Sunday, 30 April 2017

Days 118 – 120

Day 118

28 April 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 29 (1774)
After yesterday's early symphony by Saint-Saëns, here we have, for the second day in a row, a work written by an 18-year-old. But while the Saint-Saëns was his second stab at the symphonic form, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had already knocked out a couple of dozen. The numbering of these Mozart symphonies, by the way, is more an act of cataloguing than of strict chronology as this one probably followed No. 25 (see Day 86) in order of composition.

Mozart's 29th also sits alongside No. 25 in terms of popularity among his early symphonies. The first theme is announced quietly, and then when it is repeated forte it is in a canon, with the violas and cellos playing the theme two beats after the fiddles. Thus before we get off the first page, Mozart has begun experimenting with classical sonata form. The elegant slow movement is scored, unusually, for muted strings, and again Mozart is ahead of the curve in employing practice that wouldn't become widespread for some decades yet. The finale is breathless 6/8 gallop that could only really have come from the pen of Mozart, and the symphony as a whole is the work of an old head on young shoulders.

Day 119

29 April 2017: Rautavaara – Symphony No. 3 (1961)
It is very hard to pin down Einojuhani Rautavaara's style. His composing life-cycle passed through phases of serialism, neo-classicism, and a form of minimalism. Also, his habit of revising a work written in one idiom at a time when he was more influenced by another confuses matters further. His third symphony provides an interesting collision of sensibilities, however. It employs serial methods, but he harmonises the tone-rows diatonically. Furthermore, the structure of the symphony is firmly planted in the late-romantic era.

The overriding influence here is Bruckner, especially his fourth symphony, the 'Romantic'.  It has a conventional four-movement layout, with the movements given German titles (Langsam, breit, ruhig etc). Indeed, the opening horn theme begins in exactly the same way as the Bruckner before evolving into a subtle variation. All the while though, unrelated flurries from other instruments are throwing you off the scent, as it were. In its approach of taking music of a late-romantic style and reflecting it through a modernist prism, it is redolent of Penderecki's later style. I find works of this ilk, pieces that take the best of a variety of styles and successfully marry them together into something greater, thoroughly captivating.

Day 120

30 April 2017: Vaughan Williams – A Pastoral Symphony (1922)
The first music I ever heard by Ralph Vaughan Williams was his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, which featured in a televised concert from Orkney in 1986 that included the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Violin Concerto. Understandably, I was completely bowled over by it, and later that week I went into JG Windows in Newcastle and took a punt on a couple of RVW's symphonies – this and the fourth. I recall being rather nonplussed on first hearing, but it very quickly got under my skin and remains one of my favourite symphonies. In fact, one of my A level compositions was a piece for flute and guitar based on the main theme from its fourth movement!

This is probably one of the most misunderstood symphonies ever written. The title 'Pastoral' has led to it being held up as an example of 'English cow-pat music'. The composer Peter Warlock allegedly described it as 'like a cow looking over a gate', and even Vaughan Williams himself was concerned about how it would be received, describing it as having, 'four movements, all of them slow'. Many now recognise the composer's intention was to depict not an English landscape, but a French one – specifically the battlefields of World War I. Vaughan Williams served as ambulance driver during that conflict, no doubt witnessing unimaginable horrors, and observing the rolling fields of Northern France ravaged by war. It is a genuinely moving elegy for the dead, with the solo trumpet in the second movement playing a cadenza reminiscent of the Last Post. The wordless soprano solo that bookends the final movement provides a quite ethereal moment, while the steadily rising optimistic theme of the finale is one of Vaughan Williams's greatest melodies. One of the good things to come out of the upsurge in the composer's popularity in the last 20 years or so is that this work has been freed from its misconceptions and is now starting to be appreciated as one of the great English symphonies.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Days 115 – 117

Day 115

25 April 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No.3 (1873)
Anton Bruckner was a very deferential chap. He idolised Wagner, who was only nine years older than him and ought reasonably to have been viewed as a contemporary equal. When Bruckner had completed this work, he took it and his second symphony with him to pay Wagner a visit, ostensibly to enquire which of them Wagner might like to have dedicated to him. So nervous was he at meeting his hero that he apparently forgot which one Wagner selected, and had to write to him a few days later to check.

