Sunday, 19 November 2017

Days 317 – 323

Day 317

13 November 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 6 (1925)
As we approach the end of the year, there will an increasing number of final symphonies, and today we have the last symphony composed by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. After the hugely popular fifth (see Day 256), Nielsen decided to produce something completely different from its predecessors. The original idea was to strip everything back to basics, to produce music that was idyllic and 'gliding more amiably', and thus he initially entitled the work Sinfonia semplice. Quite what happened to that concept, we may never know, but the finished product turned out to be anything but simple and actually left its audience rather bemused.

For all he intended this to be a departure from his earlier works, the opening of the symphony is readily identifiable Nielsen. It does take some undeniably strange turns thereafter though, not least in the bizarre Humoreske second movement, in which a trio – well, more of an argument really – for triangle, glockenspiel, and side drum holds sway, while woodwind instruments attempt to keep the music together and a slide trombone interjects disdainfully from time to time. The contrast between this and the intense writing for strings that follows in the third movement couldn't be more stark. The finale is a theme and variations, in which the theme is stated on a solo bassoon, with variations that range from sparsely orchestrated chamber groups, through an orchestral waltz, a section for percussion alone reminiscent of Britten's Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, to a final light-hearted conclusion. The sixth symphony is as rarely heard as the fifth symphony is ubiquitous, but it's certainly never dull.

Day 318

14 November 2017: Lennox Berkeley – Symphony No. 2 (1958)
I've been a fan of Lennox Berkeley for as long as I can remember. His Serenade for Strings is fantastic, and, as a guitarist, I've been familiar with his lovely Guitar Concerto for quite some time. I fell slightly out of love with him when I decided to perform his fiendish Theme and Variations for Guitar, Op. 77 for a class test at University, but that was more down to my own incompetence as a performer. Ironically, I got on far better with his son Michael's Worry Beads a couple of years earlier. Anyway, I digress. His symphonies have escaped me up until now, and to be honest, the reviews I'd read of them didn't fill me with much hope.

The criticism most frequently levelled at Lennox Berkeley is that he was a miniaturist. The composer Hugh Wood referred to him as 'only a divertimento composer', and his symphonies are about as large-scale as anything he wrote. This is the second of four, premiered by the CBSO, as it happens during the brief period when Andrzej Panufnik was their musical director. The ten-minute-long Lento would seem as if to set the tone for a work of grand scale, but whenever it develops any kind of momentum or drama, Berkeley seems to rein the music in, which can make for a frustrating listening experience. A brief jaunty dance-like Scherzo is much more in his comfort zone, and this is bookended by another Lento, one that is far more impressive than the one that opened the symphony. The Allegro finale is energetic enough, but feels like a bit of a lightweight ending, and just adds support to the view that Lennox Berkeley just didn't do grandeur. 

Day 319

15 November 2017: Rosetti – Symphony in G min, A42 (1787)
Francesco Antonio Rosetti: names don't come more Italian than that. So it comes as a surprise to most, including me, to discover that he was in fact Bohemian, having been born Franz Anton Rösler in Litoměřice, now part of the Czech Republic. If asked to list composers of the classical period, Mozart and Haydn would trip off the tongue fairly easily. After that, maybe Clementi, Boccherini, Bachs JC and CPE, and then a bit of head-scratching. Rosetti's name probably wouldn't be immediately forthcoming. He did, however, compose about 50 symphonies, very much in the three-movement early-classical tradition.

This is probably the best-known, and certainly most-frequently recorded, of the bunch. Remarkably, this is the only surviving one in a minor key – although the catalogued A50 was listed as being in A minor, but has been lost. It is a splendid little piece, and one that employs a broad tonal range, especially in the first movement where the music passes through several keys over its seven-minute duration. There is even an example of bimodality at one point; highly advanced stuff for the 1780s. He’s always going to struggle to find concert airtime against his Viennese counterparts, but certainly worth hearing more of than we do at present.

Day 320

16 November 2017: Panufnik – Symphony No. 10 (1988)
Another final symphony, this time from Andrzej Panufnik. Not only was it his last – written when he was 74 years old – but it was also his shortest symphony, and represents something of an anomaly in that was only one of his symphonies to be numbered rather than titled. The work was commissioned by his old friend Sir Georg Solti for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. Panufnik completed it quite quickly, however, and it was premiered in 1990 – the Chicago SO's 99th year. The premiere was probably brought forward to ensure the first performance preceded its inclusion in that year's Warsaw Autumn Festival, in which Panufnik, following the fall of communism, felt able to end his voluntary exile, and made a triumphant return to Poland for a series of concerts of his music. 

Having initially formed the idea of writing something akin to a concerto for orchestra, Panufnik decided instead to showcase their supreme sound quality, through different instrument combinations. He was drawn back to familiar themes: three-note cells and geometric forms. In contrast to the Sinfonia della Speranza (see Day 285), however, Symphony No. 10 is a tightly argued single-movement work of about 17 minutes’ duration. It represents a neat full stop to his symphonic life. Having made his celebratory return to the land of his birth, the following year he received a knighthood from his adoptive homeland. Sadly, by then he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and died just weeks after receiving it.

Day 321

17 November 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 8 (1955)
I haven't made much of a secret of my love of Ralph Vaughan Williams over the course of this year, but I have to confess that when I started hoovering up recordings of his symphonies back in the mid-1980s, this one left me a bit cold at first. It took me a while to fully appreciate it, but the invention and orchestral colour on display in this work is really quite something, especially given the composer's age when he wrote it. RVW completed this when he was 83, showing that as his years advanced, his powers were far from waning. Long gone was the folk-music influenced early style, and instead there's an appetite for experimentation where there would have been every justification for a degree of end-of-career laurel-resting.

It's the shortest of RVW's symphonies, and strangely the first to which he gave a number – the previous seven having all been given either titles or simply a key designation. The central movements are of particular interest, with a brief militaristic Scherzo scored only for wind instruments followed by a gorgeous Cavatina for strings alone. The finale unleashes 'all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer', to use RVW’s words, in a percussion-driven Toccata that is so-far removed from The Lark Ascending it is scarcely recognisable as the work of the same man. And the remarkable thing is that there was yet more to come from the affable octogenarian!

Day 322

18 November 2017: CPE Bach – Symphony in G major, Wq 182:1 (1773)
When I last featured Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, it was with one of his Wq 179 symphonies; a collection of nine known as the 'Berlin Symphonies' (see Day 157). About ten years later, CPE Bach moved from Berlin to Hamburg, where he succeeded his godfather, Telemann (from whom he also acquired his middle name, Philipp) as Kapellmeister. While in Hamburg, Bach wrote a major set of six string symphonies, which were not published in his lifetime, primarily because they were commissioned by a Baron van Swieten, who intended them for private use. Nevertheless, they became popular after his death, and are considered important in his body of work, as the central group of a total of 18 symphonies that are known to have survived to the present day.

