Friday, 31 March 2017

Days 87 – 90

Day 87

28 March 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No.6 (1939)
After the furore that surrounded Dmitri Shostakovich's fourth and fifth symphonies, the sixth, which followed two years later, was an almost welcome anti-climax. Having softened his harmonic language a little to avoid criticism from the authorities in the fifth symphony, he surely felt he was on safer ground in composing this work. It is also a lot lighter than its predecessors, with the composer attempting to convey 'spring, joy, and youth'.

Historically, the sixth has tended to be overlooked somewhat as a kind of interlude between the mighty fifth and the globally significant seventh symphony known as the 'Leningrad'. It has an odd structure, with only three movements. The long Largo first movement is much longer than the two quick movements that follow it combined, almost giving the impression that Shostakovich lost interest in the project and couldn't be bothered to finish it properly! It feels imbalanced, although musically it is highly enjoyable, with some really nice moments in the first movement in particular. Knowing what was to follow in his next two symphonies, however, he can certainly be forgiven this moment of relatively light relief.

Day 88

29 March 2017: JC Bach – Symphony Op.6 No.6 in G minor (c. 1762-69)
Johann Christian Bach was the youngest son of JS Bach – born when his old man was 50 – and he was a key figure in the Classical era. He is often referred to as the 'London' Bach, as he moved to England in 1762 and remained here until his death 20 years later. In 1764, an eight-year-old prodigy by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London, during which time he wrote his first symphony (see Day 23). While he was in London, Mozart met with JC Bach and they performed keyboard duets together. Mozart became a great admirer of Bach's and fell under his influence.

The choice of this symphony is deliberate as it dates from around that time (unfortunately the actual date of composition cannot be determined) and the key of G minor is the one Mozart was to develop something of an affinity with. For its time, this is really quite ground-breaking stuff. The slow movement, at around eight minutes, is unusually long and really quite sublime, almost like an extended orchestral aria. And there is a wilfully unresolved ending in the finale, which features a rapid decrescendo on a descending figure that must have bewildered the London audience in its day. It's an almost Sibelian gesture that seems to have come from a different time. There's an air of experimentation in this symphony, which the young Mozart must surely have breathed.

Day 89

30 March 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.2, 'Little Russian' (1872)
As with his first symphony (see Day 28), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky drew upon folk music for much of the thematic material for this, his second. This time it was the folk music of Ukraine that he featured, which is where the symphony's nickname is derived from  – Ukraine at the time was referred to as 'Little Russia'. The first tune is heard right at the outset, with a solo horn playing Down by Mother Volga, and another folk song The Crane features in the finale.

Its folk themes meant that the work was praised by 'The Five' or 'Mighty Handful', whose ethos of a Russian art form separated from Germanic influence was otherwise generally at odds with Tchaikovsky's aesthetics. The first three of his symphonies contain little of the fire and brimstone that characterised the remaining three (or four if one includes Manfred), and this is certainly a very easy-on-the-ear work. Despite the fact that the themes are borrowed rather than his own, it remains recognisably Tchaikovsky.

Day 90

31 March 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 2, 'Cambridge' (1883)
Hubert Parry began working on his second symphony almost immediately after he'd returned from a trip to Bayreuth to attend the first three performances of Wagner's opera Parsifal. Parry had met Wagner five years earlier in London, and while Parry hugely admired him – referring to Parsifal as 'the very highest point of mastery' – any search for Wagnerian influences in this symphony would be in vain.

The clearer influences are Brahms and Mendelssohn, and as Parry was still concerned with developing an English symphonic tradition it is in many ways commendable that he stuck to his guns despite the overwhelming effect Parsifal had clearly made on the composer. The elegiac quality that permeates Parry's work, and that of his successor, Elgar, comes through most strongly in the quieter sections of the third movement Andante, where Teutonic tradition could not have been dispelled further. As for the title? The symphony was merely first performed in Cambridge; there is no other connection to the city at all in the music.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Days 83 – 86

Day 83

24 March 2017: Brahms – Symphony No. 2 (1877)
You might recall that Johannes Brahms kicked off the Symphony A Day shenanigans back on 1 January with his first symphony, one that he had agonised over for about 20 years. His second was a far less stressful affair, written over the course of the summer following the premiere of his first, and it really is a completely different beast. This is a more reflective and tranquil work, although Brahms himself, jokingly, considered it to be melancholic and tinged with sadness.

