Thursday, 31 August 2017

Days 241 – 243

Day 241

29 August 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4, 'Italian' (1833)
Felix Mendelssohn's enduringly popular fourth symphony was actually the third he composed, but was published four years after his death as Symphony No. 4. The young Mendelssohn had toured Italy a couple of years earlier, and began composing the work while he was still in the country. It was hugely successful at its premiere and has remained a concert favourite ever since, with its joyous and breezy nature endearing itself to audiences for nearly 200 years. Even as he was writing it, Mendelssohn remarked that it would "be the jolliest piece I have ever done". And yet it was a work that he was, by all accounts, unhappy with when he completed it, causing him to revise the piece at least once and withhold it from publication in his lifetime.

The first movement is one of the most instantly recognisable in the symphonic canon, featuring a lively and bouncy first subject for violins that, once heard, is never forgotten. The serene slow movement, probably depicting a Neapolitan religious procession he observed, is followed by a graceful minuet where one might have expected a scherzo. Unusually, for a symphony in major key, the final movement is in the tonic minor and depicts the folk dances of southern Italy, specifically the saltarello and the tarantella. It happens to be my daughter's favourite symphony, probably due to its extensive use in a favourite DVD from her childhood, Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses!

Day 242

30 August 2017: Honegger – Symphony No. 3, 'Symphonie Liturgique' (1946)
For a work that isn't exactly a regular on the concert platform, a surprisingly high number of people I know regard Arthur Honegger's third symphony as one of their favourite pieces. It's certainly one of mine, and I wish it were better known than it is. It was written immediately after World War II, and was Honegger's direct response to the horrors of the conflict. It's interesting to compare this with another third symphony written a fellow-member of Les Six in the same year – Milhaud's 'Te Deum' Symphony (see Day73). Whereas Milhaud's choral symphony is a stirring victory song, Honegger aims to depict the brutality and aggression of war culminating in a far more reflective conclusion. And just as Milhaud turned to liturgical texts, so did Honegger, although he merely used them as movement titles for a purely orchestral work, rather in the same way that Britten had done for his earlier Sinfonia da Requiem (see Day 63).

Honegger went to the trouble of describing the meaning of each movement. The opening Dies Irae is "human terror" in the form of a "rapid succession of violent themes", while the central movement De profundis clamavi depicts "the painful meditation of man forsaken by divinity". The finale, Dona nobis pacem, is in two parts: initially a heavy-footed march leading to "rebellion dawning in the ranks of the victims" before "a song of peace soars above the symphony as the dove soared in the old days above the immensity of the ocean." That soaring song of peace, which occupies the last three minutes or so of the composition is, to my mind, one of the finest symphonic endings I've heard, especially after the tempestuous nature of all that has gone before.

Day 243

31 August 2017: Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony (1885)
Sitting between his fourth and fifth symphonies, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky produced this unnumbered, programmatic symphony based on Lord Byron's poem Manfred. At nearly an hour in length, it is comfortably his longest, and this fact probably contributes more than anything to its comparative rarity as a concert piece. That said, it has featured in the four of the last eight Proms seasons, and in the latest of my series of Proms tie-ins, I decided to listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance of this at this evening's Prom.

Tonight's conductor, Semyon Bychkov, described this as 'an opera without words', which I thought was a very apt description. Programme symphonies are difficult to pull off, as when the form is dictated by the narrative of the text rather than established musical structures, it can lead to imbalanced or episodic music that is decidedly un-symphonic. Generally, they work best when they are an adaptation of a mood or scene, and that is true of the inner movements of this symphony. The second movement scherzo has nothing more to describe than an Alpine fairy appearing from the spray of a waterfall, and the music is suitably spritely and skittish. The third movement Andante con moto, a depiction of the simple life of the mountain folk, is particularly gorgeous and certainly benefits from being free of any programmatic considerations. The same cannot be said of the rather aimless, twenty-minute-long final movement, however. Tchaikovsky's innate ability as a tunesmith sustains the interest throughout though, with the symphony's idée fixe – a device taken from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, this work's clearest model – being especially strong. I think it's a good, but a great, symphony.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Days 233 – 240

Day 233

21 August 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 7 (1957)
It's no good. Much as I would like to try to get through an item on an Edmund Rubbra symphony without resorting to the words 'scandalously neglected', it is simply unavoidable in this case. I am at a complete loss to explain why this is as rarely heard as it unquestionably is. Its premiere in 1957 was conducted by no less a figure than Andrzej Panufnik, who was musical director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the time. For their 1956-57 season, the CBSO had commissioned new works from Tippett, who produced his brilliant Piano Concerto, Bliss, who wrote his Meditation on a Theme of John Blow, and Rubbra, who delivered this masterpiece. It's fair to say the good folk of Birmingham got their money's worth!

