Monday, 24 July 2017

Days 200 – 205

Day 200

19 July 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5 (1943)

Ah, Ralph Vaughan Williams. How do I love thy fifth symphony? Let me count the ways. It gives me great pleasure to bring up the double-century in my Symphony A Day journey with one of my all-time favourites. I'm not going to make a case for this being the greatest symphony from a technical point of view, nor will I argue for its inclusion alongside the Eroica or Symphonie Fantastique for being the most influential. No, this one is personal, it just touches me in a way that very few other works of art ever have. If I had name the symphony I'm featuring this year that I've listened to the most in my life, this would probably come out on top.

I've often pondered why this strikes such a chord with me. The best I can come up with its use of modes throughout giving rise to music that is tonal-but-not-tonal; sufficiently piquant to steer it away from the blandness it could easily have sunk into. Right from the off that tonal ambiguity is heard, with an essentially D major theme playing over a pedal C bass. There's a yearning feel about the music that probably seemed nostalgic even when it was written, and the fact that it was first performed during World War II must have left its audience longing for the peace it beautifully depicts. The symphony actually makes use of a wealth of material Vaughan Williams had written for his at-the-time unfinished opera The Pilgrim's Progress. I only heard the finished opera very recently and was quite surprised at just how much of it is practically unchanged in the symphony. That is especially true of the Romanza third movement, with the opening cor anglias theme coming straight from the start of Act I Scene 2. The searing intensity of this movement rarely fails to bring a tear to the eye of this wizened old cynic. A wonderful Passacaglia fourth movement culminates in a triumphant return of the symphony's opening theme, which in turn subsides into some gorgeous string writing that soars up to the heavens. It's a hugely spiritual work, and it will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Day 201

20 July 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 6, 'Pastoral' (1808)
So, how on earth does one follow a giant of the symphonic repertoire like the mighty Fifth. Well, by writing an even better one of course. Technically, he didn't actually follow the Fifth with this as both were premiered (along with his Piano Concerto No. 4, and Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra) in the same extraordinary four-hour concert on 22 December 1808. By virtue of being performed first in that concert, this was actually the fifth symphony in order of premiere, if not in order of composition. Anyway, this hugely popular work is many people's favourite symphony, and it's hard to think of another with so many glorious tunes packed into its 40-minute length. While that in itself would undoubtedly secure its place in the hearts of any music-lover, there is the unescapable fact that a whole generation grew to love this piece through its use in the Walt Disney film Fantasia.

And what's not love about it? The addition of a helpful descriptive title for each movement allows the audience to clearly see what picture Beethoven was painting with his music, which all adds to the listening experience. The first movement, 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside', contains some of the composer's most instantly recognisable music. There's a treat for ornithologists in the 'Scene by the brook' second movement, with bird songs featured towards the end identified by Beethoven in the score as the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo. The final three movements are, unusually for the time, sequenced together with the terrifying storm of the fourth movement subsiding into the 'Shepherd's song' of the finale, which is right up there among the greatest tunes ever written. Quite simply, it's brilliant from start to finish, but I suspect I'm preaching to the converted here.

Day 202

21 July 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 4 (1930)
Fun fact: this is the fourth day in a row that I've featured a symphony that lives permanently on my phone in iTunes, which indicates that I'm on something of a run of personal favourites at the moment. Arnold Bax's fourth symphony was, like much of his music, inspired by nature, and in this particular case, the seascapes of the Western Highlands. Even by his standards, this is a richly scored work, with xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and organ all employed in addition to a larger than standard orchestra.

It has been said that this piece lacks a bit of cohesion, particularly in comparison to its predecessor, the wonderful third symphony. For me, it feels more connected to his brilliant tone poems such as November Woods and Tintagel than any of his other symphonies. You can practically smell the sea air in the wild and blustery first movement. The effect of a large orchestra playing mostly quiet and calm music is something I always enjoy hearing, and it is used to great effect in the Lento moderato slow movement, as if depicting great forces at rest, that could be stirred up by a change of wind direction at any moment. The triumphal ending is unusual for Bax, and again adds to the feeling that this is a largely joyful work, celebrating an environment he clearly loved.