The opening movement features a melody based on his famous Lullaby, effectively as the second subject of a fairly loose sonata form. At over 20 minutes in length it is almost as long as the other three movements combined, but its generally pastoral mood never allows it to drag. The slow movement that follows features some of the darkest music Brahms ever wrote with trombones and tuba prominent. A very lightweight scherzo leads into a joyous Allegro con spirito finale to round off a delightful work, one which demonstrates his growing confidence as a symphonist.

Day 84

25 March 2017: John Joubert – Symphony No. 1 (1955)
South African-born composer John Joubert celebrated his 90th birthday last Monday, so it's only appropriate I should mark the occasion by giving one of his two symphonies a blast. His first was written when he was just 28, by which time he had moved to the UK and was lecturing in music at the University of Hull. His popular carols Torches and There is No Rose of Such Virtue has already made his name as a composer when he turned his mind to this symphony.

It is a very accessible work, with the first and third movements in particular practically bouncing with rhythmic vitality. The final movement contains some really lovely music during its extended slow introduction, before eventually ending on a positive note. The work certainly has more in common with the more conventional English composers of the time, than with the burgeoning avant garde in Europe, but for an early work it shows a great amount of confidence and no little skill.

Day 85

26 March 2017: Liszt – A Faust Symphony (1857)
Predominantly known for his often bewilderingly difficult piano music, Franz Liszt did also produce two significant symphonies that tend to be rather overlooked. This one in particular probably suffers from being just too big. At around an hour-and-a-quarter in length, it finds itself in the Mahler–Bruckner category of symphonies that pretty much take up a whole programme. Add in the requirement for a male chorus for the final movement and it really becomes a significant undertaking, one which few concert programmers take the risk on. I believe it's only ever been performed at the Proms once, for example. The choir in the finale does mean, however, that it takes this week's Huge Choral Symphony Sunday slot!

I really like this piece, and along with Dvorak, Liszt is a composer that I've developed an increasing admiration for as I've got older, for some reason. It could be argued that this is actually three independent symphonic poems each based on characters in Faust (Faust himself, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles) but they are clearly thematically linked and do make a satisfying symphony. The recurring motif across the piece is a theme that uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and is widely accepted to be the first instance of a tone row – although clearly it wasn't put to the same atonal use as that developed by the New Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg 60 years later. The appearance of an organ for the finale was also quite novel for the time, and the concept of using music to portray characters was something that hugely influenced his future son-in-law – a certain Richard Wagner. All of which makes the relative neglect of this symphony all the more baffling.

Day 86

27 March 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 25, 'Little G minor' (1773)
To be honest, most of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's early symphonies are fairly insignificant works, save for the constant wonder of just how old he was when he wrote them. This, his 25th symphony, for example, was composed when he still only 17, starting work on it just two days after completing No. 24. I think it's fair to say that this is the first of Mozart's more well-known symphonies, with the first movement becoming familiar to the world at large having been used over the opening titles of Miloš Forman's film Amadeus.

It is known as the 'Little G minor' to distinguish it from his other G minor symphony, the similarly famous No. 40. These are the only of his numbered symphonies to be written in any minor key, and there are many learned articles on Mozart and his affinity with the key of G minor. It instantly distinguishes the work from any of its predecessors, and the effect of the syncopated first theme in this minor key creates an unsettled mood, although this turns on a dime when the second subject burst out in a blaze of B flat major. Throughout the work there a passion indicative of the Strum und Drang vogue of the time, which added an extra dimension to his work. In this symphony, Mozart distinctly shifted up a gear as a composer and he would go on to take the form into whole new areas.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Days 79 – 82

Day 79

20 March 2017: Saint-Georges – Symphony No. 1 in G major (1779)
The wonderfully named Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is one of the more fascinating characters in the history of music. The first classical composer of Afro-Caribbean descent, he was also a virtuoso violinist, a conductor, as well as an athlete and champion fencer. He was feted in royal and aristocratic circles, but those connections ultimately led to his imprisonment after the French Revolution, and his music was subsequently banned by Napoleon.