The third movement – a Passacaglia and Fugue – is exquisite, and while there is much to love in Rubbra's symphonic output, this particular movement is the gleaming diamond in his musical crown. My old music lecturer at Keele, Stephen Banfield, asserted in his book on Gerald Finzi that this movement was Rubbra's tribute to his close friend and fellow-composer who died while he was composing the symphony. It's hard to conceive of a more moving response. I listened to this today and, as the music ended, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to personally visit the musical directors of our great orchestras and interrogate them as to why this music seemingly never even enters their minds when considering programmes.

Day 234

22 August 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 6 (1818)
There is a convention of sorts when composers write two symphonies in the same key to refer to the smaller (and usually earlier) of the two works as the 'Little "n" major/minor'. So we have Mozart's 'Little G minor' (see Day 86), Dvorak's 'Little D minor' (see Day 136), and this, Franz Peter Schubert's 'Little C major'. This is unquestionably the little brother to the 'Great C major', his ninth symphony, which is nearly twice the length of this one.

Many commentators have detected an Italian influence in this symphony. The finale takes a theme from his own Two Overtures in the Italian Style, the second movement Andante seems to have the feel of a tarantella, while the use of musical themes associated with street festivals has been attributed to the influence of Rossini. There's a general lightness of feel throughout, which actually reminded me of Mendelssohn's fourth 'Italian' symphony composed some ten years later. Sadly, Schubert never heard this in his lifetime. The irony is that this brightest of symphonies only received its first performance at a concert to commemorate Schubert's death in 1828.

Day 235

23 August 2017: Louise Farrenc – Symphony No. 3 (1847)
Even in today's more enlightened times, there is still an element of sexism within the music business, as can be evidenced by the relatively small presence of female composers in many orchestra's programmes. One can only imagine, therefore, what it was like in Louise Farrenc's time. Here was a significant figure in mid-nineteenth-century French music; Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire for fully 30 years, a gifted performer, and a highly talented composer. Nonetheless, her abilities as a composer were not taken seriously, and the logistical difficulties of assembling an orchestra to perform her works meant they went largely unheard in her own lifetime.

I featured Farrenc's second symphony a few months ago (see Day 139) and had to admit that I didn't really enjoy it, due to it being simply too derivative of earlier composers. I have no such qualms with this her final, and arguably best, symphony. From the mysterious woodwind opening, it is clear that there's a more self-confident composer at work, and it soon develops into a robust and beautifully orchestrated Allegro. There is, it has to be said, a Beethovenian feel to the Adagio cantabile slow movement, but it is no less wonderful for that, and the fast and furious Scherzo is a display of effortless brilliance. Unfortunately, concert tickets are usually sold on the basis of the names of the composers on the programme, and until Farrenc breaks that particular barrier, she is sadly likely to remain obscure.

Day 236

24 August 2017: Weill – Symphony No. 2 (1934)
Kurt Weill is so well known for his music for the stage that many people will perhaps be unaware of his credentials as a composer of more conventional classical music. He studied composition first with Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one) and then Ferruccio Busoni, and included the likes of Stravinsky and Berg among his admirers. The year before Weill wrote this symphony, he had fled to Paris following the rise to power of the Nazis in his native Germany, and had seen his most famous work, The Threepenny Opera, premiered on Broadway. Although that closed after just 13 performances, it was clear that Weill saw his future in musical theatre and his second symphony turned out to be his last orchestral work before he concentrated on writing for the stage

I was one of the many unaware of this period of his career and I'd go so far as to say that if I'd been played this blind and asked to guess the composer, Kurt Weill would have been about guess number 572. It does have a connection to his earlier stage work Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, in that one of its numbers, Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man, is the model of the first movement's lyrical second subject – albeit rather more symphonically treated. It's clear from this that Weill was a perfectly good symphonist, but he soon realised it doesn't pay the rent.

Day 237

25 August 2017: Walton – Symphony No. 2 (1960)
The William Walton who presented his second symphony to the world as a 58-year-old elder statesman of English music was a rather different creature to the enfant terrible of 25 years earlier, when he composed his first. While the earlier work was considered quite cutting-edge and modernist, this symphony was very harshly treated by the critics of the day, who tended to view him as rather old-fashioned at a time when the burgeoning Manchester School of composers – Goehr, Maxwell Davies, and Birtwistle – were changing the country's musical landscape.

The criticism was unfair of course, and as a consequence the symphony has been viewed for a long time as a poor relation to the first, rather in the same way Elgar's second used to be perceived. Just as the Elgar has started to be appreciated anew in recent years, so the Walton is long overdue a re-appraisal. It's a more sophisticated work than its predecessor, certainly better orchestrated, although it lacks the sheer brute force of the first. The final movement is a brilliant set of variations on a twelve-note tone row, although it is by no means a serialist work. Had Walton written this within a few years of his first symphony it would probably have been much better received. The prejudices that coloured its reception nearly sixty years ought not to permanently damage its legacy.