Most of Bruckner's symphonies were revised as a result of his crippling self-doubt, but even by his standards the six versions of this piece that exist demonstrate just how susceptible to the red pen he was. The most frequently performed version is the final revision of 1889, and many now regard the work as the first of his great masterpieces. The original version was very poorly received, however. Bruckner was forced by circumstances to conduct it himself – badly – and that almost certainly gave rise to the many subsequent edits. Among the sections to go were quotes from Wagner's operas Tristan and Isolde and Die Walküre; another reason why this work is often referred to as the 'Wagner Symphony'. Bruckner clearly has a style, one some might say he stuck to rather too rigidly, but it found its first manifestation in this symphony. The classic Brucknerian opening of music emerging gradually from the mists, the epic slow movement, the quick triple-time scherzo with contrasting trio, and the brass-heavy finale – all the component parts are there. Having arrived at a satisfactory structure with his second symphony, he allied it with inspired creativity in this piece to finally create a great symphony.

Day 116

26 April 2017: Pettersson – Symphony No.7 (1967)
Swedish composer Allan Pettersson was already in mid-fifties and in very poor health when he finally achieved international recognition with his seventh symphony. Whilst undoubtedly a great work, it's unclear why this symphony suddenly propelled him into the limelight. His oeuvre was largely unknown outside Scandinavia, however within a couple of decades of its composition, his Symphony No.7 had been recorded by four different orchestras, and triggered an international interest in his subsequent output.

In common with many of his symphonies, it is a single-movement work, and although it is approximately 45 minutes of unbroken intensity, it is by no means the longest. It's an unrelentingly dark and tense work, indeed Jean Christensen, in his book New Music of the Nordic Countries, makes an interesting comparison, saying Petterson's music is 'the musical equivalent of Ingmar Bergman's serious movies.' I discovered this symphony only very recently and think it is a quite magnificent. His use of ostinati and pedal notes sustained for unfeasibly long durations ramp up the tension to at times unbearable levels. It's not for people who listen to classical music for relaxation, but it is a bona fide masterpiece.

Day 117

27 April 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (1853)
Camille Saint-Saëns was something of a child genius, and this really is quite an assured work when you consider that he was only 18 years old when he wrote it. Saint-Saëns did actually compose an un-numbered symphony at the age of 15, to which no opus number was given. And while it's clearly a prodigious achievement for one so young, it is terribly derivative of Beethoven and Mendelssohn and I've bypassed it for that precise reason.

It would have been impossible for any composer writing in the middle of the 19th century to have produced anything entirely bereft of influences, but the young Saint-Saëns certainly had a go. The first movement is a standard sonata form and the last movement a brilliant fugue, but within those classical formal strictures Saint-Saëns' own gift for melody shines through. Nowhere is that more evident than in the exquisite Adagio, in which a gorgeous melody starts in the clarinet and soars above tremolando strings and harp chords. The deserved popularity of his third 'Organ' symphony means that Saint-Saëns' other symphonic works rarely get a look in, which is a pity because this in particular ought to be performed more.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Days 112 – 114

Day 112

22 April 2017: Villa-Lobos – Symphony No.3, 'War' (1919)
The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is probably best-known for his Bachianas Brasileiras, a number of suites written in the style of JS Bach. For me, as a guitarist, it is the works he wrote for that instrument that I got to know first. His Five Preludes and Twelve Studies are all pieces I've had a stab at playing even though, for the most part, they remain tantalisingly beyond my capabilities. The twelve symphonies he wrote are not well known unfortunately, certainly not outside of Brazil.

This work was the first of an intended trilogy of symphonies written to celebrate the end of World War I. At this point I will confess that I was previously unaware of Brazil's involvement in the conflict (on the Allies' side, in response to the sinking of a number of merchant ships in the Atlantic). In the end, only two of the symphonies are known to have been written. This was followed by his fourth symphony, entitled 'Victory', but the fifth, provisionally entitled 'Peace' is either lost or was never actually composed. When this work was first performed it comprised only three movements, with the profound third movement being added many years later, possibly as late as 1955. Given that this movement is almost as long as the other three combined it changed the nature of the work as a whole entirely. Villa-Lobos's tradmark use of ostinati gives this symphony a unity that would otherwise be missing from its thematically incoherent structure. The audacious finale which has the Brazilian and French national anthems playing simultaneously is something Charles Ives would have been proud of. It's a very interesting piece, but not a great one.