Day 203

22 July 2017: Still – Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American' (1930)
Coincidentally written in the same year as Bax's Symphony No. 4, William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony is a very different proposition. Still is another of those composers who, if asked about a few days before listening to one of their works as part of this series, I would have drawn a blank. He is, however, one of my most enjoyable discoveries of the year, and judging by the response to my Twitter post, a highly popular choice. This work led to Still being the first African American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, and was, according the academic Dr. Edith Borroff, the most performed symphony by an American prior to 1950. It was performed by 38 different orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic in its first 20 years.

It's not hard to see why it was so hugely popular. It's a lovely, bluesy, Gershwinesque work that tapped into the appetite at the time for jazz and African-American music. The four movements are each prefaced in the score by words from the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and were also given titles: Longing, Sorrow, Humor, and Aspiration. I think I can safely say that this is the first symphony I've featured this year that calls for a tenor banjo! This features prominently in the lively third movement, which has always been a concert favourite. The first movement has echoes of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and is a straight twelve-bar blues for the most part, featuring some beautiful blues-inflected melodies. The whole work is an absolute delight, and I'll be exploring some more of his work in future.

Day 204

23 July 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 7, 'Seven Gates of Jerusalem' (1996)
There have been some pretty imposing works featured in my occasional Choral Symphony Sunday slot, but there can be few as mighty as this one. Krzysztof Penderecki hadn't originally conceived this work as a symphony, rather believing it to be an oratorio. And certainly its seven movements don't conform in any way to standard symphonic structure. Nevertheless, after a couple of performances under the title Seven Gates of Jerusalem, Penderecki subsequently affixed the name Symphony No. 7. That in itself was something of an oddity as his Symphony No. 6 was incomplete at the time, and in fact it remains incomplete to this day!

The work was commissioned to commemorate the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem, and it certainly made quite an impression. As mentioned when I featured his third symphony (see Day 41), Penderecki left his early avant-garde style behind in favour of a more conventional and direct language from about the mid-1970s onwards. There are occasional echoes of those earlier extended techniques to be heard at some points in this work, and the effect when they appear is quite stunning. The sheer raw power on display at times, especially in the orchestra-and-chorus tuttis that occur at key moments in the piece, takes one's breath away. The core of the symphony is the 15-minute-long fifth movement Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum, where percussion-driven staccato music crescendos before making way for a central, plaintive, hymn-like passage for choir and soloists. Then from a sparsely scored orchestral section, the music builds once again to a massive climax. That is followed by an emotionally-charged Hajetà alai jad adonài, which features a speaker reciting in Hebrew. If there's a criticism, it is that over the work's seven movements, it is virtually all shade and precious little light. That said, this a very profound work that wasn't meant to have them dancing in the aisles. I had to listen to the full hour of this twice to fully get a handle on it, and it certainly rewarded a repeat hearing. I recommend this very highly.

Day 205

24 July 2017: Scriabin – Symphony No. 3, 'The Divine Poem' (1904)
Alexander Scriabin's career followed the reverse trajectory to yesterday's composer, Penderecki. Scriabin started his career writing luscious, late-romantic scores, such as this one, before developing a harsher and more atonal style later. This is a powerful and richly textured musical poem, in which Scriabin set himself the not inconsiderable target of depicting 'the evolution of the human soul and its ultimate union with the cosmos'. There is a programme of sorts – the lyrical, Straussian first movement is entitled Struggles and portrays humanity wrestling with the concept of God. The sensual second movement (Delights) involves humanity evolving a more Pantheistic view, while the final Divine Play comes from the resulting freedom from subordination to a supreme being.

Quite how much of this Scriabin manages to pull off in strictly musical terms is debatable. The massive 25-minute first movement dominates the work, and while it may not be held together by any kind of recognisable form, it maintains interest throughout by virtue of its splendid, overarching melodies. The music of the second movement is absolutely ravishing and, to be honest, I cared not in the slightest what the composer was trying to put across beyond the splendour of his own gift for harmony. I've never quite understood why Scriabin is performed far less frequently than some of his contemporaries, most of whom he was at the very least an equal to. I could quite easily see this spectacularly crowning off a Prom concert, just as it did in 2010 ... for the only time in the last 96 years.

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