|THE CPO Recordings by Dimitri Kennaway
On 12th February 1998, it will be twenty-five years since the British composer Benjamin Frankel died. Even as this anniversary approaches, so, too, does the completion of the recorded cycle of the composer's eight symphonies on the German label CPO. The recordings, which also include the five String Quartets and complete chamber works for and involving clarinet, are, incredibly, the very first of these works, excepting the fifth String Quartet (briefly available on LP during the late sixties) and the Clarinet Quintet, recorded by its dedicatee Thea King with the Britten Quartet, a few years ago, for Hyperion, and, fortunately, still available. Only the seventh and eighth Symphonies have yet to be released (probably during late 1998) and, by the time this appears in print, the premiere recording of the Violin Concerto, Viola Concerto and Serenata Concertante, should be due for imminent release. All things considered, then, this would seem to be a suitable moment to assess Frankel's current standing, and to examine certain aspects of his life and career.
Following the twenty-year period of near total neglect that Frankel's music suffered after he died, the CPO recordings -which began to appear in 1994 - unlocked the door to a treasure- filled room, in which a vital part of British musical heritage had been incarcerated - and quite unjustly so. This bears closer inspection, although any attempt to fathom the reasons must, inevitably, be speculative. Frankel was far from obscure during his lifetime: virtually all that he composed - important and otherwise - had been publicly performed and/or broadcast and, by the late 'sixties, he had achieved a certain pre-eminence as a symphonist. Indeed, in the year before he died, BBC radio broadcast his entire symphonic cycle and even commissioned a ninth symphony for the 1973 Proms. The work - largely completed in the composer's mind perished with him and, as an ominous foretaste of the neglect to come, none of his music appeared in lieu of the lost commission, during the 1973 Prom season - not even in memoriam. Following his death, broadcasts and performances of Frankel's works ran to a trickle. His great friend and advocate Hans Keller retired from the BBC in the mid-'seventies, making the situation far worse. Thanks to the late Sir Charles Groves - another friend and champion - the odd symphony was to be heard and, about ten years after Frankel's death, matters seemed to be improving when his last completed work, the opera "Marching Song" (after John Whiting's play) was premiered by Radio 3 in a studio version, produced by Chris de Souza. (The opera, completed in short score only days before the composer's death and fully scored by his friend and former pupil Buxton Orr, was to have been staged by ENO in London and Brussels, as part of the Belgian celebration of the EEC, but was one of five new productions axed when the company suffered a financial crisis in 1975). However, despite a very warm critical reception, the broadcast premier did not herald the much awaited revival of Frankel's output generally and, with the passage of time, the neglect became ever more pronounced.
One obvious problem - and here we encounter something totally at odds with Frankel's standing during his lifetime - was the absence of any commercial recordings of his music (in stark contrast with the current state of things): only the aforementioned LP of the fifth String Quartet and a 1940s 78 of the first sonata for solo violin had been recorded. Unbelievably, not a single orchestral work had ever been committed to disc; not even the 'popular' style "May Day" overture or the witty parody "Mephistopheles' Serenade and Dance"- nor, most strangely of all the composer's wonderful Violin Concerto - a commission from Max Rostal for the 1951 Festival of Britain - composed 'in memory of the six million' who had perished in the Holocaust. This lack of a recorded legacy was, undoubtedly, a telling factor in the posthumous obscurity of Frankel's music. It meant that the BBC either had to rebroadcast archive recordings or commission new ones - either option being very costly in relation to the broadcasting of commercial recordings. As to public performances of the orchestral works, economic factors again raise their head: orchestral managers and committees are wary of 'modern' music, concerned mainly with pulling in the crowds and avoiding total reliance on subsidy which, after all, is not inexhaustible. These considerations - while not adequate as excuses may offer some insight into the problems which faced Frankel's output in the years following his demise. Commercial recordings, too, are costly affairs and the major labels, traditionally, conservative. Even so, many of Frankel's contemporaries fared better in this area during their lifetimes, than did he and one would have expected, at least, that his more accessible works - which, by the way, include about half of the symphonies - would have found their way onto disc. There is nothing to indicate why they did not, especially in light of his increasing prominence during the 1960s; had they done so, matters might well have taken a different turn.
So much for financial and practical considerations but what other explanations may lie at the heart of the problem? One reviewer, writing warmly of the first Frankel issue on CPO, opined that the composer may have been unfortunate in not having champions of sufficient note, to further his cause. There is some substance to this view, especially when one considers that, despite his lifetime success, none of Frankel's works had become standard repertoire by the time he died. The earlier mentioned Violin Concerto would have been an obvious candidate but it needed a world famous recording artist to push it: Max Rostal - for whom the work was written - was a persuasive advocate (indeed, a wonderful artist and performer generally) but perhaps better known as a pedagogue and was not widely recorded commercially. Other, less known (and lesser) violinists-usually pupils or colleagues of Rostal - who- took up the Concerto, were even less able to make an impact in non-standard repertoire. The work needed, say, a Heifetz or a Menuhin to bring it to prominence. Similar arguments could be made for most of Frankel's output, which is not to say anything against the many fine artists who did take up his music and did great justice to it - on the contrary, it is simply that new music - if it is to find its way - needs to be exposed at the very highest level of public perception.
