Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Days 148 – 151

Day 148

28 May 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 5 (1902)
This symphony has always been considered one of Gustav Mahler's finest, however its popularity soared still further when its Adagietto was used in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film of Thomas Mann's novella A Death In Venice. This always reminds of a story the film's star Dirk Bogarde used to tell of a Hollywood mogul who loved the music, leading him to ask Visconti who'd written it. When told who it was, he replied, "Who's this Mahler guy's agent?" Anyway, I digress, there is a lot more to this symphony than its exquisite fourth movement. It was the first purely orchestral one Mahler had written since No. 1, and insofar as a 70-minute symphony can be tightly focussed, it feels a lot leaner than much of what he'd written before.

The work is in five movements, divided, rather pointlessly in my view, into three parts (movements 1 and 2 are 'Part 1'; 4 and 5 are 'Part 3'). The opening is quite unusual, with a solo trumpet playing a subdued fanfare to a funeral march. Even Mahler conceded that people might have expected the first and second movements to be the wrong way round. There is a sense of unity throughout the work, which derives from earlier-quoted themes constantly emerging in later movements, with the Rondo finale in particular making repeated use of the secondary theme from the Adagietto. The journey from the funereal opening movement to the rollicking finale is what makes this symphony such an uplifting experience, especially in a concert hall where its manageable length and relatively standard orchestral forces make it an ever-popular choice.

Day 149

29 May 2017: Khachaturian – Symphony No. 1 (1934)
For a composer whose name would probably not be well-known to the public at large, Aram Khachaturian has written more than his share of popular tunes. His ballet Spartacus provided the theme tune to the 1970s TV show The Onedin Line, while another of ballets – Gayane – supplied not only the Adagio that was the evocative music accompanying the space flight in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also had an electric guitar version of its Sabre Dance turned into a top five hit for Dave Edmunds' Love Sculpture in November 1968. Not 'arf, pop-pickers.

I find Khachaturian's music to be almost instantly recognisable. His native Armenia shares a border with Iran and Turkey and there is a strong middle-eastern inflection to his melodic lines, especially in the first movement here. If there is a criticism of this work, it is that, at times, it feels like a succession of folk tunes stitched together. It isn't, but there is an episodic feel throughout. That said, the ravishing orchestral colours he employs more than make up for that. Khachaturian is undoubtedly best known for his ballet music, and of his symphonies, only really the second is performed on anything approaching a regular basis. There is plenty to enjoy in this work, however.

Day 150

30 May 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 3 (1929)
And so, we bring up the 150 with arguably the best of Arnold Bax's symphonies. He wrote seven, which means that this is third of seven occasions this year when I will bemoan the fact that they are rarely performed. I've often wondered why; it could just be down to the changing tastes of the British public, or overly cautious artistic directors steering clear of unfamiliar works. My own theory is that Bax needs to have written at least one truly outstanding symphony, rather than seven broadly similar ones, none of which ever get a look in when concerts are being programmed. If one of them is to step up to the plate, as it were, then the strongest case could probably be made for the third.

This symphony was hugely popular in Bax's lifetime. It was first performed at the Proms in 1930, the year after its composition, featured in each the six subsequent Proms seasons, then again in 1939, 1942 and 1944. And that was that; it hasn't been heard there in 73 years. Quite why it should have dropped off the British music radar so comprehensively is baffling. It is a magnificent work. An opening solo bassoon melody provides the thematic material for a huge 20-minute first movement of a mostly reflective nature. A beautiful slow movement that evokes images of the West Highlands of Scotland, where the symphony was written, follows. The real symphonic masterstroke though is the Finale, which is bright and optimistic at first, before giving way to an epilogue of indescribable beauty that elevates the piece another level. This really should be standard repertoire for British orchestras. 

Day 151

31 May 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 82. 'The Bear' (1786)
In 1785, Josef Haydn was commissioned by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (see Day 79), who was then the music director of the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris, to write six symphonies to be performed as part of their subscription series the following year. Now collectively known as the Paris Symphonies, they remain among Haydn's most popular works. Symphony no. 82 in C major was the first performed, although not the first composed, of the six, and is known as 'the Bear'. As usual, the nickname did not come from Haydn himself, but was given to it as a result of the bagpipe effect employed in the fourth movement. It was thought to resemble the music used in a popular form of street entertainment ... dancing bears. It was a different age.

