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Francis CHAGRIN (1905-1972)
Symphony No. 1 (1946-59 rev. 1965) [28.01]
Symphony No. 2 (1965-71) [28.01]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London, 14-15 November 2014
world première recordings
NAXOS 8.571371 [56.02]

Francis Chagrin’s most important and lasting legacy was his generous spirit in encouraging new composers and new music. He was the "organizer and chief moving spirit" who founded the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

Chagrin was a fairly well-known name over the immediate post-World War II years as a composer and conductor. He seems to have had a canny eye for the commercial opportunities for his music having written jingles for many TV commercials and music for over two hundred films. I reviewed the Chandos CD of a few of what were considered to be the best of his film scores (review ~ review) which included music for The Colditz Story, Greyfriars Bobby and An Inspector Calls. My review ended with the remark, “Nicely crafted music, often quite witty, if not especially memorable.”

One of Chagrin’s scores included in the Chandos anthology was that for the 1953 British film The Intruder that starred Jack Hawkins and George Cole with Michael Medwin as the film title’s attempted burglar intruder. The main philosophical theme of The Intruder was the problems of homecoming ex-servicemen, attempting resettlement after World War II. Chagrin’s music was uncompromisingly bleak. The music for his Four Orchestral Episodes, drawn from the film and included on the Chandos CD, and presumably meant for separate performance, is black and crushing, perhaps suggesting the servicemen’s continuing nightmares of wartime horrors. One gets the impression that much of this sort of material influenced Chagrin’s relentlessly downbeat Symphony No. 1 begun soon after the end of the War. Indeed the first movement marked Largo-Allegro opens in deep gloom recalling violent hostilities. It treads despairingly, the music all but crushed at 3.50, but the movement is not without notes of poignancy. The second movement begins in melancholy; however an elegiac episode softens the oppressive heaviness. The third movement has a weighty brutality that, for me, conjures up a repellent image of opposing armies’ tanks crashing into and annihilating each other. The movement’s quasi-Viennese waltz screeches along only to be overwhelmed by discordant brass. The fourth movement - an Allegro - brings some humour and a measure of relief from all the gloom.

The Second Symphony is much more interesting mainly because of its very colourful orchestrations needing, for instance, seven percussionists including two players at one celesta. Like the First Symphony the style is modern – not surprisingly because tonal music was very much out of fashion – with a few exceptions only music for the cinema held the beacon for tonality and melody then. Chagrin, presumably always with an eye to the needs of the market, responded accordingly. Listening to this symphony my mind drew parallels with the paintings of Picasso, Mondrian and, when the music is at its most dense, Jackson Pollock. The opening is violent once more with hammering dissonances and the odd attempt at lyricism soon overwhelmed as all hell is let loose. At times I thought I was listening to material created for some malevolent commedia dell’arte production. The second movement - molto lento - is colourful but eerie and grotesque with a questing introspective character, its lyricism having a darkish vulnerability. The Scherzo offers some relief; it is puckish and playful. The final Andante movement opens in a Holst Planets-like atmosphere with the music having a mysterious beauty and even approaching towering majesty before its pomposity is punctured.

Interesting music of its time but soulless. Skilfully crafted and colourful but not memorable.

Ian Lace

Previous reviews: Michael Wilkinson ~ Rob Barnett ~ Stephen Greenbank



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