Review by Ken Meltzer, Interview by Colin Clarke
BRINCKEN Symphony No. 4. Capriccio for Piano and Chamber Orchestra 1 • Rainer Held, cond; 1 Alexander Brincken (pn); Royal Scottish Natl O • TOCCATA 0550 (74:42)
A new release on the Toccata Classics label, listed as Volume One of the orchestral music of Alexander Brincken, includes his Fourth Symphony and Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Brincken was born in Leningrad in 1952, educated at the Leningrad Conservatory, and since 1992 has resided in Switzerland. In an autobiographical essay included with this release, Brincken explains how his education and concert experiences in Leningrad inspired him to gravitate toward the “Austro-German late-Romantic style.” A concert pianist, organist, and composer, Brincken counts his five symphonies as central to his orchestral output. Brincken cites the influence of Bruckner, and to a lesser degree, Mahler, in his first two symphonies, composed between 1971 and 1989. In his Third (1992–98) and Fourth (2014–15) Symphonies, Brincken sought to “free myself from the four-movement sonata-form model…. Compared to the first two symphonies, the Third and Fourth have a considerably more astringent musical language, extending to polytonality and atonality. The underlying style nonetheless remains late-Romantic, though tinged with expressionist touches.”
This is my first exposure to the music of Alexander Brincken. A review of the Fanfare Archive reveals no previous reviews of recordings of his works. Based upon the music contained in this release, and in particular the Fourth Symphony, Alexander Brincken impresses as a composer of considerable gifts, whose works should appeal greatly to fans of such composers as Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Franz Schmidt.
In the Fourth Symphony the overarching influence of Bruckner is quite profound. The work, lasting about 54 minutes, is scored for a very large orchestra (five flutes, four oboes, five clarinets, four bassoons, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, six percussionists, piano, two harps, and strings). The symphony’s expansive opening episode features the winds’ introduction of an angular theme that, in true Brucknerian fashion, emerges from the mists to be repeated and developed, all while building to a grand climax (although Brincken does not make a point of this in his program notes for the Fourth Symphony, it seems to me that the woodwind theme plays a seminal role throughout all four movements). A quicksilver theme ensues, reminiscent of the later symphonies of Sibelius. The slow-tempo second movement, in A–B–A form, was inspired by a summer boat trip along Lake Lucerne, bathed in glorious sunshine. Brincken portrays this transcendent experience with a radiant E♭ horn melody, surrounded by the glow of the supporting orchestra. The movement’s central portion features a wind chorale that again reminds me of Sibelius (Brincken posits that various Russian influences may have provided unconscious inspiration). The ensuing Scherzo has an irrepressible momentum and sardonic character that bring to mind corresponding movements by such composers as Mahler, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. The finale continues the inexorable journey, with a perpetuum mobile figure that makes its presence known throughout. At the close of the symphony, a variation of the work’s opening wind motif returns; not as an apotheosis in the style of Bruckner, but defiantly, with “two angry ‘cracks of the whip’, as if to say: ‘I’m not giving up! I’ll fight on!’” Despite Brincken’s observation that the Fourth Symphony explores the worlds of polytonality and atonality, I heard it as a decidedly tonal work. It is also a symphony that features captivating themes and melodies, rich and gorgeous orchestration, and a willingness to take its time that in their very different ways, both Bruckner and Mahler explored and celebrated. I found this symphony to be a compelling and fulfilling experience from start to finish. And if composers like Bruckner and Schmidt are your cup of tea, I think you will as well.
Brincken composed his Capriccio for Piano and Chamber Orchestra in 1985 “at what was a particularly difficult time for me … [this] had a considerable influence on the conceptual content and emotional atmosphere of the work. It is typified by an elegiac, at times dark, tonal palette, allied to the deliberate use of drama and idiosyncratic, sometimes bizarrely capricious, irony.” Here, the harmonic world is far more aligned with the more avant-garde composers of the early 20th century (with Bartók frequently coming to mind). The piano writing often explores thick chordal textures. Brincken himself is the soloist in a work he composed for his own performance. I was not as convinced by the Capriccio as the Fourth Symphony, but that may well be the result of my own musical preferences.