Haydn had long since moved on from his Strum und Drang period, and this symphony is more typical of his court-pleasing output. There is a consummate ease to the writing throughout as one might expect from a composer now in his 54th year and widely revered throughout Europe. Haydn's speciality is his ability to occasionally pull out something unique in his symphonies – a gimmick, if you will – to make them memorable in some way, and the bagpipe drone effect in the fourth movement must have been quite startling to the late-eighteenth century audience. He certainly knew how to win over a crowd.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Days 144 – 147

Day 144

24 May 2017: : Panufnik – Sinfonia di Sfere (1975)
Andrzej Panufnik's fifth symphony, Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony of Spheres) is a continuation of his work in the mid-seventies towards a musical syntax of his own. In this work he allies his note-cell based ideas to his fascination with geometric patterns and how they might permeate a large-scale musical structure. Although it is a single-movement work, there are six sections in which 'spheres' of Tempo, Harmony, Rhythm, Melody, Dynamics, and Structure are worked through as the symphony progresses. The circle influences every minute detail of Sinfonia di Sfere, even the percussionists are arranged around the platform in performance so that their sound constantly orbits the orchestra.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Panufnik. I have to say, however, that I find this, and the Sinfonia Mistica that followed it, rather dry and academic works that I seldom listen to. There is a dazzling section for percussion that leaps out of the otherwise surprisingly flat musical landscape, demonstrating the skills he learned as a percussion student in his youth. This a rare highlight though, and I find it is best to view this as a study of sorts, in which Panufnik was learning how to speak in his new language.

Day 145

25 May 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 3 (1875)
Exactly 100 years before the Panufnik symphony featured yesterday, we have the third symphony written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is unique among Tchaikovsky's symphonic output in two respects: it is the only one in a major key and also the only one to have five movements. Generally referred to as the 'Polish Symphony', the name doesn't actually originate from Tchaikovsky, but was given to it seemingly in around 1899 and in any event several years after the composer had died. The basis for the nickname is the marking Tempo di polacca in the Finale.

The additional fifth movement is an Alla tedesca, that occurs between the first movement and the rather lovely Andante elegiaco slow movement. This actually gives the symphony a rather pleasing symmetry, which makes one wonder why more composers didn't adopt the habit. On the whole, it is a really strong work. The usually self-critical Tchaikovsky himself seems to have been quite pleased with it, writing to Rimsky-Korsakov that 'As far as I am concerned ... in craftsmanship it is a step forward'. As a transitional work between the folk-music influenced early symphonies and the titanic works that were to follow, it does represent a move in the right direction.

Day 146

26 May 2017: Adams – Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)
Dating from just ten years ago, this is the newest symphony I've featured so far. The work is fashioned from his opera Doctor Atomic, which is based on the Manhattan Project, consequently the bulk of the music was actually composed two years earlier. Sections of the overture as well as various instrumental sections and arias were formed into a symphonic work that originally ran to 45 minutes, but in its final form is about half that duration.

The common perception of John Adams is of a minimalist composer, and while that may have been the case in the early stages of his career, it scarcely applies now. There is none of the tiresome minimalist repetition here, in fact the first movement is surprisingly atonal, while the lyricism of the final movement (an orchestral setting of the Batter My Heart aria, sung by Oppenheimer from the end of Act One of the opera) is the finest piece of melodic writing I've ever heard from Adams. Hearing new composers is one aspect of this adventure I'm enjoying, but discovering different facets of composers I was already acquainted with is equally pleasurable.

Day 147

27 May 2017: D'Indy – Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (Symphonie cévenole) for piano and orchestra (1886)
Rather like Roger Sessions, who I featured on Day 27, Vincent d'Indy is arguably more famous for the composers he taught than for any of his own work. As founder of the Schola Cantorum in Paris, he taught, among others, Isaac Albéniz, Arthur Honegger, Albéric Magnard, Darius Milhaud, Cole Porter, and Erik Satie. And yet, of the 100+ compositions of his own that have an opus number, no more than a handful are performed regularly today.

