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.

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