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.

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