FRICKER: Rondo Scherzoso for Orchestra. Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Comedy Overture / BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson, Albert Rosen, Edward Downes, Maurice Handford, conductors / Lyrita REAM.2136 (live: September 12 & 17, October 2 & 7, 1980)
Peter Racine Fricker, whose string quartets I praised several months ago, was the first British composer whose fame and career completely postdated the Second World War. He was rather different from many British composers of his time, even different from Britten whose music had modernist tendencies, in that he eschewed conventional melody entirely and tried to follow in the footsteps of his heroes Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg while still creating his own personal voice. Quite aside from the symphonies, the opening selection here, a Rondo Scherzoso for Orchestra, bespeaks a serious writer with a wonderfully logical mind—he even thrown in a fugue at the 5:30 mark just for fun—who also conceived of music in emotional terms. “For me, music is as exciting as a sporting event,” he once said, and he evidently meant it.
Before getting into a more detailed description of the music, however, a word about the unique nature of the recordings. These performances were part of a seven-part series devoted to Fricker’s music titled “Fricker in Retrospect,” and were recorded, quite professionally, by a collector named Richard Itter who had first-class, professional equipment set up in his Burnham home. From 1952 to 1996 he recorded a vast range of classical music, including Proms concerts and opera performances, on high-speed magnetic tape, transferring what he felt were the best or most important performances to acetate discs. Interestingly, Itter only played back the tapes, keeping the acetates in pristine condition. Since 2014 Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust has made formal contracts with the BBC and the Musicians’ Union to release items from this treasure trove to the public, and this Fricker release is part of that treasure trove.
The First Symphony, interestingly, begins quietly with solo trumpet and a mixture of winds, sounding for all the world like one of Aaron Copland’s more modern compositions, but it quickly becomes more astringent in harmony and insistent in rhythm. Two-part voicing is set up in the string section as the theme is stated, with interjections from winds and brasses. Most interestingly of all, a piano introduces itself playing a rhythmic pattern based on the theme, then comes the development section. Fricker never “loses” his audience with the thread of his music; his layout is crystal-clear, and the performance by the BBC Northern Symphony is not only technically assured but stylistically perfect and emotionally involved. Prior to hearing this set, the only conductor whose name I was familiar with was, of course, the late, great Edward Downes (along with Charles Mackerras, one of my favorite of all British conductors of this era), but the performance here by Bryden Thompson (who also conducted the Rondo Scherzoso) is both technically immaculate and emotionally powerful.
By and large, I would have to say that of his three models, Fricker was probably most strongly influenced by Bartók, although the lean sonorities of his scoring owed a great deal to Stravinsky and Schoenberg—think of the former’s Oedipus Rex or the latter’s Die Jakobsleiter. The strings play quite often in unison rather than creating a lush, chordal sound, but it is predominantly the winds that dominate the texture, blended in such a way that he can (and does) pull in trumpets, trombones or French horns to mix with them, giving the orchestra quite a “metallic” sound. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it is this kind of orchestral timbre that most characterizes 20th-century orchestral music and differentiates it from that of the 19th century—even such basically tonal composers as Orff and Copland used similar orchestration—and is, in fact, one of the things aside from harmonic movement and lack of “singable tunes” that lovers of old classical music find uncomfortable and off-putting. Even the second, slow movement of this first symphony has this kind of orchestral sound, and even here Fricker does not shy away from creating tension and drama. The third movement, sitting in the “Scherzo” position, is pushed along by an insistent, almost brutal rhythm, yet ends quietly and abruptly, just in time for the fourth movement to come along with its brusque melodies and highly imaginative orchestration. The drama, and voltage, picks up considerably after the 3:30 mark, albeit with occasional decreases of volume followed by upward swipes by the winds against the ongoing development played by strings and brass. This symphony won the last Koussevitzky Prize given while Koussevitzky himself was still music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1949), but I’ll wager that the old man never conducted it himself. It was, technically, far beyond his meager musical abilities, geared so well to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky but not much of the modern music he commissioned.