I'll come clean and say that I knew very little about Saint-Georges until his name cropped up on this year's BBC Ten Pieces list, where they assert that he was known by many as 'the black Mozart'. There is a suggestion that Mozart based the villainous character of Monostatos in his opera The Magic Flute on Saint-Georges, although the evidence in flimsy. The frustration is that he was only really active as a composer for about 20 years, and this is one of only two symphonies he wrote (although there are eight Symphonies concertantes too) so his output is rather dwarfed by Mozart's 41 and Haydn's 104. It's a very fine, if totally conventional work, and a reminder that there were some perfectly good classical-period works being written outside of Vienna.

Day 80

21 March 2017: Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony (1913)
I've been a great fan of Ralph Vaughan Williams's work for as long as I can remember, and listen to his symphonies regularly. For some reason though, this one doesn't get aired as often, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe I find it just a bit too cheesy at times, with the impressionistic references being just a little obvious. There are the Westminster chimes in the outer movements, the jingling of hansom cabs, a harmonica player in the Scherzo, and a flower seller singing Sweet Lavender. All very evocative of Edwardian London, but hardly subtle. The slow movement is genuinely beautiful, however, and epilogue depicting the Thames flowing out to the sea is a splendid piece of writing.

I decided to listen to the original 1913 version of this symphony today, which was only recorded for the first time in 2001, and I only became aware of it very recently. It's about 20 minutes longer than the 'definitive' version of 1933 and almost all of the music that was cut was a lot darker in tone, giving the piece a very different overall feel. Some very interesting music was removed, but I have no doubt that Vaughan Williams was right to cut it. I do like this symphony, it's just that I think the five that followed it were all much better.

Day 81

22 March 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 1 (1947)
One of the many things that still surprises me when listening to music is encountering an early work by an avant-garde composer and hearing just how conventional it is. Witold Lutosławski's first symphony is a far from tonal work, but it is an absolutely standard four-movement symphony with a slow movement and a scherzo which, compared to his later, aleatoric music, seems almost to have been written by another composer.

That is was written at all is an achievement in itself though. He started writing it in 1941, when his native Poland was under Nazi occupation and public gatherings – and thus, music performances – were prohibited. Lutosławski actually continued working on the symphony while hiding in an attic following the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Having completed it against all the odds, Symphony No. 1 was eventually given a successful premiere in 1948, only for it then to be condemned the following year as 'formalist' by the Communist-influenced Polish Composer’s Union, at the very same conference at which his friend Panufnik's Sinfonia Rustica (see Day 3) was similarly denounced. Thankfully, the symphony is now recognised as the important document it is, and while not typical of his work as a whole, it is a significant landmark in Lutosławski's career.

Day 82

23 March 2017: Scriabin – Symphony No. 1 (1900)
This is the first time I've heard this symphony, which is indicative of my relationship with Alexander Scriabin. I like pretty much everything I've ever heard by him, yet very rarely listen to his music. Today was another reminder to change all that, because this is a gorgeous work. The influence of Mahler is clearly discernible, especially regarding the work's structure. It mirrors Mahler's third symphony in having six movements – albeit on a smaller scale – and also the device of featuring soloists and a chorus in the last movement follows the model of Mahler's second.

The work was an immediate success, winning the Glinka Award in the year of its publication, although this was without the choral finale, which the publishers had declined to publish having decided (upon advice from a committee led by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Lyadov) was unperformable. Scriabin would go on to compose in a more atonal idiom later in his career, but this gem from the late-Romantic period is a glorious way to spend 50 minutes or so.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Days 76 – 78

Day 76

17 March 2017: Alfvén – Symphony No.3 (1905)
The first of three consecutive third symphonies is this from the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén. In many ways Alfvén is a kind of Swedish Sibelius, with music steeped in history and landscape of his homeland, although it's fair to say much of his output has never achieved any great level of recognition outside of Sweden. His best-known work is probably his Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, otherwise known as Midsummer Vigil. I remember hearing it on the radio some time ago and realising I recognised the main theme from somewhere, possibly as the theme tune to some forgotten TV show. It was many years later that it dawned on me that it was because I'd heard it in Piero Umiliani's novelty hit Mah Nà Mah Nà.

