Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Days 190 – 192

Day 190

9 July 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 3, "The Song of the Night" (1916)
The thing I find about Karol Szymanowski is that when he's good, he's very, very good. I was proofreading a book about him a while ago, and decided to listen to his music almost exclusively while I was doing it. Some if it left me a bit cold, to be truthful, but a lot of it really hit the spot, and chief among those works was this gloriously opulent symphony. And as it features a choir, then that means it's Choral Symphony Sunday again!

The text is a 13th Century Persian poem that a friend of his had recently translated into Polish, in which the poet implores a friend not to sleep but to contemplate the beauty and stillness of the night. It's a suitably nocturnal, and for the most part slow-moving score, with a ravishing harmonic language influenced by Scriabin, Debussy and Tristan-era Wagner. I think if I was given the task of picking one work I'd like to hear performed live then this would be quite near the top of the list, as even on record it comes over as riot of orchestral colour with some epic choral writing. Sadly, its demands on singers and performers, and the small matter of it being in Polish, means it's a rarely heard work in this country. I'll have weigh up whether it's worth a trip to Poland to hear it.

Day 191

10 July 2017: Borodin – Symphony No. 2 (1876)
I seem to recall gorging on Alexander Borodin when I was student. He was BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week at some point during my first year and I played the tape recordings I made to death. I still have a soft spot for him to this day, and this symphony is a particular favourite. It was a work that actually took Borodin best part of seven years to complete, as he kept breaking off to work on other projects – notably his opera Prince Igor, and ballet Mlada – as well as his other career as a notable chemist.

The wait was worth it, however, as it has become one of Borodin's best-known works and certainly his greatest symphony. Its mighty opening theme appears on his grave in St Petersburg, and was also used (along with many of his other popular tunes) in the Tony Award-winning musical Kismet. The first movement does tend to dominate the work a little, but a lively little Scherzo in the very unusual time signature of 1/1, and a wonderful Andante, in which a serene opening melody passes between the horn and clarinet, are hardly let-downs. In fact, the delicate coda at the end of the Andante is just about my favourite part of the whole work. The sense of foreboding of the first movement is completely dispelled by a lively Slavic-dance finale that could have come straight from his Polovtsian Dances, written around the same time. A truly great symphony, in my humble opinion.

Day 192

11 July 2017: Bizet – Roma Symphony (1871)
Georges Bizet wrote two symphonies in his sadly short life. The first, his Symphony in C (see Day 58), was written as a 17-year-old student but was published and became popular long after his death. This, the second, was a rather more laboured affair that took him 12 years to write, and is as rarely heard now as it was in his lifetime. The story of its composition is long and involved, but in a nutshell, after winning the Prix de Rome, Bizet lived in Italy for a few years and planned to write a symphony in which each movement depicted a different Italian city. Only the Scherzo was ever written though – ironically, given the work's final title, a movement written about Florence. The remaining three movements were added at various points later, and the symphony was frequently revised before Bizet, to all intents and purposes gave up on it.

Some people regard the work as unfinished, some regard it as a suite rather than a symphony, some question exactly how much it has to do with Rome – the title appears to have been added later to distinguish the symphony from his first, as this is also in C. From what I'd read about it, the only thing people seem to agree on is that it was, at best, uneven. I find this criticism baffling as I rather enjoyed it. The orchestration is marvellous, and the main theme from the Andante molto third movement is absolutely gorgeous. I'll definitely be coming to this work at some point in the future.

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