Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Days 176 – 179

Day 176

25 June 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 5 (1875)
It took Antonin Dvořák a little while to master the art of the symphony. His first couple of attempts had been unedited sprawls that were lost almost as soon as he'd written them. They were followed by another two that were more worthy, but somewhat derivative. In this symphony, however, he absolutely nailed it, and consequently this is regarded as the first of his mature symphonies.

In many ways, this is Dvořák's 'Pastoral Symphony' with delicate woodwind themes floating in an out of the texture in the first movement, not unlike Beethoven. The thematic material is distinctly Slavic though, especially its rhythmic quality. The darker second movement has a nocturnal feel, and this moves with the slightest of breaks into a recitative-like passage that introduces a particularly deft scherzo. Only the rather more forceful finale betrays the lightness of feel conveyed by the earlier movements, but again, it is unmistakably Dvořák. This symphony is hardly better known than the first four, but deserves to sit alongside the more famous seventh or ninth in the composer's canon.

Day 177

26 June 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 2 (1967)
The difference between this and Witold Lutosławski's first symphony (see Day 81) is, in terms of time, twenty years. In every other respect, however, it almost immeasurable. I'd struggle to come up with another two consecutive symphonies by the same composer that differ so much. While the earlier work is a conventional, four-movement, Bartok-influenced symphony, this is one of his earliest experiments with aleatoricism – the use of elements of chance in composition.

In the intervening 20 years, the communist doctrine of Socialist Realism, which Lutosławski had previously been forced to operate under, had been and gone, and Poland in particular had swung wildly in the other direction. With the advent of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1957, Polish composers now found themselves state-sponsored and actively encouraged to write music at the forefront of the avant garde. Lutosławski had been influenced by a performance of John Cage's Piano Concerto to take a more chance-led approach to composition, and this manifests itself in sections where the notes are notated but the performers are given a degree of freedom over how, or even when, they play them. The symphony is divided into two contrasting sections called Hesitant and Direct, and while the first movement sounds rather chaotic, the effect of the aleatoric writing on the first few minutes of the second is breathtaking, and one that almost certainly couldn't be achieved by precise notation. Make no mistake, this is an unremittingly modernist piece, and the composer hadn't fully refined some of the techniques he employs, but in this work, Lutosławski points towards a path that many subsequent composers would follow.

Day 178

27 June 2017: Brahms – Symphony No. 3 (1883)
"Racket? That's Brahms! Brahms' Third Racket!" And thanks to that outburst from Basil Fawlty over 40 years ago, I find myself only ever able to refer to this as "Brahms' Third Racket" to this day. It is the shortest of his four rackets – sorry, symphonies – and was written in a sudden burst of creativity in the summer of 1883. The twelve weeks he took to compose it compares favourably with the twenty years it took him to produce his first.

It is a grand and stately work containing some of Brahms' best music. What is particularly interesting, and it contributes to the overall effect of it being an understated symphony despite its powerful opening, is that all four movements end quietly. Also, the work doesn't have a light-hearted scherzo as such, instead there's an almost elegiac Poco Allegretto movement. I've always regarded this as the most beautiful of Brahms' symphonies, one in which the constant struggle between major and minor is one that is resolved through peaceful negotiation. The one thing it isn't, is a racket!

Day 179

28 June 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Mistica (1977)
Just as he had in his Sinfonia di Sfere (see Day 144), which preceded this symphony by two years, Andrzej Panufnik continued to evolve his musical language through an exploration of geometric forms. Being his sixth symphony, the music is infused by his fascination with the mathematical properties of the number six. It has six sections, and is in 6/4 time. The thematic material is based on six triads, with six melodic patterns and six melodic combinations. I suppose it's appropriate that I've found myself listening to it in the sixth month.

