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.

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