This is the first of that set of six, and it was an appropriate choice for today, given that I'm singing his Magnificat this evening with Newcastle Bach Choir. It is short, as all symphonies of the time were, and follows the standard three-movement design – fast-slow-fast – adopted from the Baroque concerto. The thematic development is distinctly classical though, and the emotionally charged passage in the middle of the finale seems to echo the Sturm und Drang style being explored at the time by Haydn elsewhere.

Day 323

19 November 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 9 (1910)
Over the last 30 years or more, my opinion on which of Mahler's symphonies is the greatest has tended to vary. At one time or another I've held No. 1, 2, 4, 5 and 8 in the highest regard. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it's this symphony I'd take to my Mahler-only Desert Island. Having circumvented the so-called Curse of the Ninth by designating Das Lied Von Der Erde a symphony (see Day 288), Mahler then moved straight on to this work and confronted the very real prospect of his imminent demise head on. It was to be the last work he completed (he died while writing his tenth), and in the finale, he seems to be composing his own death.

Apart from its vast scale – performance time averages around the 80-minute mark – it's about as conventional as Mahler symphonies get. It's purely instrumental, the orchestral forces called for aren't especially large for the Late-Romantic era, and it has a four-movement structure, albeit a non-standard one with the outer ones being two huge slow movements. Where it leaves all of its peers behind, however, is in the sheer intensity of its musical language. No less a judge than Alban Berg described the first movement as 'the most heavenly thing Mahler has written'. It has the feel of a long farewell, both to his own time on earth and to the passing of the symphonic tradition to which he belonged. A trademark Scherzo follows, given the very specific marking of Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (In the tempo of an easygoing Ländler, somewhat heavy footed and very vigorous), although the main theme is in fact a rhythmic transformation of a theme from the first movement. The pent-up venom and anger is poured into the Rondo-Burleske third movement, which is about as dissonant as anything Mahler ever wrote. With all ire spent, the scene is set for the final movement, which I rarely manage to get through dry-eyed. I've never heard anything that matches its searing beauty and power, and the closing section, where every ounce of life force is squeezed out until all that remains is silence, is at once heart-breaking and life-affirming. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Days 310 – 316

Day 310

6 November 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 8, 'Unfinished' (1822)
We'll probably never know why Franz Schubert didn't finish this symphony. It's not as though he died in the middle of writing it, as Mahler, Bruckner, and Borodin had with their 10th, 9th, and 3rd symphonies respectively. He went on to live for another six years, during which time he completed his Symphony No. 9, the 'Great C Major'. Speculation has abounded over the last couple of centuries as to what caused Schubert to abandon it after completing the first two movements and sketching out a Scherzo. Perhaps the most persuasive is that he felt unable to match the quality of the first two movements. Some musicologists have pointed out that all three movements for which music exists are in B minor and triple time, which may have created a problem Schubert felt incapable of resolving – either have the fourth movement follow the pattern making it sound samey, or buck the trend leaving the finale seem incongruous.

Whatever the reason, we have been left with two of the greatest symphonic movements ever written, which are actually perfectly capable of standing on their own as a concert piece. I've never heard any of the completions of the Scherzo and nor do I intend to, as I generally find that such realisations are a disappointment. The perpetual wonder over how Schubert might have completed this is part of its mystique, and I still find it hard to believe that music written in the early 1820s could be this intense. This is one of the first pieces of classical music I ever got to know. My father (by the bye, whose 80th birthday it would have been today) didn't have many classical records but he did have an LP of this, so I've known and loved it from a very young age. As such, it's one of my life-long go-to works.

Day 311

7 November 2017: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No 4, 'Los Angeles' (2008)
I featured Arvo Pärt's third symphony back in April (see Day 114), which was a work written on the cusp of the transition between his old avant garde style and his newer, more simplistic language. I said at the time that, as a consequence, I found it the most satisfying of his orchestral pieces. Pärt didn't write another symphony for 37 years, and when he did revisit the form in 2008, he was fully immersed in his tintinnabuli system. Tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum, "bell") is the name Pärt gave to the musical language he evolved from the mid-seventies onwards and is characterised by slow arpeggiated triads and stepwise melodic lines. Edgar Allen Poe similarly invented the word tintinnabulation to indicate the lingering sound of a ringing bell in his poem The Bells: the sound Pärt aims to evoke.

The public penchant for what has been dismissively termed 'holy minimalism' has led to Pärt's music, along with the stylistically similar Tavener and Górecki becoming hugely popular. The recording of this symphony by the LA Phil (who jointly commissioned it, hence the name) under Esa-Pekka Salonen was nominated for a Grammy, although it didn't win (beaten by Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, as it happens). It's a perfectly pleasant work, but while the tintinnabuli style lends itself to smaller pieces, here Pärt employs it over a 35-minute symphonic span and quite frankly, it becomes tiresome.

Day 312

8 November 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5, 'Reformation'(1830)
The Lutheran faith celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2017; a fact I have to confess I was blissfully unaware of until it cropped up on the news last week. Thus, without thinking, I very nearly managed to schedule Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's commemoration of the founding of it for the anniversary itself (I missed by 8 days). It only ended up being this end of the year by virtue of being No. 5 of five symphonies the composer wrote. The misleading, posthumous numbering of Mendelssohn's symphonies by his publishers often gives rise to the mistaken belief that this was his final symphony. In fact it was written second when he was just 22 years old – the actual sequence in order of composition 1–5–4–2–3.

It's a work Mendelssohn went on to disown and refer to as juvenile. It was never published in his lifetime, and it seems that on the few occasions it was heard, the critical response had been less than favourable. The fact that it was completed too late for the tercentennial Augsburg Confession celebrations, for which it was intended, may also have resulted in Mendelssohn turning his back on the work. Thankfully, it was eventually published some two decades after the composer's death, and it's a very good, if rarely heard, symphony. The Protestant tradition is represented in the outer movements, with the finale featuring Luther’s chorale Ein feste Burg, having previously been hinted at in the opening. The first movement also periodically employs a cadence known as the Dresden Amen, which again has connotations with the Lutheran church. The brief inner movements are less than memorable, but do not detract from the overall whole.

Day 313

9 November 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 7, 'Dedicated to those who brought down the Wall in peace' (1990)
Today being the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, here we have the seventh symphony by the American-born-German-resident Gloria Coates. Regular readers will be fully aware by now that I've become quite evangelical about Coates's music and this is the fourth of her symphonies I've featured this year. She was in the process of writing this work at her home in the then German capital of Munich when the news of events in the former capital broke. Inspired by this, Coates gave the composition the title it now bears, and also the name 'Symphony'. It was part of a re-evaluation process that saw her revisit six of her previous works and re-designate them as symphonies, with the result that this became No. 7 at the same time as Music on Open Strings (see Day 184) became No. 1 and Illuminatio in Tenebris (see Day 283) became No. 2, and so on.