Day 113

23 April 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 4 (1900)
I would find the prospect of choosing just one of Gustav Mahler's symphonies too difficult to call, as, with maybe only a couple of exceptions, I could make a case for any of them. This would have a stronger claim than most though, as I remember listening to it a lot when I first bought a copy in the mid-eighties. It's just about the most 'instant' of Mahler's symphonies, with tunes that could almost be called 'catchy' at every turn. It's relatively short, at around 55 minutes, and uses a more or less standard orchestra, meaning it's one of the frequently performed of his works.

The symphony is based on one of Mahler's own songs, Das himmlische Leben, which is set, mostly unchanged, for solo soprano as the final movement, but also provides the basis for the thematic material of the earlier movements. The slow movement is one of Mahler's most beautiful, and its theme and variations form draws parallels with Beethoven's ninth. Towards the end of the movement though, comes one of Mahler's most inspired passages. Just as the movement appears to be fading away to nothing, the string section signals an orchestral tutti with prominent brass and mighty timpani strikes. It is the child's vision of heaven, described in song in the last movement. A magical moment in a symphony that is an absolute joy from start to finish.

Day 114

24 April 2017: Pärt – Symphony No.3 (1971)
Rather like Górecki, who I featured a few days ago, Arvo Pärt had something of a road to Damascus moment in his compositional life. Both began their careers as modernists, exploring serialism and every avant garde technique that was in vogue in the middle of the last century. They both then abandoned this in favour of what is occasionally referred to as Holy Minimalism, which was obviously more palatable and brought them popularity with a much wider audience.

Pärt's crisis point came in the late-sixties when he found that he nothing left to say and felt unable to compose at all. Seeking inspiration for his third symphony, he decided to immerse himself in early music and Gregorian chant. Having stumbled on this new means of expression, Pärt then wrote no music for six years while he developed his tintinnabuli system (more of that when I come to his fourth symphony later in the year). This work then represents the exact transition point between the two styles, and part of me wishes he'd written more music at this time rather than embark on his long silence. When he was merely incorporating early music sensibilities into his earlier approach to composition, the end results were far more interesting than the mostly dull music he then went on to write. As a consequence, I find this rare transitional work one of the most satisfying of his orchestral output.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Days 108 – 111

Day 108

18 April 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Concertante, for flute, harp and strings (1973)
Sinfonia Concertante is Andrzej Panufnik’s fourth symphony, and it differs from its predecessor the Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77) written ten years earlier, in almost every respect. Despite the huge success of his Sinfonia Sacra, Panufnik had decided in the intervening decade, to rethink his harmonic language, building entire works from a simple three-note 'cell' – in this case C-D-A, first heard in the harp at the outset. The forces used are much reduced, and the sparser, almost minimalist thematic material makes for a far more austere sound world.

The first movement is elegant and melodic using the 'cell' to create symmetrical patterns, while the contrasting second movement is deliberately asymmetrical and dance-like. The overall result is a work that is actually more typical of his output as a whole, as Panufnik spent the rest of his career refining this novel approach to composition. It's fair to say that this symphony was a successful experiment, whereas some later symphonies ended up as rather dry, almost academic exercises. The sensitivity of the writing for such delicate instrumentation makes this a wholly satisfying work.

Day 109

19 April 2017: Glazunov – Symphony No. 4 (1893)
This was a first hearing for me, and not just for this work but for any Alexander Glazunov symphony. Prior to today, the only work of his I was in any way familiar with was his wonderful Violin Concerto, and his orchestration of pieces by Borodin, such as Prince Igor, and the Petite Suite. Once again, I find myself cursing the fact that I'm only discovering this music now.