Alfvén wrote five symphonies, and I've opted for this, his third, which was inspired by a visit to Italy. The country made a huge impression on him, and it imbued the symphony with a lightness, which he described as 'an expression of the joy of living, an expression of the sun-lit happiness that filled my whole being.' The joy comes flying off the pages in this work, which is never less than uplifting. Another example of the wonders that are out there to be heard beyond the standard concert repertoire.

Day 77

18 March 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Sacra (1963)
This venture I'm embarking on takes me to many unfamiliar composers and some distinctly uncharted musical territory. Occasionally though, it throws up a piece I know so well I could probably conduct the whole thing from memory if you stuck me in front of an orchestra. Andrzej Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra is very strong claimant to be my favourite symphony of all time. I first heard it at the Proms in 1989, in a scintillating reading by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Tadaaki Otaka. I still have a tape of the performance in the house, which I played almost to breaking point.

It was the first of Panufnik's symphonies to be written after his defection to England, and represented a turning point in his life. Struggling to find commissions, he submitted this work into the Prince Rainier III Competition in Monaco in 1963. It won first prize out of 133 entries from 38 countries, and the international recognition he received kick-started his career. The symphony is in two parts. Part One comprises three contrasting 'Visions': the first a fanfare for four trumpets; the second a calm and contemplative passage for strings; the third a violent, percussion-driven depiction of war. Part Two is given over to a setting of an ancient Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica. Beginning with barely audible violin harmonics, it swells through a ten-minute long crescendo to a powerful finale that almost always brings me to tears. I don't think that I can convey in words just how much this symphony means to me.

Day 78

19 March 2017: Mahler – Symphony No.3 (1896)
So, to complete my trio of third symphonies, it's this monumental statement from Gustav Mahler. I'm a huge fan of Mahler, and this is a great symphony, but there's no escaping the fact that, at over 100 minutes in length, it is a daunting work. The first movement alone exceeds the 35-minute mark, making it longer than the entirety of most of the symphonies I've featured so far this year. The famous quote attributed to Mahler by Sibelius – "A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." – might well have been about this piece.

Where to start with it? Well, the thing I find most interesting is the surely deliberate gesture at its very outset to ally himself to a symphonic tradition. The opening subject is, roughly, a minor key restatement of the main theme from the finale of Brahms's first symphony, which in turn was an exaggerated nod in the direction of the Ode To Joy theme in Beethoven's ninth. It's as if Mahler is acknowledging that the symphonic baton has been passed to him and it is his responsibility to take the form into domains as yet undiscovered.

The six (yes, six) movements were originally given titles, which indicate the 'whole world' extent of the work. The vast first movement starts out as another of his trademark funeral marches, but was given the title 'Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In', echoed in the music's transition from D minor to its relative major of F. The second movement is a minuet entitled 'What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me' while the third movement Scherzo carries the title 'What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me'. The introduction of a human voice – a solo alto – in the fourth movement appropriately signifies 'What Man Tells Me', in a beautiful setting of Nietzsche's 'Midnight Song'. The surprisingly brief fifth movement, with the title 'What the Angels Tell Me', features a choir of women and boys in a song that would later be included in his own Des Knaben Wunderhorn song cycle. All of which sets up the massive sixth movement – 'What Love Tells Me' – which brings everything together in a broad, sublime and impassioned love song to the world. And as with all of Mahler's symphonies, the sometimes arduous journey was worth its end.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Days 72 – 75

Day 72

13 March 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No.2 (1872)
Anton Bruckner was a sensitive soul. His original second symphony, as I mentioned when I featured it on 12 January, was withdrawn and re-designated 'Symphony No. 0' after the slightest of criticisms from the piece's conductor at a rehearsal. When this symphony was composed, it was called 'Symphony No. 3' but was renumbered following its predecessor's withdrawal. And this, like his first symphony, would be subject to countless revisions over two decades, almost all as a result of some negative comment.