The selection of those works to be classified together as a symphonic canon is an interesting one. In her own words, she "decided to take the ones that satisfied several criteria ... and the fact that they were introverted but had an emotional expression." There is certainly the unifying feature that they all make use of her trademark glissando writing, and use of microtones, although they're hardly the only seven of her works up to that point that could be characterised by that alone. This work rather distinguishes itself from its predecessors in its greater use of brass and percussion, and that the central movement employs a mirror canon in almost conventional chorale-like writing. At least one regular Twitter follower has become a huge fan of Gloria Coates's music as a result of my featuring some of her output this year, and this really pleases me.

Day 314

10 November 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 4, 'Symphonie Concertante' (1932)
Rather as Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (see Day 229) is a violin concerto in all but name, this is really a piano concerto, and a particularly fine one at that. What possessed Karol Szymanowski to call it a symphony is a mystery. Lalo does at least call his work Spanish Symphony, which is more of an abstract title than anything directly descriptive. Even if Szymanowski had left it as Symphonie Concertante I probably would have passed over it, as I've excluded a few of those this year on the grounds of ambiguity. But no, he consciously chose to call it Symphony No. 4, so in it comes.

A clue as to why Szymanowski avoided the designation piano concerto might be gleaned from his correspondence, in which he confesses to fellow-composer Stanisław Wiechowicz that he wrote the piano part with a view to making it easy enough for him to play himself. Thus by calling the work a symphony, he may have drawn away the expectation that a concerto would showcase a degree of virtuosity that he clearly did not possess. Spurious titles aside, it's a marvellous work. There is a beautiful slow movement that bears a close resemblance at times to the corresponding movement in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, written the previous year. The final movement is a blaze of colour that features an oberek: a lively Polish dance in quick triple time, which brings the symphony (or concerto – whatever) to a rousing conclusion.

Day 315

11 November 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 8 (2013)
Valentin Silvestrov's eighth symphony was composed just four years ago, and as such this is the most recent symphony featured so far (although, there is a more recent one coming later). Silvestrov, is another of those composers who has been a great personal discovery for me this year. His timeless musical language is probably best described by the composer himself; “I do not write new music. My music is a response to, and an echo of, what already exists.”

This symphony is a perfect example of his art. There is music that appears to be entirely original, but from the slow-moving, almost primeval world he creates, faintly recognisable details emerge. At around the 12-minute mark a delightful waltz tune emerges, then just after half-way there is a piano tune that sounds suspiciously like Chopin, and towards the end, a tune of seemingly Debussian origin is heard doubled between the flute and celesta. The way that this seemingly pre-existing, but actually original, music seamlessly emerges and then disappears into the fabric of the symphony is what makes Silvestrov's music so appealing to me.

Day 316

12 November 2017: Borodin – Symphony No. 3 (1887)
Alexander Borodin was born 184 years ago today, so to mark the occasion here's his final contribution to the symphonic repertoire. As with the Schubert featured six days ago, this is an unfinished work. However, while there is ongoing speculation as to why Schubert left his eighth in a state of incompletion, Borodin's remained unfinished for the perfectly understandable reason that he died while he was writing it. He actually died quite suddenly, so had made no attempt to sketch out other movements in anticipation of being unable to complete the work. What remained was a completed second movement (written, as it happens, five years earlier), and a sketched-out first movement that, as luck would have it, he played to Glazunov prior to his demise, who went on to complete what remained.

The orchestration is pure Glazunov, and thus we have to assume it was his decision to give the beautiful opening theme of the first movement to a solo oboe, which is joined in harmony by the whole woodwind section. It's a wonderful beginning to a sweetly orchestrated lyrical movement that is among Borodin's finest. A brilliant Scherzo in 5/8 meter follows, and this features a reflective central section – a trio of sorts – and related in feel to the first movement. Both movements were originally intended for string quartet, and there is a small-scale delicacy about the piece that belies its designation as a symphony. What might have followed, we can never know, but there's enjoyment enough to be had from the 18 minutes or so that Borodin left us with.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Days 303 – 309

Day 303

30 October 2017: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Symphony No 3 (1992)
I think it's fair to say that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich will not be a name familiar to many, especially not outside her native America. She does, however, have a number of significant firsts that mark her out as a special talent whose music should be better known. As a student at Juilliard School of Music, she became, in 1975, the first woman to earn a doctorate in composition. Then, in 1983, her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) earned her the honour of becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Today's symphony dates from ten years after her prize-winning first, and is the third of five she has completed to date. It was written for the New York Philharmonic's 150th anniversary, and as a string player herself, she chose to focus on the virtuosity of the orchestra's normally overlooked viola section. It is in two distinct sections, although the second half is effectively a second (Molto vivace) and third (Largo) movement played without a break. Musically, Zwilich's later style (of which this is typical) involves the tonal treatment of atonal material, rather as earlier composers such as Frank Martin have done in the past. It's an outstanding piece, with the tension set up from the outset, as the aggressive chords that open the work always threaten to disrupt the more lyrical music that follows. The soaring, impassioned string writing that closes out the symphony is breathtaking, with the tension seemingly taking an eternity to be released. Quite brilliant.

Day 304

31 October 2017: Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 3 (1874)
Another third symphony, although a very different one to yesterday's. Given that none of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov's are especially well known, I did debate whether featuring all three might be a bit excessive. They have, however, turned out to be among my more pleasant discoveries this year. If nothing else, with Rimsky, you know you are going to get dazzling orchestration and wonderful use of colour, and this is no exception. That I was able to hear any of this through my St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra reading, which sounds like it was recorded in a cave, is a minor miracle.

Although Rimsky began working on this symphony in 1873, he gave himself something of a head start by making use of a Scherzo previously composed some ten years earlier, and matching it with a Trio dating from the year before – written, as it happens, while he was on honeymoon. You'd have thought he might have had better things to do. He follows this at-times odd movement, in the unusual time signature of 5/4, with an Andante of occasionally searing beauty, and the finale sees the themes of the opening movement return. And it is that opening movement that is the symphony's highlight in my view. It's one of his finest pieces of writing, with its hushed ending being particularly exquisite.

Day 305

1 November 2017: Schnittke – Symphony No. 1 (1974)
It is to my eternal shame that it has taken me 305 days to get to the music of Alfred Schnittke. I am probably compounding that shame by going with this, his first symphony, as it really isn't very typical of his symphonic output. By rights, I should have also selected a later symphony for balance, but I doubt I'll be able to squeeze it in now. You'll just have to take it from me that if this isn't to your taste, his rather more conventional later music might be.

