Friday, 27 January 2017

Days 24 – 27

Day 24

24 January 2017: Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Stravinsky was already 48 years old when he decided to have a stab at writing a choral symphony. By that time, the one-time enfant terrible had rowed back on his percussive and dissonant early style and had embraced neo-classicism. This work sets Psalms 39, 40 & 150, and while being mostly diatonic – his publisher had requested something ‘popular’ – it actually makes use from time to time of an octatonic scale (eight notes instead of the usual seven) of alternate tones and semitones. It's an excellent work, with the choral writing – not something Stravinsky was especially well-known for – being particularly fine in the second movement setting of Psalm 40.

A small bit of trivia arising from this piece: Prokofiev selected random words from the chosen psalms when looking for a Latin text for his own cantata Alexander Nevsky. The resulting lines were, Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis, which (very) roughly translates as, ‘The Crusaders waited, my feet with cymbals’. Well, quite.

Day 25

25 January 2017: Strauss – Symphonia Domestica (1904)
I have heard this symphony exactly once before. It was in the Royal Festival Hall in late-1993 as part of a BBC Symphony Orchestra season of works by Strauss and yesterday's featured composer Stravinsky. The juxtaposition of these two largely unlike composers was seemingly driven by no other reason than that they usually appear next to each other in an alphabetical list of composers. I don't recall being particularly inspired by it then, and it passed me by again today.

I do like Strauss: Metamorphosen, Tod und Verklärung, and Four Last Songs are all played regularly in this house. In the Symphonia Domestica though, it feels like the subject matter doesn't deserve the overblown treatment it's getting from the 110-strong orchestra (including eight horns and five saxophones). There are big, lusciously scored tunes – each representing a different member of the family – and there is a programme to follow should you feel so inclined. The painfully literal depiction of some of these events, however, such as a clock striking seven, or a baby crying, are just unsymphonic. It might be another 23 years before I give this another blast.

Day 26

26 January 2017: Farrenc – Symphony No. 1 (1842)
It's hard to write anything about any of the female composers I'm featuring in this series without using the word ‘neglected’. In Louise Farrenc's case, however, it's a simply unavoidable word. There is absolutely no reason on God's earth why this piece, or indeed any of her three symphonies, shouldn't be as well-known as, say, those of Mendelssohn or Schumann. There's no drop in quality, just a lack of familiarity.

Farrenc already had a substantial body of piano music and chamber works under her belt before she branched out into orchestral writing. This symphony dates from 1842, the same year that she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory. She remained in this most prestigious of posts for thirty years, and was, naturally, a gifted pianist in her own right. It is a pity that her qualities as a composer weren't given equal value to those she acquired as a performer and teacher. This is a beautifully structured symphony, with energetic writing throughout and no shortage of fine tunes.

Day 27

27 January 2017: Sessions – Symphony no. 3 (1957)
To the best of my knowledge, I've never previously heard anything by Roger Sessions. Apart from being a very respected composer, Sessions has an impressive track record as a teacher of composition. He taught at Berkeley, Harvard and the Juilliard, and his students include such luminaries as Peter Maxwell Davies, John Adams, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (all of whom will feature this year, or, in Adams' case, have already featured) plus Elmer Bernstein, Conlon Nancarrow and Milton Babbitt.

Sessions wrote nine symphonies, so in picking one, I took guidance from Mark Lehman's piece ‘The Great American Symphony’ who says of the third that it ‘remains the most moving and satisfying’. It seems like a fair judgement, having also listened to the fourth for comparison. It employs serialism (in which the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are ordered into a ‘tone row’ to provide a thematic basis) and normally that has me running for the hills. This, however, remains an engaging piece, and in the haunting third movement Sessions manages to imbue the music with a pathos and emotion that other composers who use this cold, academic method mostly fail to achieve.

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