FRANKEL: Symphonies: No. 1, op. 33; No. 5, op. 46. Overture, “May Day,” op. 22.

by Walter Simmons



FRANKEL: Symphonies: No. 1, op. 33; No. 5, op. 46. Overture, “May Day,” op. 22.Werner Andreas Albert conducting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra Brisbane. CPO 999 240-2 [DDD]; 53:24. Produced by Stephen Snelleman.

Benjamin Frankel (1906-1973) was an English composer, primarily known for his film music (e.g., Battle of the Bulge, Night of the Iguana, Man in the White Suit, The Seventh Veil — more than a hundred in all), but whose concert music has enjoyed a more limited, though devoted, following. He turned his attention to serious orchestral scores primarily in his later years, completing eight symphonies during the last 15 years of his life, while suffering from a serious and ultimately fatal heart condition. Although Frankel’s concert music drew attention in England and Germany, it was infrequently heard elsewhere. Now cpo appears to have embarked on a project to record the symphonies.

In his mature orchestral works, Frankel used his own application of 12-tone procedures. However, as was the case with Frank Martin, the musical results ventured so far from the aesthetic sensibilities of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, not to mention their serialist progeny, that the value of using the term “12-tone,” red flag that it is, is questionable. Besides, so many composers who would never dream of associating themselves with “serial music” have based their works on 12-tone material — consciously or unconsciously — that the use of the term is often more a statement of musical politics than of musical style. In any case, for whatever reason — perhaps to give himself intellectual respectability after having trafficked in the world of commercial music — Frankel apparently drew attention to this aspect of his compositional approach. But the wary listener need not worry, as the resulting music has a fluency and urbanity reminiscent of such contemporaneous compatriots as Walton and Alwyn, tinged at times with a Mahlerian poignancy and tenderness.

Symphony No. 1 (1958) is the more severe of the two offered on this disc. Its atonality, within a generally linear/contrapuntal textural framework, does create a grey anonymity of character somewhat reminiscent of the mature work of David Diamond. However, Frankel’s phraseology is smoother and more natural, his textures more transparent, and his orchestration more varied. These qualities help to hold the listener’s interest and invite rehearings

By 1967, Frankel had completed four more symphonies. The Fifth is quite a bit lighter and more relaxed than the First, its Mahlerian and Waltonian affinities much closer to the surface. Its stimulating progression of ideas, high rate of activity, and imaginative orchestration are quite engaging, and it even culminates in a Hollywood-style finish. But despite these qualities, shaped with effortless and graceful craftsmanship, the work lacks the strong melodic sweep and sense of drama that might otherwise lend it a broad popular appeal.

“May Day” Overture dates from 1948, when Frankel was still working actively as a film composer. This is a thoroughly tonal, generally high-spirited and celebratory work, though not without a vein of tenderness.  Despite its light-hearted character, however, it is a work of some substance, with the same bustling animation found in the Fifth Symphony, though more direct in its impact.

The performances are adequate, and the program notes are detailed and highly informative. I encourage listeners who enjoy composers like Walton and Alwyn to try out Frankel’s music.