Thursday, 21 September 2017

Days 256 – 264

Day 256

13 September 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 5 (1922)
I'm in the midst of another of those runs of personal favourites that my schedule seems to throw up from time to time, and listening to Carl Nielsen's spectacular fifth symphony this evening was one of the less onerous tasks I'll have this year. This is one of many works I discovered in my student years, hearing a particularly memorable performance in Victoria Hall, Hanley in about October 1989 (although not so memorable that I can remember the orchestra that played it, probably the Hallé or the BBC Phil).

It is a quite extraordinary work, and one in which Nielsen moves up a gear a composer. Everything starts innocently enough, with flurries of strings and woodwinds fluttering away in the background while an other-wordly melody winds its way rather aimlessly. Then out of nowhere a snare drum initiates a militaristic march that eventually loses out to the returning woodwind flurries. This tension between these two opposing forces sets up the central core of the piece. Beginning in a conventional B major, the music darkens in tone when an insistent woodwind theme is repeated over and over again, at which point the snare drum re-enters the fray. Never has a snare drum been put to better use in a symphony. With the instruction to improvise 'as if he wants to stop the orchestra at all costs" a full-on war develops between the drummer and the orchestra, in which the latter ultimately triumphs. And that's just Part One! The second, shorter half of the symphony doesn't quite match up to the drama of the first, but it does feature some brilliant fugal writing and the work ends in a truly uplifting blaze of glory.

Day 257

14 September 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 36, 'Linzer' (1783)
The story of the composition of this symphony may be exaggerated, but I hope it's true. Knowing the many feats attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I have no reason to doubt it anyway. Mozart had married Constanza Weber the previous year, much to the disapproval of his family. In order to bring about a reconciliation, the Mozarts travelled back from their home in Vienna to visit his father Leopold's home in Salzburg. En route, they decided to accept the invitation of Count Thun-Hohenstein to stay with him in Linz for a few days. So the tale goes, the Count promptly announced that there would be a grand concert to mark the occasion, featuring a symphony by the great Mozart. The only problem was that Mozart hadn't brought one with him.

Well what else could the most prodigious composer who ever lived do under the circumstances, but write a new one in four days flat, of course! It really doesn't sound like something composed in hurry though, in fact it is just about the most assured symphony he'd written up to that point in his life. Unusually for Mozart, it starts with a slow introduction, before letting rip into an occasionally fast and furious Allegro. The sublime second movement could easily have been given words used as an aria in one of his operas, although the mood is darkened somewhat by the use of trumpets and timpani. The scherzo includes a trio that features an elegant duet for oboe and bassoon, while the as-Presto-as-possible finale ends the work on a suitable high. Vintage Mozart.

Day 258

15 September 2017: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3: 'Jesus Messiah, Save Us!' (1983)
The female Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya was a quite formidable figure. A pupil of Shostakovich, she forged her own path musically, saying quite proudly that 'there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.' She had a point, as her style is totally unique and characterised by solid blocks of sound, completely bereft of melody. Her penchant for unorthodox combinations of instruments also marks out her individuality. This symphony, for example, is scored for five oboes, five trumpets, five double basses, three tubas, piano, trombone, percussion, and a solo voice who recites 11th century liturgical texts.

I first encountered her music just last year, when this symphony was featured in one of the more memorable Proms performances of recent times. This falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category, as there is pretty much nothing symphonic about this work at all. It's a single movement piece of about 15 minutes in length, in which the repeated wall of block chords are the only thematic material. It is nevertheless an extremely striking composition, with the pleading voice appealing for salvation coming from a sound world of despair. It's a work of almost brutalist simplicity, but the effect is devastating.

Day 259

16 September 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 (1883)
Anton Bruckner's finest hour (and a bit), in my opinion. It says something for how well this symphony was received, and how happy the notoriously self-critical composer was with it, that he only felt the need to revise it once! The influence of his idol Richard Wagner is at its strongest in this work, with the second movement being a moving tribute to him written at a time when Wagner's death was anticipated. It is suggested that the cymbal clash at the climax of the second movement was written by Bruckner at the point when news of Wagner's demise reached him.

I fell in love with this work when I was a student, after buying a copy of the famous 1989 Karajan performance that turned out to be his final recording. It was as if Karajan knew of the recording's finality as he poured every last drop of his blood into it. For it to have been such a profound work as this was entirely fitting. It is an absolutely magnificent symphony. The opening theme for horns and cellos emerges from a trademark Bruckner primordial soup of hushed strings, but despite its length, the first movement maintains its focus throughout. The sublime second movement is the most moving music he ever wrote, starting with the first symphonic use of the Wagner tuba (four of them), a simple, rising three note theme is taken to extraordinary heights, and if the cymbal clash does represent Wagner's death then it is marked with a cry of praise to the heavens for his life. After a splendid scherzo, there is a slight feeling of anti-climax about the finale, if only for the fact that it fails to balance the gigantic opening two movements. It's a minor quibble, however, as they would have been difficult movements for any composer to follow.

Day 260

17 September 2017: Berlioz – Roméo et Juliette (1839)
For rather different reasons to the Ustvolskaya featured a couple of days ago, this also falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category. Hector Berlioz called it a symphonie dramatique, although there are some who argue that it's more of a 'concert opera'. Whatever it is, this monumental slab of words, music, and drama is one of the grandest occupants of the Choral Symphony Sunday slot. Only the infamous Gothic Symphony of Havergal Brian (see Day 50) and Mahler's third symphony (see Day 78) have been longer.

It's difficult to know where to start with such a vast, programmatic piece. Although obviously based on the Shakespeare play, the plot has been altered slightly in that Juliet awakes from her sleep prior to Romeo's death, and far more is made of the reconciliation between the two families at the end. That is turned into a grand choral finale that owes a nod of gratitude to the finale of Beethoven's ninth, written just 15 years earlier. The highlight of the symphony is without question the 20-minute Scène d'amour of Part II; an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that it is, to my mind, the best music Berlioz ever composed. Overall, it's a daunting listen, but a fully rewarding one.

Day 261

18 September 2017: Glass – Symphony No. 3, for strings (1995)
I've enjoyed the vast majority of the symphonies I've listened to this year, but if I was putting together a bottom five, then Philip Glass's second symphony would be in it. As I said at the time, it was the work of a composer with a very limited musical vocabulary, and what ideas there were ended up being spread very thinly over its 45-minute length. This, thankfully, is a more concise work and a considerably better listen as a consequence.

It was commissioned for, and premiered by, the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1995. The first movement features an off-beat melody against an insistent pounding bass line, while the short, lively and rhythmically complex second movement forms a satisfying contrast. The third movement is trademark Glass. With its three-against-four cross-rhythms underpinning a solo violin melody, it occupies much the same sound world as Pruit Igoe from his Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. It feels as though many of the pretensions towards grandeur that plagued his second symphony have been abandoned here and he's gone back to what he does best, and the symphony is all the better for it.