This work, Symphony on a French Mountain Air, is comfortably the most well-known item in his oeuvre. That said, I've certainly never heard this before, in fact I'm fairly sure I've never heard anything by d'Indy. I really enjoyed it, however. It is very much a symphony for piano and orchestra as opposed to a piano concerto, with the piano being treated as an extra layer in the orchestration rather than soloisticly. The tone of the work is set with a statement of the air on the cor anglais, and over its three movements a series of variations rediscover the theme at the end of the symphony. It's a lusciously scored and quite sumptuous piece and, if typical of his work in general, then I may be tempted to delve a little deeper. Not the snappiest title ever though, it has to be said.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Days 137 – 143

Day 137

17 May 2017: Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 Guitars (2000)
Well this is certainly a bit different. American composer Glenn Branca often uses electric guitars as the basis for composition, although he has also written for conventional orchestra. For this symphony, written in the year 2000, the initial hope was to gather an ensemble of 2,000 guitarists. He eventually scaled it down to a still-quite-mighty 100 guitarists and it was first performed at the foot of the World Trade Centre the following year, just three months before they were destroyed in a terrorist attack.

I can't pretend it's a wholly enjoyable listen. The work begins promisingly enough with a steadily building crescendo over an insistent march rhythm in the percussion, eventually reaching a peak of almost white noise as the full battery of such a mass of heavily amplified guitars is unleashed. Unfortunately though, there's only so much of that sound one can listen to before tiring of it, and that's less than ideal for a work that lasts well over an hour. In the inner movements especially, I wished for some kind of light and shade or aural shaping instead of just unrelenting dissonance. It was still an interesting diversion sitting between Dvorák and Rachmaninov!

Day 138

18 May 2017: Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 1 (1895)
There is some truth in the phrase 'no pain, no gain', and there is a school of thought that if Sergei Rachmaninov hadn't been subjected to some of the most brutal criticism ever heaped on one symphony in the history of music, he might have been a very different composer. The failure of this symphony led almost directly to the triumph of his second piano concerto, although it was probably a route he himself would rather not have taken. The disastrous first performance of this work was largely attributable to the conductor Alexander Glazunov, who was reportedly drunk and indisputably incompetent. As a result, it was savaged by the critics, some of whom may have allowed a St Petersburg–Moscow rivalry to impair their judgement, and Rachmaninov consequently suffered a complete psychological collapse. His depression lasted three years, and after a course of psychotherapy, he eventually began composing again, with the aforementioned Piano Concerto No. 2 being the first major work he produced following this symphony.

The composer is alleged to have destroyed the score, and it wasn't performed again in his lifetime. It only exists at all because the orchestral parts were discovered the year after his death, from which the full score could be reconstructed. Many people view this as Rachmaninov's greatest symphony, which is praise indeed given the popularity of No. 2. I don't think I would go that far, although it is a wonderful piece. There are long sections where the music seems introverted, almost as though composer is talking to himself, although that does give the work an intimate feel. One thing is for sure, and that is the criticism it received at the time was thoroughly undeserved.

Day 139

19 May 2017: Louise Farrenc – Symphony No. 2 (1846)
Louise Farrenc occupies a very unique place in French music. Aside from the obvious fact of her gender, she was one of very few French composers writing symphonies in the 1840s. If she was aware of the work of Hector Berlioz in the previous decade, she certainly chose not to follow in his footsteps. Instead, she allied herself very firmly to the Germanic tradition, to such an extent that if someone had told me this was middle-period Mendelssohn, I would have had no reason to doubt them.

The most obvious model for this symphony is actually Beethoven's second symphony, also in D major, with the opening couple of minutes bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Beethoven. It soon develops a life of its own, however, with Farrenc's French accent cutting through the music from time to time. It's all very enjoyable, but it has to be said, a little backward-looking for the mid-19th century.

Day 140

20 May 2017: Valentin Silvestrov – Symphony No. 4 (1976)
I only discovered Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov very recently, and as a consequence I've been trying to shuffle my Symphony A Day schedule (yes, this is all planned out months in advance) to try and squeeze in a few more of his works. Like a number of post-war composers, he began his career writing in a modernist style, but after a period out of the limelight in the mid-seventies Silvestrov reinvented himself as a neo-classicist and this is one of the earliest work from this second period.