The nickname Symphony of Pauses was appended to the work by the Vienna Philharmonic at early rehearsals, as they found the gaps in the work  notably between the first and second subjects of the first movement  laughable. Bruckner, typically, filled in some of the pauses in later revisions. It is probably the first of his symphonies that is recognisably Brucknerian, with many of his trademark features debuting in this work. This is especially the case in the opening bars, with its main theme emerging from the mists of the orchestra – a device he would use again and again from this point. The slow movement also sets the template for the gigantic examples in his later symphonies. Musically it's not as strong as some of the works he was yet to write, but in pacing and scale, Bruckner found the winning formula in this symphony.

Day 73

14 March 2017: Milhaud – Symphony No. 3, 'Te Deum' (1946)
It's fair to say that none of Darius Milhaud's 12 symphonies are concert staples in this country. A prominent member of Les Six, Milhaud suffers, if anything, from having just written too much, and while his quality as a composer is indisputable, few of works could be described as much-loved.

If anything deserves to be universally popular, then maybe it's this symphony. It was written in 1946 to mark the victory of the Allied Powers in World War Two, and it is a suitably profound document to commemorate the occasion. After a fiery first movement, the mood changes remarkably in the second when its dramatic opening suddenly stops and a wordless choir is suddenly heard. The interplay between the choral and orchestral textures, which seldom overlap, is quite novel. A short pastorale then sets up the return of the choir in the finale for a setting of the Te Deum, which give the symphony its name. It's really stirring stuff.

Day 74

15 March 2017: Borodin – Symphony No. 1 (1867)
Not unlike William Herschel, who I featured last week, Alexander Borodin was one of those incredible people from history who made a name for themselves as both a composer and a scientist. And while Herschel was a musician who went on to be a great astronomer, Borodin's career progression went the other way. Having been appointed as Professor of Chemistry at the Medical–Surgical Academy in St Petersburg – where he worked on small aldehydes – Borodin met Mily Balakirev and began composition lessons. Balakirev was simultaneously mentoring Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in his first symphony, which I featured six days ago, and Borodin soon became a member of The Mighty Handful.

Borodin's first project under the tutelage of Balakirev was this symphony, and for a first serious attempt at orchestral composition it really is a thing of wonder. It is full of rhythmic vitality and syncopation, and the Russian romanticism that Balakirev was trying to nurture in his pupils is already prevalent. The third movement Andante contains as glorious a melody as Borodin ever wrote. In this symphony, Borodin shows right from the outset that he was a truly gifted composer, as well as a brilliant scientist. He was probably a prodigious sportsman as well, although that isn't recorded!

Day 75

15 March 2017: MacMillan – Symphony: Vigil (1997)
Of all the composers I'm featuring over the course of this year, James MacMillan is one of only two that I've actually met. While I was a student at Keele University, MacMillan came to give a talk on his stunning orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which had been ecstatically received at the Proms a year or two earlier. I was utterly besotted with that work  and still am  and I hung on his every word.

This symphony was MacMillan's first, although it was actually the third part of a triptych of pieces commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra that relate to the Pascal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The title Vigil relates to the Easter Vigil or Service of Light, and throughout the work the contrasts of darkness and light are explored. There is a prominent part for a brass quintet who play off-stage during the first movement and enter the auditorium in the second, positioning themselves around the performing space to create a stunning aural effect. It is a suitably imposing work with which to announce oneself as a symphonist.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Days 68 – 71

Day 68

9 March 2017: Rimsky-Korsakov – Symphony No. 1 In E Minor (1884)
It's hard to conceive of a symphony that had a more protracted journey to reach its finished state than this one. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another child prodigy, started composing this symphony at the age of just 15. Rimsky continued working on it for another two years under the guidance of his mentor Mily Balakirev, whose own first symphony I featured on 18 February, and by 1861 three of its four movements had been written. At that point, Rimsky was conscripted into the Russian Navy for three years. Far from letting this minor inconvenience handicap his progress, he managed to complete the one remaining movement – the second, Andante tranquillo – during shore leave in England. That was far from the end of the symphony's story though, as once Rimsky's spell as naval cadet was over, he carried out a degree of rework on it, before it was eventually premiered in 1865, six years after it was started. Then, nineteen years later, it was thoroughly revised, with the most fundamental change being that of the key, which shifted up a semitone from E flat to E. This is the version that is now accepted as the definitive one.