Day 262

19 September 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 3 (1983)
My love of Polish music began with Witold Lutosławski. I first encountered him when his Musique Funèbre was performed at the Proms in August 1988. As it turned out, that early work was not really very typical of his output, but it encouraged me to delve deeper and I've been a huge fan ever since. This symphony comes from the other end of his career, completed as it was when he was 70 (although he had started working on it ten years earlier). By this point, he had refined his technique of 'limited aleatorism' for which this symphony is a brilliant showcase. This involved Lutosławski interweaving ad libitum sections, where the players have a degree of freedom of the tempo in which they play their designated material so that they are intentionally not together, and ad battuta passages, which are under the control of the conductor.

Much has been made of the fact that during the work's composition period, his native Poland had suppressed the burgeoning trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity). This work has been interpreted as a protest against this, just as Panufnik had reacted to the situation with his Sinfonia Votiva (see Day 248) two years earlier. If that was the Lutosławski's intention, he never expressly stated it. The percussive four-note unison E that begins, ends, and periodically interrupts the music certainly gives the impression of trying to beat the freedom inherent in the music into submission. Whatever the interpretation, it is an absolute masterpiece. Lutosławski's brilliance stems from his ability to write at-times uncompromising music within readily identifiable formal structures, which enables him to make a connection with his audience that many of his contemporaries fail to achieve.

Day 263

20 September 2017: Hans Gál – Symphony No. 1 (1927)
Given that the Austrian-born Jewish émigré Hans Gál spent nearly 50 years in the UK, and was even awarded an OBE for his services to music, I find it quite baffling that I was completely unaware of his existence up until about six or seven months ago. This is the first of his four symphonies, and the only one he wrote when he was still living in his native Austria. At that time, he was a highly regarded composer and teacher, holding posts at the University of Vienna and then Mainz Conservatory.

This work was entered by Gál into the famous International Columbia Graphophone Competition of 1928, which was won by Kurt Atterberg's Symphony No. 6 (see Day 217) beating off competition not only from this piece, but also other notable symphonies by Havergal Brian, Czesław Marek, and Franz Schmidt. This piece effectively won its regional final, although at time it was entitled Sinfonietta. By 1933, however, the Nazis had risen to power and Gál was dismissed from his post and his music banned on account of his Judaism. He fled to London immediately after the Anschluss of 1938, and soon afterwards he moved to Edinburgh where he remained until his death in 1987.

This symphony is a very enjoyable listen, with its feet firmly planted in the Germanic symphonic tradition. The melodic lines are especially strong, flirting as they do between atonality and the straightforward diatonic. Had I discovered him earlier, I might well have found room in my schedule for the other three.

Day 264

21 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 12, 'The Year 1917' (1961)
Following on from his 11th symphony, which marked the year 1905, this work commemorates another significant year in Soviet history: that of the year of the Russian Revolution. The revolution led to the Communist Party seizing power under its leader Vladimir Lenin, and Shostakovich dedicated this symphony to Lenin's memory. Shostakovich was, by this time, a member of the Communist Party – undoubtedly after a degree of coercion – but his decision to compose such a patriotic piece seems odd when he was under far less pressure to toe the party line now that Kruschev was in power and carrying out a process of de-Stalinization.

It is the considered opinion of many music writers that this is one of the runts of Shostakovich's considerable symphonic litter. There is no disputing the fact that it is a far less weighty piece than its predecessor. Indeed, given the significance of Lenin and the year 1917 to the Russian authorities at the time, and even to this day, its treatment here seems almost half-arsed. I find it a perfectly agreeable work, but there's little doubt it does pale into insignificance alongside his symphonies of the previous twenty years or so. The second movement, Razliv, which actually quotes the 11th symphony, is very profound, but the triumphant finale is less convincing than similar episodes in his symphonic past and has the feel of composing by numbers. It isn’t as bad as some have painted it, however.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Days 251 – 255

Day 251

8 September 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 (1812)
Ludwig van Beethoven was recovering from a series of health problems when he produced this brilliant symphony. He considered it one of his best; an opinion probably influenced by the fact that its immediate commercial success resolved financial issues that had also previously dogged him. The work was first performed at a benefit concert for injured Viennese soldiers, and with Vienna itself surfacing from years of Napoleonic occupation there was a wave of triumphalism that Beethoven was happy to ride. It's appropriate, therefore, that this evening's Prom performance, with which this entry coincides, was by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is a great symphony, yet it's also slightly odd for the fact that the movement for which it is best known is completely at odds with the bacchanalian energy of the two that close the work. Both the scherzo and finale are wild and exhilarating dances, making this for the most part Beethoven's most joyous symphony. And yet the highly original second movement, based on an insistent and funereal A minor theme, is the one that received an immediate encore at its premiere. This truly extraordinary movement was, for a time afterwards, played as a stand-alone piece. The symphony's huge popularity undoubtedly derives from the fact that it is so 'instant' and easily accessible. The contemporary opinion of Friedrich Weick that it was 'the work of a drunkard' hasn't really stood the test of time!

Day 252

9 September 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 5 (1932)
Every winter between 1928 and 1940, Arnold Bax took himself off to the west of Scotland and holed up in the tiny village of Morar for weeks on end. It takes a particular type of gumption to choose to spend so long in some of the country's starkest surroundings, in the worst weather, and feel compelled to do so year after year. His devotion to duty in living in such surroundings to experience nature in its wildest, unbridled form as musical inspiration is admirable.

Bax referred to the compositions produced during this period as his 'craggy, northern works'. This symphony in particular seems almost completely bereft of sunlight, with its brooding opening for clarinets over a solemn drum beat setting a dark tone from the off. The work is dedicated to, and in a small way modelled upon, the work of another north country composer, Jean Sibelius. Depending on who you believe, there are echoes Sibelius's first, fourth, or fifth symphony in Bax's music, but there is a distinct relationship in mood, if not in harmonic language, with the Finn's music. None of Bax's symphonies have titles, which may contribute in some way to their continual neglect, but I'd support a move to append the nickname 'Nordic Symphony' to this piece. Anything to help get it performed somewhere. Anywhere.

Day 253

10 September 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 8 (1906)
Choral Symphony Sunday again, and this really is the mother of all such works. Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony is widely known as 'Symphony of a Thousand': an exaggeration of the number of people required to perform it. Mahler himself objected to the nickname, but it has kind of stuck. It may not require a thousand performers, but the forces employed are still mightily impressive. In addition to a massive orchestra to include an organ, four harps, a harmonium, a mandolin, quadruple woodwind, and an additional off-stage brass ensemble, there is also the small matter of two adult choirs, a children's choir, and an unprecedented eight soloists. The long-awaited premiere in 1910 was attended by an 'A' list that included the composers Strauss, Saint-Saëns and Webern, as well a young Leopold Stokowski and the writer Thomas Mann. It was a phenomenal success, and its masterpiece status has never been in dispute.

