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.

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