Balakirev's influence is strong. As the founder of The Five, or The Mighty Handful, that Rimsky-Korsakov would become a member of, he was concerned with the creation of a truly Russian school of music, fully detached from Germanic influences. It was claimed by contemporary Russian critics that this symphony was the "First Russian Symphony", although Rimsky acknowledged the influence of Schumann and, specifically in orchestration, Berlioz. It does make extensive use of Russian folk music, which was certainly a first, and ironically inspired Balakirev who began his own first symphony at around the time. A rare case of a pupil influencing his master.

Day 69

10 March 2017: Vasks – Symphony No. 1 for strings, 'Stimmen' (1991)
The Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks is a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard his Cello Concerto No. 2 just over a year ago and had one of those uplifting experiences that occurs when you discover a new voice. His first symphony is cut from the same cloth as the cello concerto, and contains some glorious string writing. It dates from 1991, when his native Latvia was freeing itself from the former USSR, and is symbolic of that struggle in the face of the failed Soviet clampdown. The contrast of quiet, glacial writing with dissonant, aggressive music is very much his trademark. By turns, minimalist and avant garde, and always intensely passionate.

Three voices (Stimmen) are heard over the course of the piece. The first movement, 'Voices of Silence', is beautiful and elegiac, echoing to some extent the music of Arvo Pärt, although there is far more going on than static minimalism. The central 'Voices of Life' movement begins in the same expansive tone, with bursts of birdsong emerging from tremolando strings. The mood soon becomes disturbing and dark, and reaches its climax in a swirling dissonance that eventually emerges into an almost hymn-like third movement, entitled 'Voices of Conscience'. It is an absolutely magnificent piece of work, and I commend it in the highest possible terms!

Day 70

11 March 2017: Herschel – Symphony No. 8 (1761)
If ever there was a life well-lived it was that of William Herschel. Born in Hanover, Herschel moved to England at the age of 19 following the path trodden by Handel 40 years earlier. Herschel held a variety of musical posts, including leader of an orchestra in Newcastle and organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. And it was while he was based in the North East, specifically Sunderland, that he wrote this symphony, which is a really marvellous work that seems to be at once Baroque and Classical. He went on to write 24 symphonies, 14 concerti, and a substantial body of work that would be enough to cement his reputation as a great composer.

That wasn't enough for young William, however, because by his mid-30s, Herschel had begun to develop an interest in astronomy and began building his own telescopes. As well as his work observing double stars, there was the small matter of discovering the planet Uranus in 1781! He also discovered two moons of Saturn, infrared radiation in sunlight, and even dabbled in biology. An extraordinary man, and in many ways his substantial contribution to the world of science has, sadly, rather belittled his work as a composer.

Day 71

12 March 2017: Davies – Symphony No. 8. 'Antarctic Symphony' (2001)
The first symphony from the 21st Century featured so far, Peter Maxwell Davies's Antarctic Symphony effectively brought him out of retirement as a symphonist. Having been commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey to write a work effectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica – the symphony he fashioned from his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic – Max was able to draw on his own experience of having attended an early performance of the Vaughan Williams work in 1953.

Davies was required by terms of the commission to visit the Antarctic, and it was from these two sources – the Antarctic itself, and Vaughan Williams' symphony based upon it – that he drew his inspiration. It's a work for very large orchestra, which features a huge battery of unconventional percussion instruments, including tuned brandy glasses, a football rattle, a biscuit tin filled with broken glass, and three lengths of metal scaffolding. Quite often these are used to depict very specific events from the journey, such as the sound of cracking ice clattering against the hull of the ship on its journey through the frozen South Atlantic. It is a single-movement work of around 40 minutes’ duration, and is by no means an easy listen. The depiction of the icy landscape with sporadic features of interest is at times captivating, as is picking out the occasional oblique reference to the Vaughan Williams work. In this symphony, Max manages to make the forbidding landscape seem inviting.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Days 64 – 67

Day 64

5 March 2017: Myaskovsky – Symphony No. 10 (1927)
Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote an incredible 27 symphonies, so I feel a bit mean in only choosing one of them to focus on this year. This is arguably his best, however, and the first in which he condensed the traditional four-movement symphonic structure down to a single-movement work – following the precedent set by Sibelius in his seventh symphony three years earlier. As a consequence, it comes in at under 20 minutes in length, but, as he himself described it to Prokofiev, it is 'as massive as if it were made of iron'.