The symphony is two parts. The first is a setting of the Veni, Creator Spiritus, and as symphonic openings go, they don't come much better than this. An all-stops-out organ chord tees up a declamation of the opening line from the chorus before the full orchestral forces are unleashed. The second part is a setting of the closing section of Goethe's dramatic poem Faust, and while this may seem an incongruous pairing with the ninth-century Latin hymn that precedes it, the unifying theme is that of redemption. Mahler's famous quote that a symphony should contain the world is embodied in this work, which is grandiose in scale and conception. I have an abiding memory of listening to this symphony on a Sony Walkman while travelling around the Austrian Tyrol in 1988, and I've always been unwilling to break the association with those magnificent surroundings.

Day 254

11 September 2017: Kilar – Symphony No 3, 'September Symphony' (2003)
You probably formed the impression some time ago that I'm a big fan of all things Polish, and you'd be right. One of the many composers to have featured in my dissertation on post-war Polish music, written when I was a student at Keele University, was Wojciech Kilar. Kilar's career followed a very similar trajectory to that of his near-exact contemporary Henryk Mikołaj Górecki. Both made their names as leading lights in the avant garde New Polish School in the early-sixties. By the nineties, however, they were achieving commercial success as purveyors of the style rather sniffily described as holy minimalism. Kilar's success route came through his involvement in film music, with his score for Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula receiving critical acclaim.

Despite the lucrative nature of his film music, Kilar continued to write concert works, and this is the third of five symphonies he composed. It was a response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, which happened 16 years ago today. Kilar had developed what he described as an 'incurable, uncritical and unthinking' fondness for America. He uses the song America, the Beautiful as the basis for the work's thematic material, sometimes just a fragment or an interval, and on other occasions a more recognisable quotation. The slow-moving first movement is a kind of funeral service for the victims of the attacks, but this is contrasted by a vigorous Allegro which is the most clearly minimalist section of the work, based as it is around a repeated single minor triad. The highlight of the symphony for me is the elegiac slow movement. The first use of anything clearly identifiable as a melody coming nearly 20 minutes into the work accentuated the effect of its soaring, beautiful line. This injection of much needed quality into what was in danger of becoming a rather bland symphony elevates it to the level where it is worthy of its aims. It's one of Kilar's finest moments.

Day 255

12 September 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 7 (1885)
Antonin Dvořák's seventh symphony is regarded by many as his greatest, which is praise indeed given that he went on to write his famous 'New World' symphony eight years later. It was without doubt the composition that made his name as a symphonist and one that held great personal significance for him. I've seen (very) occasional references to this being known as the 'London Symphony', primarily because it was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and received its first performance in the city. The work is profoundly Czech, however, and was the composer's attempt to draw attention to his compatriots' struggle for a Czech homeland.

In addition to the patriotic element, the symphony also contained music that drew upon his own personal tragedies. In the period leading up to the work, Dvořák lost both his mother and his eldest child, and the mournful second movement reflects this sense of loss. There is no doubt that this music came from Dvořák's heart, with the second movement suffixed by the footnote, 'From the sad years' – an acknowledgment of his recent bereavements – and the score also carries the patriotic proclamation, 'God, Love and Country'. The triumphant ending asserts Dvořák's hope for the future of his nation and his personal defiance in the face of tragedy. A composer's most personal work is usually their best, and it's a view seldom truer than in this case.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Days 244 – 250

Day 244

1 September 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 (1915)
The fifth symphony of Jean Sibelius is probably his most popular, and was effectively written for his own 50th birthday to a commission from the Finnish government. It's an absolute barnstormer of a work, so memorable for its soul-affirming finale, that it's often easy to forget just how dark sections of the first movement are. Although originally composed in 1915, the version universally known today is the 1919 revision of the work. When the late-nineties recording of the original 1915 version emerged, it came as something of a shock to the system for those of us who've known and loved the work for many years. It differs so much from the original that at times it is scarcely recognisable, especially in the bitonal passages where faintly familiar music seems somehow out of focus. It's certainly interesting to see just how different the piece could have been had Sibelius decided to leave it be.

The most famous passage is the finale's memorable theme for the French horns, and one of the more remarkable things about this symphony is how frequently that theme has been borrowed. At least three top 30 singles have nicked it (for the record, Beach Baby by The First Class in 1974, Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade in 1984, and I Don't Believe In Miracles by Sinitta in 1988). Philip Glass made use of it in Floe off his Glassworks album, and Leonard Bernstein appropriated it in On The Town. With the possible exception of Pachelbel's Canon, it must be the most stolen theme in classical music. It's hardly surprising as it is difficult to listen to this music and not feel uplifted.

Day 245

2 September 2017: Grażyna Bacewicz – Symphony No. 4 (1953)
I seem to have featured a lot of Polish music this year, and here's another new name for the list. Grażyna Bacewicz was a former composition pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and as well as being a prodigious violinist, she became one of the first female composers to make a name for herself in Poland. Bacewicz wrote four numbered symphonies, and another, unnumbered, early Symphony for Strings, all composed within an eight-year period. This was the final one of the five, and it won the Polish Ministry of Culture Prize in 1955.

It is sadly in keeping with how poorly served female composers are, even in this day and age, that the only recording of this I could source was a fairly rank-quality one uploaded to YouTube. I was, however, glad of its existence at all. This is a very assured work, with a rather bombastic opening suddenly giving way after about four minutes to angular, jaunty music that seems to act as a counterbalance to what has gone before. I particularly loved the ethereal slow movement that I found reminiscent of Bartok at times. There is some extraordinary string writing, especially in the first movement, which wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from the next generation of more avant garde Poles such as Penderecki and Lutosławski. The language here is still largely conventional though, a style she was soon to abandon as the political thaw in Poland and the emergence of the Warsaw Autumn Festival led to her exploration of new orchestral sonorities and extended techniques.

Day 246

3 September 2017: Holst – Choral Symphony (1924)
In today's Choral Symphony Sunday slot is the only work I'm featuring this year actually called Choral Symphony! I can't remember exactly when I discovered Holst's Planets, probably in my teens, but I do recall going on a bit of a wild goose chase in the mid-eighties trying to find some other works by the composer of a similar standard. I concluded, sadly, that it was a fruitless search and had to concede that while he has written many perfectly good works, the Planets is the only piece still performed globally for a reason. One of the works I hoovered up back then was this symphony. I bought the LP, and I think when I dug it out again to listen to today it was probably getting only its second playing.

Holst actually gave this work the title First Choral Symphony, although there never was to be a second. This may have been because it received a disastrous London premiere a few months after its first performance at the 1925 Leeds Festival, and he felt unwilling to repeat the exercise. A second choral symphony was sketched but soon abandoned. This symphony is a setting of poems by John Keats, and that in itself drew criticism with the sublime Ode on a Grecian Urn sitting uncomfortably next to such doggerel as Fancy and Folly's Song. Musically, it is interesting, and fairly typical of early twentieth-century English choral music. It has an at-times modal feel and as such occupies a similar sound world to his friend Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony (see Day 36), with Holst employing the Phrygian mode in the first movement. I was pleased to be re-acquainted with the work today, and have to concede that it wasn't as poor as I'd remembered it. It may be a while before this particular piece of vinyl sees the light of day again though.

