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!

No comments:

Post a Comment