Thursday, 7 September 2017

Days 244 – 250

Day 244

1 September 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 (1915)
The fifth symphony of Jean Sibelius is probably his most popular, and was effectively written for his own 50th birthday to a commission from the Finnish government. It's an absolute barnstormer of a work, so memorable for its soul-affirming finale, that it's often easy to forget just how dark sections of the first movement are. Although originally composed in 1915, the version universally known today is the 1919 revision of the work. When the late-nineties recording of the original 1915 version emerged, it came as something of a shock to the system for those of us who've known and loved the work for many years. It differs so much from the original that at times it is scarcely recognisable, especially in the bitonal passages where faintly familiar music seems somehow out of focus. It's certainly interesting to see just how different the piece could have been had Sibelius decided to leave it be.

The most famous passage is the finale's memorable theme for the French horns, and one of the more remarkable things about this symphony is how frequently that theme has been borrowed. At least three top 30 singles have nicked it (for the record, Beach Baby by The First Class in 1974, Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade in 1984, and I Don't Believe In Miracles by Sinitta in 1988). Philip Glass made use of it in Floe off his Glassworks album, and Leonard Bernstein appropriated it in On The Town. With the possible exception of Pachelbel's Canon, it must be the most stolen theme in classical music. It's hardly surprising as it is difficult to listen to this music and not feel uplifted.

Day 245

2 September 2017: Grażyna Bacewicz – Symphony No. 4 (1953)
I seem to have featured a lot of Polish music this year, and here's another new name for the list. Grażyna Bacewicz was a former composition pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and as well as being a prodigious violinist, she became one of the first female composers to make a name for herself in Poland. Bacewicz wrote four numbered symphonies, and another, unnumbered, early Symphony for Strings, all composed within an eight-year period. This was the final one of the five, and it won the Polish Ministry of Culture Prize in 1955.

It is sadly in keeping with how poorly served female composers are, even in this day and age, that the only recording of this I could source was a fairly rank-quality one uploaded to YouTube. I was, however, glad of its existence at all. This is a very assured work, with a rather bombastic opening suddenly giving way after about four minutes to angular, jaunty music that seems to act as a counterbalance to what has gone before. I particularly loved the ethereal slow movement that I found reminiscent of Bartok at times. There is some extraordinary string writing, especially in the first movement, which wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from the next generation of more avant garde Poles such as Penderecki and Lutosławski. The language here is still largely conventional though, a style she was soon to abandon as the political thaw in Poland and the emergence of the Warsaw Autumn Festival led to her exploration of new orchestral sonorities and extended techniques.

Day 246

3 September 2017: Holst – Choral Symphony (1924)
In today's Choral Symphony Sunday slot is the only work I'm featuring this year actually called Choral Symphony! I can't remember exactly when I discovered Holst's Planets, probably in my teens, but I do recall going on a bit of a wild goose chase in the mid-eighties trying to find some other works by the composer of a similar standard. I concluded, sadly, that it was a fruitless search and had to concede that while he has written many perfectly good works, the Planets is the only piece still performed globally for a reason. One of the works I hoovered up back then was this symphony. I bought the LP, and I think when I dug it out again to listen to today it was probably getting only its second playing.

Holst actually gave this work the title First Choral Symphony, although there never was to be a second. This may have been because it received a disastrous London premiere a few months after its first performance at the 1925 Leeds Festival, and he felt unwilling to repeat the exercise. A second choral symphony was sketched but soon abandoned. This symphony is a setting of poems by John Keats, and that in itself drew criticism with the sublime Ode on a Grecian Urn sitting uncomfortably next to such doggerel as Fancy and Folly's Song. Musically, it is interesting, and fairly typical of early twentieth-century English choral music. It has an at-times modal feel and as such occupies a similar sound world to his friend Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony (see Day 36), with Holst employing the Phrygian mode in the first movement. I was pleased to be re-acquainted with the work today, and have to concede that it wasn't as poor as I'd remembered it. It may be a while before this particular piece of vinyl sees the light of day again though.