Day 247

4 September 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 100, 'Military' (1794)
Josef Haydn clocked up the century with this symphony, although for reasons too long and boring and go into, this almost certainly wasn't the 100th symphony he wrote. What we do know is that it was the eighth of twelve symphonies he composed during his time in London between 1791 and 1795. The symphony was originally called Grand Overture with the Militaire Movement; the movement in question being the second and it is from this that the work derives its nickname.

After a slow introduction there is a spirited Allegro, which merely acts as a precursor to the more famous 'military' movement. It features a collection of 'Turkish' percussion instruments – triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – all highly unusual in a symphonic context in the late eighteenth century. Eventually, the movement culminates in a trumpet fanfare that must have sounded quite startling at the time. It was another Haydn masterstroke that the critics of the time absolutely lapped up, with the contemporary Morning Chronicle declaring, after an encore performance a week after its premiere, that 'others can conceive, he alone can execute.' He really was quite the crowd-pleaser.

Day 248

5 September 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Votiva (1981)
After a mid-career dip in form while he evolved his own unique musical language, Andrzej Panufnik was very much back in full flow when started working on this his eighth symphony. Following his Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77), which was based on an old Polish hymn the Bogurodzica, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. By 1980 though, his works were being performed in Poland again following his post-defection ban by the Communist party. This may well have turned his mind back towards his country of birth, but Poland was also very much in the news at the time as the shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike, leading to the formation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union, and the subsequent imposition by the Polish government of martial law to crush the disorder. Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.

The work is in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insisted, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him. As I seem to say every time I come to a Panufnik symphony, it is very rarely heard. It's a particular shame in this case, because, as a heartfelt cry against the treatment of his erstwhile countrymen, it carries great weight.

Day 249

6 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 11, 'The Year 1905' (1957)
Dmitri Shostakovich's 11th Symphony is his most underrated, in my view. Yes, the fifth and the seventh are mighty pieces of art that rightly take their place among the greatest symphonies ever written. This, however, as an absolute masterpiece and one which I've always held in the highest regard. The symphony, as the title suggests, depicts the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which culminated in the Red Sunday massacre at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. In another BBC Proms tie-in, I re-arranged my listening order to coincide with its performance at this evening's London Philharmonic Orchestra prom.

The deathly first movement, with its slow moving divided strings, represents the Palace Square in winter, and this music recurs in later movements following more violent episodes. The massive twenty-minute second movement refers to the events of the 9th of January – the day of the Winter Palace massacre – and is a savage, militaristic movement in which all music is eventually smothered by an oppressive percussion onslaught. After a third movement lament entitled Eternal Memory, the symphony summons up another march theme in the finale. The quiet opening music then returns before all hell breaks loose at the end. The final couple of minutes of this symphony is one of most spectacular climaxes you'll ever hear. I've always meant to check the published score to see if there is actually a part for the kitchen sink, because Shostakovich certainly threw pretty much everything else at it. The sound of the orchestra competing against a battery of bells, gongs, cymbals and drums, all playing at 'God's balls' volume, is truly overwhelming. Epic stuff!

Day 250

7 September 2017: Martin – Petite symphonie concertante (1946)
How have I never heard this before? I really do have some glaring gaps in my symphonic knowledge. Anyway, this remarkable work by Swiss composer Frank Martin is a fine way to bring up the 250 in my Symphony A Day journey. It is scored for the unusual – and probably unique – combination of strings, harp, harpsichord, and piano, and it was a joyous discovery today. It's a highly interesting juxtaposition of neo-classical sensibilities and 12-tone serialist techniques. Martin uses a tone row as a theme but then treats it in an entirely conventional way harmonically and rhythmically. The result is a very individual sound that made me want to go out and listen to more of his work.

The sonorities created by the combination of instruments is also worthy of mention. The three interlopers into the string orchestra – the harp, harpsichord, and piano – are usually to be found buried within a conventional orchestra, but here they are elevated to the role of soloist, giving rise to the concertante in the title. The music is very cleverly written so that the strings complement whichever of the soloists is playing at any given time, for example playing pizzicato when up against the quieter and similarly plucked harp or harpsichord. One to add to the pleasant discovery pile.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Days 241 – 243

Day 241

29 August 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4, 'Italian' (1833)
Felix Mendelssohn's enduringly popular fourth symphony was actually the third he composed, but was published four years after his death as Symphony No. 4. The young Mendelssohn had toured Italy a couple of years earlier, and began composing the work while he was still in the country. It was hugely successful at its premiere and has remained a concert favourite ever since, with its joyous and breezy nature endearing itself to audiences for nearly 200 years. Even as he was writing it, Mendelssohn remarked that it would "be the jolliest piece I have ever done". And yet it was a work that he was, by all accounts, unhappy with when he completed it, causing him to revise the piece at least once and withhold it from publication in his lifetime.

The first movement is one of the most instantly recognisable in the symphonic canon, featuring a lively and bouncy first subject for violins that, once heard, is never forgotten. The serene slow movement, probably depicting a Neapolitan religious procession he observed, is followed by a graceful minuet where one might have expected a scherzo. Unusually, for a symphony in major key, the final movement is in the tonic minor and depicts the folk dances of southern Italy, specifically the saltarello and the tarantella. It happens to be my daughter's favourite symphony, probably due to its extensive use in a favourite DVD from her childhood, Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses!

Day 242

30 August 2017: Honegger – Symphony No. 3, 'Symphonie Liturgique' (1946)
For a work that isn't exactly a regular on the concert platform, a surprisingly high number of people I know regard Arthur Honegger's third symphony as one of their favourite pieces. It's certainly one of mine, and I wish it were better known than it is. It was written immediately after World War II, and was Honegger's direct response to the horrors of the conflict. It's interesting to compare this with another third symphony written a fellow-member of Les Six in the same year – Milhaud's 'Te Deum' Symphony (see Day73). Whereas Milhaud's choral symphony is a stirring victory song, Honegger aims to depict the brutality and aggression of war culminating in a far more reflective conclusion. And just as Milhaud turned to liturgical texts, so did Honegger, although he merely used them as movement titles for a purely orchestral work, rather in the same way that Britten had done for his earlier Sinfonia da Requiem (see Day 63).

Honegger went to the trouble of describing the meaning of each movement. The opening Dies Irae is "human terror" in the form of a "rapid succession of violent themes", while the central movement De profundis clamavi depicts "the painful meditation of man forsaken by divinity". The finale, Dona nobis pacem, is in two parts: initially a heavy-footed march leading to "rebellion dawning in the ranks of the victims" before "a song of peace soars above the symphony as the dove soared in the old days above the immensity of the ocean." That soaring song of peace, which occupies the last three minutes or so of the composition is, to my mind, one of the finest symphonic endings I've heard, especially after the tempestuous nature of all that has gone before.