I really like this piece a lot. The harmonic language is rich and conforms to the belief that I always adhered to in my pitiful attempts at composition: that dissonance is just one of the many colours available on the composer's pallete. This is music that speaks to me directly somehow, and some of the writing is truly sublime. There is a theme for a smaller string ensemble, which appears to have parachuted in from a Renaissance work for viols, that first appears around the eight-minute mark, and the effect is absolutely breathtaking. Likewise, the final five minutes is an extraordinary pianissimo of barely audible melodic fragments fading away to nothing. Absolutely stunning – I don't think I can recommend this symphony highly enough.

Day 141

21 May 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 31, 'Paris' (1778)
In 1777, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left the security of the Salzburg court and set out to Paris in search of employment. During his time at Salzburg, Mozart wrote 17 of his numbered symphonies (the 'Salzburg Symphonies') in just over three years. Symphony No. 31 is the first of Mozart's late-period symphonies, and as such are considered his more mature works. It was written for an unusually large orchestra, causing Mozart's father Leopold to comment that 'the French must like noisy symphonies'.

The work was specifically written for a French audience while Mozart was embarking upon his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seek employment there. The symphony was deemed a success, however, and was performed many times in the years after its composition. Unusually, it has three movements, with the central Andante in 3/4 having replaced a 6/8 Andantino that was seemingly not well received at the first performance. Possibly because of his failure to gain employment there, Mozart appears to have developed some contempt for the French, writing 'I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like'. I think we all can.

Day 142

22 May 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 4 (1942)
Edmund Rubbra's fourth symphony was written during World War II, and at the time, the composer was stationed at an army camp in North Wales. There is something of the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' spirit about the fact that Rubbra was somehow expected to not only compose the work while there was a war on, but also conduct the first performance at the Proms in August 1942. Even that seemingly immovable commitment required some delicate negotiations with his army superiors; in the end, he conducted the première in army uniform.

That Rubbra should produce arguably his finest work under such circumstances is testament to the man. In his second symphony (see Day 33), we heard him approach its composition as a huge exercise in contrapuntal writing. Here, it is clear right from the outset that the method is completely different. An insistent rhythm in the woodwinds and horn pulses under ethereal chords in divided strings, creating a quite unique aural landscape. In typical Rubbra style, the music simply gradually evolves from that terrain, eschewing any traditional formal restrictions. The first movement dominates the work, and is roughly equal in length to the movements that follow it combined, with the third and fourth effectively two halves of the same movement (the third is entitled Introduzione), again demonstrating Rubbra innate sense of form and balance. Everything, about this symphony is wholly satisfying.

Day 143

23 May 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 4 (1816)
Franz Schubert named this symphony Tragische (Tragic) for seemingly no other reason than that it is in a minor key. The best potential reason put forward for the title is that Schubert had recently been unsuccessful in applying for a post at a German language school in Ljubljana. What is tragic is the fact that none of Schubert's symphonies were performed in his lifetime, with this one not actually seeing the light of day until 1849, almost 21 years to the day after his death. Quite what motivated the 19-year-old Schubert to compose so many works on this scale with no apparent prospect of hearing them publicly performed is something of a mystery.

The work opens with a gesture very similar to the start of Haydn's Creation, and in entitling the symphony 'Tragic', Schubert does seem to consciously connect with the Sturm und Drang ethos beloved of Haydn. From then on though, Schubert adopts Beethovenian models of thematic unity between movements, and some have observed the similarity between the opening theme of this symphony and that of Beethoven's Op. 14 No. 4 string quartet. The symphony contains one of the greatest symphonic slow movements Schubert ever wrote, although the throwaway Menuetto is something of a let-down after it. This is Schubert at his most serious and shows his growing maturity as a composer.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Days 131 – 136

Day 131

11 May 2017: Hindemith – Symphony: Mathis der Maler (1934)
I've listened to a lot of Hindemith's music in my life. As a result of having composed chamber music for just about every instrument ever invented, Hindemith has become the staple of the lunchtime concert. As my old university lecturer George Nicholson once observed in one of our composition classes, if you're looking for a piece of music for ocarina and bagpipes, then chances are Hindemith wrote one. Despite his prolific output, few of his orchestral works are concert regulars – arguably only this and his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber are well-known.

