Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Rondo Scherzoso (1947)

A few days ago, I posted about Peter Racine Fricker’s Comedy Overture. This entertaining work has been included on the new Lyrita CD (REAM.2136) featuring the composer’s Symphonies 1-4.  Also introduced is the early Rondo Scherzoso which was written in 1947, when Fricker was still studying with Mátyás Seiber.
Paul Conway explains in the CD’s liner notes that, before tackling his Symphony No.1, Fricker wrote two symphonic movements as a kind of preparatory exercise: An ‘Adagio’ for orchestra (1946) and the present Rondo Scherzoso.  Both works remain in manuscript. They were first performed at a Committee for the Promotion of New Music concert on 1 October 1948. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Mosco Carner. I was unable to locate any contemporary reviews of the event.

Fricker had a reputation of being somewhat of a radical. His music moved away from the predominant style of the period, exemplified by Ralph Vaughan Williams and absorbed the ethos of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  Nevertheless, in his first 20 or so years (1943-66) as a professional composer, he often utilised traditional forms.

The Rondo Scherzoso is a vibrant, extrovert work that exploits Fricker’s appreciation of contrapuntal devices, such as canon, fugato and imitation, as well as his predilection towards the ‘inventive use’ of the Rondo form. For example, each movement of the Symphony No.2 consists of three highly-developed and sophisticated rondos.  
The rondo form is usually based on a principal theme played several times and interspersed with two or more contrasting episodes. In the present work the dynamic and jaunty ‘refrain’ is followed by two episodes of reflective music. The work concludes with a ‘martial’ version of the principal theme.  
In his discussion of the Rondo, Paul Conway has highlighted ‘the wind solos and judicious use of modest percussion [that] proves…the composer’s subtle and effective approach to orchestration was present at the very outset of his professional career.’  

On the Lyrita double CD, the Rondo Scherzoso is played by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. It was broadcast on 12 September 1980 on BBC Radio Three as a part of the Fricker’s 60th birthday celebrations. Other works in this studio concert included the Violin Concerto No.1 (1949/40) and the Symphony No.1 (1949/50).

Nick Bernard, reviewing the Lyrita CD for MusicWeb International (October 2017) was not convinced by the Rondo. He writes: ‘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 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.’

I disagree with him about the Rondo being ‘the least impressive piece...’ I find that it is a vivacious, sometimes thought-provoking and well-constructed work that could convincingly open the proceedings at any orchestral concert. It makes a great and approachable introduction to Peter Racine Fricker’s music. The work displays much humour that matches roughly contemporary music by (for example) Malcolm Arnold, even if it is more astringent. Finally, it would be encouraging if some orchestra could dust down the manuscripts of the 1946 ‘Adagio’ companion piece and the Symphonietta for Orchestra (1946/1947) and give them an airing (and possible recording). It would mean that listeners would have the cluster of early orchestral works that surrounded the impressive First Symphony. 

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