Day 243

31 August 2017: Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony (1885)
Sitting between his fourth and fifth symphonies, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky produced this unnumbered, programmatic symphony based on Lord Byron's poem Manfred. At nearly an hour in length, it is comfortably his longest, and this fact probably contributes more than anything to its comparative rarity as a concert piece. That said, it has featured in the four of the last eight Proms seasons, and in the latest of my series of Proms tie-ins, I decided to listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance of this at this evening's Prom.

Tonight's conductor, Semyon Bychkov, described this as 'an opera without words', which I thought was a very apt description. Programme symphonies are difficult to pull off, as when the form is dictated by the narrative of the text rather than established musical structures, it can lead to imbalanced or episodic music that is decidedly un-symphonic. Generally, they work best when they are an adaptation of a mood or scene, and that is true of the inner movements of this symphony. The second movement scherzo has nothing more to describe than an Alpine fairy appearing from the spray of a waterfall, and the music is suitably spritely and skittish. The third movement Andante con moto, a depiction of the simple life of the mountain folk, is particularly gorgeous and certainly benefits from being free of any programmatic considerations. The same cannot be said of the rather aimless, twenty-minute-long final movement, however. Tchaikovsky's innate ability as a tunesmith sustains the interest throughout though, with the symphony's idée fixe – a device taken from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, this work's clearest model – being especially strong. I think it's a good, but a great, symphony.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Days 233 – 240

Day 233

21 August 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 7 (1957)
It's no good. Much as I would like to try to get through an item on an Edmund Rubbra symphony without resorting to the words 'scandalously neglected', it is simply unavoidable in this case. I am at a complete loss to explain why this is as rarely heard as it unquestionably is. Its premiere in 1957 was conducted by no less a figure than Andrzej Panufnik, who was musical director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the time. For their 1956-57 season, the CBSO had commissioned new works from Tippett, who produced his brilliant Piano Concerto, Bliss, who wrote his Meditation on a Theme of John Blow, and Rubbra, who delivered this masterpiece. It's fair to say the good folk of Birmingham got their money's worth!

The third movement – a Passacaglia and Fugue – is exquisite, and while there is much to love in Rubbra's symphonic output, this particular movement is the gleaming diamond in his musical crown. My old music lecturer at Keele, Stephen Banfield, asserted in his book on Gerald Finzi that this movement was Rubbra's tribute to his close friend and fellow-composer who died while he was composing the symphony. It's hard to conceive of a more moving response. I listened to this today and, as the music ended, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to personally visit the musical directors of our great orchestras and interrogate them as to why this music seemingly never even enters their minds when considering programmes.

Day 234

22 August 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 6 (1818)
There is a convention of sorts when composers write two symphonies in the same key to refer to the smaller (and usually earlier) of the two works as the 'Little "n" major/minor'. So we have Mozart's 'Little G minor' (see Day 86), Dvorak's 'Little D minor' (see Day 136), and this, Franz Peter Schubert's 'Little C major'. This is unquestionably the little brother to the 'Great C major', his ninth symphony, which is nearly twice the length of this one.

Many commentators have detected an Italian influence in this symphony. The finale takes a theme from his own Two Overtures in the Italian Style, the second movement Andante seems to have the feel of a tarantella, while the use of musical themes associated with street festivals has been attributed to the influence of Rossini. There's a general lightness of feel throughout, which actually reminded me of Mendelssohn's fourth 'Italian' symphony composed some ten years later. Sadly, Schubert never heard this in his lifetime. The irony is that this brightest of symphonies only received its first performance at a concert to commemorate Schubert's death in 1828.

Day 235

23 August 2017: Louise Farrenc – Symphony No. 3 (1847)
Even in today's more enlightened times, there is still an element of sexism within the music business, as can be evidenced by the relatively small presence of female composers in many orchestra's programmes. One can only imagine, therefore, what it was like in Louise Farrenc's time. Here was a significant figure in mid-nineteenth-century French music; Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire for fully 30 years, a gifted performer, and a highly talented composer. Nonetheless, her abilities as a composer were not taken seriously, and the logistical difficulties of assembling an orchestra to perform her works meant they went largely unheard in her own lifetime.

I featured Farrenc's second symphony a few months ago (see Day 139) and had to admit that I didn't really enjoy it, due to it being simply too derivative of earlier composers. I have no such qualms with this her final, and arguably best, symphony. From the mysterious woodwind opening, it is clear that there's a more self-confident composer at work, and it soon develops into a robust and beautifully orchestrated Allegro. There is, it has to be said, a Beethovenian feel to the Adagio cantabile slow movement, but it is no less wonderful for that, and the fast and furious Scherzo is a display of effortless brilliance. Unfortunately, concert tickets are usually sold on the basis of the names of the composers on the programme, and until Farrenc breaks that particular barrier, she is sadly likely to remain obscure.

Day 236

24 August 2017: Weill – Symphony No. 2 (1934)
Kurt Weill is so well known for his music for the stage that many people will perhaps be unaware of his credentials as a composer of more conventional classical music. He studied composition first with Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one) and then Ferruccio Busoni, and included the likes of Stravinsky and Berg among his admirers. The year before Weill wrote this symphony, he had fled to Paris following the rise to power of the Nazis in his native Germany, and had seen his most famous work, The Threepenny Opera, premiered on Broadway. Although that closed after just 13 performances, it was clear that Weill saw his future in musical theatre and his second symphony turned out to be his last orchestral work before he concentrated on writing for the stage

I was one of the many unaware of this period of his career and I'd go so far as to say that if I'd been played this blind and asked to guess the composer, Kurt Weill would have been about guess number 572. It does have a connection to his earlier stage work Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, in that one of its numbers, Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man, is the model of the first movement's lyrical second subject – albeit rather more symphonically treated. It's clear from this that Weill was a perfectly good symphonist, but he soon realised it doesn't pay the rent.

Day 237

25 August 2017: Walton – Symphony No. 2 (1960)
The William Walton who presented his second symphony to the world as a 58-year-old elder statesman of English music was a rather different creature to the enfant terrible of 25 years earlier, when he composed his first. While the earlier work was considered quite cutting-edge and modernist, this symphony was very harshly treated by the critics of the day, who tended to view him as rather old-fashioned at a time when the burgeoning Manchester School of composers – Goehr, Maxwell Davies, and Birtwistle – were changing the country's musical landscape.

The criticism was unfair of course, and as a consequence the symphony has been viewed for a long time as a poor relation to the first, rather in the same way Elgar's second used to be perceived. Just as the Elgar has started to be appreciated anew in recent years, so the Walton is long overdue a re-appraisal. It's a more sophisticated work than its predecessor, certainly better orchestrated, although it lacks the sheer brute force of the first. The final movement is a brilliant set of variations on a twelve-note tone row, although it is by no means a serialist work. Had Walton written this within a few years of his first symphony it would probably have been much better received. The prejudices that coloured its reception nearly sixty years ought not to permanently damage its legacy.