Panufnik’s choice to relate his music to geometric symbols was an attempt to provide, in his words, a ‘spiritual, not a cerebral experience’. While no doubt aesthetically pleasing to the composer, it has to be said that Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica do rather lack the emotional power of his earlier works. This fact was not lost on Panufnik, who confessed that, as he sat in Middlesbrough Town Hall listening to the Northern Sinfonia giving Sinfonia Mistica its first performance, he felt he had gone too far in allowing intellect to outstrip intuition. It's taken me around twenty years to fully appreciate this symphony, but I'd accept that music ought not to require such effort.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Days 169 – 175

Day 169

18 June 2017: Strauss – An Alpine Symphony (1915)
Ah, Richard Strauss's mighty Alpine Symphony. Given that the first test pressing of the then-new CD format in 1980 was of a recording of this symphony played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, it's hardly an obscure work. The huge forces required to play it (an orchestra of around 125, usually) inhibit the frequency of its performances, however, and it tends not to crop up in debates over the greatest symphonies of all time. I love it, though, and was looking forward to listening to it today when it loomed on the horizon in my schedule.

It tells the story of a day spent climbing an Alpine mountain through some of the most stunning impressionistic writing I've heard. There is a natural perfect arc to the music which starts at the foot of the mountain at sunrise, rises to the summit by the middle of the day and then journeys back down the mountain to sunset. There are some lovely pastoral moments, if at times over-literal with the use of cowbells in the orchestra during the section entitled On the Alpine Pasture. The climactic central section On the Summit is pure ecstasy in music, while the lovely Elegy that features during the descent forms a contrasting moment of calm reflection. Listening to this in the garden on one of the hottest June days for decades, it's hard to imagine a more blissful experience.

Day 170

19 June 2017: Gounod – Symphony No. 1 (1855)
Forever associated with his setting of the Ave Maria, Charles-François Gounod is rather less well-known for his symphonies. He completed two full-scale symphonies, both of which were written in 1855, with a Petite symphonie following much later. If it is known at all, and performances are few, it is for the fact that it inspired a much more famous work. At the time Gounod wrote this, he was teaching at the Paris Conservatoire and had a 17-year-old pupil by the name of Georges Bizet who allowed himself to be influenced by Gounod's work when writing his own student assignment – a piece that became known as his Symphony in C (see Day 58).

Gounod was actually contemplating giving up his career as a musician in favour of entering the priesthood in the early 1850s, but after writing a two-movement work provisionally entitled Solace, he decided to add another two movements to it and this became his first symphony. Musically, it owes more to the influence of his friend Mendelssohn – more of him tomorrow – and their shared love of Bach. The result is a distinctly un-French work, but one that is filled with a classical gaiety.

Day 171

20 June 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3, 'Scottish' (1842)
Felix Mendelssohn came to visit Britain in 1829, and as part of the trip, he ventured north of the border on a walking tour. It was a holiday that was to have a profound effect, as not only did a boat journey to the island of Staffa inspire his famous Hebrides Overture, but he also started to compose this symphony. The actual genesis of the piece was a visit to the ruined chapel at Holyrood Palace, after which he wrote, 'I think I have found there the beginning of my "Scottish" Symphony.'

Work on the symphony was abandoned on his return to Germany, and not revisited for another twelve years. It's fair to say that by this time his memories of Scotland had probably faded somewhat. Nevertheless, there is a distinct Scottish flavour to the material with Scotch snaps aplenty. Mendelssohn also manages to maintain a unity throughout the piece despite the decade-long gap in its composition by continually transforming the theme composed at Holyrood. Also, unusually for the time, the four movements are to be performed without a break. It was clear from the responses to my posting of this on twitter that there is a lot of love for this symphony – and rightly so.

Day 172

21 June 2017: Victoria Borisova-Ollas – Symphony No. 1, 'The Triumph of Heaven' (2001)
Victoria Borisova-Ollas was born in Vladivostok in the far east of Russia, but has lived in Sweden since 1992. A graduate from the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, she studied composition in Malmö and the Royal College of Music before eventually settling in Sweden. Also, as she was born in 1969, she also has the honour of being the first composer featured so far this year who's younger than me!