Day 238

26 August 2017: Britten – Cello Symphony (1963)
Benjamin Britten is a permanent fixture in my top five composers of all-time. He wrote for so many different genres that his contribution to the symphonic repertoire is often overlooked, but I find it fascinating. He wrote four, none of them numbered, and all very different from each other. His Simple Symphony, Sinfonia Da Requiem, and Spring Symphony I have already featured, and this was the final work to which he attributed the name 'symphony'. And while the first three were a work for string orchestra based on juvenilia themes, a conventional orchestral piece in three movements, and a choral symphony respectively, here Britten experiments with the form again by writing a symphony with a prominent part for a solo cello. It was composed for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work.

Britten decided to call this piece a symphony rather than a concerto (having also considered the title Sinfonia Concertante) as he believed the solo and orchestral parts to be of equal weight. Certainly the structure is conventionally symphonic, with a sonata form opening movement, followed by a Scherzo and an Adagio, although the cadenza with which the latter concludes is the one flaw in the symphony argument. The final movement is the crowning glory of the work. Britten did like a Passacaglia; there are fine examples in his Violin Concerto, in the opera Peter Grimes, and his Nocturnal for guitar, among others. The use of this traditional Renaissance construct here is a perfect way to conclude a work that plays with one's preconceptions of traditional forms.

Day 239

27 August 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 5 (1982)
Of all the new composers I've discovered this year as part of my Symphony A Day venture, I think Valentin Silvestrov is probably my favourite. Still going strong and approaching his 80th birthday, Silvestrov has written eight symphonies, the most recent of which emerged four years ago. In common with many late-twentieth-century composers, Silvestrov started out writing music of a modernist nature although his change to a more consonant approach was originally out of necessity following criticism from the Soviet authorities. The style he developed, largely in private having withdrawn public life, was a neo-Romantic idiom of flowing, delicate lyricism.

He was awarded Ukraine's Shevchenko National Prize for Music in 1995, and this symphony, which by then was thirteen years old, was one of three pieces cited. It really is a lovely piece. For the most part, it moves at serene, glacial speed. There are echoes of Mahler's ninth and tenth symphonies in the string writing at the beginning and end of the work, as if their music has been refracted through a late twentieth-century prism. Silvestrov is possibly unique in that he wears his influences so visibly, yet produces work of great uniqueness. It would be nice to hear his work more often in this country.

Day 240

28 August 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 6 (1947)
Fewer things could indicate just how popular Ralph Vaughan Williams was at this point in his career than the astonishing fact that this work received over 100 performances worldwide within two years of its premiere. It is probably his most misunderstood symphony, even more so than the enigmatic Pastoral Symphony (see Day 120). The fact that it was written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, its discordant musical language, and its desolate final movement led many critics to assume – quite wrongly – that it was RVW's reaction to the conflict. Vaughan Williams refuted this, memorably replying, 'It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.'

The first movement sees a return to the abrasive language of his fourth symphony, although the contrasting, lyrical second subject is more akin to his folk-tinged earlier works. Incidentally, this tune was used as the theme music for the 1970s ITV series A Family At War. The extraordinary second movement features a five-note rhythm that is repeated insistently, as many as 90 times, building to a quite terrifying crescendo, while the third movement, with its sleazy saxophone solo, appears to mock dance-hall music of the time. Eventually, however, this collapses into the cold and bleak Epilogue, marked pianissimo throughout, that is quite unlike any movement in British music to that point. What makes this highly original, and in many ways groundbreaking symphony all the more remarkable, is that Vaughan Williams was 74 years old when he wrote this. There was clearly life in the old dog yet.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Days 225 – 232

Day 225

13 August 2017: Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 2 (1907)
That Sergei Rachmaninov actually wrote a second symphony is a triumph over adversity possibly unequalled in music. His first (see Day 138) had been subjected to wilfully brutal criticism by almost everyone who felt compelled to document their opinion of the poorly performed premiere. Rachmaninov suffered depression and a full psychological breakdown as a direct consequence, and barely wrote a note of music for three years afterwards. Having written his hugely popular second piano concerto in the intervening twelve years since the disastrous first, Rachmaninov was still plagued by doubt over this work, and revised it repeatedly before releasing it into the wild.

It has, of course, become one of his most successful compositions, and indeed one of the most frequently performed symphonies in the whole late-Romantic repertoire. It features in tonight's all-Rachmaninov programme at the BBC Proms, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, so that meant a return of the Proms tie-in, whereby I aim to listen to that particular performance (which was rather difficult to co-ordinate as I was in Prague at the time). It's one of the few symphonies to have inspired a pop song, with the third movement Adagio having been lifted by Eric Carmen for his minor 1976 hit Never Gonna Fall in Love Again. Carmen must have been quite the Rachmaninov fan, as this was in turn a follow-up to the global hit All by Myself, which ripped off the second piano concerto. It has to be said that the symphony as we now recognise it has only in recent years run to the full hour of music that Rachmaninov originally wrote. For most of its performance history it was presented in a savagely cut state, with edits approved by the composer sometimes reducing its length to around 40 minutes. Thankfully we now hear it in all its glory and the work is all the better for it.

