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.

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