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.

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