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Gerhard FROMMEL (1906-1984)
Symphony No.1 in E major Op.13 (1938) [42:04]
Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra Op.23 (1943) [15:17]
Jena Philharmonic Orchestra/Jürgen Bruns
rec. Volkhaus, Jena, Germany, 2017
CAPRICCIO C5338 [57:21]

The liner for this new disc of works by Gerhard Frommel grasps the politico/musical nettle from the outset. It describes how Frommel became a member of the Nazi Party in 1933 very soon after it came to power from which it is hard not to assume he had sympathies for the ideology at the very least rather than the expedience which caused others to join in the years that followed. So although the liner says that Frommel "in no way complied with racist policies during these years" for some listeners no doubt this political association will place his music beyond the pale.

From a purely musical perspective his music is clearly 'nationalistic' in the sense that it draws upon a musical language and handling of form that is explicitly Germanic. So in the same way many British early 20th Century composers seemed drawn towards a "Vision of Albion" style, German composers emulated the heroic late Romantics such as Wagner and Bruckner and even his own teacher Hans Pfitzner. Labels such as CPO and Capriccio have done an extraordinary job unearthing and rehabilitating a huge number of Austro/German composers with a similar musical and philosophical outlook, a list to which must now be added Frommel's name. But does his music as music alone match up to those other forgotten 'masters' such as Paul Graener, Siegmund von Hausegger or Felix Weingartner let alone more famed contemporaries from Korngold to Zemlinsky or Reznicek?

By the measure of any of those composers mentioned above I would say Frommel is not their equal on the evidence of the two works here. The 1938 Symphony - which had to wait for a premiere until a repertoire-starved Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler played it in 1942 - is in three substantial movements. The opening Moderato Maestoso is indebted to Bruckner, a fact both the liner and a quote from the composer makes clear. The influence does not descend into pastiche but it is unmistakeably "Brucknerian" albeit with a post-Romantic 20th Century tonal palette - right from the opening unison horn led gesture over tremolo strings. The actual handling of the orchestra and the instrumental demands are little if anything that a 19th Century composer would not recognise and in many ways therein lies my disappointment. Harmonically he echoes phrases using key relations that would have disconcerted an earlier composer but once the ear grows accustomed to this it all becomes rather predictable.

Part of the problem too is that this performance by the hard-working Jena Philharmonic Orchestra taken from a live concert is good without being exceptional. The previous review I wrote had me listening to the Weimar Staatskapelle playing Richard Strauss and the sophistication of the playing and engineering on that disc added substantially to the pleasure of the listening experience. Here there is a nagging doubt that the orchestra is able to make the best of this music. This really does need to sweep effortlessly forward riding waves of burnished orchestral tone. Instead I am just aware of the effort that is going into the performance. The single live recorded date given implies that this was a one-off event without the series of patchable concerts that typify many concert recordings these days. That said there is no audience noise audible (or applause) at all.

Conductor Jürgen Bruns is described in the liner as being "renowned for his performances and recordings of re-discovered compositions of classical modernism and ostracised music of the early 20th century." My sense is that this is an enthusiastic but not particularly subtle or nuanced interpretation of the score and that this sense of generalisation has impacted on the playing too. There is energy and dynamism when required but a lack of poise. By no means is the playing here scrappy or lacking in skill but conversely it wants for interpretive precision. The central scherzo and trio is considerably more individual and interesting than the opening movement. In the framing scherzo sections Frommel maintains a drivingly persistent energy that has a unrelenting determination about it - no light- hearted or quicksilver change of mood here . Even the central trio does little to lighten the mood. Given his tutoring by Pfitzner, and with a distinct nod towards Reger, Frommel's confident handling of complex contrapuntal writing should come as no surprise. The reprise of the scherzo ends with a solo resonating gong in the style of Rachmaninov at the end of his Symphonic Dances. The closing Largo-Allegro opens with slow glowering gestures from brass and strings - again the lack of complete unity and tonal allure in the strings slightly undermines this passage - with the tempo slowly building towards the allegro proper. By the 12:30 mark the music has built to a powerful - but here rather chaotic climax - I am not sure it is meant to sound quite as scrappy as it does in this performance. This suddenly changes for the last two minutes of the work into something more overtly celebratory leading towards an explicitly positive conclusion. Normally I find myself responding more positively to this style of music than I have here so I am at something of a loss to explain my relative sense of being underwhelmed - perhaps a different performance would prove more revelatory.

The other work on the disc also comes from the War years and is called rather baldly Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra. In an autobiographical note Frommel wrote that the work is derived from ".. expressions of the feelings of shock and anxiety caused by the tragedy of Stalingrad." If one is being cynical I wonder if Frommel's shock and anxiety took into account the tragedy inflicted on the millions of Russians by the invasion of their country by the German armed forces. For once I do find it hard to separate the music from its point of 'inspiration'. So whether that is why I find this a hard piece to engage with I am not sure. Trying to be objective I do not find the actual musical material to be that interesting or the way in which it is subsequently handled to be that impressive. There is a cinematic stormy drama allied to a driving nervous energy but probably fuelled by the context it sounds to me rather hollow and indeed generic. What I do not hear at all is the "melodic imagination and very especially the colourful orchestration" the liner references. Indeed, by mid 1940's standards I would say the orchestration is rather predictable if not monochrome. The performance is again decent without being inspired - by the highest modern standards it is a fraction scrappy.

Listening to this disc has prompted within me the debate about if, how or when Art and Politics should be considered separate entities and do I apply the same criteria to all artists and all their works. I am perfectly aware that there are other works by composers who held more explicitly dubious views that I listen to and enjoy with little or none of the dilemma I feel here. So perhaps I am being something of a hypocrite with a sliding scale of musical 'worth' versus morality, or simply the music here is not that good.

Others may find more to enjoy than I.

Nick Barnard


 




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