Like Shostakovich, Myaskovsky would fall foul of the Soviet authorities in later life. This dates from just before Stalinism really kicked in, however, and as a result is quite uncompromising in it musical language. The challenges it posed were too much for the communist-ideal, conductorless orchestra for which it was written, and its first performance was a disaster. Later performances were more successful, thankfully. It is influenced by Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, and is broadly programmatic without attempting to precisely tell the story. The ferocious power of the flood that drowns the main protagonist of the poem is conveyed by the large, brass-heavy orchestra for which it is scored. Massive, yet concise – Myaskovsky pulls off quite a trick in the piece.

Day 65

6 March 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 (1900)
Seven years after his Kullervo Symphony, Jean Sibelius wrote his first numbered symphony, which is every bit as conventional as its predecessor wasn't. Although completed in 1899, it was almost immediately revised and the version we know today dates from 1900. Because Sibelius was still alive, although not composing, in 1957 I often find it hard to reconcile that a large proportion of Sibelius's work, including this symphony, dates from the 19th century. Although there are slight echoes of Tchaikovsky in this piece, it seems otherwise almost bereft of influence, which somehow makes it feel timeless.

The symphony contains some wonderful melodic writing, especially in the first movement, and while it doesn't perhaps maintain its focus throughout, the way his later symphonies do, it's still a thoroughly enjoyable listen. This work helped make Sibelius's name abroad, particularly in Britain and America, yet it would probably be very few people's favourite Sibelius symphony. Perhaps it suffered for being eclipsed somewhat by the monumental second symphony that followed it.

Day 66

7 March 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 2, 'The Four Temperaments' (1902)
Staying in Scandinavia, we hop across the Baltic to Denmark for Carl Nielsen's second symphony. Written just two years after Sibelius's first, Nielsen's work didn't achieve the same instant popularity as that of his Finnish contemporary. In fact, it was actually quite poorly received at its first few performances. The title comes from the fact that each of the four movements represents one of the four 'humours' of Greco-Roman medicine. The first movement is Choleric, the second Phlegmatic, the third Melancholic, and the fourth Sanguine.

The melancholy of the third movement is profound enough, and the optimistic finale is suitably sanguine, but the characteristics are otherwise not obvious to the casual listener, certainly not in the first two movements anyway. It's probably best to pay no attention to them, and accept this as a fine late-Romantic symphony from a composer who was still, at the time, influenced by the likes of Brahms and Dvorak, but gradually finding his own voice.

Day 67

8 March 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 4, 'Chiaroscuro' (1984)
It's only right that I feature a female composer on International Women's Day, and this symphony by Gloria Coates is a suitably brilliant work to mark it with. Coates was born in Wisconsin, but has lived in Munich for almost 50 years now. Her music makes prominent use of microtones and glissandi – she uses glissandi a lot – alongside standard tuning to create a tonal instability that is quite unlike anything else I've heard. Many other composers, notably Penderecki and Xenakis, have employed these techniques, but not in stark juxtaposition with conventional methods.

She has written 16 symphonies to date, and her fourth is probably the most striking. Chiaroscuro, the oil painting technique of contrasted light and shadow, is played upon here with tonal music offset against disorientating writing elsewhere in the orchestra. The first movement, Illumination, is absolutely mind-blowing. It features Purcell's famous lament from Dido and Aeneas, but the tune is constantly being lost in a swirling and disorientating fog of glissandi. It's like hearing something familiar on a faint, long wave radio signal that keeps drifting in and out of tune, occasionally lost in the static. This a genuine contemporary masterpiece.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Days 60 – 63

Day 60

1 March 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 2 (1937)
Having been something of a late starter as a symphonist, writing his first at the age of 35, Edmund Rubbra produced his second symphony within a year of its predecessor. His first four symphonies were composed in a six-year period, and are considered to be connected – each apparently a reaction to the previous one. This work is a huge exercise in counterpoint and interweaving melodic lines: something that always fascinated Rubbra. There are no chords as such, other than those that occur as a result of the orchestral lines coinciding at any point in time, and the tonality is underpinned by pedal basses. 