Day 226

14 August 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 35, 'Haffner' (1782)
This symphony had a far more interesting life than most of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's earlier works. For the most part, Mozart wrote to order, usually quite quickly, for a specific performance and then moved on to the next piece. It is questionable he would ever intend such works to be heard again. This, however, was a symphony fashioned from earlier music: a serenade he had written for the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner the Younger five months earlier. The six-movement serenade was, according to a letter he wrote to his father at the time, written over almost as many nights whilst working on his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio during the day!

When, in December of 1782, Mozart decided to present a concert of his music, he revisited this earlier music – essentially dropping two of its six movements, a march and a minuet – and formed it into the symphony we know today. The said concert was a bit of an oddity: the first three movements of the 'Haffner' symphony opened proceedings, and then after some of his arias, a couple of his piano concertos, and various other items, the finale of the symphony concluded the concert. In keeping with many symphonies of the time, it begins with a loud, unison theme, which effectively served the purpose of silencing the crowd. The opening movement is a conventional sonata form, while the Presto finale makes use of a theme from the aria Ha, wie will ich triumphieren from the opera he was working on at the same time, The Abduction from the Seraglio. A rare example of symphonic material that re-uses music already re-used before!

Day 227

15 August 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 3, 'Rhenish' (1850)
I admitted, when featuring Robert Schumann's first symphony back in February (see Day 38), that he was a composer I rarely listened to. So when this one cropped up on the schedule, to tie in with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's performance of it at tonight's BBC Prom, I thought I probably should know it, but couldn't recall anything about it. As soon as the first bars were played, however, a welcome spark of recognition occurred that made me wonder why I'd neglected it for so long.

It's a marvellous symphony, somewhat at odds with the circumstances surrounding its composition. The Schumann family had recently moved to Düsseldorf, as Robert had taken up the role of the city’s Music Director. Their new apartment was in the centre of the city and, by all accounts, noisy, which meant Schumann's attempts at composition were constantly disrupted. According to his wife Clara this caused her husband a form of 'house rage'. Nevertheless, his response to his new surroundings in the Rhineland was to pour out this joyous work, with the tone set from the off with a majestic opening theme. I happened to be travelling from Prague to Bayreuth today, and listening to this with the German landscape as a backdrop – albeit Franconia rather than North Rhine-Westphalia – suited the music perfectly. I think it may be time for me to bring Schumann back in from the wilderness to which I've dispatched him.

Day 228

16 August 2017: Balakirev – Symphony No. 2 (1908)
I didn't really do Mily Balakirev any favours by scheduling this for today. His second symphony is the lesser well-known of his pair, and certainly not one I'd ever heard before. Unfortunately, I ended up listening to this 50 minutes of totally unfamiliar music shortly after returning to our gasthof in Bayreuth after spending the previous six hours attending Tristan und Isolde at the Festspielhaus. After that, anything would have been an anti-climax, so poor old Balakirev was onto a hiding to nothing. Anyway, I decided to do the decent thing and give it a second listen on our flight back to the UK a couple of days later.

Rather like Stanford in this country, Balakirev is arguably more famous for who he influenced than anything else – in this case, his protégé Tchaikovsky. His own music has not been treated well by history, and the fact that the supposedly better-known first symphony (see Day 49) is rarely performed outside Russia to this day, gives an indication of how far below the waves thus has sunk. He was 71 when this symphony was completed, and after taking over 30 years to complete his first, this one was knocked out in a comparatively cursory eight years. It opens with two quite startling chords that rather threw me off balance, sounding for all the world like the final two chords of another work. The second movement is a scherzo marked alla Cosacca, and its Cossack style would have been entirely in keeping with the Russian art form he and the rest of The Five were attempting to create. This would also be true of the final movement Polonaise, which was actually a form more associated with Imperial Russia than Poland. I'm afraid the second listen didn't really raise my opinion of the symphony much, however, and it's unlikely ever to receive a third.

Day 229

17 August 2017: Lalo – Symphonie espagnole (1874)
Yes, I know it's a violin concerto really, but according the rules that I set out on day one, Édouard Lalo chose to call this a symphony, ergo it qualifies. Also, it meant I could incorporate a third Proms tie-in this week, as it features in tonight's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra prom, with Joshua Bell as soloist. As a symphony, it doesn't really fit the template, but then again, as a five-movement work, it isn't a conventional concerto either. In fact, Lalo had written his Violin Concerto for the same soloist, the famed Spaniard Pablo de Sarasate, the previous year. That he chose not to call this 'Violin Concerto No. 2' is indicative of its different conception.

French composers of the day appear to have had a fascination with the music of their Iberian neighbours. Bizet wrote Carmen around this time, Chabrier produced his rhapsody for orchestra España the following decade, and Ravel would draw upon it repeatedly for Bolero, Rapsodie espagnole, and his one-act opera L'heure espagnole in years to come. The Spanish inflections in the music are very prominent throughout, especially in the second movement Scherzando. There are virtuosic fireworks throughout and the work has rightly become a concert favourite, although it is probably the only work by Lalo I could name off the top of my head.

