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Fritz BRUN (1878-1959)
Symphony no.1 in B minor (1902) [35:02]
Overture to a jubilee celebration (1950) [11:49]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, 29 October-1 November 2012
GUILD GMCD 7395 [47:15]

First symphonies are interesting things. Sometimes they clearly foreshadow - and are in an obvious linear relationship with - ones to come. Sometimes they are in a style that the composer clearly had trouble with and thereafter abandoned. Sometimes they have such a troubled gestation that the composer leaves it at that and never returns to the form again.
 
That last description hardly fits Swiss composer Fritz Brun who, between 1902 and 1953 composed no fewer than ten full length symphonies. Championed over the years by Brun's compatriot, the conductor Adriano (see here and here), several of them have been reviewed on this website.
 
My colleagues’ verdicts were, as ever on such occasions, both lucid and enlightening. Listeners of a cautious musical bent or those simply fancying a quiet evening of relaxing music with a fireside glass or two of Cabernet might well, I suspect, have taken fright at Rob Barnett's references to "subtle early Schoenbergian dissonance", "the spice of dissonance" and the influence of the "acrid poignancy of Schmidt" (see here) or at Ian Lace's allusion to "brief stretches of atonality and dissonance that may seem daunting at first hearing" (see here) and his suggestion that another pair of the symphonies makes "challenging listening for the adventurous" (see here).
 
The good news for such listeners, however, is that there is absolutely nothing in this first symphony that could possibly frighten the horses. That user-friendliness is largely because Brun is working here in a conservative, very Brahmsian idiom: indeed, in the course of writing the score he apparently stated that he perceived himself to be continuing the older composer's symphonic tradition.
 
I ought to point out that, in emphasising that strong link to Brahms, I run the risk of falling foul of Adriano himself who has written the CD's comprehensive and generally illuminating booklet notes. Dismissing both "malicious musicologists and critics" and those - presumably less ill-motivated - people who simply "know little or nothing of Fritz Brun's music", he observes that, taking the composer's symphonic oeuvre as a whole,it is clear that there is much more to it than what we might call Brahms-plus. It seems to me, however, that Adriano has himself fallen into the trap of seeing even Brun's earliest works from a perspective that is anachronistically cognizant of, for instance, that subsequent "early Schoenbergian dissonance". Given that he has already recorded several of the later symphonies, his point of view is quite understandable, but in adopting it he minimises the significance of those early musical elements that do not fit in with later developments. This represents a sort of musicological variant, as it were, of the largely discredited "Whig interpretation of history". While I hope not to be categorised as a malicious critic, I do hold by my suggestion that, in this first symphony at any rate, Brun's musical idiom will be appreciated by any listener who enjoys the symphonies of Brahms.
 
From its very opening bars, it is obvious that Brun has something serious and weighty to impart. Its atmosphere often tends to the serious and heavy: an early reviewer, quoted in the booklet notes, emphasised its "tragic", "pessimistic" and "masculine" elements.
 
Thus, the opening movement contrasts strongly presented passages of forthright drama with rather more relaxed episodes very reminiscent of you-know-who-I-mean-by-now (1:49-3:15 and 7:26 onwards). The succeeding adagio non troppo - of which the composer was, it seems, especially proud - is a dreamy, lyrical Romance, which even a comparatively agitated intervention by the brass (5:43-6:07) proves unable to disrupt and which features some beguiling writing for solo violin (6:40-8:24 and 9:02 onwards). A generally jolly third movement includes, not unexpectedly, moments of a more downbeat and contemplative nature too, before we arrive at the allegro con brio finale. The latter quickly offers up a very attractive "big tune" that eventually reappears in grandiose form but proves not to be destined to provide a final peroration after all. Instead, the symphony concludes quietly and rather unexpectedly in what Adriano himself describes as a "strange and bitter ending".
 
The Overture to a Jubilee Celebration was written almost fifty years after Brun's first symphony and - as acknowledged by the three contemporary reviewers quoted at some length in the booklet notes - shares its generally conservative musical idiom. It thus makes an appropriate filler, if a rather short-weight one: the CD's total running time is just 47:15 as it stands and it is disappointing that Guild could not have at least partially filled the remaining 30 minutes or so of available capacity.
 
Nevertheless, this is a disc to be warmly welcomed. Both pieces - but especially the symphony - are very attractive discoveries and the performances on this disc are first rate. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra plays with both utter conviction and great skill and deserves the highest praise. On the basis of this release, I might well be inclined to explore this series of Brun symphonies further - early Schoenbergian dissonance and the acrid poignancy of Schmidt notwithstanding.  

Rob Maynard
 




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