Glazunov wasn't a member of The Mighty Handful of Russian composers led by Balakirev, but he bought into their ethos of creating a distinctly Russian form of music, which departed from Germanic tradition. After three symphonies based on 'Russian' themes, Glazunov decided to venture off into new territory, and as he said, give 'subjective impressions of myself'. It's a wonderful symphony, with one of loveliest opening movements I've heard in a while. There's a delightful jaunty and delightful scherzo, before the melancholic music of the first movement returns briefly, finally giving way to a spirited Allegro. I'm now thinking of ways I can squeeze a few more Glazunov symphonies into my Symphony A Day schedule for the rest of the year.

Day 110

20 April 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No.2 (1902)
With many of my favourite composers, and I would place Jean Sibelius in that category, I can recall the work or performance that first triggered my interest in them. For some reason I can't with Sibelius, but I'm fairly sure this was the symphony I got to know first. I do remember hoovering up recordings of all of his symphonies during the mid-eighties and my LP of Simon Rattle conducting the CBSO in this work was a big favourite at the time.

It remains one of Sibelius's most popular works, with its stirring finale almost guaranteeing a rapturous response whenever it is performed in concerts. The blaze of brass that declaims the closing bars of the symphony in some ways disguises the fact that much of what has gone before was actually quite austere. Everything is building toward the final movement, however, which is a compositional triumph as all of the fragments of themes heard in the preceding music are pieced together like a kind of jigsaw puzzle into one grandiose melody. I never tire of listening to this, marvelling at the brilliance of the concept.

Day 111

21 April 2017: Górecki – Symphony No. 1 (1959)
The staggering success of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's third symphony, also known as the 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs', in the early nineties was particularly difficult for me to get my head around. The previous year, as part of my music degree, I had submitted a dissertation on post-war Polish music, which had, after a period of restriction under the Socialist Realism doctrine, turned on a dime and found itself at the forefront of the avant garde in the late-1950s. It featured, among others, Górecki who was one of the new wave of experimental composers alongside other relatively obscure names such as Serocki, Baird, Krauze, etc. So imagine my surprise when, barely a year later, the same composer was becoming virtually a household name with a 50-minute slab of quasi-minimalism. I suppose that would be as nothing to the shock many of the million or so people who bought the now-famous Elektra-Nonesuch recording would have received if they'd then sat down to listen to this.

This is the Górecki I got to know. His first symphony was his first large-scale work, written when he was still a composition student – albeit a 25-year-old one. It is written for string orchestra and percussion, and for the most part the two sections are pitted against each other, especially in the first movement. It is an entirely dissonant and uncompromising work that is demanding to play and, to be honest, almost as demanding to listen to. It is a bold and confident early work, but it gives absolutely no clue as to the direction Górecki's music would eventually take.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Days 104 – 107

Day 104

14 April 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No.7 'Leningrad' (1941)
The symphonies written by Dmitri Shostakovich between 1935 and 1945 transcended music and took on a far greater political and historical significance. The fourth and fifth symphonies emerged from his battles with the Soviet authorities, but by the time he came to write his seventh, Russia was in the grip of a war with the invading Nazis. Once again the music he wrote took on a life of its own, and became an act of resistance. Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to the city of Leningrad, which at the time of the work's completion was under siege by the Germans. The Siege of Leningrad wouldn't be lifted for another two years, by which time well over a million people had died.

Incredibly, this symphony was performed in Leningrad during the Siege, in 1942 by the half-starved remnants of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. The performance was broadcast on loudspeakers all over the city – a quite extraordinary act of defiance. The music itself is imposing, even by Shostakovich's breathtaking standards. It is his longest symphony, and at around 80 minutes is only surpassed in the standard orchestral repertoire by a handful of other works. The defining feature of the symphony is the so-called 'invasion theme' that occupies roughly the central third of the gigantic first movement. This 22-bar march theme starts in barely audible pizzicato strings and builds through 12 repetitions in a relentless ten-minute crescendo of increasing savagery. The other three movements are similarly impassioned and taut, eventually culminating in another of the composer's ambiguous endings of forced triumphalism. Much has been made of the fact that the symphony was written before the Siege of Leningrad actually began, so it clearly couldn't have depicted the actual events. The dedication is entirely suitable though. The Russians eventually fought off the invading forces, but the victory won was a cost so colossal as to be beyond comprehension.

