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2 & 21
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Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
Rondo Scherzoso (1948) [13:25]
Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 (1948-1949) [34:51]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 14 (1950-1951) [29:35]
Comedy Overture Op. 32 (1958) [5:02]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 (1960) [30:39]
Symphony No. 4 Op. 43 (1966 rev. 1978-1979) [37:53]
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (sy 1, rondo), Albert Rosen (sy 2, overture, Edward Downes (sy 3), Maurice Handford (sy 4)
Originally broadcast by the BBC in September and October 1980. LYRITA REAM.2136 [77:51 + 73:34]
The debt lovers of British music owe to Lyrita and its founder Richard Itter is well documented. The studio recordings still often lead the field in terms of technical and musical excellence. To my mind, the appearance of the “Itter Broadcast Collection” has functioned as an appendix to the central catalogue. The value of the repertoire and the performances which Itter captured in these off-air recordings are not in doubt, but—with the earlier recordings especially—technical limitations mean that they should be regarded as historical rather than mainstream releases.
However, this two-disc set of Peter Racine Fricker’s first four symphonies blurs the divide between recordings of archival value and simple excellence. All these performances derive from a series of seven broadcasts collected under the title “Fricker in Retrospect” recorded and transmitted by the BBC in 1980 as part of a celebration of Fricker’s 60th birthday. Yes, the listener does need to accept a reasonable amount of continual hiss—mainly the stereo carrier wave, I imagine—and there are a couple of moments across the two discs where the sound “crumbles” briefly. Indeed, there is a note on the liner that the close of the 2nd movement of the First Symphony suffers from tape damage, but this is passing and minor. Essentially, these are two very well-filled discs of impressive music performed with considerable skill and conviction. In 1980 this might have been termed Fricker in retrospect, today perhaps Fricker reassessed would be a more apt title.
With all the gaps in obscure repertoire that have been filled in the last thirty and more years of the CD, Fricker’s music has stayed stubbornly under-represented. Some chamber works have had modern recordings but the orchestral works are all but invisible. I had a long-lost LP on RCA of the 1st Symphony, but I have to say in all honesty I have little clear recollection of either piece or performance. As part of their “British Composers Series”, EMI released the 2nd Symphony’s premiere recording from the early 1950s with John Pritchard conducting the [then] Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It has to be said that Pritchard’s performance is nowhere near as impressive as the studio recording offered here, either in terms of orchestral playing or recording.
In part, the “blame” for the neglect must rest with the composer. For many years after his initial break-through into the British contemporary music scene after World War II, and despite seeming to be one of the leading voices in post-War British symphonic writing, once he based himself on the West Coast of America, he seemed to set himself apart from the mainstream of British music. Allied to this of course was the move in the 1960s to dismiss the worth and value of music perceived to being written in “traditional” forms. Infamously, William Glock, while in charge of the same BBC that in 1980 could produce this retrospective, sought to promote a style of contemporary music that superficially at least seemed more overtly modern than Fricker’s. Indeed, one imagines that Fricker might well have encapsulated everything Glock was seeking to replace. Even as basically a sympathetic reviewer as Peter J. Pirie would write in his single entry about Fricker in his 1979 survey The English Musical Renaissance [publ. Gollancz]: “his music has personality and colour, and is by no means as limited as that of the typical Cheltenham Symphonist”. That is the type of comment for which the phrase damn with faint praise was written. “Cheltenham Symphonist” is one of those signpost short-hands which is hard to tie down as exactly what it means—but you know it is not good! More to the point, many critics never heard or studied the scores so easily consigned to the Cheltenham dustbin.
Which is why this set is of such value. The point is that Fricker’s music is not instantly accessible or easy to assimilate. After two or three fairly concentrated listens—the first with limited pleasure, I have to say—I am beginning to appreciate the strength and consistent quality of this group of works. The four symphonies [No. 5 has already been released on another Itter collection / Lyrita release] span roughly thirty years from No. 1 in 1948-1949 to the final revision of No. 4 in 1978-1979. For sure, over that time span Fricker’s handling of the orchestra and the musical material becomes terser, more precise and ever more convincing. However, Fricker never seeks glamour either in the actual sounds he generates from his orchestra or in terms of the material he gives them to play. Take his use of percussion: never excessive, rarely dramatic but simply a way to underscore rhythmic cells. Interestingly, his first symphony is also the one with the largest orchestration, and I think it is the least successful of the four. This is uncompromisingly serious music—possibly self-consciously so. Personally, I have no problem with music that chooses to be serious or whimsical. The only observation I would make is that the expressive palette is limited if the mode of expression is centred on one extreme or another. At a stroke, irony or ambiguity for example are removed—facets which have provided rich seams of inspiration for 20th Century composers in particular.
