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.

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