The performances of both works are certainly fine enough to give you a strong sense of Brincken’s talents and accomplishments. Conductor Rainer Held paces the music well and with an unerring sense of momentum. For the most part, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (an excellent ensemble) plays well, albeit with occasionally wiry string tone. I did get the impression that perhaps a bit more time and experience with these scores would have benefitted the performers, both in terms of tautness of ensemble, and relishing Brincken’s orchestral colors. But I am grateful to the artists for making this recording, and providing such strong advocacy for this worthy music. The recorded sound is clear and full-bodied, but lacking the ideal stage depth and concert hall ambience (which may have had an impact on the string tone as reproduced). Recommended to Brucknerites and their friends. Ken Meltzer
The Spellbinding Music of Alexander Brincken: The Composer Speaks
By Colin Clarke
The arrival of the first volume of orchestral music by Alexander Brincken on Toccata Classics introduces a composer of Romantic sensibilities and remarkable emotional depth. It is good, then, that we have the opportunity to talk in depth about the disc’s contents (the Fourth Symphony and the Capriccio for Piano and Chamber Orchestra), and to explore Brincken’s background.
This is Volume 1 of orchestral music, so I’m imaging there are more to come. Can you give us an idea of how many volumes there are for example? And will we hear all of the symphonies?
You are right. The name “Volume I” is the idea of the conductor Rainer Held. He is so enthusiastic about my symphonies (he knows some of them from the scores because there are no recordings) that he would like to record more volumes. In particular, he has the First and Third Symphonies in mind. In principle, there should be five volumes in total: all of my five symphonies, one per disc. The problem is the financing of the recordings and their production. The production costs of the present compact disc were covered by me and my wife from our own funds, and the sum involved was impressive. Of the few sponsors we were able to find, we only got about a tenth of the sum back, and that only after the CD was released. We lack the money for a following volume unless we find sponsors who are willing to pay to cover the total costs of the next CD completely, and that in advance.
You speak in the liner notes of your formative experiences in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)—could you give a précis of these for the interested reader? I’m particularly interested in the music you were drawn to, and that significant visit by the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan.
I created my op. 1 in 1968–69; that was the String Sextet in D Minor. Later, in 1999 in Switzerland, I revised this early work and recomposed it to a considerable extent. Here I continued the chamber music tradition of the Russian composers of the “old school” (Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Rachmaninoff), though already strongly enriched with some neo-Baroque elements of the Western European tradition. At that time, at the end of the 1960s, I had two shattering concert experiences: guest performances by Karl Richter with his Munich Bach Ensemble (Bach’s Mass in B Minor), and Herbert von Karajan in Beethoven (including Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6). I knew these works of Beethoven earlier, but the way they were interpreted by Karajan’s fabulous orchestra took my breath away, as did the magnificent performance of the Mass in B Minor, which I had never heard before. These musical experiences of the highest level only strengthened my Germanophile orientation. At the same time, my intensive engagement with the symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss (symphonic poems), Reger (orchestral variations), and Hindemith began. My acquaintance with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the legendary London recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler was unforgettable. On the threshold of the 1970s I also made my acquaintance with the music of the New Viennese School—the string sextet Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg, Webern’s Passacaglia, op. 1, and Berg’s Violin Concerto made a special impression on me. During this time, my experiments with floating tonality up to atonality were carried out, which found expression in my two string quartets, the Variations for Viola and Piano, the Pieces for chamber orchestra, and the Rilke songs for soprano and piano. In 1975 I created the Dramatic Poem for large orchestra, which was obviously inspired by Berg and Hindemith. Before that I composed my Quartet for Flute, Trumpet, Violin, and Piano, which later won an award in Dresden, where I experimented with polytonality as well as 12-tone technique.