Conventional is certainly not a word you could apply to this work though. As first symphonies go, this is absolutely bonkers! After some very early works in which he experimented with Serialism, Schnittke evolved a technique that he termed 'polystylism'. This involved throwing all musical styles from history into a big pot and revelling in the collisions and juxtapositions it throws up as a consequence. It's interesting that this symphony should come up exactly 100 years after yesterday's Rimsky Korsakov, as pretty much everything that happened in music in the intervening century is covered here – and much of what preceded it. So we have quotes from Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B flat minor sitting alongside a Grapelli-esque improvisation for violin and piano; Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries competes with what might well be Jelly Roll Morton. It's not an entirely new idea – Charles Ives took a comparable approach in his Symphony No. 4 (see Day 123), and Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (see Day 223) inhabits similar territory. At a monumental 75 minutes in length, I can't pretend it’s an easy listen, and the wholesale lifting of material does give this a feel of a musical collage at times rather than a work of composition. It is a piece that demands your attention though, and it's certainly never dull.

Day 306

2 November 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 39 (1788)
There are many myths and mysteries surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and possibly the most intriguing of all regards what it was that inspired him to compose what turned out to be his final three symphonies in an intense two-month spell in the summer of 1788. Usually, Mozart worked to a commission, and had little spare time to compose music for the sheer hell of it, least of all three major symphonies that had no apparent prospect of performance at a time when his financial position was particularly perilous. Recent research by H.C. Robbins Landon may have solved the mystery, suggesting that they were, in fact, performed in his lifetime after all at a series of subscription concerts. There is also further first-hand evidence from an audience member at a concert in Hamburg, describing the opening of a Mozart symphony that seems to correspond with this one. From Mozart's own correspondence and available documentation, however, there is no certainty that any of these three symphonies were performed before his death three years later.

As for the work itself, it is rightly viewed as one of Mozart's masterpieces. In his later career, he had begun to look back to the contrapuntal style of his predecessors Bach and Handel, and Symphony No. 39 demonstrates this neo-Baroque (for want of a better term) sensibility better than most, particularly in the final movement. It begins with an extended slow introduction, just as his previous symphony the 'Prague' had (see Day 284). The introduction is so long in fact that the Allegro, when it finally kicks in, almost seems like an afterthought. The Adagio is surprisingly dark at times for a Classical slow movement, while the Scherzo is typically Mozartian, with its rising, arpeggiated main theme. The joyous finale is similarly brief but brilliant in its display of contrapuntal wizardry.

Day 307

3 November 2017: Bantock – Celtic Symphony (1940)
Having featured Sir Granville Bantock Hebridean Symphony back in May (see Day 130), here we have him again returning to Hebridean folksong in this his fourth symphony. The Celtic Symphony, is a late work, written when the composer was 72, but there is no evidence of his powers diminishing here. I had the pleasure of attending a rare performance of this work at the Proms in 2013, sitting perfectly between Sibelius's Violin Concerto and Elgar's Enigma Variations. That it was its first performance at the Proms was saddening, but typical of a dropping off of interest in Bantock around the time of this work's composition. Bantock has been performed at the Proms on 107 occasions, but only a handful of those came after his death in 1946.

It's a lovely work, written for a string orchestra plus six harps, and echoes some of the works for strings written by his near contemporary, Vaughan Williams. In fact, the opening chord did lead me to immediately think I'd put on RVW's Tallis Fantasia by mistake! The Hebridean folk tune used in this work is An Ionndrainn-Mhara (Sea-Longing) and is heard on a solo cello around the mid-point of the work, roughly where the slow movement would be, were the movements not all linked into one 18-minute whole. There are memorable moments aplenty, not least near the end of the work when all six harps are released into a glissando frenzy – and if you had six harps at your disposal, why on earth wouldn't you do that?

Day 308

4 November 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 (1888)
Within classical music circles, I don't think it's ever been cool to like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The fact that, as music critic Harold C. Schonberg put it, he had a 'sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody' just made him very much the ABBA to Mahler's Joy Division. This has, of course, led to his music becoming hugely popular in concert halls, with this in particular being one of the more frequently performed symphonies. It may well be that his hogging of orchestral repertoire time has led to a degree of resentment among fans of other composers, and perhaps with some degree of justification. Then again, if writing great, popular tunes was easy, we'd all be able to do it.

The fifth symphony represents Tchaikovsky's best example of cyclical form, with the opening theme, first heard in the clarinets, returning at various points throughout the symphony as a kind of leitmotif, transforming as it does from initial solemnity to a triumphant march. The slow movement is beautiful with luscious themes tumbling over each other from the off. The first of these strongly resembles the first few notes of John Denver's Annie's Song, although it's probably coincidental. Denver certainly seemed surprised when the similarity was pointed out to him. A delightful waltz, or rather a series of waltzes occupies the third movement, but it is the finale that really divides opinion. The false-sounding triumphalism of the final march caused Tchaikovsky himself to admit, after a couple of hearings, that ‘it is a failure’. It's the only section in the symphony that misses a beat for me too, but given the splendour of the rest of the work I can forgive him this momentary lapse in taste.

Day 309

5 November 2017: Casella – Symphony No. 3 (1940)
Alfredo Casella had a complex relationship with the symphony. He wrote three, although the composer himself would probably say he only wrote two. He effectively disavowed his first symphony (see Day 102) to such an extent that he re-used an entire movement in another work he called a symphony three years later – now universally referred to as Symphony No. 2. Even that was a piece Casella subsequently dismissed as unoriginal, actually saying as much in a spoof advertisement trying to sell both resolutely neglected symphonies. Today's work, written some 30 years later (coincidentally, completed in the same year as Bantock's Celtic Symphony featured on Friday) was simply published as Sinfonia per orchestra, Op. 63, still seemingly unsure as to whether to count the first two. The fact that it took him three decades to produce a third (or second!) symphony is probably indicative of his ambivalence to a form that very few Italians were tackling in the first half of the twentieth century.

I've always heard in his music the influence of Mahler, especially in his work’s highly emotional content, but I hadn't realised until quite recently that there was actually a direct link between the two in that Mahler had commissioned Casella to produce a two-piano arrangement of his seventh symphony. Casella was a tireless champion of Mahler's music, something for which the Austrian was always grateful. One can detect influences of Stravinsky – especially in the music for oboe and bassoon that opens the work – and Shostakovich in the mix, but the Scherzo is almost unashamedly Mahlerian. Likewise, the exuberant finale with its bouncing horns owes a debt to his idol. It's a genuinely uplifting ending, and it is unsurprising that it was this symphony that triggered a recent rekindling of interest in Casella's work after decades in the wilderness, caused mostly by his toxic support for Mussolini's regime, which he had renounced by the time of this symphony.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Days 295 – 302

Day 295

22 October 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 8 (1890)
My listening schedule for this year does, at times, throw up little clusters of symphonies that lend themselves to being considered together. It did this week, when a trio of eighth symphonies found themselves in close proximity, so here they are as a three-day sequence, beginning with Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8. This was the last one Bruckner actually completed, his ninth remaining unfinished at his death in 1896. As you've no doubt noticed, I tend to put the year of composition in parentheses in the title above, but this is often problematic for works that are later revised or written in stages. In Bruckner's case, it's never more than a vague approximation given his obsessive revision mentality. This was composed in 1884-85, orchestrated in 1886-87, the completed score was then sent to the conductor Hermann Levi, who rejected it, it was then revised in 1889-90, and finally first performed in 1892. The version widely accepted as definitive is the 1890 revision, so that's what I'm going with.