The liner notes point out that the second symphony, written in 1951, is unusual in that “all three movements exploit different aspects of rondo form.” I also found it surprisingly light in tone when compared to the first—not due to any lessening of bitonality, but rather in the sense that Fricker’s mind seemed to enjoy playing with the rondos to the point where the music conveyed itself in purely formal terms. Even in its loud moments, the second symphony has less angst than the first; the loud climaxes seem more celebratory than anxious, although that impression is always conveyed as an undertone due to Fricker’s use of harsh chord positions. Indeed, the density of the chording is part of what makes the second half of this movement sound the most dramatic in context, and even the slow second movement edges one towards discomfort by virtue of Fricker’s often “rootless” chords. Yet it was in this movement that I felt Fricker went on a bit too long and rather without much cause to do so. Yes, he continued developing his music, but after a while even the most attentive listener might start to lose interest. He does, however, more than make up for this in the rousing finale, using quite colorful orchestration and wide interval leaps.
The Comedy Overture, from 1958, is of course the lightest piece on this album, and here Fricker consciously avoids too much dissonance and concedes to public taste with a few rooted chords. It is, however, a fine piece of music that many a lesser composer would have been proud to have written.
The Third Symphony (1960) purposely avoids the formal construction of its predecessors, and in fact is less astringent in quality although more abstract in temperament. Here he shows his Stravinsky side, although still pursuing his own personal vision. He does, however, continue to pursue his trademark use of two contrasting themes playing against one another. The use of the orchestra is quite sparse in this symphony, often falling back to small sections, and only occasinally bringing in the tympani. And interestingly, the second movement (“Lento”) is equally intense, in fact a bit more mysterious than the first, helped by a haunting flute solo over rumbling basses. By contrast, the third-movement scherzo is certainly one of the jolliest pieces Fricker ever wrote; but dense, close chords and astringent harmonies return in spades in the fourth and final movement. So too does the tympani, in a quite dramatic way, when the tempo is relaxed towards the end.
The fourth symphony, in one long (37:56) movement, returns us to the more dramatick Fricker, and in a big way. There is little that is dainty in this symphony; it is conceived, and played, in a very potent, big-boned sort of manner. This is also Fricker’s darkest symphony; very little light penetrates the density of his musical thought, even during quiet passages. The liner notes tell us that he made some use of themes by his composition teacher, Mátyás Sieber, a brilliant man who led the first formal jazz classes in Germany during the 1920s. “The opening symmetrical chord of Seiber’s 1958 Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quartet – superimposed fourths and major thirds – sets a pattern which characterises several of Fricker’s themes in the symphony. Seiber had been a cellist so the cello has a dominant role from time to time.” Moody and largely slow-moving, the symphony creeps like a behemoth across your mind. I found it interesting to learn that Fricker revised the symphony in 1978-79, not too long before these broadcasts, though he initially finished it in 1966. Since I can’t imagine that he didn’t know the “Beebs” would be doing a major retrospective on his work, I think he felt the time was ripe to revise it and include some material he found stronger.
Interestingly, the symphony consists of ten interlocking sections. Most of them contain thematic ideas found in the others in various guises, the one exception being a self-contained central elegy. The pensive, restless mood never resolves itself; in the end, the symphony just sort of grumbles off into the distance. Unusually for Fricker, he wrote that this work could be regarded “as a protest, an outburst, a tribute, and an oration,” thought its intent was “to stand as a self-sustained work of symphonic dimensions.” Annotator Paul Conway surmises that Fricker was “stung by the injustice of Sieber’s untimely death” in 1960, but despite the moments of tribute, there’s no proof of this. Maurice Handford, a name unknown to me, conducts this performance and does so with the same intensity found in the other recordings.
This set of recordings, and works, is a real “find.” I like them even better than the string quartets, and highly recommend them to you!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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