Peter Racine Fricker: Symphonies Nos. 1-4

‘For me music is as exciting as a sporting event. I wish that … critics and public could get as worked up about new music as they do about football and cricket’. This cri de coeur from composer Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) captures the passion and conviction with which he approached his craft.

Fricker was born on 5 September 1920 in Ealing, London. He was educated at St. Paul’s School, London and entered the Royal College of Music in 1937. Upon demobilisation he resumed formal composition lessons with the Hungarian émigré composer Mátyás Seiber, who had lived in England since 1935. In 1952 he was appointed musical director of Morley College (succeeding Michael Tippett) and held this post for the next 12 years. During this period he was also a Professor of Composition at the RCM.

Fricker was the first British composer to make his reputation entirely after World War II. Among the first composers in Britain to be influenced by the music of Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Fricker assimilated aspects of their very different styles into a distinctive voice of his own. He proceeded to build an impressive body of work in his highly expressive, urbane and freely atonal language. Paul Conway

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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. 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.

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.

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. 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. Nick Barnard, MisicWeb-International

Lyrita follows up its useful pairing (4/16) of Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio The Vision of Judgment (1958) and Fifth Symphony (1975) with this simulating release containing the composer’s remaining four numbered symphonies. All are works of substance and conviction presented here in stereo broadcasts featuring the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now BBC Philharmonic), which in turn emanate from a seven-part series transmitted during the autumn of 1980 to mark Fricker’s 60th birthday.

Brydon Thomas secures a first-class account of the Koussevitzky Prize-winning First Symphony (1948-49), a four-movement edifice of striking accomplishment, imaginative sweep and genuine staying power, premiered under John Barbirolli at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival and subsequently taken up by (among others) Hermann Scherchen and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. Its scarcely less meaty successor from 1950-51 (which boasts an equally eloquent Andante centrepiece) was commissioned for the Festival of Britain at the behest of the City of Liverpool.

Hugo Rignold and the RLPO gave the first performance in July 1951 and the same band went on to make a fine recording of it with John Pritchard in 1954 (originally issued by HMV on a 10-inch LP, it was last available on British Composers, 1/03-nla)

Albert Rosen presides over a lucid rendering which makes up for in spirit what it may occasionally lack in polish. Completed in 1960, the Third Symphony impresses by dint of its sinewy logic, uncompromising integrity and gravity of discourse; suffice to say Edward Downes does it absolutely proud. Begun in 1964 and finished two years later, the Fourth runs for nearly 38 minutes and comprises 10 interlinked sections with a deeply felt Adagio elegiaco at its heart. By turns angry, tender, sombre and intimate, this notably ambitious, shrewdly plotted canvas bears a dedication to the memory of Fricker’s teacher and good friend Mátyás Seiber who perished in a car crash aged only 55, and whose masterly Third String Quartet of 1951 is quoted towards the end of the symphony. The composer made some revisions prior to the present performance under Maurice Handford’s conscientious baton. Also included are the Rondo scherzoso and Comedy Overture from 1948 and 1958 respectively (most enjoyable discoveries, both) boosting the playing time to in excess of two and half hours.

There’s an erroneous cue in the First Symphony, whose third movement (‘Tableau and Dance@) spills over into the following track (the finale itself actually begins at 3’09”); otherwise, the detailed presentation is all one could desire and Richard Itter’s domestic tapes have come up admirably. Make no mistake, there’s some intriguing and rewarding repertoire on this brave Lyrita anthology

Andrew Achenbach

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