That it was only revised once indicates the notoriously self-critical Bruckner was at least reasonably happy with it. Rightly so, as it is a magnificent work. Performance times for Bruckner symphonies vary so much that it's hard to say which is the longest – this alone varies on record between 71 minutes (Leinsdorf) and 104 minutes (Celibidache), which is a remarkable difference. It's safe to say it's a contender to be the longest, however, and its profundity of tone affords it an additional gravitas. I have occasionally seen this symphony given the subtitle 'Apocalyptic', and although it is of dubious origin, is does seem to fit. The first movement bucks the trend he set himself by shying away from the usual blaze of glory conclusion in favour of a quiet and reflective ending. Following the pattern of Beethoven's ninth, Bruckner reversed the usual slow movement–scherzo order of inner movements. This does give the whole a greater sense of balance than, for example, the seventh symphony that preceded it, where the two huge opening movements heavily outweighed the latter two. The vast Adagio of the eighth is one of Bruckner's finest slow movements, while the finale was apparently influenced by a visit to Vienna by the Cossacks, with brass and military music the order of the day. As the work draws to a close there is an almost desolate feeling of all energy spent, yet somehow one final push is summoned to produce a mighty denouement with the final chord being played out over a whole minute of music. It was the last final symphonic chord Bruckner was to write, and a fitting way to sign off.

Day 296

23 October 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 8 (1812)
The second of my trio of 'No. 8's is the shortest symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. Sitting as a rather unloved sibling between the mighty seventh and the epic Choral symphony, Beethoven's eighth is something of an oddity. It even left its audience cold back in the time of its first performance, with a contemporary account stating, rather euphemistically, that it 'did not create a furore' – unlike the aforementioned seventh (see Day 251), which was ecstatically received and was also performed to a greater reception at the premiere of this work.

It's a perfectly good symphony of course, but rather like the similarly squeezed fourth, its relative insignificance only comes about because of the works it sat alongside chronologically. The opening movement stands as an equal to any of the others he wrote, but the movements that follow are all shorter and more lightweight. Its lack of a slow movement was also highly unusual, with a coquettish, four-minute Allegretto scherzando taking its place. The lively final movement bears some similarity with the two final movements of the seventh, with its insistent rhythms throughout. It also features a remarkable coda that includes a modulation of a semitone from F# to F which was an utterly outrageous manoeuvre in the early 19th century. After producing symphonies at fairly regular intervals throughout his career, Beethoven would leave the genre alone for ten years after this one. It's fair to say he would come back with a bang.

Day 297

24 October 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 (1889)
To complete my trio of 'No. 8's, here we have Antonin Dvořák's late masterpiece. When I featured his seventh a few weeks ago (see Day 255), it kicked off a little Twitter debate over which was the greatest of his symphonies. Certainly the ninth is the most popular, but there was a lot of love for No. 7 and similar amount for this work. It came very quickly to the composer, who took little more than a month to complete the piece, seemingly driven by a determination to write a symphony different from its predecessors.

The work opens with a long theme for the cellos, and it is they who drive the melodic content of the symphony. It is melody that drives this piece forward, something for which Dvořák had a great gift. The result is that his symphonies generally take a unique shape compared to the classical tradition, not feeling the need to burden himself with a first subject–second subject approach that would, after all, limit him to just two tunes! The darkly chromatic slow movement was indeed quite unlike anything Dvořák had written before, with an almost Sibelian bleakness that is at odds with the joyful nature of the rest of the work. A delightful allegretto soon gets things back on track, before a bright fanfare signals the start of the magnificent finale. Those prominent cellos return with a glorious melody that even by Dvořák's standards is pretty memorable, and after a reflective section towards the end of the movement, there's a sudden acceleration towards a suitably triumphant ending.

Day 298

25 October 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 2, 'To October' (1927)
With fifteen symphonies, Dmitri Shostakovich is the composer I've featured most often this year. I've gone through them mostly chronologically, but have broken the sequence for his third, subtitled 'The First of May', which I obviously had to feature on the first of May (see Day 121), and this symphony, subtitled 'To October', which commemorates the October Revolution of 100 years ago. Now, there is something of an anachronism here, as the October Revolution took place on 25 October 1917, but in the New Style calendar this corresponds to 7 November. It is universally known as the October Revolution though, so I'm going with the old date in the new calendar, or something like that.

As for the symphony itself, well it's not his greatest work. It's mercifully short, at around 17 minutes, but after the brilliance of his first symphony this clumsy piece of Soviet propaganda makes for a poor listen. It starts promisingly enough, with some of the earliest usage of tone clusters in twentieth century music, and some typically skittish writing for smaller ensembles within the group. In the days before Socialist Realism had raised its ugly head, we are able to hear in this music the direction Shostakovich would have taken but for political interference. The choral finale that occupies most of the second half of the work is, however, an abomination. Beginning with a factory whistle summoning the workers, there follows a clumsily scored hymn in praise of Lenin with the final line 'This is the slogan and this is the name of living generations: October, the Commune and Lenin', being shouted by the choir at the end. Subtle it ain't.

Day 299

26 October 2017: Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1939)
I haven't been keeping count, but Arnold Schoenberg might take the record for the longest time to complete a symphony that I've featured this year. Brahms took over 20 years to produce his first symphony, Rimsky Korsakov finished revising his first 25 years after beginning it, and Balakirev and Kodaly took around 30 years to complete their first contributions to the symphonic repertoire. In taking fully 33 years to realise the final version of this symphony, Schoenberg may take some beating. To be fair to all the aforementioned, none of them spent every day working on their troublesome work, and all produced other compositions in the meantime. Nevertheless, the importance of the symphony as a public statement can be gleaned from such procrastination.

What makes this of particular interest is the sea-change that happened in Schoenberg's style between this work's start date of 1906 and its completion in 1939. At the outset, the composer was pushing the fringes of tonality within a Late-Romantic idiom. In the intervening years, he effectively invented serialism, abolishing tonality in favour of 12-tone technique. By the time Schoenberg revisited Chamber Symphony No. 2, he had emigrated to America following the rise of the Third Reich, and had started to allow tonality back into his music after three decades of hardcore serialism. The result is extraordinary; a piece that hankers back to the Romanticism of his Verklärte Nacht, but is imbued with the atonality that permeates his subsequent work.