Day 230

18 August 2017: Stamitz – Mannheim Symphony No. 3 in B flat major (c. 1741)
Over the (checks) 230 days that I've doing this Symphony A Day thing, I've pondered on whether I may have done a few things differently. The one thing I might have changed, had I really thought it through rather than just deciding on a whim on the morning of 1 January to do this, is that I could have run the symphonies in chronological order to show how the genre developed over the centuries. Had I done so, this would have featured in the first week of January as one of the earliest examples of the genre.

I find it fascinating that Stamitz was writing this fledgling classical symphony at around the same time as Handel was writing the Messiah, and JS Bach produced his second book of Preludes and Fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier. It's groundbreaking stuff, with a recognisable sonata-form first movement, a stately Andante central movement, and a lively Presto finale in triple time – all of which would influence Haydn in following decades.  At around eight minutes in length, it is one of the shortest symphonies I've heard this year but this is very much the tiny acorn from which symphonic form grew.

Day 231

19 August 2017: Pettersson – Symphony No. 9 (1970)
I featured Allan Pettersson's 7th symphony a few months ago (see Day 116) and at the time he was a relatively new discovery to me. He's rapidly becoming one of my favourite composers and this is seen by many as the pinnacle of his symphonic output (which amounts to 15 completed symphonies, and two further unfinished ones). It's certainly the longest, running to 70 minutes in its slowest recorded performance, and in common with most of his other symphonies it consists of a single through-composed movement.

Quite often, when I encounter composers like Pettersson whose work is rarely performed outside of his native country, I find myself questioning why their music is so infrequently programmed. It's pretty easy to see why in Pettersson's case, however. Seventy minutes of unbroken music is a big ask of any audience, and it would be difficult see how anyone could confidently programme the work and expect much of a crowd to turn up. This is a shame, as it's a work that manages to sustain the listener's attention throughout, much of which is down to his trademark device of sustaining pedal notes and repeated osinati figures for so long that you're almost pleading with him to resolve them. When the music finally lands onto a quiet, restrained major chord in the last 30 seconds the effect is astonishing. A great symphony, but one in which Pettersson is clearly pushing the levels of audience tolerability. He was hospitalised for nine months after writing this, and along with the demands the ninth symphony had engendered, these two factors probably contributed to the fact that his next symphony was only 25 minutes long.

Day 232

20 August 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 4 (1889)
While Hubert Parry achieved great popularity in his own lifetime, his symphonies started to dwindle into obscurity almost as soon as each was written. Even as long ago as 1949, AEF Dickinson was writing an article in The Musical Times, entitled 'The Neglected Parry' bemoaning the fact his music – Jerusalem aside – was rarely performed. The situation has scarcely changed nearly 70 years on.

Take this work for example. It is Parry's longest symphony, with my copy of London Philharmonic/Matthias Bamert CD (that remains the only recording of the piece in existence) clocking in at around 42 minutes. It was originally composed in 1889 and given one performance, after which Parry declared his dissatisfaction with the work. In 1910 he revisited the symphony, padding out the orchestration and writing a new scherzo. And while this improved the work in the composer's eyes, it did little for its fortunes. After a solitary performance of the revised version, it remained unheard for a further 80 years until Bamert picked up the score for the aforementioned recording in 1990. It is the first of Parry's symphonies to have been written in a minor key, and this led him to concede that it was 'a bit stern'. Personally I think its length and choice of key lends it a gravitas that sets it above its predecessors. It's a view that even the composer himself doesn't appear to have shared though.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Days 219 – 224

Day 219

7 August 2017: Górecki – Symphony No. 2, 'Copernican' (1972)
In common with many 20th century composers, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki went through two very distinct stylistic phases. Having started as a darling of the Polish avant-garde in the mid-1950s, he later developed a much more consonant style and was bundled in with the 'Holy Minimalists' following the bewildering success of his Symphony No. 3, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' in the early nineties. I can, however, think of very few examples of symphonies that showcase both periods of a composer's development in a single work, in the way that this does.

The title 'Copernican' comes from the fact that the symphony was written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus's birth in 1973 (although the work was actually completed the previous year). It is in two wildly contrasting parts. The first part, which represents the chaos of the world, features massive, loud, dissonant whole-tone chords that span six octaves, and also fast ad libitum passages for brass – very reminiscent of his compatriot Witold Lutosławski. The second couldn't be more different, employing quieter, calmer music based on the pentatonic scale, and occupying much the same sound world as the third symphony. This represents the order of the universe, and features a choir singing psalms from the Bible. Indeed, the last five minutes or so of this work is so quiet as to be barely audible – leading me to think the piece had finished long before it had! It is hugely important work in Górecki's output, not only for the importance of the occasion for which it was written, but also as it represents a summation of his career as a whole.