Day 247

4 September 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 100, 'Military' (1794)
Josef Haydn clocked up the century with this symphony, although for reasons too long and boring and go into, this almost certainly wasn't the 100th symphony he wrote. What we do know is that it was the eighth of twelve symphonies he composed during his time in London between 1791 and 1795. The symphony was originally called Grand Overture with the Militaire Movement; the movement in question being the second and it is from this that the work derives its nickname.

After a slow introduction there is a spirited Allegro, which merely acts as a precursor to the more famous 'military' movement. It features a collection of 'Turkish' percussion instruments – triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – all highly unusual in a symphonic context in the late eighteenth century. Eventually, the movement culminates in a trumpet fanfare that must have sounded quite startling at the time. It was another Haydn masterstroke that the critics of the time absolutely lapped up, with the contemporary Morning Chronicle declaring, after an encore performance a week after its premiere, that 'others can conceive, he alone can execute.' He really was quite the crowd-pleaser.

Day 248

5 September 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia Votiva (1981)
After a mid-career dip in form while he evolved his own unique musical language, Andrzej Panufnik was very much back in full flow when started working on this his eighth symphony. Following his Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77), which was based on an old Polish hymn the Bogurodzica, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. By 1980 though, his works were being performed in Poland again following his post-defection ban by the Communist party. This may well have turned his mind back towards his country of birth, but Poland was also very much in the news at the time as the shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike, leading to the formation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union, and the subsequent imposition by the Polish government of martial law to crush the disorder. Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.

The work is in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insisted, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him. As I seem to say every time I come to a Panufnik symphony, it is very rarely heard. It's a particular shame in this case, because, as a heartfelt cry against the treatment of his erstwhile countrymen, it carries great weight.

Day 249

6 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 11, 'The Year 1905' (1957)
Dmitri Shostakovich's 11th Symphony is his most underrated, in my view. Yes, the fifth and the seventh are mighty pieces of art that rightly take their place among the greatest symphonies ever written. This, however, as an absolute masterpiece and one which I've always held in the highest regard. The symphony, as the title suggests, depicts the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which culminated in the Red Sunday massacre at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. In another BBC Proms tie-in, I re-arranged my listening order to coincide with its performance at this evening's London Philharmonic Orchestra prom.

The deathly first movement, with its slow moving divided strings, represents the Palace Square in winter, and this music recurs in later movements following more violent episodes. The massive twenty-minute second movement refers to the events of the 9th of January – the day of the Winter Palace massacre – and is a savage, militaristic movement in which all music is eventually smothered by an oppressive percussion onslaught. After a third movement lament entitled Eternal Memory, the symphony summons up another march theme in the finale. The quiet opening music then returns before all hell breaks loose at the end. The final couple of minutes of this symphony is one of most spectacular climaxes you'll ever hear. I've always meant to check the published score to see if there is actually a part for the kitchen sink, because Shostakovich certainly threw pretty much everything else at it. The sound of the orchestra competing against a battery of bells, gongs, cymbals and drums, all playing at 'God's balls' volume, is truly overwhelming. Epic stuff!

Day 250

7 September 2017: Martin – Petite symphonie concertante (1946)
How have I never heard this before? I really do have some glaring gaps in my symphonic knowledge. Anyway, this remarkable work by Swiss composer Frank Martin is a fine way to bring up the 250 in my Symphony A Day journey. It is scored for the unusual – and probably unique – combination of strings, harp, harpsichord, and piano, and it was a joyous discovery today. It's a highly interesting juxtaposition of neo-classical sensibilities and 12-tone serialist techniques. Martin uses a tone row as a theme but then treats it in an entirely conventional way harmonically and rhythmically. The result is a very individual sound that made me want to go out and listen to more of his work.

The sonorities created by the combination of instruments is also worthy of mention. The three interlopers into the string orchestra – the harp, harpsichord, and piano – are usually to be found buried within a conventional orchestra, but here they are elevated to the role of soloist, giving rise to the concertante in the title. The music is very cleverly written so that the strings complement whichever of the soloists is playing at any given time, for example playing pizzicato when up against the quieter and similarly plucked harp or harpsichord. One to add to the pleasant discovery pile.

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