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 His original second symphony, as I mentioned when I featured it on 12 January, was withdrawn and re-designated 'Symphony No. 0' after the slightest of criticisms from the piece's conductor at a rehearsal.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.

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