Saturday, 11 February 2017

Days 39 – 42

Day 39

8 February 2017: Gubaidulina – 'Stimmen ... Verstummen', Symphony in 12 movements (1986)
And now for something completely different. Sofia Gubaidulina is a Russian composer, now in her 86th year, and widely recognised as one of the greatest living composers. Gubaidulina is of mixed Tatar–Slavic ethnicity, and as a female composer of avant garde music in the former Soviet Union, she didn't exactly have a lot going for her at the start of her career. Despite repeatedly falling foul of the ruling Communist Party, Gubaidulina was encouraged by no less a figure than Shostakovich to be true to her ideals. If anyone could speak from experience on that front, it was old Dmitri.

This symphony dates from 1986 and is a breathtaking work. The title translates as 'Voices ... Silence' and the contrast that marks the work is initialised in the first movement, in which a D major triad is established rather like the opening of a late-romantic period symphony, only to be rudely destroyed by the brass section. This recurring theme of moments of calm disrupted by brutal aggression occurs throughout the work's twelve movements. Some movements are quite short – four are less than a minute in length – while the pivotal eighth movement accounts for nearly a third of the symphony's entire length. There are some startling extended techniques employed, especially for the brass, and there is even a 'conductor solo', in which the conductor performs rhythmic gestures in front of a silent orchestra. I'll concede that contemporary music isn't to everyone's taste, but I'd also say that this symphony is about as approachable as it gets.

Day 40

9 February 2017: Barber – Symphony in One Movement (1936)
After yesterday's symphony in 12 movements, here we have Samuel Barber doing it in one. If I was being really picky, I'd argue that this is just a conventional four-movement symphony with the clearly demarcated sections segued together. That said, the symphony as a whole is an extended sonata form, with the second and third movements acting as a development section of sorts, and the final movement a recapitulation. It's clever stuff, by a composer whose oeuvre tends to be overshadowed by his ubiquitous Adagio for Strings.

Barber wasn't the first composer to attempt to condense symphonic form into a single movement work; that honour goes to Sibelius, who did so in his sublime seventh symphony, which predates this by 12 years. In fact, Barber modelled this work on Sibelius's seventh, and there are some clear echoes of the Finn's masterpiece in the Andante tranquillo slow section. Coming in at under 20 minutes, it's one the shortest symphonies featured so far, yet it feels as if it says all it needs to say without a note being wasted. Small, but perfectly formed.

Day 41

10 February 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 3 (1995)
In drawing up the list of 365 symphonies to feature this year, I had to make a judgment call on whether to include all of the symphonies of some composers or just a selection. While composers such as Mozart and Haydn just wrote too many to contemplate including them all, others, such as Krzysztof Penderecki, were borderline cases. He wrote eight, but I've chosen four. My particular favourite is his second symphony, but as it is known as the Christmas Symphony, I'll be airing that in December. So I'm jumping in at the third.

Penderecki had two very distinct phases as a composer. His early work is extremely avant garde, making using of extended techniques and non-standard notation to produce sonorically challenging pieces. This music certainly caught the imagination of film producers, and extracts from several of his early-period works were used in the films The Exorcist and The Shining. In common with many other composers from that period he later abandoned this style and went in completely the opposite direction. While some of those contemporaries, such as Górecki and Pärt, opted for so-called 'holy minimalism' (more of that later when their turn comes), Penderecki drew on the late-romantic period, specifically Bruckner and Mahler, and he sought to carry on that tradition but from a modern perspective. This symphony is a perfect case in point. It's almost as if he's trying to imagine what Bruckner would be writing if he were still alive today. The result is, in my opinion, quite incredible.

Day 42

11 February 2017: Elgar – Symphony No. 1 (1908)
As it's my birthday, I had to pick a personal favourite listen to today, and what better than the magnificent first symphony by Sir Edward Elgar. Like Brahms, who kicked off this whole series, Elgar agonised over writing his first symphony for many years. So long, in fact, that he was into his fifties by the time it was premiered. It was well worth the wait though, being incredibly well-received, and subsequently performed over 100 times around the world within a year. As such, it became the first English symphony to make its mark overseas, and remains extremely popular to this day.

There is scarcely a moment of this work that isn't absolutely glorious. From the 'great beautiful tune' that opens proceedings, through the scherzo and slow movements that remarkably share the same thematic motif played at completely different tempi, to the opening tune fighting to re-establish itself at the end – the hits just keep on coming. The last three of four minutes of the third movement Adagio is, however, the real heart and soul of this piece. Rather than the searing passion typical of late-romantic symphonies, there's a very English elegiac quality, which somehow has a greater capacity to soften the stiffest of upper lips. This symphony can rightly claim to have put English music on the map.

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