However, what of more insidious reasons for the plight of Frankel's music? While he lived, it prevailed not only because of its intrinsic value but also due to the composer's strength of character which was essential to overcoming the many obstacles in the path of his acceptance: the fact that he earned his living for many years as a jazz musician (pianist, violinist and arranger); that he worked as music director for revues in London's West End, for the likes of Noel Coward and C.B. Cochrane; that he achieved fame as Britain's pre-eminent film composer; that when it came to his serious music, he was a Jew in an emphatically WASP fraternity. This latter point is, of course, the most controversial and contentious and Frankel's cosmopolitan disposition made him at home almost everywhere. The possibility of anti- Semitism in some quarters, however, should not be lightly dismissed. As to the former points, snobbery has always been rife in musical circles and the notion that a 'hot jazz' fiddler, sometime bandleader and film composer could also write some kind of a symphony - let alone of such lofty nature - was more than many people could bear. In Frankel's time, versatility was frowned upon in many circles and the subject of much scorn and derision. Today, he would simply have been considered a 'crossover' musician - a prosaic, if apt, term which broadly describes the kind of professional he was. Even today, though, his depth of expertise across the musical board would have been exceptional: 'Pop' musicians seldom crossover into the classical field - often for lack of the requisite skill and training - and classical musicians apparently lured by the notion of great financial rewards - make the journey into more 'popular' idioms with - usually - horrendous results. By the time of his recognition as a leading symphonist, Frankel had left his jazz days far behind (although he was still composing for feature films well into the 1960s, including such notable productions as "Night of the Iguana" and "Battle of the Bulge" - an area of his career which should be covered in a later survey). Before touching upon the life and remarkably diverse career of this exceptional figure, however, it would be well worthwhile considering what impact the ongoing CPO cycle is having upon the fate of Frankel's works.
Firstly, though, it might prove more than a little interesting to reveal something of the background to CPO's groundbreaking undertaking in recording Frankel's major orchestral and chamber works (which will, by the way, extend to much of the film music, in the near future!). It is widely known that the genesis of the independent record label, during the last two decades, has been almost entirely responsible for the rediscovery of countless neglected composers (of all eras). When it comes to overlooked twentieth-century British composers, however, most people would associate their revival with British labels, such as Hyperion and Chandos, and justifiably so. How, then, did it come to pass that a German label in partnership with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, undertook to record Frankel's works, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, under the German conductor Werner Andreas Albert. Some assumed - mistakenly - that this was a result of the composer's cosmopolitan outlook and the fact that Germany had been the most significant forum for his music, outside this country. In fact, it was Frankel's great friend and colleague, the clarinettist Thea King, who set the wheels in motion. It has already been mentioned that she recorded the composer's Clarinet Quintet a few years ago (an outstanding CD which was on the Hyperion label and the first commercial release of any Frankel work since his death). This, in itself, though important, was not the direct reason for what ensued. Some time afterwards, a British conductor, who was a friend and colleague of Thea King, mentioned to her that he was looking around for a new recording project to offer CPO, with which label he had an established association. She suggested that he investigate the music of Benjamin Frankel and he duly contacted the estate to request some scores and/or tapes of various works. A cassette - which included old broadcasts of Symphonies 4 and 5 and the Violin Concerto - was sent with all due haste, along with a duplicate for CPO. Both conductor and record label were very impressed by what they heard and it was decided to proceed. CPO reasoned - quite understandably that it would be ideal to have not only the British conductor who had introduced them to Frankel's music, but also a British orchestra to record it since, after all, Frankel had been a British composer. They proposed a co-production with the BBC and contacted the orchestras of BBC Wales and BBC Scotland about such a possibility. However, after months of waiting for a response, and repeated efforts to obtain one, CPO felt that nothing would come of their overtures, especially as they had heard via the omnipresent grapevine, that someone high up in the BBC's hierarchy was opposed to the idea. Undaunted, CPO approached other radio networks with whom they had co-operated successfully in the past. One such was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with whom they had already embarked on a complete Hindemith cycle, with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, under Werner Andreas Albert. This time - in one of life's poignant ironies the response was entirely positive, thus giving rise to the now familiar complexion of the Frankel cycle. (For contractual reasons, the British conductor who had played such a pivotal role in introducing Frankel's work to CPO, was unable to conduct the cycle. His praises should not go unsung, however and he was (indeed still is) Alun Francis. In fact he did record one of the earlier Frankel/CPO releases - the Music for Strings (including the song cycle "The Aftermath") with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra of Seattle, and a fine CD it is.
That, then, was the unlikely background to the rediscovery of Frankel's music and its first appearance - to all intents and purposes - on disc. And so, what of the impact of the recordings on the composer's output and his reputation as a major composer of the post-War era? The critical acclaim which has greeted all the releases to date has been immense, glowing and unequivocal: reviewers here, along with those in continental Europe and America, have welcomed the recordings with open arms and been at a loss to explain the unjust neglect of Frankel.
