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.

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