Day 238

26 August 2017: Britten – Cello Symphony (1963)
Benjamin Britten is a permanent fixture in my top five composers of all-time. He wrote for so many different genres that his contribution to the symphonic repertoire is often overlooked, but I find it fascinating. He wrote four, none of them numbered, and all very different from each other. His Simple Symphony, Sinfonia Da Requiem, and Spring Symphony I have already featured, and this was the final work to which he attributed the name 'symphony'. And while the first three were a work for string orchestra based on juvenilia themes, a conventional orchestral piece in three movements, and a choral symphony respectively, here Britten experiments with the form again by writing a symphony with a prominent part for a solo cello. It was composed for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work.

Britten decided to call this piece a symphony rather than a concerto (having also considered the title Sinfonia Concertante) as he believed the solo and orchestral parts to be of equal weight. Certainly the structure is conventionally symphonic, with a sonata form opening movement, followed by a Scherzo and an Adagio, although the cadenza with which the latter concludes is the one flaw in the symphony argument. The final movement is the crowning glory of the work. Britten did like a Passacaglia; there are fine examples in his Violin Concerto, in the opera Peter Grimes, and his Nocturnal for guitar, among others. The use of this traditional Renaissance construct here is a perfect way to conclude a work that plays with one's preconceptions of traditional forms.

Day 239

27 August 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 5 (1982)
Of all the new composers I've discovered this year as part of my Symphony A Day venture, I think Valentin Silvestrov is probably my favourite. Still going strong and approaching his 80th birthday, Silvestrov has written eight symphonies, the most recent of which emerged four years ago. In common with many late-twentieth-century composers, Silvestrov started out writing music of a modernist nature although his change to a more consonant approach was originally out of necessity following criticism from the Soviet authorities. The style he developed, largely in private having withdrawn public life, was a neo-Romantic idiom of flowing, delicate lyricism.

He was awarded Ukraine's Shevchenko National Prize for Music in 1995, and this symphony, which by then was thirteen years old, was one of three pieces cited. It really is a lovely piece. For the most part, it moves at serene, glacial speed. There are echoes of Mahler's ninth and tenth symphonies in the string writing at the beginning and end of the work, as if their music has been refracted through a late twentieth-century prism. Silvestrov is possibly unique in that he wears his influences so visibly, yet produces work of great uniqueness. It would be nice to hear his work more often in this country.

Day 240

28 August 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 6 (1947)
Fewer things could indicate just how popular Ralph Vaughan Williams was at this point in his career than the astonishing fact that this work received over 100 performances worldwide within two years of its premiere. It is probably his most misunderstood symphony, even more so than the enigmatic Pastoral Symphony (see Day 120). The fact that it was written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, its discordant musical language, and its desolate final movement led many critics to assume – quite wrongly – that it was RVW's reaction to the conflict. Vaughan Williams refuted this, memorably replying, 'It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.'

The first movement sees a return to the abrasive language of his fourth symphony, although the contrasting, lyrical second subject is more akin to his folk-tinged earlier works. Incidentally, this tune was used as the theme music for the 1970s ITV series A Family At War. The extraordinary second movement features a five-note rhythm that is repeated insistently, as many as 90 times, building to a quite terrifying crescendo, while the third movement, with its sleazy saxophone solo, appears to mock dance-hall music of the time. Eventually, however, this collapses into the cold and bleak Epilogue, marked pianissimo throughout, that is quite unlike any movement in British music to that point. What makes this highly original, and in many ways groundbreaking symphony all the more remarkable, is that Vaughan Williams was 74 years old when he wrote this. There was clearly life in the old dog yet.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Days 225 – 232

Day 225

13 August 2017: Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 2 (1907)
That Sergei Rachmaninov actually wrote a second symphony is a triumph over adversity possibly unequalled in music. His first (see Day 138) had been subjected to wilfully brutal criticism by almost everyone who felt compelled to document their opinion of the poorly performed premiere. Rachmaninov suffered depression and a full psychological breakdown as a direct consequence, and barely wrote a note of music for three years afterwards. Having written his hugely popular second piano concerto in the intervening twelve years since the disastrous first, Rachmaninov was still plagued by doubt over this work, and revised it repeatedly before releasing it into the wild.

It has, of course, become one of his most successful compositions, and indeed one of the most frequently performed symphonies in the whole late-Romantic repertoire. It features in tonight's all-Rachmaninov programme at the BBC Proms, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, so that meant a return of the Proms tie-in, whereby I aim to listen to that particular performance (which was rather difficult to co-ordinate as I was in Prague at the time). It's one of the few symphonies to have inspired a pop song, with the third movement Adagio having been lifted by Eric Carmen for his minor 1976 hit Never Gonna Fall in Love Again. Carmen must have been quite the Rachmaninov fan, as this was in turn a follow-up to the global hit All by Myself, which ripped off the second piano concerto. It has to be said that the symphony as we now recognise it has only in recent years run to the full hour of music that Rachmaninov originally wrote. For most of its performance history it was presented in a savagely cut state, with edits approved by the composer sometimes reducing its length to around 40 minutes. Thankfully we now hear it in all its glory and the work is all the better for it.

Day 226

14 August 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 35, 'Haffner' (1782)
This symphony had a far more interesting life than most of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's earlier works. For the most part, Mozart wrote to order, usually quite quickly, for a specific performance and then moved on to the next piece. It is questionable he would ever intend such works to be heard again. This, however, was a symphony fashioned from earlier music: a serenade he had written for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner the Younger five months earlier. The six-movement serenade was, according to a letter he wrote to his father at the time, written over almost as many nights whilst working on his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio during the day!

When, in December of 1782, Mozart decided to present a concert of his music, he revisited this earlier music – essentially dropping two of its six movements, a march and a minuet – and formed it into the symphony we know today. The said concert was a bit of an oddity: the first three movements of the 'Haffner' symphony opened proceedings, and then after some of his arias, a couple of his piano concertos, and various other items, the finale of the symphony concluded the concert. In keeping with many symphonies of the time, it begins with a loud, unison theme, which effectively served the purpose of silencing the crowd. The opening movement is a conventional sonata form, while the Presto finale makes use of a theme from the aria Ha, wie will ich triumphieren from the opera he was working on at the same time, The Abduction from the Seraglio. A rare example of symphonic material that re-uses music already re-used before!

Day 227

15 August 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 3, 'Rhenish' (1850)
I admitted, when featuring Robert Schumann's first symphony back in February (see Day 38), that he was a composer I rarely listened to. So when this one cropped up on the schedule, to tie in with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's performance of it at tonight's BBC Prom, I thought I probably should know it, but couldn't recall anything about it. As soon as the first bars were played, however, a welcome spark of recognition occurred that made me wonder why I'd neglected it for so long.

It's a marvellous symphony, somewhat at odds with the circumstances surrounding its composition. The Schumann family had recently moved to Düsseldorf, as Robert had taken up the role of the city’s Music Director. Their new apartment was in the centre of the city and, by all accounts, noisy, which meant Schumann's attempts at composition were constantly disrupted. According to his wife Clara this caused her husband a form of 'house rage'. Nevertheless, his response to his new surroundings in the Rhineland was to pour out this joyous work, with the tone set from the off with a majestic opening theme. I happened to be travelling from Prague to Bayreuth today, and listening to this with the German landscape as a backdrop – albeit Franconia rather than North Rhine-Westphalia – suited the music perfectly. I think it may be time for me to bring Schumann back in from the wilderness to which I've dispatched him.