Day 300

27 October 2017: Rautavaara – Symphony No 7: Angel of Light (1994)
I would have included more symphonies by Einojuhani Rautavaara this year, but recordings of some of them are quite hard to obtain. Hence, I've had to make the jump from number three (see Day 119) to number seven with a degree of reluctance. This really is a thing of beauty though, and thankfully there are some very fine recordings out there, including a Grammy-nominated one by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam. It has rapidly become a favourite of mine, and is a worthy way to bring up the triple century in my Symphony a Day journey.

The apparently free-moving music is actually drawn from a theme that has its roots in the commission that gave the work its original name The Bloomington Symphony. It was commissioned by the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, and Rautavaara extracted the letters of the orchestra's name that can be notated musically, B–G–S–H–C–H–E–S–A (German notation for B flat–G–E flat–B–C–B–E–E flat–A). These notes initially appear in fragmentary form on glockenspiel and vibraphone, before emerging in full played by the brass section. His ability to take such unpromising material and turn it into deeply spiritual music is what marks Rautavaara out as one of the great composers of his generation and the overwhelming beauty of sections of this work is instantly appealing.

Day 301

28 October 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 5, 'Symphonic Fantasia 1912' (1912)
This is quite magnificent. Hubert Parry wrote five very fine symphonies, all studiously ignored by the orchestras of this great nation, but the neglect of this work is particularly shameful, given that it is the best of the lot, in my humble opinion. Yes, it followed hot on the heels of Elgar's second and probably seemed a bit lightweight in comparison, but it is still a considerable work of high merit. At around 27 minutes, it is comfortably his shortest symphony, but its terse, interconnected structure with four linked movements represents Parry's most mature orchestral work.

Parry had been in ill health when he composed this work, something which had caused him to resign as Professor of Music at Oxford. Ironically, this freed up more of his time for composition and the fifth symphony was one of a batch of late works that represent the best of his output. He also wrote a book, Instinct and Character, which was rejected by his publishers and to the best of my knowledge remains unpublished. The book was an expression of his ethical views, and these lent themselves to the individual movement's titles – Stress, Love, Play, and Now. The second movement, Love, contains one of the most wonderful melodies Parry ever wrote, and as such is the glowing heart of a work that oozes class and style.

Day 302

29 October 2017: Malipiero – Symphony No. 10, 'Atropo' (1967)
Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero was something of a late-flowerer of a composer. He was born in 1882, the same year as Stravinsky, Szymanowski, and Kodály, and yet he feels like a more modern composer than any of those, primarily because most of output was written in his later years. This symphony, for example was the tenth of eleven to which he gave numbers, all of which were written after he'd turned 50, as too were three other works he called symphonies – Sinfonia in un tempo, Sinfonia dello Zodiaco, and Sinfonia per Antigenida. Stylistically, his music is an interesting mix of contemporary techniques inflected by a strong influence of pre-19th-century music from his homeland.

This short symphony, with a running time of around 13 minutes in the only recording that I'm aware of, is dedicated to the German conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was a champion of his music. The name ‘Atropo’ comes from the ancient Greek goddess who ended the life of mortals by cutting their thread. It's a very fine symphony, and a poignant tribute. The opening woodwind theme is almost certainly a quoted melody from early music, although I can't identify it. This is heard over a ground bass, but the mood soon changes as the music moves into the angular contrapuntalism that readily identifies his style. A lovely but all-too-short Tranquillo slow movement again opens with a delicate theme – for strings this time – over a ground bass. The closing moments of the finale are especially pleasing with the woodwinds intoning in a madrigal style against a backdrop of unsettling harp and celesta accompaniment, before low brass chords add a suitable full stop.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Days 289 – 294

Day 289

16 October 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 94, 'Surprise' (1791)
You're probably aware that, with one or two date-specific exceptions, I've been working through composers' works in chronological order. So you may be wondering why, after featuring Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 100 last month (see Day 247), I've suddenly jumped back to number 94. Well I'm afraid I can offer no more adequate explanation than the fact that I simply forgot about this one!

Haydn was very fond of the crowd-pleasing gimmick. Whether it was the musicians leaving the stage one-by-one in the 'Farewell' (see Day 62), a bagpipe drone effect in 'The Bear' (see Day 151), or Turkish percussion and trumpet fanfares in his 'Military' Symphony No. 100, the desire was always to get the crowd on their feet and give the reviewers something to write about. The 'Surprise' features probably the most famous device of them all. The slow movement begins very quietly with an almost nursery rhyme theme, then suddenly at the end of the first repeat there is a fortissimo chord that must have made the audience at the first performance collectively crap themselves. It has to be said that it's an otherwise forgettable symphony, that probably wouldn't be considered one of his greatest compositions. But as ever with Haydn, it was all about giving the punters what they want.

Day 290

17 October 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 6 (1923)
Sandwiched between his mighty fifth and sublime seventh symphonies, Jean Sibelius's sixth is by no means his most popular. It is nevertheless an enigmatic work many consider his best. All three symphonies were, in fact, worked upon almost simultaneously in the years after World War I. Sibelius references all three in a letter of 1918, although his ideas for this symphony and the seventh were far removed from how they eventually turned out. In the letter, he described this work as 'wild and impassioned in character' while the final product is rather more restrained. It is both traditional, in the sense of having a conventional four-movement structure, and yet breaks with tradition in its use of the Dorian mode – seemingly as a consequence of his developing interest in the music of Palestrina at the time.

Sibelius himself referred to the symphony as 'pure cold water', drawing attention to its contrast with the extravagances occurring elsewhere in the musical world at the time, notably in Vienna and St Petersburg. Possibly because he was concerned at all aspects of the world seeming to accelerate out of control, time seems to stand still in this piece, the tone having been set by the exquisite, clear as crystal opening with strings and woodwinds interweaving beautifully in modal lines. This may well have seemed like a palate-cleanser, with serialism and expressionism holding sway at the time. The ending is incredible with hesitant phrases eventually dwindling away to emptiness; not for nothing was Michael Tilson Thomas's 1988 TV essay about this symphony entitled Journey Into Silence. For a work of such clarity of purpose, it still takes a few listens to fully absorb its intricacies, and therein is the mark of great art.

Day 291

18 October 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 3 (1896)
I bloody love this symphony. There have been many (far too many) works that I have featured this year whose neglect has dismayed me, but the fact that performances of this are as rare as hen's teeth actually angers me. It's a quite magnificent work, written, as it happens, in the same year as he was married, which may go some way to explaining the moments of sheer bliss that permeate throughout.