This symphony attained a degree of notoriety in his native Germany, where his music had been denounced by the Nazis as 'degenerate'. It was fashioned out of music that he was composing for an opera of the same name, and although the opera was completed the following year, it could not be performed in Germany due to its themes of artistic freedom being at odds with Nazi ideology. The painter of the title is 16th century German artist Matthias Grünewald, and the symphony is specifically inspired by his Isenheim Altarpiece, which is an elaborate structure of folding panels revealing different tableaux. Each of the three movements is based one of the altarpiece's panels, with the contrasting outer movements surrounding a serene portrayal of Christ's entombment – depicted at the base of the altarpiece. It's a quite original work that seems to embrace Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk ethos, with its stimulus coming from the visual arts and its ultimate destination being opera.

Day 132

12 May 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 2 (1847)
Robert Schumann's second symphony – or third if you count them in order of actual composition – is a quite remarkable piece of art. At the time he wrote it, he was suffering from a debilitating array of ailments, such as nausea and insomnia, and was generally in constant pain. His incapacitation was compounded by a constant ringing in the ears we can probably now attribute to tinnitus, all of which left him suffering from depression. The fact that he was able to sit down and write such an uplifting symphony as this is astonishing.

His illness and depression almost certainly contributed to his taking a different approach to the composition of this symphony. He inevitably worked slowly on it, which was at odds with his more standard approach as that of a miniaturist, writing almost spontaneously. The result is a finely crafted work, conceived on a much grander scale than its rather more piecemeal predecessor.

By the way, if you rewind the YouTube video linked below back to the beginning, you can see that Katie Derham's faux pas in telling the watching Proms audience that Schumann wrote nine symphonies has been recorded for posterity!

Day 133

13 May 2017: Koechlin – The Seven Stars' Symphony (1933)
French composer Charles Koechlin's tribute to the movie stars of the day was the second composition to which he gave the title 'Symphony', although his next example of the genre was given the title Symphony No. 2. And to be honest this isn't really a symphony, rather more a suite, with each of its seven movements being based on a specific actor or actress. Specifically, they are, in turn, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

In some ways, it is reminiscent of Elgar's Enigma Variations in the way that the music conveys individual characters. So for the Emil Jannings movement, its full title is 'Choral for the repose of the soul of Professor Rath in The Blue Angel', and attempts tell the film's story in music form, rather in the way Elgar would paint a specific incident in the lives of his subjects. It is an absolutely charming work, with the final movement, Charlie Chaplin (variations on the theme of the letters of his name), which occupies about a third of the symphony's length, being the real highlight. The symphony also features a rare outing for the Ondes Martenot, most famously used in Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Day 134

14 May 2017: Berlioz – Harold en Italie (1834)
Hector Berlioz's symphonic follow-up to his Symphonie fantastique is this rather more sober work. Part-concerto and part-symphonic poem, it is certainly no more conventional than its predecessor, but the scale and ambition of the piece has definitely been toned down a little. That it ended up being part-concerto is quite a tale in itself. So the story goes, Nicolo Paganini had acquired a new Stradivarius viola and approached Berlioz to write a work to showcase it. Rather than write a straight concerto, Berlioz instead decided to write a more orchestral work that featured a viola obbligato. When Paganini saw the work and realised that the viola wasn't going to be quite the star of the show he'd anticipated, he rejected it out of hand. The two were eventually reconciled some years later when Paganini went to hear it performed, with the famed violinist kissing Berlioz's hand on stage and subsequently (and belatedly) paying the composer 20,000 francs for the work he had effectively commissioned.

The work was inspired by Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with the viola playing the part of Harold. The four movements each depict a scene from the poem, with the first movement referring to Harold in the mountains, and the second, a slow movement, sees Harold accompanying a group of Pilgrims. Rather like the Symphonie fantastique, there is a wild finale – in this case an Orgy of Brigands – but it has to be said that having pulled out all the stops in the earlier work there's already a feeling of Berlioz having nowhere left to go in this symphony. It remains a popular piece though, not least among violists who aren't exactly blessed when it comes to solo repertoire written for them.