Day 105

15 April 2017: Bruch – Symphony No. 3 (1886)
Max Bruch is, rather unfairly, seen as a one-hit wonder. Much as Pachelbel's Canon or Cesar Franck's Symphony in D dominate those composers' respective outputs, Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 is just about the only work many casual classical music fans would be aware of. There is plenty of other good stuff out there of course, Kol Nidrei, for example, and a lovely Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra. And then there are three symphonies of admittedly variable quality.

The third is probably the best of them. It's a perfectly good late-Romantic symphony, that maybe just lacks a really memorable tune to enable it to stand out from the crowd. It was written in Liverpool, oddly enough, when Bruch was, for a short time, conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic. While it may have been written in England, it depicts the Rhineland of Bruch's birth and is laden with folk-like melodies and the bustle of rural village life. To be honest, it's not on a par with the famed violin concerto, but it's definitely worth more of an airing than it presently gets.

Day 106

16 April 2017: Henze – Symphony No. 7 (1984)
Hans Werner Henze was one of the most complex characters in contemporary music and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest composers of the second half of the twentieth century. His leftist political views and homosexuality led to his moving to Italy from his native Germany when he was in his late-twenties, by which point his music was already starting to absorb a myriad of influences from serialism to jazz.

The seventh is the most orthodox and best-known of his ten symphonies; Henze even stated that it was in the Beethovenian tradition. It is a work I became familiar with through a BBC documentary called The Middle of Life, broadcast in 1987, which chronicled the British premiere of this symphony, given by the CBSO under Simon Rattle at the previous year's Proms to mark Henze's 60th birthday. It made an instant impression on me, especially the final movement, which is a beautiful un-sung setting of Friedrich Hölderlin's poem Hälfte des Lebens. It is a marked contrast to a lively, rhythmic and wildly dissonant first movement. There is so much going on throughout the symphony that it is impossible to absorb it all in one listen, but even a single hearing is a highly rewarding experience.

Day 107

17 April 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 49, 'La Passione' (1768)
Josef Haydn was deeply immersed in his Sturm und Drang period of composition when he wrote his forty-ninth symphony in 1768. The title of La Passione is, in fact, thought not to have anything to do with the emotional content of this era of the German arts, but is attributable to a bit of jiggery-pokery to ensure an Easter performance in Schwerin in 1790. The symphony was said to be based on the Passion, thus circumventing the restrictions on secular music during Holy Week. It's somewhat appropriate therefore that I've chosen to listen to this on Easter Monday.

The structure is unusual for the Classical era, in that it adopts the Baroque form of a Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) of successively slow, fast, slow, and fast movements. Hence it opens with an Adagio, and it is one of unusual darkness. Indeed the whole work, apart from the trio of the third movement, is in F minor, thus there is very little let-up in the seriousness of the piece. It's a symphony very much odds with the general perception of Haydn as a composer of lightweight, court-pleasing music.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Days 100 – 103

Day 100

10 April 2017: Atterberg – Symphony No.3, 'West Coast Pictures' (1916)
A hundred days already ... where does the time go? Anyway what better way to bring up the century than with Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg's beautiful third symphony. I seem to have spent much of the last 100 days bemoaning then neglect of this or that composer, but the fact that Atterberg in general, and this symphony in particular, is relatively unknown in this country is really saddening. My lack of knowledge of him until quite recently led to my assuming, from the title of this symphony, that he was a Swedish emigre who moved to California, not registering the fact that Sweden has a west coast too!

Born in 1887, he is roughly contemporary with Prokofiev and Webern and while his music is nowhere near as challenging or ground-breaking as theirs, it has a sublime lyrical and impressionistic quality to it. His third symphony is widely regarded as his finest, and is three thematically linked sea pictures, if you will. The first, entitled Summer Haze sets the tone with glittering orchestral colours and soaring, wistful melodies. The second depicts a storm, and employs the well-established orchestral play book on a subject that most composers since Vivaldi have turned their minds to. The finale Summer Night returns to the calm of the first movement before building to a triumphant and exhilarating climax. With a degree of audience familiarity, this could be a huge favourite in the concert halls.  

