Monday, 31 July 2017

Days 206 – 212

Day 206

25 July 2017: Casella – Symphony No. 2 (1909)
Today happens to be the 134th anniversary of Alfredo Casella’s birth, so it is apposite that I should give his second symphony an airing. Actually, it's questionable whether Casella considered this his second symphony. He wrote it in the same year as he conducted the premiere of his first, and as you might recall when I featured that a few months ago (see Day 102), Casella pretty much disavowed it immediately, to the extent that he used a re-scored version of the slow movement in this piece. The implication seems quite clear that he did not intend the earlier work to be heard again.

While the first symphony is by no means a bad composition, it is clearly substantially inferior to this. The dark tone is set right from the off with a funereal theme set against a tolling bell, and while the scherzo provides relative light relief, the overall mood of the work for the most part is sombre. The beautiful slow movement that Casella thought so much of that he played it again, Sam, is of course just as beautiful second time around, but benefits from this more opulent scoring. Oddly, the march-like finale is not actually the final movement, being superseded by six-minute Epilogo. It is this that elevates Symphony No. 2 to greatness. Starting quietly, its soaring string line builds through a long crescendo to a magnificent climax featuring full orchestra, organ and bells. As for its undoubted neglect, well, as mentioned when discussing his first symphony, Casella was persona non grata for a while in his homeland for his support of Mussolini during the last war. Even so, it beggars belief that this symphony was first recorded just eight years ago, exactly 100 years after it was written. Casella's rehabilitation is under way, but has quite a way to go still.

Day 207

26 July 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 (1878)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's six numbered symphonies can, more or less, be split down the middle. The first three are comparatively lightweight, and less-frequently performed, while numbers four to six are giants of the symphonic repertoire and can be heard regularly in concert halls all over the world. While unquestionably great works, there was a time when I rather tired of them. In my student days, my now wife and I were regulars at the subscription concert series at Victoria Hall, Hanley, and it felt like every second programme featured Tchaikovsky 4 or 5. Listening today felt like reacquainting myself with an old friend, albeit one I'd been giving a wide berth to for the last twenty years.

The symphony is bookended by the famous 'Fate' fanfare, and as symphonic openings go, it really is right out of the top drawer. Parallels are often drawn with the similarly arresting opening of Beethoven's fifth, and this was something the composer was complicit in having written of his incorporation of the Beethoven in this symphony's programme. The delicate Andantino features one of Tchaikovsky's most plaintive melodies, while the extraordinary third movement Scherzo features the strings playing pizzicato throughout, no doubt chafing the finger skins of many a fiddle player down the years. The finale rattles along at a furious pace until just past its halfway point when, in a genuine masterstroke, the opening 'Fate' fanfare crashes back in. From the barren aftermath it leaves, the music recovers its impetus with the return of the movement's first theme and ploughs headlong towards its crowd-pleasing conclusion. Vintage Tchaikovsky.

Day 208

27 July 2017: Sullivan – Symphony in E, 'Irish' (1866)
Confession time: I cannot stand Gilbert & Sullivan. I don't use those words lightly, because to tell the truth there's not much music I do genuinely dislike. Maybe the really whiniest forms of Country music, and pretty much all hip hop, but apart from that I've got a high tolerance level. G&S though ... urgh. Don't ask me to explain why, it's clearly just a personal thing given how enduringly popular they are with amateur operatic societies to this day. To use what I promise will be the only Morrissey quote I'll deploy this year, it says nothing to me about my life.

Thankfully, this bears no relation to any of his ghastly operettas. That may be because there was no input from his partner-in-crime, WS Gilbert, whom he had yet to meet, but in reality this was written before he had developed a style of his own. Sullivan was only 21 when he started work on this, and being a youthful work, the influences (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann) are still pretty easily detected. As for the 'Irish' nickname, it indicates nothing more than that the first movement was conceived while Sullivan was holidaying in Ireland. Whatever its merits and demerits, the fact is that this is symphony written by an Englishman in the 1860s, and there aren't many of those around. It pre-dates Stanford's first symphony by ten years and Parry's by sixteen. And while it's never likely to be much more than a curiosity in the grand scheme of English music history, there is plenty to like about this work ... not least that there isn't a patter song in sight.

Day 209

28 July 2017: Khachaturian – Symphony No. 2, "The Bell" (1944)
At around about the time that Shostakovich was writing his own devastating depiction of war-torn Russia, the Symphony No. 8 (see Day 158), Aram Khachaturian composed this 'requiem of wrath' in response to the same events. Like Shostakovich, however, they were not events he was experiencing first-hand as they spent most of the war safely hidden away in a composers' retreat 150 miles east of Moscow. Nevertheless, the incalculable losses suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II were deeply felt across the whole country and inevitably permeated the music of the time.