Her 1998 piece, Wings of the Wind, made Borisova-Ollas's name when it won second prize in the Masterprize, a prestigious international competition for composers. This, her first symphony, which followed three years later, further established her reputation as an emerging voice in the 21st century. The title, The Triumph of Heaven, comes from a 1907 painting by Russian artist Kazmir Malevich, but the link between the painting – which features a Christ figure in a yellow cloud – and the music – purportedly depicting 20th century St Petersburg – is less than obvious. It's not an altogether relevant point though, as it's a marvellous post-modernist work. After an almost hesitant, quiet opening, the work bursts into life with rhythmic vitality and melodic lines that have a far Eastern accent. This gives way to a dark-hued central movement, which is a brilliantly orchestrated act of silent mourning. The initially lighter final movement seems to develop a life of its own as it accelerates towards a stunningly powerful climax. I hope to hear a lot more of Victoria Borisova-Ollas in the coming years.

Day 173

22 June 2017: Smetana – Festive Symphony (1854)
Czech composer Bedřich Smetana is probably best-known for his set of six symphonic poems Má vlast (My Homeland), and in particular the first movement Vltava, which is often played in isolation. This is his only symphony, and it predates Má vlast by about 20 years. It was intended to be dedicated to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (permission from the Emperor was not granted) and was originally called Triumphal Symphony. Its rejection by the Emperor, and its subsequent failure when it was finally premiered at the composer's own expense meant that it was abandoned for a time.

Eventually, Smetana revised the work in the early 1880s, and under its new name of Festive Symphony, it was more favourably received. The most notable feature of the work is its quotation of Haydn's Emperor's Hymn – now better known as the German national anthem – which appears briefly in the first two movements, and then emerges con tutta forza in the closing minutes of the piece. It's a suitably triumphal ending to a work which is, to be honest, overly long and quite hard work for the most part.

Day 174

23 June 2017: Copland – Symphony No. 2, 'Short Symphony' (1933)
I don't think I've ever heard a piece of Aaron Copland I don't like, and yet for some reason, if asked to name my favourite composers, he probably wouldn't make the first ten names I came up with. I can't really reconcile this; he just seems to slip under my radar somehow. This was another typical case. I'd never heard this symphony before, but it made an immediate impact. Concise, to-the-point, and wonderful.

This work was one of the composer's own personal favourites. Indeed, he was so concerned that it wasn't receiving as many performances as he thought it deserved, that he later recast it as a Sextet (clarinet, piano, and string quartet) to improve its performance prospects. The angular melodic lines and constantly changing rhythms of the outer movements make it a difficult piece to perform, which is probably the main reason why it remained neglected for many years, and not due its quality, which is undeniable. Its successor, the third symphony, overshadows it to such an extent that this remains rarely played, but it should be a very pleasant discovery for those unfamiliar with it.

Day 175

24 June 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 3 (1972)
Michael Tippett's most ambitious symphony covers an awful lot of ground. At nigh on an hour in length, it is comfortably his longest, and the only one to feature the human voice. The first part is concerned with two contrasting musical ideas he calls 'Arrest' and 'Movement'. So the story goes, Tippett had been listening to some Boulez and was struck by how static the music was. The decision to contrast that sort of material with fast-moving music was the starting point for this symphony. The second main idea was to incorporate the blues into the finale, which in itself is a critical response to the Ode To Joy from Beethoven's ninth. Tippett felt that Schiller's concept of the brotherhood of man no longer applied in a century that had seen unspeakable horrors.

The opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth is quoted directly on several occasions, which in the midst of an uncompromising and atonal work is a quite jarring effect. The second part features a set of four songs, described as either 'slow blues' or 'fast blues', for soprano to words written by Tippett himself, which challenge Schiller's idealism. It's an ambitious project, but one that sometimes misses the target. I'm a big fan of Tippett, but I find this heavy going at times. There are some delicate moments in the Lento in Part I, but it's a work I probably wouldn't have listened to out of choice today.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Days 163 – 168

Day 163

12 June 2017: Oliver Knussen – Symphony No. 3 (1979)
Scottish-born composer Oliver Knussen made an immediate impact as both a composer and a conductor when, at the age of just 15, he was commissioned to write his first symphony. He then found himself conducting the symphony's première at the Royal Festival Hall when the original conductor fell ill. After such a baptism of fire his future success was almost assured, but his second symphony, written when he was still only 19 consolidated his position as one of the country's leading living composers.

His third symphony was eagerly awaited, but Knussen found work on it difficult. He began it in 1973, originally conceiving it as a 30-minute work based on the Shakespearean character Ophelia. He eventually abandoned it, working on other pieces in the meantime, before revisiting the work six years later. The original material was honed and refined into the brightly coloured 15-minute work it became. A huge amount of material is crammed into its short length. After a slow and mysterious introduction, the music explodes into a section labelled Fantastico, which careers headlong into a string-led Allegro. Eventually when this seems to have consumed all of its energy, a long-held chord subsides into a Molto tranquillo final section, which still has a few jarring surprises up its sleeve! 

Day 164

13 June 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 (1808)
'Da da da dum', sang Ford Prefect to the Vogon guard in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to avoid being thrown out of the Vogon spacecraft and into the vacuum of space. According to the author, Ford Prefect had 'grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand'. That it should be the opening bars of this symphony says a lot for what is almost certainly the most instantly recognisable theme in the history of classical music.

I often consider this to be the Bohemian Rhapsody of classical music: it has become so familiar over time that it's possible to lose sight of just how brilliant it is. The sheer audacity of having, as a primary theme in the first movement, a figure of just four notes, three of which are the same, is breathtaking. The first movement alone would have been enough to secure the symphony's legacy, but Beethoven follows it with an Andante con moto featuring one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. Another stroke of genius comes at the end of the third movement scherzo as Beethoven cleverly segues into the finale via a transition passage in which the music seems almost to disappear into a tunnel before emerging in a blaze of C major. Hit after hit after hit; I find it impossible to tire of listening to this piece.

Day 165

14 June 2017: Poul Ruders – Symphony No. 4, 'An Organ Symphony' (2008)
Danish composer Poul Ruders, in his notes about this piece, acknowledges that by calling it An Organ Symphony he was immediately linking it to that rather more famous example of the genre – Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3. It has very little else in common with the Saint-Saëns, but it once again demonstrates that the combination of organ and orchestra is a winning one. Ruders trained as an organist, so was clearly on comfortable ground writing for the instrument, and its use here is essentially as an obbligato instrument.

The slow and dreamy Prelude depicts, according to Ruders, the organ and the orchestra waking up, side-by-side, and getting to know one another. After a quite solemn Cortége there is a brief but virtuosic Etude, which is the closest the work comes to resembling an organ concerto. All of which builds up to the magnificent Chaconne that closes the work, a constantly shifting and fragmenting musical landscape moving around the recurring theme, which eventually scurries towards a dramatic climax.

Day 166

15 June 2017: Dutilleux – Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double' (1959)
Henri Dutilleux was one of the great perfectionists in music. Although he was 43 years old when he composed this symphony, it was only the third purely orchestral work that he had considered good enough to be published. It was given the name Le Double by the composer as it was written for a full orchestra plus a smaller 12-piece chamber ensemble. Another meaning attributed to the name is that the two ensembles double or mirror each other to produce some wonderful aural effects. Le Double was certainly a more concise label than the previously considered Symphonie pour Grand et Petit Orchestre or Symphonie pour Grand Orchestre et Orchestre de Chambre.

