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.

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