A few, choice, quotations from reviews would not be out of place here:
"....worthy of a place alongside any of the acknowledged great symphonists of the 20th century....Not to be missed." - Ateê Orga in BBC Music Magazine, June 1994.
"It is clear that this symphonic cycle is going to be an event of major importance...." - Martin Anderson in CD Review, July 1994.
"...the two symphonies on this disc (1 and 5) demonstrate that Frankel's neglect has been our loss." Michael Oliver in Gramophone, July 1994.
"I was captivated by the recording of the second symphony... Frankel is that mid-century rarity: a shameless cerebralist who was not afraid to communicate." - Norman Lebrecht in the Daily Telegraph (28/08/95).
One could go on at great length but the above are indicative of the general consensus of critical opinion. However, the importance of the recordings has already gone beyond their availability and subsequent acclaim; when the film director Ken Russell spotted a news item in the Gramophone, announcing the forthcoming series of Frankel CDs, he was already planning a documentary for LWT's South Bank Show, about the widows of various British composers and how they cope with the business of keeping their late husbands' music alive. Russell, already very familiar with Frankel's film music, contacted the composer's widow, Xenia, about the possibility of her involvement. She readily agreed and appeared alongside the widows of William Walton, Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle, in a documentary televised in February 1995. This then, was a lateral consequence of the CPO recordings. A more direct outcome was BBC R3's decision - at long last and following a strenuous effort on the part of the composer's widow - to feature Frankel as 'Composer of the Week', in June of last year. Although the BBC did delve into its archives for some chamber music recordings and, importantly, commissioned a new studio recording of the Violin Concerto, with Ulf Hoelscher as soloist, the fact that a number of commercial CDs had become available meant that the cost of the programmes was far less than would otherwise have been the case (returning to an earlier point). In fact, without the CPO recordings, the series would probably not have been possible, on financial grounds. The programmes were produced by Piers Burton-Page and presented by Chris de Souza (who, remember, had, himself, produced "Marching Song" back in 1982). With the subsequent repeat of the programmes during the following week, Frankel's music was given the kind of exposure it had not enjoyed since the year before he died. This was a much needed and long overdue occurrence, yet its long-term effects are difficult to judge: since those programmes were broadcast, things have fallen ominously quiet once more and it is altogether unclear why, with still more CDs now available, Frankel's music is not featured regularly on Radio 3. After all, the most incontrovertible fact about music is that it must be heard - it has no other function and its best chance - when it comes to a great deal of twentieth- century music - is on radio. Ideally, of course, it should also be heard regularly in the concert hall. Frankel's chamber music has a chance here, thanks to the commitment and enterprise of many up-and-coming, brilliant young performers in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (notably the clarinettist Paul Dean whose advocacy of Frankel has become something of a personal crusade). As to the symphonies, their future in the concert hall will be determined, no doubt, by the kind of economic considerations referred to earlier and, one would hope, by the desire of discerning, adventurous conductors and orchestras to feature them. The Violin Concerto, and the Viola Concerto, ought, surely, to be taken up once the premiere CD is released and makes its mark (As a matter of interest the soloist in the Violin Concerto recording will be, once again, Ulf Hoelscher who recorded it for CPO with the QSO, under Albert, shortly after his sessions with the BBC. In the Viola Concerto, the soloist will be Brett Dean - brother of Paul, above who is an outstanding performer and member of the Berlin Philharmonic ).
One should not leave the subject of the CPO recordings without mention of their overall quality, and the manner in which they compare with those performances given during the composer's lifetime. The orchestral CDs are, generally, of outstanding quality, with the obvious benefits of modern digital sound, and the interpretations are polished and committed Werner Andreas Albert clearly feels an affinity with Frankel's style and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra has become, in the last few years, top-class. Notwithstanding the composer's own remarkable performances of his music - he conducted the British premiers of the Violin Concerto and first four symphonies, after which ill health forced him to abandon the podium - some conductors (and orchestras) did not entirely flatter it. Frankel wrote brilliantly and sympathetically for the orchestra, so it was far from being a question of placing unreasonable demands on the players' abilities. No doubt, the dutiful, often reluctant, way in which 'modern' works were undertaken (has anything really changed that much?), was a major factor. The conductors involved were not always front-rank, and not always noted for their advocacy of contemporary music. Albert is not a household name in this country - his career being based mainly in Germany and Australia at present - but his credentials are impeccable, having studied with Karajan and Rosbaud. As to the QSO, it is increasingly peopled by young players, avid for unexplored repertoire, especially of the 20th century. The result is that Frankel's symphonies can now be heard in a fresh 'light', whereby the romantic and melodic elements of these works are, at last, clearly audible, irrespective of the rigorous intellectual discipline which dictates their structural development. As to the chamber music issued thus far, Paul Dean - mentioned earlier - has done a wonderful CD of the clarinet works, while the Nomos Quartet a fine young German ensemble - has done similar justice to the five string quartets.
Oct 2000 Battle of the Bulge