I think this is probably my favourite piece of Dutilleux, although his Cello Concerto runs it close. The central Andantino sostenuto is quite magnificent with a steadily moving bass underpinning interweaving solo lines, before coming to rest while an impassioned trumpet soars up to the heights. The jazz-like rhythms in the third movement would certainly come as a surprise to those dismissing Dutilleux as a 'difficult' composer, based on his later style. It's a work that rewards repeated listening as new things seem to emerge on each hearing.

Day 167

16 June 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 33 (1779)
Having failed to find permanent employment from his trip to Paris in 1778, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart returned to Salzburg a somewhat disheartened figure. In addition, while he was away, his mother had died, so this work dates from a low ebb in the composer's life. Not that one would know it from the music, which is essentially cheerful throughout.

The symphony was originally a three-movement work, in common with his 'Paris' symphony (see Day 141) written the previous year. The third movement Minuet and Trio was added three years later, seemingly to conform with the Viennese vogue for four-movement symphonies. It turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser, receiving many performances around Europe and was even published in his lifetime – unlike the vast majority of his other symphonies.

Day 168

17 June 2017: Stravinsky – Symphony in C (1940)
This was the second work that Igor Stravinsky gave the name 'symphony' to, following his Symphony Of Psalms some ten years earlier (see Day 24). People often refer to Stravinsky as having a neoclassical period, to which this piece allegedly belongs. However, as his earliest neoclassical work was Pulcinella, which dates from 1919, it's probably fairer to say that neoclassicism was a style to which Stravinsky would occasionally turn. The circumstances surrounding Symphony in C's composition were very difficult for the composer. His wife and eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, and Stravinsky himself was diagnosed with it shortly before he began working on this piece. Stravinsky's wife and daughter both died of the illness, shortly before his mother also died, and then the outbreak of World War forced him to emigrate to the USA.

By this point, Stravinsky had finished two of the symphony's four movements, and the composer acknowledged there is a stylistic shift in the two subsequent movements that were composed in Massachusetts and California, having put the catastrophes of the previous year behind him. It has to be said they're quite subtle differences and not immediately apparent to the unaware listener. Likewise, there isn't really a note of tragedy in the work either, as Stravinsky approached this as an entirely abstract composition, refraining from reference to his personal circumstances at the time. In this work, Stravinsky studied the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and reflected them through his own musical prism. It has been described as a 'cubist portrait of a symphony', which I think is a very astute observation.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Days 159 – 162

Day 159

8 June 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 3, 'English' (1889)
Despite no less a figure than Prince Charles publicly expressing his love for the symphonies of Hubert Parry in recent times, they remain resolutely on the neglected pile. It was not always thus, and his third symphony received many performances in his day. It was written two years after his hugely successful Blest Pair Of Sirens, and as such capitalised on his increased popularity. It became the most frequently performed English symphony for twenty years, until Elgar's first came along – although to be frank there wasn't a great amount of competition for that honour around at the time.

Quite why it is referred to as the 'English' symphony is a bit of a mystery. It may be that it is less derivative of Teutonic influence than its predecessors, or, as some have suggested, it is an English equivalent to Mendelssohn's 'Italian', or Schumann's 'Rhenish' symphonies. Whatever the reason, it seems an entirely apposite name, as this piece almost defines what we mean by English music. The first movement is typically stately with an opening theme that seems to stem from military music, whereas the magnificent Andante sostenuto is another of those gloriously elegiac movements that Parry does so well. As a nation we just do not treasure this music as much as we should.

Day 160

9 June 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 3 (1929)
Sergei Prokofiev took a rather unconventional approach to the writing of his third symphony. In the mid-1920s, he started working, without commission, on his opera The Fiery Angel. Although scheduled for performance at the Berlin State Opera in 1928, the production never happened, and indeed it remained unstaged until 1955 – two years after Prokofiev's death. Rather than let the music go to waste, however, he decided to fashion some of the music into a symphony.

