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.

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