Day 135

15 May 2017: Brian – Symphony No. 18 (1961)
Although nearly 35 years had passed since Havergal Brian wrote his infamous Gothic Symphony (see Day 50), his Symphony No. 18 was actually written in the year of the Gothic's premiere. The monumental effort required to stage a work requiring several hundred performers did not go unrecognised by the composer, as Brian wrote this symphony as an act of gratitude to Bryan Fairfax, the conductor of the 1961 premiere in Central Hall, Westminster.

Brian was already 85 years old when he wrote this symphony, and incredibly he would go on to write another 14 in the remaining 11 years of his life. The excesses of the Gothic had long been cast aside by this stage of his life, and with a total running time of around 15 minutes, it is barely one-eighth of the length of that first symphonic adventure. The musical language and forces employed are, understandably, far more conventional. Even so, it's unlikely that this was ever performed in his lifetime. The dedicatee conducted a performance two years after Brian's death, a recording of which was pirated and released by the Aries label who attributed the performance to the fictional 'Wales Symphony Orchestra, conductor Colin Wilson' (an error perpetuated in the YouTube link below). In common with virtually all of Brian's output, this symphony is very rarely heard, but it's still an impressive effort for a gentleman of advanced years.

Day 136

16 May 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 4 (1874)
Antonin Dvorák's fourth symphony shares a key – D minor – with his seventh, and as a consequence the pair are sometimes referred to as the 'Little' and the 'Great'. It's not entirely obvious why, given that both symphonies are about the same length, and in terms of orchestration the only additional forces required for the seventh are a triangle and a harp!

After a rather uncertain start his symphonic career, Dvorák was on rather more secure footing when he wrote this. Ironically, having laboured to find his own voice in his earlier somewhat derivative works, this symphony carries very clear Wagnerian influences – another reason why the 'Little' tag is quite inappropriate. There are clear echoes of Tannhäuser in the slow movement, which is a set of variations on a theme seemingly lifted from the Wagner opera. The scherzo is also particularly strong, having previous existed as a standalone piece. In fact, it's a symphony that as a whole suffers by comparison to Dvorák's later and more popular ones, and not through any lack of quality.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Days 127 – 130

Day 127

7 May 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No.4 (1806)
Insofar as Ludwig van Beethoven has a neglected symphony, then it would probably have to be the fourth. It suffers from being sandwiched between the Eroica and the Fifth, or as Robert Schumann rather more poetically put it, 'a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants'. That said, it's not as if it's never performed, it's just nowhere near as popular as the more well-known symphonies.

The fourth was written just two years after the Eroica, and it differs from its predecessor quite substantially. It's only about half as long for a start, and while the Eroica announces its arrival instantly with two powerful chords, the fourth comes in almost apologetically. Nearly three minutes of quiet introductory music have elapsed before the dynamic is lifted to a forte and the home key of B flat is finally established. The general theme throughout the work is of cheerfulness, and in many ways it harks back to the Classical tradition of Haydn, although there are darker moments. The turbulent minor-key interruption of the slow movement at about its mid-point seems to fit with the perception of Beethoven's own propensity for sudden mood changes. It's a great symphony, but the unavoidable fact is that Beethoven wrote greater ones.

Day 128

8 May 2017: Honegger – Symphony No.2 for trumpet and strings (1941)
I've always regarded Arthur Honegger as a terribly underrated composer. Known only to most music students as being a member of Les Six, many people would struggle to name any major work of his. I've long been a fan of his third symphony, the Symphonie Liturgique, but other than that and maybe Pacific 231 I can't think of many of his works that feature regularly on concert programmes.

Honegger's second symphony is identified as being written for trumpet and strings, but it is effectively for strings only with the trumpet only playing a chorale tune in the last 75 seconds or so. In fact, the work can be performed by strings alone. The effect of the trumpet in the closing bars is quite startling though, and Honegger described its use as 'like pulling out an organ stop'. It certainly comes as a triumphal climax to a work that has been mostly dark and troubled, indicative of the turbulent times in which it was written.

Day 129

9 May 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 3, 'Sinfonia espansiva' (1911)
I feel that Carl Nielsen stepped up a gear when wrote this symphony. After a couple of symphonic works in which he had found it a little difficult to shake off his influences, he arrived at his 'sound' in the Sinfonia espansiva; something that makes any late work of Nielsen almost instantly recognisable as his. It was an immediate hit, receiving performances across Europe within a matter of months. The title is something of a mystery though, as it is unclear what Nielsen felt was expansive about the work.