After the general failure of his second symphony (see Day 101), which he felt had become impenetrable through over-working, perhaps Prokofiev decided that a different approach was required. It worked, as this is more typical of his subsequent symphonic output than the two that went before it. The opening is somewhat misleading as the crashing opening chords with bells and cymbals do not return, and although some of the writing is as dense as in the previous symphony, it is far more focussed here. The ethereal slow movement has an other-wordly quality, while the scherzo – drawn from the incantation scene from Act Two of The Fiery Angel – is alienating and quite disturbing. This is not by any means his best work, and it's very much a rarity in the concert halls, but it is a fine period piece from the pre-Stalinist period when he was still able to speak in his own voice.

Day 161

10 June 2017: Philip Glass – Symphony No. 2 (1994)
Philip Glass was still relatively new to orchestral writing when he set to work on his second symphony. This was, in fact, only the sixth piece he'd composed for a full orchestra, having made his name as a minimalist composer, writing for his own ensemble. He had, by this point, turned away permanently from that earlier style and was still trying to adapt some of those principles into something approaching conventional forms. In this work, he explores polytonality, having felt that earlier experiment by composers such as Honegger and Milhaud in the 1930s and 1940s hadn't really been built upon.

This was the first time I'd heard this symphony, but being familiar with pieces such as his 'Low' Symphony (see Day 31) and The Light which preceded it, a lot of it sounded quite familiar. Many of the devices employed in those works reappear here and the harsh reality is that, at this time, Glass was a composer with a very limited musical vocabulary. There is added piquancy from the polytonal writing, but it is used within a framework that is inherently uninteresting. It's not a work I'm likely to be revisiting in the foreseeable future.

Day 162

11 June 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 4 (1934)
To anyone familiar only with Ralph Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending or Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, this may come as quite a shock. It did to audiences at the time, given that his previous three symphonies were all broadly impressionistic depictions of, in turn, the sea, London, and the (French) countryside. Right from the opening bars it was clear that this is a very different beast. Crashing dissonances, angry brass, and more downright aggression than in anything he'd written before, there's no 'cow-pat' music here.

It certainly caused quite a stir. Even RVW conceded, 'I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.' I remember buying this and the third on LP at the same time back in the mid-80s, having heard neither before. The Pastoral Symphony conformed exactly to what I expected, so when I put this on the turntable I wondered if it was a wrongly labelled work by a different composer. There has been much debate about what triggered this, with eminent musicians such as Adrian Boult asserting that Vaughan Williams somehow foresaw the rise of fascism, which is clearly errant nonsense. The composer asserted all along that this was pure music, bereft of external influence – again differentiating it from its predecessors. Once the initial shock had worn off, I've always considered this to be one of Ralph Vaughan Williams's greatest works. It seems, by all accounts, to more accurately reflect the composer's own personality than the popular perception of him as a loveable folk-song collector.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Days 152 – 158

Day 152

1 June 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 4 (1874)
I know that I have heard all of Anton Bruckner's symphonies several times, but the only ones that I could readily identify from just a few bars are this one and his seventh. This is, without doubt, one of his finest works and its popularity in concert halls worldwide is testament to the fact that, arguably for the first time, Bruckner had composed a genuinely flawless symphony. It was given the name 'Romantic' by the composer himself, essentially to tie in with the programme he originally devised for the work relating to medieval knights and citadels.

Any assessment of this symphony cannot overlook the fact that, even by Brucknerian standards, this work had an extraordinarily prolonged compositional history. From its first sketches to the final known version of the work, it was revised, corrected, edited, changed, published and re-published countless times. More controversially, it is even thought that other composers were involved in the revision process. For the listener, it pays to extricate oneself from the scholarly web of its tortured genealogy and simply revel in the music. From the solo horn that opens the work – which was appropriated by Rautavaara to open his Symphony No. 3 (see Day 119) – through its gorgeous Adagio and typically boisterous, hunting-themed scherzo, to its powerful finale, Bruckner scarcely misses a step. His art of continuous refinement reaches its peak in this work.

