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.

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