As a rule, Khachaturian doesn't really do subtlety and this work batters its point home in no uncertain terms. At around 50 minutes in length, it can be quite an arduous listen, but given the time and place it was written, it was hardly going to be a musical tea party. The symphony takes its title from the bell motif that opens the work in almost murderous fashion, and straight from the off it's clear this is going to be a bumpy ride. It's not all blood and guts though, as there are many moments of often sparsely scored music of a desolate nature. The third movement is the core of the piece – an austere funeral march based on an Armenian folk tune Vorskan akhper, and one in which Khachaturian expressly set out to portray the 'superhuman suffering' of his compatriots. Harsh brass prefaces the final movement, which picks up the aural assault where it had left off. There is a brief moment of calm towards the end but it soon builds again to a terrifying denouement. If nothing else, this work can be held up to prove that there is a lot more to Khachaturian than his popular ballet scores.

Day 210

29 July 2017: Sammartini – Sinfonia in A major, J-C 63 (c. 1760)
While Haydn is often referred to as 'The Father of the Symphony', it is probably fairer to say that he popularised a form that was developed elsewhere. Of the many composers who might lay claim to creating the genre, Giovanni Battista Sammartini is indisputably one of the founding fathers of the symphony as we know it. Sammartini wrote about 80 Sinfonias, and the "J-C" cataloguing system bears no relation to the order in which they were composed. Consequently, the c.1760 date I've given this particular one is very 'circa' as it could have been written any time between 1759 and 1775. This is one of his later symphonies, with some of the earlier ones dating back to the 1730s, the decade in which Haydn was born.

I could have chosen any one of those 80-or-so symphonies, but this is a perfectly representative choice. It differs from the later style typical of Haydn, Mozart et al in that it has three movements. They follow the fast-slow-fast pattern typical of the Italian opera overture, from which the Sinfonia spawned. The influence Sammartini had on the Classical period composers is clearly discernible here, with its ostensibly rhythmic themes based around the notes of the triad. The light elegance one associates with Haydn's slow movements again has its roots in this music, although the triple time final movement is closer in style to the third movement minuets of the Classical period. This does lead to a slight feeling of incompleteness, as if there should be a presto finale to finish. That said, this is delightful music of great historical importance.

Day 211

30 July 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 2 (1896)
Albéric Magnard, is a composer probably more famous – if he is known at all – for the heroic nature of his death than for his music. His demise at the age of 49, single-handedly defending his property from invading German forces in the early years of World War I, turned him into a national hero. Sadly, it hasn't secured his musical legacy as he is little-known in his native France, and largely unheard of in this country. I feel duty bound to do my bit to help promote him.

This symphony was originally composed in 1892, After it was first performed in full four years later, however, the original second movement (entitled Fugues) was dispensed with and replaced with the Danses movement that now occupies that slot. This resulted, by all accounts, in the overall work becoming ten minutes shorter when it was presented in its new configuration in 1899. Although nominally in E major, the symphony's unsettling opening doesn't really establish any key with any degree of certainty for quite some time. There is a feeling throughout of a free spirit at work, seemingly going where his fancy takes him. This really comes to the fore in the sublime third movement; a theme and variations marked Très nuancé, which, at times, is close to what I imagine we might have got had Ravel ever written a symphony. There are also echoes of Strauss, and the conclusion of the symphony features a grand theme that might have been lifted from Elgar. All of these similarities would have been entirely accidental though, as Magnard is a composer of great originality. I'm a big fan of his work and wish he could be gifted with some form of revival.

Day 212

31 July 2017: Panufnik – Metasinfonia (1978)
Andrzej Panufnik went through a period of refining his musical language in the mid-Seventies, and the practical offshoot of this was a cluster of four symphonies produced in almost as many years. Metasinfonia is the fourth of those and his seventh overall. It was written for the unusual combination of organ, timpani and strings, and in it Panufnik made a conscious effort to redress the balance between ‘feeling and intellect’, that had, to be honest, made its two predecessors rather cold, academic exercises. Having written at great length about the schematic approach he took to Nos. 5 and 6, even to the extent of providing diagrams in the score, Panufnik’s programme notes for Metasinfonia were far more concise, accepting that the technicalities of his compositional methods might be of little interest to the listener.

Metasinfonia feels more like an organ concerto than a symphony, something the composer himself acknowledged. The changing dynamic between orchestra and soloist does, however, provide this work with an extra dimension that informed all the subsequent works Panufnik was to write. It feels like a less rigid composition generally, and the simple fact is that this particular combination of instruments sounds fantastic to my ears. With Metasinfonia, Panufnik felt he had found his feet again as a composer, and while it is by no means his most well-known work – almost certainly the least-performed – I think it is a very strong piece that deserves greater familiarity.

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