Nevertheless, despite all my interest in the Expressionist musical language of late Mahler and the New Viennese, the main thread of German-Austrian late Romanticism remained with me, and thus my adherence to late Romantic harmony with all its richness and complexity. In addition, I also had a preference for pre-revolutionary Russian musical Romantics—Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. This was true above all in my compositional development during the last years of my studies at the Special Music School of the Leningrad Conservatory / Music Academy (1968–71). When I now began my studies at the same Conservatory (1971–76), a difficult time began for me. Unlike my liberal composition teacher at the Music School, Sergei Wolfensohn (1903–1992), my first composition professor at the Leningrad Conservatory, Orest Yevlakhov (1912–1973), proved to be stubbornly dogmatic and rigorous. He was a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich and a faithful advocate of the Soviet musical style, shaped by his idols Prokofiev and Shostakovich. For him, my late Romantic taste in music was synonymous with a retrograde current of “old-fashioned” and “historically outdated” Russian composers of the type of Medtner, Glazunov, and Rachmaninoff. This old Russian tradition apparently also aroused Soviet-style class hatred in him, as being a product of the noble and thus “mimosa-like” and “effeminate” pre-revolutionary Russian culture. He had no great idea about the German-Austrian late Romanticism and early Modernism; music by Schoenberg and Berg was for him “murky dregs.” This aversion on the part of Soviet composers to musical Romanticism (Shostakovich, as is well known, detested music by Tchaikovsky and Scriabin) and especially German Romanticism (he also detested Wagner, even though he paradoxically quoted the motif of fate from Götterdämmerung in his late 15th Symphony) was very characteristic, especially for the Leningrad school of composers until the end of the 1970s. So I had the misfortune to study at the Leningrad Conservatory during this anti-Romantic period. That is why I was only able to continue working on my First Symphony, which I had begun in the last year of my studies at the music school in the spring of 1971, secretly and sporadically during my time at the Conservatory. It could not be revealed to the eye of the aforementioned composition professor Yevlakhov and his like-minded colleagues (among them, in particular, the composer and composition professor, the militant anti-Romantic Vadim Salmanov, 1912–1978). This hostile and contemptuous treatment by Yevlakhov and Salmanov caused me to undergo a deep psychological crisis—even to have suicidal thoughts. But the good Lord did not want me to die so early. In December 1973 Professor Yevlakhov died and I joined the composition class of Professor Sergei Slonimsky (1932–2020, nephew of the well-known U.S. musicologist and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky, 1894–1995). There I breathed a sigh of relief! Unlike Yevlakhov, Sergei Slonimsky proved to be a very educated musician with a broad musical horizon. And subsequently I graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory in 1976 as the best student of composition and was accepted into the Union of Composers of the USSR in 1977.
Your doctoral dissertation was on late Brahms—do you feel you have absorbed some of his processes into the way you yourself work with your materials?
Parallel to my composition studies, I pursued musicological studies with Professor Mikhail Druskin (1905–1991), which culminated in my doctoral dissertation on the late works of Johannes Brahms (1980). These studies have certainly developed my musical-analytical skills and, in the field of compositional technique, have especially increased and perfected my mastery of motivic work. Intensive study of Brahms’s music has also had a significant influence on my compositional style in general.
Do you feel you had to battle to get your music heard? Did you feel you were going against the crowd in the music you were writing?
Yes, I have been struggling all my life to assert my works, both on a stylistic level—because they don’t fit into the clichés of modern compositional work—and on the level of public perception—it is very difficult nowadays to achieve a breakthrough as a composer, even if one is already able to present a whole series of great works. To mention just two examples: My Second Symphony (1984–89) has been waiting for its premiere for more than 30 years, and my full-length ballet The Snow Queen (2002–05) for 15 years.
And now you live by choice in Switzerland. What was the appeal of that territory?
The choice of Switzerland as my new home was based on the circumstances of my private life: In 1992, I got to know my present wife, German-Swiss organist and choir director Margrit Brincken, a native of Schuler, at her organ recital in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, this twist of fate was somehow logical, because it was predestined by the Germanophile orientation of my artistic taste. I must also confess that Switzerland, even before this acquaintance, exerted a great fascination on me, especially its magnificent Alpine world.
This is your Fourth Symphony, your first dating from 1971; I believe there are five in total so far. What draws you to the form of the symphony? Although you say you distanced yourself somewhat from Soviet composers, the symphony has always been very important to Russians as a means of expression, hasn’t it?
You are right: The genre of the symphony attracts me, especially because of its almost unlimited possibilities of presenting great content and feelings in a form that is tonally impressive and technically refined, offering great freedom. The paradox of my attraction to the symphonic genre and my aversion to Soviet symphonic music can be explained by my aversion to Soviet aesthetics in general. I am an advocate of the late Romantic aesthetic, and it is in stark contrast to the Soviet aesthetic. For me, the musical style of a Prokofiev or a Shostakovich is far too vulgar and coarse. Compared with their musical vulgarity and coarseness, Mahler’s vulgarisms seem to me to be noble and exquisite. In Soviet music I also abhor the ideological overload. You are right: Soviet composers, above all Shostakovich, were able to express great and deep musical content. But the way they did it meets with my aesthetic rejection. I also detest the general attitude of the Soviet composers, especially their godlessness. In contrast, I like the non-Soviet but genuine Russian symphony composers—Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Scriabin, and especially Rachmaninoff—very much because they suit my aristocratic taste. As a Russian emigrant, living on the beautiful Lake Lucerne, I feel somehow additionally and intimately connected to Rachmaninoff, my favorite among all Russian composers. As you know, he lived in Hertenstein on the same lake in the 1930s, where he composed two of his last masterpieces—the Paganini Rhapsody and the Third Symphony. I composed my Third to Fifth Symphonies in this area too!
Your harmonic language is broadly tonal, but contains passages of atonality, would that be fair to say?
