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.

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