The symphony's most identifiable feature though is the other-worldy slow movement, marked Andante pastorale, which is a gorgeous depiction of the Danish landscape. There is something distinctly Scandinavian about the ghostly woodwind figures against the starkly orchestrated background, but the real trump card is played in the movement's final third. Wordless solos for baritone and soprano swoop in an out of the texture to stunning effect; a compositional masterstroke that is guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of the listener's neck stand on end.

Day 130

10 May 2017: Bantock – Hebridean Symphony (1913)
Just two years after yesterday's Nielsen symphony, we have this from Sir Granville Bantock, one of the lesser-known lights of British music. Bantock was four years and six years respectively older than Vaughan Williams and Holst and he shared their love of the British countryside and folk-song. In Bantock's case it was the folk music of Scotland (the land of his father) that he held in the highest regard. This symphony is one of several Hebrides-inspired works he composed and as well as being based on several Hebridean songs, the score is prefaced with the anonymous poem Canadian Boat Song, written about the Hebrides.

It is wonderfully evocative writing, which has rather more in common with the impressionistic symphonic poems of Arnold Bax the more conventional British symphonies of the time. There's nothing conventional about its single movement form, and while there are four identifiable sections the overall feel is of a through-composed piece. There is a satisfying unity about the way the islands are depicted as emerging from the sea mists at the outset, and then disappear into the mists again at the end. Quite how this symphony has ended up being so neglected is mystifying. When it comes to our musical heritage, we Brits do like to hide our lights under a bushel.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Days 121 – 126

Day 121

1 May 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 3, 'The First of May' (1929)
I had to listen to this today, really, and as a consequence I decided to break the chronology of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies over the year (you might recall that the 7th featured on Day 104). The first of May has always been a significant date in the Russian calendar, having been declared a holiday in the 1880s. In writing a symphony seemingly to pander to the Soviet authorities that were later to become the bane of his life, many have viewed this as Shostakovich being the loyal patriot. However, this predates the Stalinist purges and the concept of Socialist Realism in the arts. The third symphony was written when Shostakovich was just 23 years old, and the mood in the country was still one of optimism for the new Soviet state.

The symphony is cast in a single movement divided into four sections, with the fourth being a choral setting of words by the poet Semyon Isaakovich Kirsanov. If I'm being brutally honest, it's not Dmitri's finest hour (or half-hour, or however long it takes to perform). Along with his similarly propagandist second 'To October', it represents a backward step, musically, from the prodigious brilliance of his first symphony. It has its moments, and certainly the form of the work is original, but it remains rarely performed for a reason.

Day 122

2 May 2017: Dora Pejačević – Symphony in F#m (1917)
Definitely the only female Croatian composer I'll be featuring this year, Dora Pejačević was of very noble blood. She was the daughter of a Croatian Count and a Hungarian Countess, and received private lessons in piano, violin and compositions. Although she wrote quite prolifically, her works were rarely played in her native Croatia and were often premiered in Germany, where she eventually settled.

This symphony was written during World War I, at a time when she was conscientiously doing her bit for the war effort by volunteering as a nurse in her home village. It is a really fine work; firmly in the Late-Romantic style but with occasional flashes of a more early-20th-century harmonic language. It showed far more promise than the first symphonic explorations of many more household names. Sadly, it was to be her only symphony, however, as she died at the tragically young age of 37, from kidney failure shortly after the birth of her first child. Pejačević was a unique voice in the history of music, who would surely have gone on to even greater things.

Day 123

3 May 2017: Ives – Symphony No. 4 (c.1924)
Oh my word, where do you start with this? Charles Ives's absolutely barmy fourth symphony was so far ahead of its time in almost every respect that it might have arrived in 1920s America via some wormhole in the space-time continuum. There are groups of musicians playing completely different music simultaneously, a feat that requires two (or sometimes three) conductors. There is a completely novel use of quarter-tones, utilizing a quarter-tone piano that had to be created specifically for this purpose. There's a subterranean percussion ensemble, a separate group given the name 'Star of Bethlehem' who are supposed to be suspended above the stage, and it's hard to think of another work before or since that makes quite so much use of quotation. Tunes as diverse as Yankee Doodle, Nearer My God To Thee, and JS Bach's Toccata in D minor all get thrown into a mind-blowing melting pot.