Day 228

16 August 2017: Balakirev – Symphony No. 2 (1908)
I didn't really do Mily Balakirev any favours by scheduling this for today. His second symphony is the lesser well-known of his pair, and certainly not one I'd ever heard before. Unfortunately, I ended up listening to this 50 minutes of totally unfamiliar music shortly after returning to our gasthof in Bayreuth after spending the previous six hours attending Tristan und Isolde at the Festspielhaus. After that, anything would have been an anti-climax, so poor old Balakirev was onto a hiding to nothing. Anyway, I decided to do the decent thing and give it a second listen on our flight back to the UK a couple of days later.

Rather like Stanford in this country, Balakirev is arguably more famous for who he influenced than anything else – in this case, his protégé Tchaikovsky. His own music has not been treated well by history, and the fact that the supposedly better-known first symphony (see Day 49) is rarely performed outside Russia to this day, gives an indication of how far below the waves thus has sunk. He was 71 when this symphony was completed, and after taking over 30 years to complete his first, this one was knocked out in a comparatively cursory eight years. It opens with two quite startling chords that rather threw me off balance, sounding for all the world like the final two chords of another work. The second movement is a scherzo marked alla Cosacca, and its Cossack style would have been entirely in keeping with the Russian art form he and the rest of The Five were attempting to create. This would also be true of the final movement Polonaise, which was actually a form more associated with Imperial Russia than Poland. I'm afraid the second listen didn't really raise my opinion of the symphony much, however, and it's unlikely ever to receive a third.

Day 229

17 August 2017: Lalo – Symphonie espagnole (1874)
Yes, I know it's a violin concerto really, but according the rules that I set out on day one, Édouard Lalo chose to call this a symphony, ergo it qualifies. Also, it meant I could incorporate a third Proms tie-in this week, as it features in tonight's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra prom, with Joshua Bell as soloist. As a symphony, it doesn't really fit the template, but then again, as a five-movement work, it isn't a conventional concerto either. In fact, Lalo had written his Violin Concerto for the same soloist, the famed Spaniard Pablo de Sarasate, the previous year. That he chose not to call this 'Violin Concerto No. 2' is indicative of its different conception.

French composers of the day appear to have had a fascination with the music of their Iberian neighbours. Bizet wrote Carmen around this time, Chabrier produced his rhapsody for orchestra España the following decade, and Ravel would draw upon it repeatedly for Bolero, Rapsodie espagnole, and his one-act opera L'heure espagnole in years to come. The Spanish inflections in the music are very prominent throughout, especially in the second movement Scherzando. There are virtuosic fireworks throughout and the work has rightly become a concert favourite, although it is probably the only work by Lalo I could name off the top of my head.

Day 230

18 August 2017: Stamitz – Mannheim Symphony No. 3 in B flat major (c. 1741)
Over the (checks) 230 days that I've doing this Symphony A Day thing, I've pondered on whether I may have done a few things differently. The one thing I might have changed, had I really thought it through rather than just deciding on a whim on the morning of 1 January to do this, is that I could have run the symphonies in chronological order to show how the genre developed over the centuries. Had I done so, this would have featured in the first week of January as one of the earliest examples of the genre.

I find it fascinating that Stamitz was writing this fledgling classical symphony at around the same time as Handel was writing the Messiah, and JS Bach produced his second book of Preludes and Fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier. It's groundbreaking stuff, with a recognisable sonata-form first movement, a stately Andante central movement, and a lively Presto finale in triple time – all of which would influence Haydn in following decades.  At around eight minutes in length, it is one of the shortest symphonies I've heard this year but this is very much the tiny acorn from which symphonic form grew.

Day 231

19 August 2017: Pettersson – Symphony No. 9 (1970)
I featured Allan Pettersson's 7th symphony a few months ago (see Day 116) and at the time he was a relatively new discovery to me. He's rapidly becoming one of my favourite composers and this is seen by many as the pinnacle of his symphonic output (which amounts to 15 completed symphonies, and two further unfinished ones). It's certainly the longest, running to 70 minutes in its slowest recorded performance, and in common with most of his other symphonies it consists of a single through-composed movement.

Quite often, when I encounter composers like Pettersson whose work is rarely performed outside of his native country, I find myself questioning why their music is so infrequently programmed. It's pretty easy to see why in Pettersson's case, however. Seventy minutes of unbroken music is a big ask of any audience, and it would be difficult see how anyone could confidently programme the work and expect much of a crowd to turn up. This is a shame, as it's a work that manages to sustain the listener's attention throughout, much of which is down to his trademark device of sustaining pedal notes and repeated osinati figures for so long that you're almost pleading with him to resolve them. When the music finally lands onto a quiet, restrained major chord in the last 30 seconds the effect is astonishing. A great symphony, but one in which Pettersson is clearly pushing the levels of audience tolerability. He was hospitalised for nine months after writing this, and along with the demands the ninth symphony had engendered, these two factors probably contributed to the fact that his next symphony was only 25 minutes long.

Day 232

20 August 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 4 (1889)
While Hubert Parry achieved great popularity in his own lifetime, his symphonies started to dwindle into obscurity almost as soon as each was written. Even as long ago as 1949, AEF Dickinson was writing an article in The Musical Times, entitled 'The Neglected Parry' bemoaning the fact his music – Jerusalem aside – was rarely performed. The situation has scarcely changed nearly 70 years on.

Take this work for example. It is Parry's longest symphony, with my copy of London Philharmonic/Matthias Bamert CD (that remains the only recording of the piece in existence) clocking in at around 42 minutes. It was originally composed in 1889 and given one performance, after which Parry declared his dissatisfaction with the work. In 1910 he revisited the symphony, padding out the orchestration and writing a new scherzo. And while this improved the work in the composer's eyes, it did little for its fortunes. After a solitary performance of the revised version, it remained unheard for a further 80 years until Bamert picked up the score for the aforementioned recording in 1990. It is the first of Parry's symphonies to have been written in a minor key, and this led him to concede that it was 'a bit stern'. Personally I think its length and choice of key lends it a gravitas that sets it above its predecessors. It's a view that even the composer himself doesn't appear to have shared though.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Days 219 – 224

Day 219

7 August 2017: Górecki – Symphony No. 2, 'Copernican' (1972)
In common with many 20th century composers, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki went through two very distinct stylistic phases. Having started as a darling of the Polish avant-garde in the mid-1950s, he later developed a much more consonant style and was bundled in with the 'Holy Minimalists' following the bewildering success of his Symphony No. 3, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' in the early nineties. I can, however, think of very few examples of symphonies that showcase both periods of a composer's development in a single work, in the way that this does.