Day 220

8 August 2017: Kodály – Symphony in C major (1961)
I've been amazed by the number of symphonies I've discovered this year that had ridiculously long gestation periods. The three decades it took Zoltán Kodály to complete this his only symphony is certainly on the outer extremes of those examples. Kodály started work on this in the 1930s, and after 15 years of what must have been very intermittent work he had completed two movements. It may have remained in that incomplete state for the rest of his life, however in 1959, following the death of his wife of 48 years Emma Gruber, the 77-year-old Kodály married a 19-year-old student by the name of Sarolta Péczely. This seems to have invigorated the old man, and he completed this symphony within a year.

AllMusic reviewer Joseph Stevenson rates this as 'one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th Century', although it is not a widely held belief. It is, nevertheless, a splendid piece of work, and the culmination of a life devoted to the folk music of his native Hungary. The folk-like themes are everywhere, with the opening music featuring what appear to be open string drones in the manner of fiddle tunes. The second Andante moderato movement features a viola-led theme and variations that sounds for all the world like his English counterpart Vaughan Williams at times. The final movement, which as mentioned previously was written much later, is a rip-roaring romp of Hungarian dances that is practically impossible to sit still through. It is quite remarkable that this liveliest of movements should be the work of a man approaching his eighties.

Day 221

9 August 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 6 (1881)
Unlike the seeming majority of critics, I like Anton Bruckner's sixth symphony, mostly for the fact that it is almost completely different to the other nine. That's not to say that I don't like his work as a rule because I do, and the one he followed this with is an absolute doozy. But the sameness that makes the fifth almost indistinguishable from the third or the eighth to the inattentive listener just isn't present here. According to the composer 'the Sixth is the sauciest'. Well quite.

Its oddity has led to it being considered by many critics as the runt of Bruckner's symphonic litter. It is certainly the least frequently performed, and words like 'peculiar', 'tiresome', and 'flawed' have been tossed out when discussing it. Personally, I'd put it in his top three, as there is a clear originality of thought within its bars, and it has more than its fair share of memorable themes. Right from the off, the insistent ostinato rhythm of the violins indicates a different direction from the swirling musical mists that usually feature at the opening of a Bruckner symphony. The slow movement is just gorgeous, even by Bruckner's high standards, and the scherzo is unlike any of those from his other symphonies – almost Mahlerian in its twists and turns into dark corners. The finale is probably the weakest of the four movements, but then I've never considered Bruckner's final movements to be his forte. All energy seems spent by the time he gets to them and this is no exception. Nonetheless, I do like this symphony a lot, and after Nos. 4 & 7, it's probably the one I listen to most often.

Day 222

10 August 2017: Piston – Symphony No. 2 (1943)
Walter Piston's books on Orchestration and Harmony were indispensable reading when I was a music student, especially the former with regard to composing for instruments I didn't play (which would be virtually all of them). Some years passed before I discovered that, as well being an academic, he was also an eminent composer. The fact that it's taken me until today to listen to anything he'd ever written is, I confess, quite shameful.

Anyway, this is another candidate for the increasingly towering pile of enjoyable discoveries this year. The first movement is a taut musical argument between its two very contrasting subjects: the first slightly dark and the second bordering on jaunty. The heart of the piece is the Adagio second movement, which features a beautifully expansive melodic line the equal of anything his countryman Samuel Barber may have written. Indeed, it was this movement that Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of upon hearing news of the composer's death in November 1976. It all feels like effortless writing, although by all accounts it was a piece Piston slaved over for some time, and listening to this there's a feel of a master at work. So good at it, in fact, that he obviously felt compelled to write books about it.

Day 223

11 August 2017: Berio – Sinfonia (1969)
And now for something completely different. We're into day 223 and none of the previous 222 symphonies sound anything remotely like this post-modernist classic. Luciano Berio's Sinfonia is now approaching its 50th birthday, yet it still has the power to shock. It is scored for a large orchestra plus eight amplified vocalists who are employed to sing, talk, shout, whisper and generally add an extra dimension to the sound world throughout. It is one of the most enduringly successful works of the last half-decade,

The first two movements are very contrasting with the opening section a brutalist landscape of quotations from Lévi-Strauss battling against avant-garde orchestral writing. The slow second movement features the singers expanding the harmonics of single piano notes in a hugely imaginative way, with the text having been taken from Berio's own work, O King, a tribute to Martin Luther King who had been assassinated the previous year. These movement are but preparation for the sensory overload of the third movement; a quite extraordinary collage of verbal and musical quotations, all of which are built on a base of excerpts from the scherzo from Mahler's second symphony. Fragments of text from Samuel Beckett and James Joyce collide with Debussy, Hindemith, Ravel, Stravinsky, Strauss, Beethoven and many more to produce a dizzying, heady mix of music and literature. It's an absolutely mind-blowing and trippy work, feeling almost like some acid-induced 'happening' that would have been entirely in keeping with the time in which it was written.

