May 27, 2021


Marcel Poot: Symphonies Nos. 1-7. BRTN Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Rotman (No. 1); Belgian National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Franz André (No. 2); Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frédéric Devreese (Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7); Antwerp Philharmonic conducted by Léonce Gras (No. 4). Naxos. $23.99 (2 CDs).

     There are stories aplenty about composers so driven to create music that they overcame all sorts of adversity and objections in their compelling inner need to express themselves through instruments and voices. There are far fewer tales of composers who came to the craft only reluctantly, being, as it were, dragged into creativity. But that was the case with Belgian composer Marcel Poot (1901-1988), whose father directed the Royal Flemish Theatre and was quite determined to have his son make music his career. Marcel was less than enthusiastic, describing himself as “very mediocre” at the art and “less apt than my young friends” at playing the instruments he studied, first the clarinet and then the piano.

     Despite this less-than-promising, less-than-enthusiastic beginning, Poot eventually attended the Brussels and Antwerp Conservatories and even studied for a time with Paul Dukas. He became a commentator on music – a critic and reviewer – and a teacher, before eventually settling into composing and, as it turned out, doing quite well.

     Among Poot’s major works are no fewer than seven symphonies, which span most of his life: 1929 to 1982. They are an intriguing amalgam of the old and the new: mostly tonal but well aware of 20th-century compositional norms, they are all in the old-fashioned three-movement form dating back to the 18th-century days when symphonies were the same as sinfonias and the four-or-more-movement arrangement was not yet standardized. But within individual movements, Poot often creates a sort of sub-movement so that a single designated portion of the symphony really represents two – not an entirely original approach (concepts such as a scherzo within a slow movement had been around for some time), but one handled by Poot with consistent skill.

     Poot’s music is not well-known outside Belgium, and the new two-CD Naxos cycle of his symphonies is the first ever: these are, in fact, the first releases of recordings of Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The recordings themselves are scarcely new, having been made between 1960 and 1996. Symphony No. 4 is an analog recording from 1971 – the work itself had been written the previous year. And Symphony No. 2 is a real curiosity: the recording is a monophonic one made by Belgian Radio in 1960, led by the conductor to whom the work was dedicated when it was written in 1937 Franz André (1893-1975). Two of the other three conductors represented here have also died: Frédéric Devreese (1929-2020) and Léonce Gras (1908-1993), although Hans Rotman (born 1954) remains alive and well.

     So this collection of Poot’s symphonic oeuvre is unusual in many ways – none of which matters if the music is worthy. And so it is, even if nothing here constitutes an undiscovered masterpiece. Symphony No. 1 (1929) mixes near-Mozartian lightness with interesting touches of xylophone, glockenspiel and other percussion, and shows clear influences of jazz and the movie music that accompanied silent films during the 1920s. No. 2 (1937) – whose remastering sounds fine, although it is odd to hear this mono recording amid the stereo ones – opens with a forward-striding movement whose second, almost trivial theme, taken from a children’s song, makes for an odd contrast with the more-dramatic material. The work has a tranquil second movement and a finale that opens in an aura of mystery and then becomes forceful. No. 3 (1952) is Poot’s longest symphony, even though it lasts only about 25 minutes. It is more distinctive stylistically than the first two, with an opening movement that both begins and ends slowly, a second movement of genuine emotion (rather oddly marked Andante funerale), and a strongly assured finale.

     Poot’s last four symphonies were composed at four-year intervals: No. 4 in 1970, No. 5 in 1974, No. 6 in 1978, and No. 7 in 1982. No. 4 is a work of strong contrasts: between the first and second themes and their respective development in the first movement, between the calmer and more-animated sections in the second, and between solo and tutti passages in the finale (which ends particularly animatedly). No. 5 has an unusual opening sound – horns above ostinato strings – that evaporates within a minute into brief, gentle lyricism, after which strongly accented and calmer sections intermingle. The second movement is melancholic rather than tragic at the start, becoming more animated later before subsiding into a cello solo; and the finale offers a series of alternating solo and tutti sections. No. 6 opens boldly and then moves with considerable assurance through a series of changes of tempo, dynamics and instrumentation. It has an atmospheric slow movement that is gloomier than its Andante maestoso tempo would indicate. The finale has the definite feeling of a scherzo about it (it is actually marked Allegro scherzando), and finishes with a particularly zippy Presto. No. 7, which at 16 minutes’ length is Poot’s shortest symphony, shows the composer retaining his inventiveness and cementing his particular stylistic characteristics in his 80s. Now-familiar elements of Poot’s symphonic approach reappear here, from the use of ostinato passages to the significance of percussion; but Poot uses them with the highest degree of assurance yet – for example, a timpani solo in the first movement and a clarinet-viola-flute combination in the second stand out. The finale is attractively labeled Allegro impetuoso and does in fact have an impetuous quality, plus an interesting use of a solo trombone above bassoon and bass clarinet. This is Poot’s most inventively orchestrated symphony, but it retains many elements of his characteristic style, including the finale’s crescendo and the Presto at the very end. This cycle of Poot’s symphonies shows quite clearly that whatever reluctance the composer may originally have had to make music his career had long since dissipated by the time he came to develop his own symphonic style – and then refine it successfully through more than five decades.

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