What Ives was doing here was creating a whole new genre of music, known broadly as American Experimental Music, which gave rise to a generation of composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Conlon Nancarrow, the minimalist school and a whole host of others who threw the classical rulebook out of the window. The sad thing is that the logistical difficulties of performing the work meant Ives never heard it played in its entirety. It didn't receive its full premiere until 1965, eleven years after Ives's death, although the first two movements were first performed in 1927, with the third being first heard six years later. The fact that the ideas Ives had took 40 years to be realised into a performable version goes to show how advanced they were. It is an extraordinary work, which takes several listens to absorb fully.

Day 124

4 May 2017: Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906)
Arnold Schoenberg is most famous for inventing the twelve-tone technique as a means of providing order to the complete breakdown of conventional tonality in music that he as much anyone instigated. In 1906, Schoenberg was still writing nominally tonal music, extending the already stretched notion of tonality espoused by his predecessors Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In this piece, however, the boundaries were pushed to the limits, with most of the thematic material making use of intervals of a fourth – something which wouldn't lend itself naturally to diatonic writing. The end result is music that sounds atonal for the most part whilst still conforming to many of the rules of tonality.

Certainly the audiences struggled with it when it first came to light, with early performances causing protests and riots. It is alleged that it was booed at its premiere in 1907, with no less a figure than Mahler taking issue with those of his fellow audience members responsible for the booing. It also featured in the infamous Skandalkonzert six years later, in which a concert of works by composers of the Second Viennese School was ended prematurely after the audience started throwing punches! Schoenberg's decision to write a Chamber Symphony for just 15 players was a clear indication that he did not wish to continue the tradition of gigantic symphonies passed on by Bruckner and Mahler. Yet within these much reduced forces there is a level of complexity that had never previously been achieved in Western music. It's a challenging piece, especially for the players, and it's fair to say Schoenberg wasn't out to make friends when he wrote this.

Day 125

5 May 2017: Boyce – Symphony No. 1 (c.1750)
It's worth taking a step back at this point and looking at the very genesis of the symphony as a form. In the Baroque period, the term 'symphony' was interchangeable with 'overture' and was usually reserved for the instrumental introduction to a larger work such as an oratorio. A typical example can be heard at the start of Handel's Messiah. William Boyce was an English composer born about 25 years after Handel, and he too wrote a number of overtures in the French or Italian style for other bigger, but now long-forgotten, pieces. However, in 1760, he took the unusual step of publishing eight of them as stand-alone three-movement symphonies. Although published in 1760, they had been composed at various times during the previous 20 years, so dating any of them is nearly impossible.

Symphony No.1 is in B flat major, and is a joyful work of barely five or six minutes' duration. In common with most Baroque music, the movements are mostly dance forms with the second being a Loure and the third a Gigue (although neither are named as such). In truth, this a case of a piece qualifying by my adherence to the rule of anything calling itself a symphony is a symphony. That said, it's not hard to see how the form evolved from these early explorations.

Day 126

6 May 2017: Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 2 (1868)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a man who constantly changed his mind. The fact that this, his second symphony, predates what we now accept to be the definitive version of his first by about 16 years gives a clue as to the confused nature of his back catalogue. This work was published in 1868 as Symphony No. 2, but was revised repeatedly and also underwent a fundamental title change. At some point, probably after writing his third symphony, he decided to call this work Symphonic Suite, "Antar". Rimsky had apparently decided that the term symphony was unsuitable for a work that effectively told a story – an approach he also applied to his later masterpiece Scheherazade.

This piece in fact has many features in common with Scheherazade. Both are based on Arabian themes and subject matter, and having arrived at the term Symphonic Suite to describe Antar, he used it again for Scheherazade when it could be argued that it is a symphony in all but name. As one might expect from anything Rimsky committed to paper, the orchestration is brilliant, and it really comes into its own in the beautiful final movement culminating a form of Liebestod as the lovers ascend to heaven. Such a quiet ending, almost a fade-out, is certainly quite unsymphonic. This work is often recommended as a follow-up piece to people who like Scheherazade and want to explore more of Rimsky's oeuvre. It is a view I would subscribe to unreservedly.