The title 'Copernican' comes from the fact that the symphony was written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus's birth in 1973 (although the work was actually completed the previous year). It is in two wildly contrasting parts. The first part, which represents the chaos of the world, features massive, loud, dissonant whole-tone chords that span six octaves, and also fast ad libitum passages for brass – very reminiscent of his compatriot Witold Lutosławski. The second couldn't be more different, employing quieter, calmer music based on the pentatonic scale, and occupying much the same sound world as the third symphony. This represents the order of the universe, and features a choir singing psalms from the Bible. Indeed, the last five minutes or so of this work is so quiet as to be barely audible – leading me to think the piece had finished long before it had! It is hugely important work in Górecki's output, not only for the importance of the occasion for which it was written, but also as it represents a summation of his career as a whole.

Day 220

8 August 2017: Kodály – Symphony in C major (1961)
I've been amazed by the number of symphonies I've discovered this year that had ridiculously long gestation periods. The three decades it took Zoltán Kodály to complete this his only symphony is certainly on the outer extremes of those examples. Kodály started work on this in the 1930s, and after 15 years of what must have been very intermittent work he had completed two movements. It may have remained in that incomplete state for the rest of his life, however in 1959, following the death of his wife of 48 years Emma Gruber, the 77-year-old Kodály married a 19-year-old student by the name of Sarolta Péczely. This seems to have invigorated the old man, and he completed this symphony within a year.

AllMusic reviewer Joseph Stevenson rates this as 'one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th Century', although it is not a widely held belief. It is, nevertheless, a splendid piece of work, and the culmination of a life devoted to the folk music of his native Hungary. The folk-like themes are everywhere, with the opening music featuring what appear to be open string drones in the manner of fiddle tunes. The second Andante moderato movement features a viola-led theme and variations that sounds for all the world like his English counterpart Vaughan Williams at times. The final movement, which as mentioned previously was written much later, is a rip-roaring romp of Hungarian dances that is practically impossible to sit still through. It is quite remarkable that this liveliest of movements should be the work of a man approaching his eighties.

Day 221

9 August 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 6 (1881)
Unlike the seeming majority of critics, I like Anton Bruckner's sixth symphony, mostly for the fact that it is almost completely different to the other nine. That's not to say that I don't like his work as a rule because I do, and the one he followed this with is an absolute doozy. But the sameness that makes the fifth almost indistinguishable from the third or the eighth to the inattentive listener just isn't present here. According to the composer 'the Sixth is the sauciest'. Well quite.

Its oddity has led to it being considered by many critics as the runt of Bruckner's symphonic litter. It is certainly the least frequently performed, and words like 'peculiar', 'tiresome', and 'flawed' have been tossed out when discussing it. Personally, I'd put it in his top three, as there is a clear originality of thought within its bars, and it has more than its fair share of memorable themes. Right from the off, the insistent ostinato rhythm of the violins indicates a different direction from the swirling musical mists that usually feature at the opening of a Bruckner symphony. The slow movement is just gorgeous, even by Bruckner's high standards, and the scherzo is unlike any of those from his other symphonies – almost Mahlerian in its twists and turns into dark corners. The finale is probably the weakest of the four movements, but then I've never considered Bruckner's final movements to be his forte. All energy seems spent by the time he gets to them and this is no exception. Nonetheless, I do like this symphony a lot, and after Nos. 4 & 7, it's probably the one I listen to most often.

Day 222

10 August 2017: Piston – Symphony No. 2 (1943)
Walter Piston's books on Orchestration and Harmony were indispensable reading when I was a music student, especially the former with regard to composing for instruments I didn't play (which would be virtually all of them). Some years passed before I discovered that, as well being an academic, he was also an eminent composer. The fact that it's taken me until today to listen to anything he'd ever written is, I confess, quite shameful.

Anyway, this is another candidate for the increasingly towering pile of enjoyable discoveries this year. The first movement is a taut musical argument between its two very contrasting subjects: the first slightly dark and the second bordering on jaunty. The heart of the piece is the Adagio second movement, which features a beautifully expansive melodic line the equal of anything his countryman Samuel Barber may have written. Indeed, it was this movement that Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of upon hearing news of the composer's death in November 1976. It all feels like effortless writing, although by all accounts it was a piece Piston slaved over for some time, and listening to this there's a feel of a master at work. So good at it, in fact, that he obviously felt compelled to write books about it.

Day 223

11 August 2017: Berio – Sinfonia (1969)
And now for something completely different. We're into day 223 and none of the previous 222 symphonies sound anything remotely like this post-modernist classic. Luciano Berio's Sinfonia is now approaching its 50th birthday, yet it still has the power to shock. It is scored for a large orchestra plus eight amplified vocalists who are employed to sing, talk, shout, whisper and generally add an extra dimension to the sound world throughout. It is one of the most enduringly successful works of the last half-decade,

The first two movements are very contrasting with the opening section a brutalist landscape of quotations from Lévi-Strauss battling against avant-garde orchestral writing. The slow second movement features the singers expanding the harmonics of single piano notes in a hugely imaginative way, with the text having been taken from Berio's own work, O King, a tribute to Martin Luther King who had been assassinated the previous year. These movement are but preparation for the sensory overload of the third movement; a quite extraordinary collage of verbal and musical quotations, all of which are built on a base of excerpts from the scherzo from Mahler's second symphony. Fragments of text from Samuel Beckett and James Joyce collide with Debussy, Hindemith, Ravel, Stravinsky, Strauss, Beethoven and many more to produce a dizzying, heady mix of music and literature. It's an absolutely mind-blowing and trippy work, feeling almost like some acid-induced 'happening' that would have been entirely in keeping with the time in which it was written.

Day 224

12 August 2017: Franck – Symphony in D minor (1888)
Seventies pop star Carl Douglas is known for one thing and one thing only: his number one single Kung Fu Fighting. In interviews. whenever he found himself fielding accusations of being a one-hit wonder, he would respond with, 'Yes, but what a hit!' For some reason this quote came to mind when considering Belgian composer César Franck's magnum opus, the Symphony in D minor. Franck was, in symphonic terms, something of a one-hit wonder, and in fact I'd struggle to name a single other work he wrote in his no doubt impressive career. It is, however, one of the most frequently performed and recorded symphonies in the repertoire, and has established his name almost single-handedly.

For all its popularity now, Franck's Symphony wasn't terribly well received at the time. Franco-Prussian enmity was still running high in the 1880s, and the symphony as a form was viewed by many in the French-speaking world as a Germanic construct. French orchestras refused to perform it, and when, finally, it was performed by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra the year before Franck's death, it was savaged by the critics, with Charles Gounod describing it as incompetent. Common sense eventually prevailed, and it reputation is now secure. Its unusual three-movement structure sees all three make use of the same four-bar theme that opens the work. The central movement, which is actually a slow movement and scherzo rolled into one, begins with a memorable cor anglais solo, while the finale sees the opening theme transformed brilliantly into a sweeping melody that carries all before it towards a triumphant finish. Definitely the best symphony ever written by a Belgian!