Rubbra's undoubted skill as a composer is laid bare for all to see in this symphony, and it was this that led him to be revered in his own lifetime. As an indication of the esteem in which he, and this work in particular, was held, the great conductor Sir Adrian Boult chose this symphony as one of his Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the show in 1979 to mark his 90th birthday. That it should now be virtually unknown is a travesty, and once again I find myself wondering how a composer can drop off the radar so quickly after his death. 

Day 61

2 March 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 (1937)
Written in the same year as Rubbra's second symphony, featured yesterday, Dmitri Shostakovich's fifth symphony is a very different beast. This is one of the giants of the symphonic repertoire, not just for its music, which is truly magnificent, but also for its historic and cultural significance. As mentioned on 6 February when I featured it, Shostakovich was forced to withdraw his fourth symphony in the face of mounting criticism from the Stalinist regime. His response was this symphony, referred to in an article allegedly written by Shostakovich a few days before the premiere as 'a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism'.

It is an extraordinary achievement. With the very real threat of being sent to a Gulag labour camp hanging over him, Shostakovich could have played safe and written some ultra-patriotic hymn in praise of Socialism. Instead he changed very little. The themes are more tonal, the piece as a whole avoids the extreme dissonance of the fourth, and the triumphal ending provides an unmistakable tone of optimism. It is, however, a 'response' on the composer's terms, which satisfied both the ruling party and his own sense of integrity. The positive ending can be taken two ways: it is, superficially, a rejoicing climax, but a quote attributed to Shostakovich is more telling – 'The rejoicing is forced ... it's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing", and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing"'. It received a 30-minute ovation at its first performance, and is rightly considered one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century.

Day 62

3 March 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 45, 'Farewell' (1772)
Having written 104 symphonies, it's a small blessing that Josef Haydn chose to give many of them nicknames, drawing attention to their USP, as it were. Number 45 is probably the outstanding example, thanks to an ingenious idea that turns a regular classical period symphony into a piece of music theatre. During an extended coda appended to the end of the finale, the members of the orchestra are instructed to leave the stage and snuff out the candle on their music stand – or, nowadays, switch of their desk light. I doubt modern Health & Safety regulations would sanction a stage full of candles in such close proximity to paper scores. The order of departure is specified in the score – first oboe, second horn, bassoon, second oboe etc. – until at the end only two violins remain.

The idea apparently came during a stay at Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy's summer palace, during which the musicians had been required to stay longer than they'd expected. With the orchestra pleading to return to their families, Haydn decided to convey this message to the Prince via the symphony. Gimmicks aside, it is a very fine work, and like its predecessor the Trauer symphony, featured on 4 February, it dates from Haydn's Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period. In some ways, having such a light-hearted ending to an otherwise quite serious symphony is a tiny bit incongruous. Would it be quite so well-known without it, however?

Day 63

4 March 2017: Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem (1940)
Sinfonia da Requiem is the most conventional of Benjamin Britten's four symphonies, and certainly the most frequently performed. It also helped make Britten's name as one of the country's leading composers as it led directly to the commissioning of his opera Peter Grimes. It did, however, have a quite inauspicious genesis. The Japanese government commissioned the work to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Empire of Japan. The details of the commission were late in arriving, leaving Britten with little choice but to submit the piece he was working on at the time. When the Japanese received it, they took exception to the symphony's use of movement titles taken from Christian liturgy, and felt the work was too gloomy for a celebratory occasion. Britten was accused by the brother of the Japanese prime minister of 'insulting a friendly power'.

Although Britten, with the help of his friend WH Auden, replied in carefully worded terms to defend his work, Japan soon afterwards became an enemy power following the attack on Pearl Harbour. The diplomatic incident the work nearly caused has long been consigned to history and the symphony is now well-established. It's a great piece, and one of my personal favourites. It also must have been a favourite of the 70s rock band ELO, who used the first movement as an intro to their Out Of The Blue tour shows in 1978, accompanying their impressive-for-the-time spaceship stage taking off and landing. I find the passage of darkness to light, from the ominous rising figure that opens the work to the soaring strings in the major key ending, to be genuinely uplifting.