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.

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