Day 101

11 April 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 2 (1925)
To say that Sergei Prokofiev took a different approach to his second symphony to the one he took to his first would be quite the understatement. The first, modelled on the classical symphonies of Haydn, is a bright and breezy 15 minutes or so of neoclassicism. This is a completely different beast – nearly three times as long, and not the remotest bit bright or breezy. The harmonic language is dissonant, especially in the first movement, and the texture is dense to the point of impenetrable. In fact, even Prokofiev had to concede that he couldn't fathom its essence, feeling a degree of sympathy for his audience.

The symphony is in two movements: the first being a brutal, violent Allegro, and the second a theme and variations that accounts for two thirds of the symphony's length. The form is essentially borrowed from Beethoven's Op. 111 Piano Sonata, but that is where any similarity to that particular work ends. There are moments of calm in the variations that counterbalance the sheer unpleasantness of the first movement, but the symphony as a whole remains generally unloved and is certainly the least-performed of Prokofiev's symphonic output. It's a work you really have to be in the mood for.

Day 102

12 April 2017: Casella – Symphony No. 1 (1906)
The late-Romantic Italian composer Alfredo Casella was a pupil of Gabriel Fauré, classmate of George Enescu and Maurice Ravel, and could list Debussy and Stravinsky among his friends. Being so well-connected, you might be wondering why he isn't better known. In fact, Casella was somewhat airbrushed out of Italian history for a while as a result of his support for the Fascist government of Mussolini during World War Two; an odd position for him to have taken given that his wife was Jewish.

As most Italian composers before him had tended to concentrate on writing operas, Casella was one of the first Italian symphonists since the classical period. He was also his own worst critic, and he took an almost immediate dislike to this work. Casella clearly intended that it should never be heard – even going to the extent of re-using a re-scored version of its slow movement for his second symphony just three years later. I can't think of another example of two consecutive symphonies by a composer actually sharing a whole movement. Anyway, I like it even if he didn't!

Day 103

13 April 2017: Arnold – Symphony No. 3 (1957)
Malcolm Arnold wrote nine very good symphonies, and sadly none of them are in any way familiar to audiences in this country, let alone abroad. The third ranks highly among them, and was written when he was at the peak of his powers. In the year of its premiere, Arnold would receive an Academy Award for his film score of The Bridge on the River Kwai. This is a far more serious work than that though, possibly deriving from the death of his mother during its composition, and to some extent his battles with his own sanity having been institutionalised at the start of the 1950s. Coincidentally, it was also completed in the year that Jean Sibelius, a composer Arnold acknowledged as one of his biggest influences, died.

A splendid, lyrical opening movement, in which the Sibelian influence is most clearly evident, sets the scene for a magnificent Lento slow movement. This Passacaglia, on which 20 variations are based is, in my opinion, some of the best music he ever wrote. The relatively brief finale that follows is almost a throwaway gesture, but it works very well as an antidote to the rather portentous music that preceded it. If Arnold has a reputation for being a composer of light music, this symphony would dispel that in an instant.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Days 95 – 99

Day 95

5 April 2017: Leiviskä – Symphony No. 3 (1971)
Completely unplanned, but I seem to be in a sequence of third symphonies at the moment (with another one tomorrow). Of these, I'm fairly confident in saying that this by the female Finnish composer Helvi Leiviskä is the most obscure. Leiviskä studied composition at the Sibelius Academy, but was well into her thirties before any of her music was publicly performed. At that first concert, which featured her Piano Concerto and Triple Fugue for Orchestra, a contemporary reviewer said that her composition 'spoke with the voice of a man'. I think it was probably meant as a compliment.

We'll have to take his word for it, however, as no recording of either work exists, and sadly the third symphony, to the best of my knowledge, is the only one of the three she wrote to have been recorded. This dates from 1971, by which point Leiviskä was approaching her seventies and had abandoned tonality completely. The orchestral gestures seem to belong to the late-Romantic period but the musical language is much more modern, giving the piece a strange out-of-focus feel. It's a very strong work, and it certainly makes me wish I could hear some of the rest of her output.

