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!

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