A sublime, slow-moving chorale opens the first movement, which probably contributes as much as anything to the lazy nickname he's acquired over the years of 'the French Bruckner'. This opens out into a glorious piece of Late-Romanticism, with wondrous sweeping melodies that at times are quite Mahlerian. After a lively scherzo featuring what sound like French country dance themes, there is an exquisite Pastorale that alone could ensure the work's immortality. The crowning glory is the closing section of the finale when the opening chorale returns fully orchestrated; an absolute masterstroke.

As for why he continues to be neglected, well he had the misfortune to be born in the same year as Sibelius, Nielsen, and Glazunov (1865), and this symphony dates from the same year as Mahler's mighty third. I've considered in these pages before that the late-nineteenth century produced so many magnificent composers that many perfectly good ones have ended up as B-listers. One doesn't need to scratch too far below the surface to discover more wonderful music from this period, and Magnard – and this symphony in particular – is worthy of higher ranking.

Day 292

19 October 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 6 (1935)
As with his fifth symphony (see Day 252), Arnold Bax composed this in his remote retreat in Morar on the west coast of Scotland. It is dedicated to Sir Adrian Boult, and it was the legendary conductor who imparted an indirect influence over the direction this composition took. Boult had long championed Bax's music, but occasionally criticised its lack of formal discipline. Bax thus set about producing a more structurally controlled, and ultimately very satisfying, piece. Of his seven symphonies, this was reportedly Bax's personal favourite. And although I'm also a fan of his third symphony, I'm inclined to agree with his assessment.

I've always tended to view Bax as an English Sibelius, and there are a number of parallels between the two composers. Apart from the coincidental fact that they both composed seven symphonies, they both had an interest in depicting the environment around them in music, Bax dedicated his fifth symphony to Sibelius, and in this work Bax even went so far as to quote Sibelius. At around the mid-point of the lengthy final movement the strings quote a theme from Sibelius's Tapiola – a work that reduced Bax to tears on first hearing – and the theme evolves constantly towards a triumphant climax. This then subsides into a beautiful, peaceful epilogue that features a part for solo horn that seems closely related to the trumpet solo in the slow movement of Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony. I’d argue this is Bax’s finest symphonic movement, and as a whole I find it the most sharply focussed of his symphonies

Day 293

20 October 2017: Hindemith – Symphony in B flat for concert band (1951)
Paul Hindemith's contribution to the symphonic canon is significant, if largely ignored. Depending on how you count them, there are between six and eight, comprising six works called symphonies (my definition for the purposes of this diversion) plus a set of Symphonic Dances, and his famous Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The first of those was his Symphony: Mathis der Maler, which I featured earlier in the year (see Day 131), which was an ambitious work based on music from his opera of the same name. Eighteen years later Hindemith took a very different approach to the concept of a symphony with this work written for concert band (one made up entirely of woodwind, brass and percussion).

In the intervening years since Mathis der Maler, Hindemith had been driven out of his native Germany by the Nazis and had taken up permanent residence in the US. Indeed, Symphony in B flat was written for the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own", and Hindemith's genius for understanding the characteristics of the groups of instruments he was composing for shines through. This cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, features a distinct jazz influence undoubtedly drawn from his adopted home, especially when the saxophones are prominent early in the middle movement Andantino grazioso. The final movement makes use of the rather more conventional device of a fugue, or rather a double fugue, which drives the piece to a raucous conclusion.

Day 294

21 October 2017: Górecki – Symphony No 3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' (1976)
Way back in the mid-Seventies, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki – a composer little-known outside his native Poland – began writing his third symphony, as he continued to set his career along a simpler harmonic path, having turned his back on the avant-garde style for which he had become known. It was universally panned. According to one story reportedly emanating from the composer himself, one early performance was attended by Pierre Boulez who loudly exclaimed 'Merde!', as the final chords faded out. Fast forward a decade and a half, and in 1992 (incidentally, the same year that, as a student at Keele University, I wrote my graduate dissertation on contemporary Polish Music featuring Górecki as something of a bit-part player alongside his more famous compatriots Lutosławski and Penderecki) Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of the 16-year-old symphony, capitalising upon the fact that it had found its way onto the regular playlist of the then-recently launched Classic FM. That recording has, to date, now sold over one million copies.

The biggest-selling record of a symphony of all-time? Almost certainly. The greatest symphony of all-time? Absolutely not. It was a phenomenon that went to the very heart of what is good and what is popular. This music clearly struck a chord with huge numbers of people, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a critically mauled work of art found its way into the hearts of its intended audience. I will confess to having some disdain for the work's popularity at the time, and recall attending a performance at the South Bank in about 1994 where I was bewildered by the thunderous ovation the (to my ears) thoroughly mediocre piece was receiving. In listening to it today, I did so for the first time in about 10 years. There's no denying that it has a hypnotic beauty I underestimated at the time, and I can certainly appreciate what others see in the symphony. Still prefer his early work though!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Days 282 – 288

Day 282

9 October 2017: Khachaturian – Symphony No 3, 'Symphony-Poem' (1947)
Well this is a quite extraordinary work. Armenian-born composer Aram Khachaturian operated when the land of his birth was part of the Soviet Union, but there's is no doubt that coming from a country on the Europe – Asian border, he was somewhat detached from the European symphonic tradition. It's a single-movement work of around 25 minutes' length, bearing little resemblance to any other work can think of from the time, or since for that matter. It was written to mark the 30th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, but its uncompromising nature led to it almost immediately being banned as 'formalist' in the Soviet Union: one of many works to fall foul of the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1948.

Of the many things that make this symphony stand out from the crowd, it’s the orchestration – with a scoring that calls for 15 trumpets and an organ – that is most bizarre. It opens with a lengthy fanfare featuring the trumpets in all their glory, which then gives way to an organ voluntary of dazzling brilliance. Name another work that opens like that. These two instrumental blocks continue to have an ongoing dialogue in an astonishing opening section where the mood never dips below intense. Finally, about seven minutes in, a moment of calm descends for a strings-led central section that features Eastern-inflected folk melodies for which Khachaturian is famous. The opening music returns in the final section, more agitated than before and with everything turned up to eleven. Quite what it has to do with the Russian Revolution I know not, but it's a mightily powerful work that I'd love to hear more often.

Day 283

10 October 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 2, 'Illuminatio in tenebris' (1974)
As today is her 79th birthday, I'm happy to have another excuse to feature a symphony by the wonderful Gloria Coates. I have rather messed up the chronology in my selections to date, having gone first with her fourth symphony back in March (see Day 67), and then her first in July (see Day 184). Then again, this was originally composed in 1974, but subsequently revised in 1988, between the composition of her sixth and seventh symphonies, so ordering it is a little bit troublesome. The Latin subtitle translates as 'light in the dark', with all three movement based on natural examples of light emerging from darkness: Aurora Borealis, Aurora Australis, and Dawn.