Day 224

12 August 2017: Franck – Symphony in D minor (1888)
Seventies pop star Carl Douglas is known for one thing and one thing only: his number one single Kung Fu Fighting. In interviews. whenever he found himself fielding accusations of being a one-hit wonder, he would respond with, 'Yes, but what a hit!' For some reason this quote came to mind when considering Belgian composer César Franck's magnum opus, the Symphony in D minor. Franck was, in symphonic terms, something of a one-hit wonder, and in fact I'd struggle to name a single other work he wrote in his no doubt impressive career. It is, however, one of the most frequently performed and recorded symphonies in the repertoire, and has established his name almost single-handedly.

For all its popularity now, Franck's Symphony wasn't terribly well received at the time. Franco-Prussian enmity was still running high in the 1880s, and the symphony as a form was viewed by many in the French-speaking world as a Germanic construct. French orchestras refused to perform it, and when, finally, it was performed by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra the year before Franck's death, it was savaged by the critics, with Charles Gounod describing it as incompetent. Common sense eventually prevailed, and it reputation is now secure. Its unusual three-movement structure sees all three make use of the same four-bar theme that opens the work. The central movement, which is actually a slow movement and scherzo rolled into one, begins with a memorable cor anglais solo, while the finale sees the opening theme transformed brilliantly into a sweeping melody that carries all before it towards a triumphant finish. Definitely the best symphony ever written by a Belgian!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Days 213 – 218

Day 213

1 August 2017: Florence Price – Symphony in E minor (1932)
Although Florence Price was not the first American woman to make a name for herself as a symphonist, with the estimable Amy Beach having blazed a trail as early as 1896 (see Day 54), she was, however, the first of African-American origin to have done so. It's impossible to overstate just how great an achievement that was in 1930s USA. Incredibly, this was her first orchestral work, written while she was recovering from a broken foot, as it happens. It won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition, and was performed the following year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – meaning Price became the first black woman to have been afforded such an honour.

It's an oddly imbalanced work, with the first two movements having a combined duration of around 30 minutes, while the second pair barely reach the nine-minute mark between them. Also, I think it's fair to say that Florence Price was, shall we say, at least familiar with Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony. The first movement's main pentatonic theme, its harmonic language, and orchestration all bear more than a passing resemblance to the Czech composer's work. That said, it is a really nice piece. The slow movement with its brass chorales has a real delicate beauty to it. I could definitely have lived without the swannee whistle in the third movement though.

Day 214

2 August 2017: Enescu – Symphony No. 3 (1918)
Firmly ensconced in the category of composers whose name I'm familiar with but whose music I've never heard, George Enescu was exactly the sort of person I was aiming to discover more about in my Symphony A Day adventure. Enescu was a close friend of Alfredo Casella, who has already featured in these pages – most recently last week – having been fellow-pupils of Gabriel Fauré in Paris. In fact, Casella's second symphony (see Day 206) was dedicated to Enescu, who had previously dedicated his own first symphony to Casella.

Symphony No. 3 is regarded by many of those more familiar with his work as the greatest of the three he wrote. It's certainly a very substantial work, clocking in at around 50 minutes, and employing a large orchestra plus a wordless choir. The first movement starts with a throbbing bass line setting a dark tone for the work, but over the course of the ensuing 20 minutes it passes through so many other phases that I'm afraid I rather lost whatever thread Enescu was following. These are the perils of listening works of this scale just once; clearly this is a piece that requires a few listens to fully assimilate. For the most part, this is a solemn and brooding work, but all of this leads to the ecstatic culmination of the final movement, which features the choir in all its glory. The result is an almost dreamlike world of sublime, heady writing akin to Scriabin in certain passages. For reasons already mentioned, I will be revisiting this symphony in the coming days, as it has certainly piqued my interest in Enescu.

Day 215

3 August 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 4 (1929/1947)
Well, this is a bit of an oddity. When Sergei Prokofiev decided to revise his fourth symphony 18 years after he'd originally composed it, he did it so thoroughly that he effectively considered it a different work, worthy of its own new opus number. Hence Prokofiev's catalogue contains a Symphony No. 4, Op. 47 and a Symphony No. 4, Op. 112. It was originally composed immediately after the third, and in the same year as its predecessor's premiere. And as he had with his third symphony, he used material from another work as the basis of its thematic material. For the third, he drew from his opera The Fiery Angel (see Day 160), and this time it was his ballet The Prodigal Son that was raided. The work was poorly received and probably would have slipped away into relative obscurity, maybe receiving some kind of later re-appraisal by a more discerning audience a few decades later.

In an unexpected move, however, Prokofiev decided to thoroughly revise the work in 1947. The timing was odd. Prokofiev had, by this point returned to live in the Soviet Union but was, in common with other Eastern bloc composers, working under an even more severe Socialist Realism doctrine than ever before. Nevertheless, buoyed by the success of his fifth symphony a couple of years earlier, Prokofiev took the red pen to the earlier work, and in the process, virtually doubled it in length. It is this later version that I've opted to listen to today. The first change Prokofiev made was to include a forceful introduction before presenting the hesitant opening theme of the original work. So right from the off, the feeling is of this being new work. The Andante tranquilo showcases Prokofiev's unequalled gift for melody, while the third movement was worked almost unaltered from dance music for the 'Beautiful Maiden' in The Prodigal Son. The revised symphony was more enthusiastically received, rather vindicating Prokofiev's decision.

