On this day in 1865, the French composer Albéric Magnard was born. He was a prolific composer, though he was little concerned with ensuring performances of his music during his life. On his birthday, let us steer you towards his four symphonies which have been recorded by Hyperion and which are now available as a budget-price Dyad set (which you can buy from Amazon or download). You can sample the music at Hyperion’s website and if you’ve a taste for lush, late-Romantic orchestral sound you may well love this music. Here’s Lionel Salter’s review from November 1998 of the two discs of the symphonies featuring the BBC Scottish SO and Jean-Yves Ossonce.
The name of Albéric Magnard began to impinge on the record public only 30 years ago, and so far there have been recordings of three of his symphonies, the opera Guercoeur, and a five-disc set of his chamber music and songs; but he seems doomed to be a composer whose music (highly praised by several contemporaries) survives only via the gramophone: his impact on the concert life of this country has been virtually nil, and he has not been much better served in his native France. Not that he would have cared overmuch: during his life (brought to an abrupt end at the start of the First World War by German invaders who set fire to his country house) he made little attempt to get his music performed, being paranoically sensitive to any suspicion of nepotistic influence, as his father was a powerful newspaper proprietor. By all accounts he was a withdrawn and austere person, and perhaps in keeping with that image his music is not for the casual listener who looks for facile attractiveness, but in a somewhat Teutonic way is rewarding for the serious-minded in its skilfully crafted and thoughtfully lyrical character.
The 25-year-old's First Symphony (1890) shows the unmistakable influence of Wagner (who at that time had a hypnotic power over the French) in the religioso slow movement. Despite the adoption of the cyclic principle championed by his teacher Vincent d'Indy, under whose watchful eye the work was written and who must have smiled approvingly at his pupil's fluent contrapuntal technique. Magnard's proliferation of ideas threatens structural continuity, especially in the first movement. In contrast to that movement's initial brooding atmosphere, the Second Symphony begins more sunnily and spiritedly (but with a spacious second-subject paragraph), and the following scherzo (which replaced an earlier fugue) is a bucolic "Danses" tinged with introspection. The emotional core of the symphony is the luxuriant Chant varié (vaguely Straussian avant la lettre, with some curious quasi-oriental touches); and the work ends in an almost light-hearted mood.
The Third Symphony first swam into our awareness with Ansermet's 1969 Decca recording: its striking organum-like opening leads to an Allegro by turns vigorous and contemplative. Next comes a scherzo headed "Danses" (as in the previous symphony), a mocking soufflé with a wistful central section — an altogether captivating movement that is anything but austere. The movingly tense slow movement's long lines are subverted by menacing outbursts that build to a stormy climax before subsiding; and there is a finale which combines exuberance and lyricism with a return to the symphony's very first theme. This is certainly the work to recommend to newcomers to Magnard. Several years elapsed before his last symphony in 1913, and by then his overall mood had darkened. The turbulent passion that characterizes the first movement, presented in dramatically colourful orchestration, is also mirrored in the finale: between them come a highly individual scherzo with strange oriental-type passages, and a lengthy, anguished slow movement in which the excellent booklet-commentator sees Mahlerian influence.
Full justice is done to the symphonies by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who are on splendid form throughout and have been recorded in exemplary fashion. LS