Her trademark string glissandi feature prominently throughout, especially so in the central movement Aurora Australis where the opening high note in the violins steadily descends in an apparently continuous glissando through the orchestra over about two minutes. The symphony also carries a second subtitle of Music in Abstract Lines, which may be a reference to the glissando markings in the score, usually notated as a line between two notes. The overall effect is unsettling but with moments of clarity emerging from the mists created by the unstable pitches throughout. About as clear a depiction of light in the dark, therefore, as one could imagine.

Day 284

11 October 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 38, 'Prague' (1786)
Skipping over Symphony No. 37, for the entirely justifiable reason that he didn't actually write it, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 38th Symphony has no such question mark over its authorship. It was Mozart's first symphony for three years – quite a sabbatical by his standards – having been concerned more with operas and piano concertos in the meantime. It was his opera The Marriage of Figaro that led to this symphony being first performed in Prague, and hence its nickname. Mozart had written Figaro earlier in the year, but the Vienna audience were bemused by it and it closed after just nine performances. The punters in Prague, however, lapped it up, and as a direct consequence Mozart was invited to perform in the city, with this symphony receiving its premiere there on 19 January 1787

He rewarded his adoring public in Prague with one of his finest works. It is an unconventional symphony, comprising just three movements instead of the more usual four. The first movement, however, is on a much grander scale than anything written before, running to almost 15 minutes in length. The slow introduction of which Mozart was fond at the time, is far longer than any of his other, admittedly few, examples and sets the tone for  a stream of melodic consciousness that develops along broadly sonata form lines. The exquisitely elegant slow movement almost matches the first in scale, while the exhilarating finale shows the influence of the recently composed Marriage of Figaro, with an opening theme that is taken from a duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II of the opera.

Day 285

12 October 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia della Speranza (1987)
I discovered Andrzej Panufnik in 1989, when his Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77) was performed at that year's Proms and instantly became one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. Although I remain a huge fan of Panufnik, I will concede that nothing really comes close to the Sacra in his symphonic output and it does rather dominate his other nine. If there is a candidate to take on the mighty Sinfonia Sacra in my affections, it is this work, the Sinfonia della Speranza (Symphony of Hope).

It was Panufnik's ninth symphony, and was commissioned by The Royal Philharmonic Society for their 175th anniversary. He found this already daunting prospect exacerbated when it was pointed out that the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s ninth. After shying away from the choral symphony he initially conceived, Panufnik instead marked the occasion with this his longest and most ambitious symphony. He set himself the ‘formidable task of composing a continuous melodic line of about forty minutes’ duration’. As with many of his later works, a three-note cell is the starting point, and it acts as a prism creating, in Panufnik’s words, ‘a spectrum of colours … and shaping the melodic line’. The symphony's arching, rainbow structure and continuous melodic thread, give the piece a greater formal unity than any of his other large-scale works, and the return of the opening theme at the end is tremendously satisfying moment. 

Day 286

13 October 2017: Vierne – Symphony No. 1 for organ in D minor (1899)
Louis Vierne is probably the lesser-known of the two giants of the organ symphony. Continuing the tradition of his mentor, Charles-Marie Widor, whose Symphony No. 5 (the one with the famous Toccata) I featured in January (see Day 11), Vierne wrote six organ symphonies of his own, of which this is arguably the best-known. Although following in his master's footsteps, I find that Vierne had a far greater gift for melody than Widor and I have to say I rather prefer this symphony to any of the ten Widor produced.

Cast, unusually, in six movements, its pleasing structure comprises an opening Prélude and Fugue, a calm Pastorale and Andante sitting either side of a spritely Allegro vivace, before the symphony closes with his greatest seven minutes of music: the mighty Final, which is every bit the equal of Widor's Toccata. Vierne thought highly enough of this movement to subsequently take it in isolation and arrange it for organ and orchestra in 1926. Incidentally, Vierne's death is worthy of comment, falling into the Tommy Cooper category of dying doing what he loved best. He apparently suffered a heart attack during a recital at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he had been principal organist for 37 years, playing his own Triptyque, with the composer Maurice Duruflé sitting beside him at the console. No doubt the way he would have chosen to go.

Day 287

14 October 2017: Brian – Symphony No. 32 (1968)
Having featured Havergal Brian's name-making first symphony, The Gothic, earlier in the year (see Day 50), we now fast forward fully forty years to his last contribution to the symphonic canon. The combination of Brian having lived so long and having produced so many symphonies, it's easy to forget that he was actually fifty when he completed his first symphony – demonstrating just how prolific he was in later life. The excesses of that earlier work had long been abandoned though by the time he had reached his dotage, with this 20-minute work being rather more typical of the conciseness he later adopted.

This was not just his final symphony, but the final work he ever completed in a life and prodigious life. Written, incredibly, when he was 92 years old. It is, if truth be told, not his greatest symphony, but the fact that he still had something as eloquent as this to say two years into his tenth decade is absolutely astonishing. Havergal Brian was a master of counterpoint and that dominates the writing in the first movement, which has the feeling of a Bach invention in its constantly moving and interweaving parts. It gradually diminishes as the movement goes on, eventually dissolving away to leave just a solo violin before gathering itself again as the movement closes. The Adagio second movement, actually just sounds like a continuation of the first movement, and it's probably the absence of pathos from this movement that gives the symphony an overall feel of sameness. It is, however, the only symphony written by a nonagenarian I'm featuring this year and that makes it noteworthy in itself.

Day 288

15 October 2017: Mahler – Das Lied Von Der Erde (1909)
'But surely this is a song cycle?' I hear you cry, with some justification. Well yes, but Gustav Mahler subtitled this composition Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester, and as I'm sure you're all aware by now my rule is that if the composer chooses to call it a symphony, then it is one. This is widely regarded as Mahler's attempt to cheat the 'Curse of the Ninth', which decreed that no major composer since Beethoven would go on to complete a tenth. It's something of fallacious superstition, given that of the most famous examples, Schubert left two symphonies unfinished, Dvorak had lost symphonies published after his death, while Bruckner and Spohr wrote additional unnumbered symphonies. Nevertheless, Mahler took the curse seriously, and chose not to number this as his ninth. He would, of course, go on to complete a Symphony No. 9, and die leaving his tenth incomplete!

If we accept that is a symphony, and not a song cycle, then it is oddly imbalanced one. There are six movements, but the work is dominated by the sixth – Der Abschied – which occupies nearly half of the symphony's overall length. It's a lovely piece, usually performed by an alto although it can be performed by a baritone, and over its near-thirty-minute duration it dwells upon the theme of leave-taking culminating in the final word 'ewig' (forever) repeated as the music fades away to emptiness. Up to that point, the preceding movements lend themselves more to the song-cycle interpretation of the composition. Each is a relatively straightforward setting of a different poems of Chinese origin, ranging from a raucous drinking song to a soft and gentle mediation on beauty. Bernstein considered this Mahler's greatest symphony, and although I can't concur, I do find it a less demanding listen than some of his work.