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.

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