Day 96

6 April 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 3 (1815)
The still only 18-year-old Franz Schubert began composing this work just two months after his second symphony, and the two works together represent pretty much the only orchestral music he wrote in an extraordinarily prolific year when his primary focus was on lieder and choral music. The sheer volume of music Schubert wrote in the year 1815, meant much of it – this symphony included – virtually slipped under the radar.

The third symphony is much shorter than its predecessor, mostly due to the light-as-a-feather inner movements both taking under four minutes each in performance. The graceful Allegretto and energetic Minuetto counterbalance a large-scale first movement that features a lengthy slow introduction, making it feel more like an overture than an opening movement to a symphony. As with the second symphony, the finale is quick and lively, galloping along in the manner of a tarantella. After its almost meditative introduction, the symphony is never less than spirited and joyful for the rest of its duration. Sadly, like many of his early works, it would not receive a public performance until many years after his death.

Day 97

7 April 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 1 (1889)
The French composer Albéric Magnard was a very impressive man. His father was editor of Le Figaro, and he could have easily settled for lived a life of privilege. Instead, he decided to pursue his musical ambitions and sought to be recognised on his own merits, rather than as 'fils du Figaro'. That he achieved this goal is notable enough, however his heroic death raises him further in my estimation. At the outbreak of World War One, he packed his family off to a safe haven while he stayed behind to guard their property. When the invading German forces arrived, he attempted a one-man defence, shooting one of them dead. Unfortunately, though the Germans responded by setting fire to his house, killing Magnard and in the process destroying many of his compositions.

More than enough of his music survives for his worth as a composer to be appreciated. He is, perhaps lazily, sometimes referred to as ‘le Bruckner français’, although some also align him with Mahler or Wagner. Either way, he was an outstanding composer of the late-Romantic period, who would probably be better known were it not for the fact that he lived at a time when there was some pretty serious competition, not least from the composers already mentioned. This symphony is undoubtedly the most Brucknerian of his four, especially in his brass writing in the Religioso slow movement, which is absolutely wonderful. I discovered Magnard a couple of years ago, and once again found myself wishing that concert programmers would spread the net a bit wider to trawl up gems like this.

Day 98

8 April 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 2 (1926)
Arnold Bax was something of a late starter as a symphonist, having written the first of his seven when he was 38. His second followed four years later, and I've always regarded it as his darkest work. The composer himself said he was aiming for a 'kind of oppressive, catastrophic mood', and his use of a larger than usual orchestra bears that out. Also in the mix for its darker colours are the pedals only of an organ.

It is a brilliantly conceived symphony, in that all of its thematic material is heard in the introduction to the first movement. As such, it acts almost like a mini operatic overture. Musically, it is intense and brooding throughout, with the occasional moments of light seeming quite pallid. Many regard the period during which this symphony was composed as Bax's finest. He was still of interest to critics looking for new and challenging music, whereas by the 1930s his essentially romantic style was beginning to look old-fashioned. Performances of this, or indeed any of his symphonies are very rare now. Bax is long-overdue a revival.

Day 99

9 April 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (1840)
Or, to give this its full title, A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra. It's now routinely referred to as Felix Mendelssohn's second symphony, but the numbering was the work of his publishers, who printed it as Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major after Mendelssohn's death. Whichever way you cut it, it's an extraordinary work. It is by far the longest of his symphonies, with a choral finale in the manner of Beethoven's ninth, and yet it is so rarely performed that many people aren't even aware that Mendelssohn wrote a choral symphony.

Lobgesang means Hymn of Praise, and the Biblical texts for the chorale finale, although taken from various books, are unified by the theme of praising God. It was a grand concept, quite well received in its day, but history has not been kind to the symphony. The obvious parallels with Beethoven's ninth have led to it being dismissed as a pale imitation, but if anything Mendelssohn's model was JS Bach. The use of the word 'Cantata' description of the work – Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas – and the use of chorales and fugues all indicate that Bach was the greater influence. Far from being a pastiche though, this is a highly original work that has been rather unfairly treated by time. I've enjoyed the excuse to listen to it again, filling today's Huge Choral Symphony Sunday slot!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Days 91 – 94

Day 91

1 April 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 2 (1957)
Sir Michael Tippett's music passed from exuberant lyricism to at times impenetrable complexity in a relatively short space of time. This symphony catches him on the cusp, when he was still writing in a form of extended tonality, but experimenting with new forms and ideas. I regard this as his golden period, during which time he produced his opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Piano Concerto, the sublime Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and this symphony.