Yes: My harmonics are largely tonal, but sometimes contain passages of atonality, and also elements of “floating tonality” and polytonality.
I hear a distinct lyric streak to your music—melody seems very important to you, as does the creation of an evocative atmosphere. I hear that very clearly particularly in the first two movements of the Fourth Symphony.
You are also right in emphasizing the great importance of the melodic aspect for me as a means of creating a deeply inspired musical atmosphere.
There’s a huge horn solo in the Adagio of the Fourth. It seems to go on forever! Is this a tribute in some way to the importance of that instrument in Bruckner and Mahler? And it came to you on a boat trip in Lake Lucerne (I’m reminded of Mendelssohn and Fingal’s Cave). You also state there’s a reference here to Rimsky’s “Invisible City.”
The sweeping and expressive horn solo of the Adagio of my Fourth Symphony has certain models in Bruckner and Mahler, you are right! This is also generally rooted in the musical aesthetics of German Romanticism. To the names mentioned, one can rightly add the following: Weber, Wagner, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. This horn theme really did come to me during a summer boat trip on Lake Lucerne, inspired by the incredibly beautiful image of this lake, framed by imposing mountains of primeval Switzerland. As far as a certain affinity with some mystical episodes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous opera Kitezh is concerned, however, it occurs in the middle section of the symphony’s Adagio, with its partly mysterious, partly solemnly opulent wind chorale. I was not aware of this relationship during the composition, but I came to it much later, in retrospect, when I listened to the sound track of the computer-written score.
The grotesqueries of the Scherzo seem to come from a post-Mahlerian aesthetic, while the last movement seems the most all-embracing with its references to jazz and rock rhythms. But it also contains some very broad passages.
You are also right in your perception of the grotesqueness of the scherzo of the Fourth Symphony: It certainly has many models in Mahler, except for the final movement—the echoes of jazz and rock rhythms would be unthinkable in Mahler. This proves that my music is that of a modern composer.
It’s written in masterly fashion—I particularly enjoy your way with the woodwind, so light and almost Mendelssohnian (the last movement of the symphony for example). Did you study orchestration as a specific subject? If so with who, and did they influence the way you score your music?
Concerning my art of orchestration: Although we composition students at the Leningrad Conservatory had to complete special subjects score reading, instrumental studies, and orchestration, I acquired my mastery of orchestration almost exclusively autodidactically, mainly by studying the scores of such masters of this art as Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss, but also Debussy, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff, to name but a few great names.
I loved the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. It is wonderful you are the soloist in this too! Can you tell me a bit about your piano studies?
I first studied piano at the aforementioned Leningrad Elite Music School—11 years at the Music Academy of the Leningrad Conservatory (1960–71, with Marina Wolf), in the last years 1970–71 I played the Second and the Third Piano Concertos by Rachmaninoff as examination works, among others. In 1971 I entered the Leningrad Conservatory in the main subjects of composition and piano; however, already in the first year of my studies I was forced to break off my piano studies, partly because of differences with my piano professor A. Logovinsky, and partly because of a lack of time—composing alone took up a lot of time, so there was no time to practice piano. Nevertheless, after finishing my studies at the conservatory, I was able to continue my pianistic studies independently, and as a result I was able to perform some solo piano recitals in Leningrad in the 1980s. Since my emigration to Switzerland, I have been particularly intensively engaged in piano and organ playing. Here I also acquired organ playing skills independently. Since August 1993 I have been the principal organist of the Catholic parish church of St. Martin in Buochs on Lake Lucerne, Canton Nidwalden. From time to time I also perform in Switzerland as a concert pianist and concert organist.
I wonder if you could elaborate on the circumstances of composition. It sounds really quite pressurized from the account in the booklet.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of my Capriccio for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1985) were anything but pleasant. I was in the middle of divorce proceedings; the character of my then wife proved to be unbearable for me over time. This circumstance certainly explains at least in part the elegiac, sometimes bitterly ironic tone of this work.
So this piece comes just after the First Symphony? And it was written for yourself to play?
Capriccio (op. 11, 1985) was composed almost immediately after the First Symphony (op. 9, finished in 1981, with the last work on the score coming in 1983). In between I created only the Six Piano Pieces, op. 10, and began my Second Symphony (in 1984). I received the external impulse from my musician friends, who advised me to compose a “portable” work for small instrumentation and of relatively short duration after the monumental First Symphony, which I could also play myself as a soloist. The whole project was intended to facilitate my compositional progress with the musical public. However, nothing came of it: After the successful premiere in the Small Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic in May 1989 by the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra under Ravil Martynov, with me as soloist, this work was never performed again, and only recorded exactly 30 years later, in June 2019 in Glasgow—in this recording that is now the object of our interview.