Day 216

4 August 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 6 (1880)
In common with its five predecessors, Antonin Dvorák's sixth symphony is rather overshadowed by the hugely popular trilogy with which he concluded his symphonic output. It was actually the first to be published in his lifetime, and for a time it was even considered to be his 'first' symphony before knowledge of his earlier efforts came to light.

The work represented a further move towards the more nationalistic style for which he would become famous, and as such is something of a transitional piece. It is a pleasing synthesis of the Czech folksongs that were increasingly permeating his work, and the Germanic symphonic style that had formed the core of his earlier compositions. Many have observed parallels between this work and the second symphony of his good friend Brahms, especially in their respective first movements, and this does share a pastoral feel with his Viennese counterpart. All of Dvorák's slow movements tend to pale in comparison to the famous Largo from his ninth 'New World' symphony. The Adagio from this work, however, gives it a run for its money at least. The work as a whole is pleasant and not something you could take a dislike to, but there are clearly greater things to come from this particular composer.

Day 217

5 August 2017: Atterberg – Symphony No. 6., 'Dollarsymfonin' (1928)
I mentioned when I featured Kurt Atterberg's third symphony (see Day 100) that its title of 'West Coast Pictures' had led me to the mistaken belief that he was actually an American composer. It was probably a belief reinforced by this work's title of 'Dollarsymfonin' or 'Dollar Symphony'. In fact, the nickname derives from the fact that it won the highly prestigious International Columbia Graphophone Competition of 1928. The $10,000 prize was worth the equivalent of about $150,000 in today's money so it was certainly not to be sniffed at. The initial premise of the competition was for works that completed, or were at least inspired by, Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony No. 8. In the end the rules were amended so that any new symphony qualified, and some of the works that are known to have been submitted were Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony (part 1 only, see Day 50), Czesław Marek's Sinfonia, Franz Schmidt's Symphony No. 3 and Hans Gál's Symphony No. 1 (both of which I will be featuring next month).

Not only was there an impressive list of entrants, the roll of stellar judges was jaw-dropping. Composers Ravel, Respighi, Szymanowski, Glazunov, and Nielsen were all involved at various stages, assisted by an army of music dignitaries including Thomas Beecham and Donald Tovey. The deliberations were long and rancorous, with Atterberg's victory coming courtesy of chairman of the judges Glazunov's casting vote. It was a hotly disputed and contentious result, with the largely unheard of Atterberg considered an unworthy winner, especially as the symphony's main selling point was believed to be the fact that it steered clear of modernism! As a result, contemporary reviews of the work were scathing. The fact that it entered the world to such a barrage of criticism seems to have damaged the work's reputation irreparably, as neither it nor its composer are especially well-known. Despite the criticism, some of which, I accept, has a modicum of justification, I think it's a really nice piece. The Adagio is stunningly beautiful, and I particularly enjoy the section where, after building to an impassioned peak at around its mid-point, the music subsides into a calm, still section featuring some lovely woodwind solos. The Vivace last movement bounces along nicely, and as a whole it's all rather harmless fun. The controversy it engendered seems inversely related to the uncontroversial nature of the music.

Day 218

6 August 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 7 (1906)
I find myself listening to most of Gustav Mahler's symphonies on a Sunday as it's just about the only day of the week I can guarantee having the 70 minutes or more I'll need to devote to it. Mahler didn't really do 'small scale' and recordings of this particular work vary in length between 70 and 100 minutes, depending on the self-indulgence of the conductor. It is, as you'd expect, written for a massive orchestra, including unconventional (for the time) orchestral instruments such as guitar, mandolin, tenorhorn, and rute. The symphony is sometimes called 'Song of the Night' as a result of its two Nachtmusik movements. The opening of the first of these is one of Mahler's better known themes as result of its use in the UK for many years in adverts for Castrol GTX oil!

I have to concede that this is not my favourite Mahler symphony. It is Mahler, so by default it's better than vast majority of symphonies out there, in my view. However, I find it errs on the side of turgid at times, and I struggle with it as a rule. The path of dark, funereal opening leading to all-stops-out blazing finale feels like a well-trodden path by now. That said, the scenery passed along the way is certainly interesting at times. Sandwiched between the two Nachtmusik movements is probably Mahler's best Scherzo; a twisted waltz that has a deeply unsettling feel, with echoes of the burlesque finale from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. After the nocturnal music that has gone before, the finale feels like it belongs to a different symphony altogether and, to me, it is an unsatisfactory ending. No less a critic than Michael Kennedy considered this to be Mahler’s most glamorous symphony, and Mahler himself considered it 'light-hearted', which makes me wonder if the performances I've heard of it have all just completely missed the point. Maybe one day the enigma of this symphony will all make sense to me.