It is probably the most accessible and rewarding of his four symphonies. The opening gesture of pounding bass Cs, which apparently came from his listening to a Vivaldi concerto, immediately gives the listener something to ground themselves upon while flights of string passages take off all around. The form of the second movement is novel but perfectly lucid – four distinct thematic groups are stated in turn and then gradually fragment as the movement progresses, eventually giving way to a new sonority in a coda for four horns. After a lively, syncopated scherzo and a finale that features a set of variations over a ground bass, the opening pounding Cs return to round off a wonderful symphonic journey.

Day 92

2 April 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 3, 'Eroica' (1804)
In survey of leading conductors by BBC Music magazine last year, this symphony was voted the greatest of all time. I have no reason to quarrel with that outcome, although my personal taste is such that if there were a poll for the greatest THIRD symphony of all time, this wouldn't even make my top three*. Its importance, however, is beyond dispute. In one fell stroke, Beethoven took the symphony and elevated it as an art form to heights never previously imagined.

For a start, the Eroica is almost twice as long as any symphony ever written to that point, but it's not just its scale that is impressive. This marks the beginning of the concept of the symphony as high art rather than as court entertainment. The technical challenges, the complexity of its structure, the ingenious use of a funeral march as a slow movement, even the harmonic curve ball of the C sharp at the end of the initial theme – which has no business in a symphony in E flat major – all combine to make this a piece something to be reckoned with. The story of the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte being vigorously scratched out from the manuscript after he had declared himself Emperor just adds to the mythology of the work. Inevitably, the Eroica was lost on its audience when it was first performed, who just found it long and perplexing. As with all great art though, it took time to be fully appreciated, and it has rightly become one of the best-loved pieces of music ever written.

* For the record: Panufnik, Saint-Saens, Vaughan Williams.

Day 93

3 April 2017: Alwyn – Symphony No. 3 (1956)
Northampton-born William Alwyn was a really quite extraordinary figure. He was a poet, an artist, and a musician, as well as serving on, or in some cases founding, various professional bodies such as the Performing Right Society. He wrote five symphonies, numerous concertos and operas, but he is probably best-known (if he is known at all) for the 70+ film scores he wrote between 1941–1963. Many great post-war films were scored by Alwyn including Carve Her Name with Pride, Geordie, Odd Man Out, and the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson.

And yet he remains a neglected figure, seen by many of those who may be aware of his work as a conservative and backward-looking figure. True, in this work there are echoes of Walton and Holst, and especially the fourth and sixth symphonies of Vaughan Williams. The skill on display in this work, however, is quite remarkable. The first movement makes use of just eight notes of the chromatic scale, while the chilling second movement employs, almost unbelievably, only the other four. It's a quite brilliant technical achievement from a composer who deserves a greater audience.

Day 94

4 April 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 3 (1872)
After two symphonies that he had managed to lose almost immediately after writing, the third symphony by Antonin Dvořák is in many ways the first 'proper' one. He could have been justified for following Bruckner's example and saying that the earlier efforts 'did not count'. He never heard them performed and consequently never had a chance to edit or revise music that otherwise only existed in his head. Symphony No. 3 was written about seven years after its predecessors, and was premiered in 1874. This afforded Dvořák the luxury of being able to revise the work, which he did in the late 1880s.

It is far more concise than the earlier examples, and in fact only has three movements – the only one of symphonies that does. The first movement is Dvořák at his most gloriously lyrical, while the unusually long central slow movement is as good as any he wrote, and is really quite bright in tone in its middle section, where the orchestral writing in particular is quite redolent of Wagner. Sadly, despite its strength as a piece, it is rarely performed today, being overshadowed by the far more popular late symphonies. A familiar fate for earlier works of many of the great composers I've been featuring.