Saturday, 14 January 2017

Days 10 – 14

Day 10

10 January 2017: Spohr - Symphony No. 7 in C major, “lrdisches und Gottliches im Menschenleben" (1841)
Another Louis, but from a very different era. Louis Spohr was born in Germany 14 years after Beethoven, and, like his elder compatriot, he is seen as a pivotal composer bridging the Classical and Romantic periods. Unlike Beethoven though, he fell out of fashion almost immediately after his death, and it is only in the last 50 years or so that there has been a revival of interest in Spohr. He actually wrote ten symphonies, but I don't plan to listen to all of them  primarily because I don't think they've all been recorded  hence the reason for diving straight into his seventh, which is probably the most interesting of the lot.

The title translates as The Earthly and Divine in Human Life, and the work is programmatic with each of its three movements prefaced by a four-line verse motto, written by his wife Marianne. The first movement is entitled 'The World of Childhood', the second 'The Age of Passion', and the third 'Final Triumph of the Heavenly'. Apparently inspired by a holiday in Switzerland, it is a very unconventional symphony for the time. Not only by having three movements instead of the usual four, but there is no slow movement, no scherzo, and is written for two orchestras. The idea for a double orchestra also came from his wife  who probably deserves a co-writing credit  on the return journey to Germany from Switzerland. The two orchestras are used to great colouristic effect, with one orchestra representing the earthly and the other divine. It's a very fine work and well worth a listen.

Day 11

11 January 2017: Widor - Symphony for Organ No. 5 (1879)
There are a number of works that are dominated by one movement. Barber's String Quartet, for example – everyone knows the Adagio, but few have heard the whole thing. Similarly, the Sabre Dance from Khachaturian's Gayaneh might be the only movement most people have heard from that ballet suite. This, however, must be the most extreme example. Anyone who has ever attended a church wedding in this country will almost certainly have heard organists of varying degrees of competence fumble their way through Charles-Marie Widor's Toccata, which is the fifth and final movement of this, his fifth Organ Symphony. The rest of the symphony remains quite obscure.

Hearing something so familiar after about 30 minutes of quite impressionistic organ writing is still jarring no matter how well you get to know this piece. It almost sounds like it was written by a different composer altogether. Nevertheless, it is the major key culmination of a symphony designated as being in F minor, and the symphony as a whole was clearly intended as a recital piece rather than for use in a liturgical setting. It is interesting that he, and others of the French organ school such as Vierne and Dupré called these pieces 'symphonies' as opposed to sonatas or suites, due to the use of organ voicings to imitate orchestral colours, rather than an adherence to symphonic form. It's certainly interesting to hear a different take on the concept of the symphony.

Day 12

12 January 2017: Bruckner - Symphony No. 0 (1869)
This is something of an oddity. Anton Bruckner wrote this three years after his first symphony, and it was initially designated "Symphony No. 2". Seemingly stung, however, by the conductor Otto Dessoff's questioning, at its first rehearsal, of where the main theme was, Bruckner decided to withdraw the work until the last year of his life. His later symphonies were renumbered accordingly, and of this work, all he would say was it "does not count" and that it was "only an attempt."

The thing is, it's really not that bad. It has been recorded countless times under the batons of some of the greatest conductors  Solti, Barenboim, Haitink and Chailly spring to mind  and there is no tangible drop in quality from the two numbered symphonies that flank it chronologically. The finale contains an early example of his trademark Gesangperiod (song period), a transitional section often marked by pizzicato strings, and the hymn-like theme in the first movement is, again, typical Bruckner. As it's also, by a distance, the shortest of his symphonies, it represents a very good entry point to his Mahlerian-scale body of work.

Day 13

13 January 2017: Shostakovich - Symphony No. 1 (1925)
The 19-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich wrote this as a graduation piece at Petrograd Conservatoire. I presume he passed.

As first symphonies go, this is quite brilliant. I remember studying this for A level, when I was about the same age as he was when he wrote it, and as a budding composer myself it made quite an impression. The first movement's clarity of form is particularly striking, with its three very different themes returning in reverse order at the end. There are some bold compositional devices, such as the huge exposed piano chords at the climax of the scherzo, and the solo timpani at a similar point in the last movement. Such an assured piece of writing would have earned him a place among the great symphonists even if he'd written nothing else. As it turned out, it was only the first step on an extraordinary symphonic journey.

Day 14

14 January 2017: Holst - Symphony in F, 'The Cotswolds' (1900)
I will go to my grave insisting that the first four movements of The Planets would make a perfectly good symphony. However, I can't cherry pick in that way, and thankfully Gustav Holst did actually write two bona fide symphonies to ensure his inclusion.

This was the first, written in his mid-twenties, and was at the time the most ambitious work in his burgeoning career. At 23 minutes, it's short by symphonic standards and, to be brutally honest, a bit lightweight. The first movement in particular, after its promising opening fanfare, sounds like the kind of thing Stanford might have discarded. The shining beacon of this piece, however, is the second movement  an elegy to the Socialist William Morris, who died in 1896. There are hints of what was to come in the crunching harmonies, and the signature brass writing that would come to inhabit the Saturn movement of the Planets. I hadn't heard this piece before today, and once again it's a pleasing discovery.

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