The Adagio of the First Symphony is available on YouTube, and there’s a breadth of expression there—Mahlerian here, possibly?—that seems to rub off on the meditations (the movements marked “Meditazioni”) of the Capriccio.
Yes, the Adagio of the First Symphony and the meditations of the Capriccio are stylistically rooted in part in the philosophical lyricism of the late Mahler. I think that this music also has something of the stylistics of the New Viennese School: the tragedy of Anton von Webern’s Passacaglia, op.1, the gloomy atmosphere of Schoenberg’s tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, and some of the tragic (and floatingly tonal!) sections of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Nevertheless, it is the music of Alexander Brincken!
I’m intrigued that there is an Armenian-mode subject used here. I encountered the Armenian State Symphony recently—I was very taken by John Ter-Tatevosyan’s Second Symphony, which was receiving its European premiere in that concert at London’s Barbican. What drew you to that sound world of Armenia?
The deliberate use of some genuinely Armenian modes is aimed at the Armenian origins of my first wife. I must emphasize here, however, that my great interest in Armenian music, culture, and history was by no means exhausted by this failed marriage. Among other things, my great oratorio The Song of Armenia, which was written much later in Switzerland in the years 2009–2011, and was successfully premiered in Armenia in 2016, bears witness to this. This monumental work is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915. Since 1975 until now I have maintained active contacts with my friends in Armenia and often visit this wonderful, even fascinating country.
The atmosphere of this piece is very different, still concentrated but somehow lighter than the symphony. There’s an acidic side there to the harmonies, and I absolutely get the link to Martinů. How would you describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it before?
You are right: The Capriccio is airier, but also sharper in harmony and rhythm than symphony. Certain parallels with Martinů’s style only became clear to me afterwards—at the time of Capriccio’s composition I was not yet familiar with the works of this great Czech master. Apparently I came to similar stylistics in part by virtue of the common neo-Baroque tendencies that connect our work, albeit unintentionally.
I like the piano writing, too—frequently, it sparkles, including that short, separately-tracked coda. It must be fun to write—and to play.
Yes, it was great fun to play this work again, with the wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra under magnificent conductor Rainer Held!
How was it to record with them? There’s a good recorded sound, too, so you must have had an excellent sound team.
I came to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) through the Lucerne conductor Rainer Held. In 2016 he recorded with this excellent orchestra, also in Glasgow, several orchestral works by the Swiss composer Caspar Diethelm, including four of his symphonies (three CDs on the Guild label, 2017). I consider my acquaintance with Rainer Held and RSNO a stroke of luck and a godsend. I am also happy that both Rainer Held and this fascinating orchestra are enthusiastic about my music and would like to record my other symphonies.
Looking at other pieces available by yourself, I found some references to recordings made in Germany in 2008 and 2010, but no label information. What were they, please? And there’s an excellent string quartet on YouTube also, very exciting rhythmically—a fabulous performance (who were the quartet playing it?).
These are editions of the small German label Ars Produktion. The first of them, Works for Strings (2006) includes the Divertimento, “The Seasons,” Concerto grosso for Viola and String Orchestra, and the Second String Quartet, performed by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra “The Seasons” under Vladislav Bulakhov, and by members of same Orchestra for the quartet. The last work was premiered in Lancaster, PA on August 6, 2010 at the Blue Mountain Music Festival by the same U.S. string quartet “Marcolivia,” as can be heard on YouTube (only the first two movements, performed August 25, 2015). The 2008 CD features my sacred choral works in Latin and German, including a Mass for eight-part mixed choir a cappella, performed by the St. Petersburg Youth Chamber Choir under Yulia Khutoretskaya. The third CD (2010) features my Russian Orthodox chants, performed by the Choir of the Nikolai-Church at Tretyakov-Galery Moscow under Alexei Puzakov.
So, what are you writing at the moment? How do you see your writing evolving? Also I just want to ask quickly about performances coming up—in the USA in particular (because this is an American magazine) and in the UK (where I am based!).
I am currently composing the second volume of my chorale preludes for organ. I have been working on my original musical language (despite all audible influences) for a number of years now, and I believe I will continue on my chosen path unwaveringly. As for future performances of my works in the USA and the United Kingdom, I very much hope that this disc will finally help me to find financially strong sponsors who would make further recordings possible. I am thinking first and foremost of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Rainer Held. Of course, I would not mind if conductors and orchestras in the USA were also interested in my symphonies, and would not stop at the recordings but would also dare to perform them in concert. Perhaps this interview will contribute to that as well?