Day 153

2 June 2017: Grace Williams – Symphony No. 1 (1943)
Or, to give it its full title, Symphony No. 1, in the form of Symphonic Impressions of the Glendower Scene in "Henry IV Part 1". Not exactly a title that trips off the tongue. Welsh-born composer Grace Williams is yet another mid-20th century British composer whose work has been largely neglected. It could be argued that she has gained popularity in recent years due to an increase in interest in female composers who had been hitherto ignored. If her gender is actually counting in her favour nowadays then this can only be a good thing, because I really loved this symphony.

Williams was a pupil of Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and she was the first British woman to write a film score (Blue Scar in 1949). Insofar as she has written a popular work, it is the symphonic poem Penillion, but even that is hardly ever performed. This is the first of two symphonies, and as its elongated title suggests, it takes its inspiration from The Bard. It's not a programme symphony, however, and follows a standard four-movement structure. The Andante solenne epilogue is a quite magnificent, passionate elegy to Owen Glendower. There is a grandiose beauty to the closing three or four minutes that I found totally captivating. 

Day 154

3 June 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 3 (1907)
Jean Sibelius met Gustav Mahler shortly after writing this symphony. At this meeting, the oft-reported exchange occurred between them, in which Sibelius, having expressed his preference for a severity of symphonic form, provoked Mahler's famous response, "The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing." So at the same time as Mahler was writing his epic 90-minute Symphony No. 8 'Symphony of a Thousand' for massive choir and orchestra, Sibelius produced this sparse and tightly argued work.

It is almost a miniature in symphonic terms. Light and neoclassical, this is Sibelius at his brightest and breeziest. And yet it is musically sparse, with the whole work drawing on a minimal amount of thematic material. This represented a shift from his earlier symphonic explorations, which were distinctly late-Romantic in feel, and as such set the tone for the rest of his career as a composer. The third occupies a unique position in Sibelius's output in that it allies a brightness of spirit to and an austere sensibility and the effect is quite wonderful. The repetitive figures lend themselves more readily to dynamic shaping, allowing Sibelius to concentrate on refining the form of the work to his own needs. It will probably never be the most popular of his symphonies, but it will always be appreciated by Sibelius purists.

Day 155

4 June 2017: Britten – Spring Symphony (1949)
OK so it's not spring any more, but the fact that Benjamin Britten set this, his second symphony, for orchestra, soloists, adult and boys' choirs means it's the return of Choral Symphony Sunday! The work is a setting of 12 poems, which on the face of it looks more like a song cycle than a genuine symphony. The piece is divided into four parts, however, giving it a more conventional symphonic structure. After a long slow introduction, poems 2–5 form an Allegro first movement, 6–8 a slow movement, 9–11 a scherzo, while the final poem London, to Thee I do Present provides a rousing Finale.

According to Britten, the poems are ordered in such a way as to represent 'the progress of Winter to Spring'. The choice of poems is interesting too, with all but one dating from the 17th century or earlier. The exception is no. 8: a setting of his friend WH Auden's Out on the lawn I Lie in bed that brings the slow movement to a close. It's debatable whether Britten's attempt to structure the texts into a symphonic form is a success, but there are some wonderful moments with the clear highlight being the finale. The various vocal forces finally come together with a spirited wordless chorus, which gives way to the boys’ choir's rendition of Sumer Is Icumen In. It's a passage very reminiscent of the climax of Act III Scene I of his opera Peter Grimes, written just four years earlier, albeit in a rather more celebratory mood!

Day 156

5 June 2017: Martinů – Symphony No. 4 (1945)
Czech-born Bohuslav Martinů fled to the USA from his home in Paris in 1941 following the Nazi invasion of France. He was 51 at the time, and despite being a quite prolific composer, he hadn't to that point composed a symphony. It was therefore quite remarkable that he promptly set about writing five symphonies in as many years, with a sixth following in 1953.