The discs are logically laid out in chronological order, with the early 1948 Rondo Scherzoso opening disc one, followed by the first two symphonies. The brief but appealing Comedy Overture from 1952 acts on the second disc as the curtain-raiser to the third and fourth symphonies. The only possible problem with this layout is that the Rondo is by some way the least impressive piece in the set, and Symphony No. 1 the least impressive of the four symphonies offered here. For sure, Symphony No. 1 is a rugged and often earnest work and a considerable achievement for a composer in his late twenties, but better was to come. Barely a year later, in 1950, the 2nd Symphony was commenced. It shows a substantial progression by the composer in nearly every respect. Fricker’s natural terseness of expression becomes a strength. At just under the half-hour mark, this work has focussed and compact power. Paul Conway expresses this ideally in his notes; “[the symphony is full of…] outstanding rhythmic energy which drives the music forward inexorably”. Conway also references contemporary reviews which placed the work high not just in the composer’s canon but as “outstanding among the many symphonies produced by English composers since the War”.
This might have well been true at the time of writing, but I think that was trumped by the 3rd Symphony. For me it is the finest of Fricker’s works in this form. Interestingly—perhaps in defiance of the Glock-led denigration of “traditional” forms—this is the most overtly traditional of the Fricker’s symphonies. He uses a four-movement form, with the slow movement second, and an orchestra that would not have phased Brahms. Conway, surely rightly, sees this as a statement of intent by Fricker if only to show that it was possible to write music with relevance for an audience in the here and now using resources of the nominal past. Even in this traditional form Fricker cannot resist some structural quirks. Here the finale is a palindrome, although I have to say I am not sure I would have realised this unless it had said so in the notes. Writing about the 4th Symphony, in part a tribute for his friend and teacher Mátyás Seiber, Fricker wrote that it could be regarded as “a protest, an outburst, a tribute and an oration”. At just under thirty-eight minutes and written in one continuous movement, this is a demanding work for both listeners and players. Perhaps Lyrita missed a trick here, choosing to present it as a single-CD track whereas for the uninitiated such as myself, separating out the sections outlined by Conway would have helped me learn the work.
Part of that learning process is a quite natural, almost unconscious, attempt to categorise the music by playing the “sounds-like” game. Well, I have to say Fricker really does not sound like any of his contemporaries, relatively well-known or not. Certainly, he does not use the orchestra with as much overt colour as, say, Benjamin Frankel, another composer who was attracted by the potential of atonal music. Conway mentions the energy of Robert Simpson symphonies as a comparison, but I cannot hear that as more than a passing coincidence. He avoids the emotional ambiguity of Arnold or the more obvious appeal of Rawsthorne or Arnell, or the neo-Romanticism of Alan Bush, or the more overt modernism of a Searle. He is something of all of those and nothing. Indeed, the more I listen, for good or ill it becomes clear that he was very much his own man, and a composer who at his best could write with compelling intensity.
In this set of broadcasts, the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra are the hard-working and impressive ensemble. Yes, there are a couple of minor blips in ensemble, and the very occasional split note, but the overall standard is very good. More important, the sense of engagement with the actual music is palpable. Each symphony is directed by a different conductor, with Bryden Thomson and Edward Downes stalwarts of the orchestra who went onto wider fame once the BBC allowed their ensembles to be commercially recorded. The BBC engineering of the time is also pleasingly and unfussily good. The stereo spread of the orchestra is wide with a neutral sound-stage (old broadcasting house in Manchester, one assumes, since no details are given). For those unsure whether Fricker is their cup of tea, all these performances can be streamed—illegally posted one assumes in terms of copyright—on YouTube. Aside from any copyright concerns, these Itter/Lyrita transfers are superior to the low bit-rate stream, and so the obvious choice for a collector. Indeed, Fricker has a rather good YouTube presence. The post-Glock BBC also rather redeem themselves with a series of recordings, including a very fine Symphony 3 with Barry Wordsworth and the BBC NSO now in Philharmonic form. While the 1980 broadcast preserved here is very good, I have to say that Wordsworth is even more dynamic. He had produced a performance which reinforces my opinion that No. 3 is the high point of this cycle.
For this set, Paul Conway’s liner notes are both invaluable and informative. With Fricker, there are very few sources of information of any kind, so Conway is a vital guide. Indeed, as so often with his notes, Conway proves to be one of the most consistently impressive writers working in this field today. As Lyrita has shown repeatedly over the years with various composers and their works, this is music that deserves multiple hearings and the chance through repeated listening to be appreciated in its own right. With other composers, releases from this source have filled important gaps in our knowledge of their work; I am thinking about George Lloyd or even Daniel Jones here. This set brings before the listening public two well-filled discs of music by a composer otherwise little heard at all. Hence, for me this is the most significant and valuable release yet in the already cherished mining of the Itter broadcast collection, and one that should be snapped up by all admirers of British symphonic music in the 20th century.
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