like a Scherzo and Trio with a slower middle section. But this succinct symphony ends in bluster and an affirmative final chord to cap a lifetime of clearly demonstrative, positive musical vigour.

Luc Vertommen and Jacques Van Deun wrote excellent, detailed notes on each of the symphonies, and there are photos of the conductors. Some of the performances have the advantage of having been made in the composer’s lifetime. In other cases one expects that the conductors had known the composer, so the readings have a ring of authenticity, as it were. The recording levels can be a little low and the sound unfocused at climaxes. The orchestras may not be of the first calibre, but if you like the sound of this composer then, I suspect, this will be your one and only chance to learn about his development and to hear his work over the fifty-three year period. At bargain price, it is worth it.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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