This symphony, his fourth, coincides with the end of World War II, having been written between April and June 1945. While some commentators have sought to associate the work with world events, it seems unlikely that Martinů was responding to developments on the other side of the Atlantic. His chief concern is with its organic method of composition, noting in his diary 'how ingeniously the whole symphony grows out of one motif'. There is a mood of positivity around the work, and an abundance of vibrant rhythmic vitality, especially in the outer movements. The heart of the piece is the third movement Largo, which is scored mostly for strings, and features some gloriously impassioned lyrical writing. I have to be honest and say Martinů has, for the most part, passed me by as a composer, but this symphony went a long way towards opening my eyes to him.

Day 157

6 June 2017: CPE Bach – Symphony in E flat major, Wq 179 (1757)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the fifth of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20 children. Many of them carried on the family tradition, but CPE and Johann Christian Bach (see Day 88) are probably the best-known as composers in their own right. Like his brother JC, he is known to have influenced Mozart. Indeed, Mozart once said of CPE Bach that he 'is the father, we are the children'.

His most popular works are his symphonies, with the nine that he wrote in Berlin in 1750s and 1760s – collectively known as the 'Berlin Symphonies' – being the most enduring. This was catalogued as the seventh of the nine although there is no evidence that the ordering is chronological. It is only a shade over ten minutes long, but the frantic writing in the outer movements means a lot of detail is crammed into its short duration. Although thought of as a Baroque–Classical transitional composer, this feels a lot more the latter than the former, with contrapuntal passages seldom found. The slow movement is lovely yet hesitant in feel, with melodic lines breaking off as if mid-thought. It's not hard to understand why Mozart thought so highly of him.

Day 158

7 June 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8 (1943)
Without really planning it, I seem to have grouped together a cluster of symphonies written during World War II. This was written in 1943, the same year as the Grace Williams symphony featured last Friday, and two years before the Martinů from a couple of days ago. Those works were largely bereft of direct associations with the war, but, as with almost all of Shostakovich's work, it is impossible to separate this from the events surrounding it. And while the seventh symphony – the Leningrad (see Day 104) – struck a note of defiant optimism, here the mood is overwhelmingly tragic. It is an uncompromising and at times desolate work, written at a time when Russian losses were being measured in the millions, and although Russia were on their way to winning the war, Shostakovich found little to celebrate in the cost of the anticipated victory.

In many ways this is the much darker twin brother of the fifth symphony. The vast first movement's opening theme is very closely related to that of the fifth, and the movement evolves in a similar fashion. It is heartbreakingly moving, with shrill cries of anguish succeeding only in the deepening the morass of pain. Two macabre scherzos hardly lighten the mood; the second features a brutal moto perpetuo theme which passes around the orchestra while hollow screams ring out over it from the other instruments. After building to an agonised crescendo, this then crashes into the most tragic music Shostakovich ever wrote. The fourth movement Passacaglia, which follows without a break, paints a picture so desolate that it has no equal in any other composition I've heard. Across its twelve repetitions, the Passacaglia theme in the bass is accompanied only by slow moving muted string chords and solo instruments that seem lost in a wasteland. It is absolutely devastating. Eventually, after around twelve minutes, it shifts almost apologetically into a major key, setting up another of Shostakovich's enigmatic finales. This has an almost pastoral feel at first, giving an impression of people trying to rebuild their lives after the tragedies that have passed, but this is again shattered as the drum roll and accompanying cry of anguish from the first movement returns. It's hard to know what to make of the sparsely orchestrated coda that concludes the symphony. It seems to convey relief at survival, rather than any mood of celebration, and that is the overriding feeling that the audience is left with. It's a gruelling listen, and there is precious little salvation at the end, but not all art is pretty flowers.