Thursday, 21 September 2017

Days 256 – 264

Day 256

13 September 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 5 (1922)
I'm in the midst of another of those runs of personal favourites that my schedule seems to throw up from time to time, and listening to Carl Nielsen's spectacular fifth symphony this evening was one of the less onerous tasks I'll have this year. This is one of many works I discovered in my student years, hearing a particularly memorable performance in Victoria Hall, Hanley in about October 1989 (although not so memorable that I can remember the orchestra that played it, probably the Hallé or the BBC Phil).

It is a quite extraordinary work, and one in which Nielsen moves up a gear a composer. Everything starts innocently enough, with flurries of strings and woodwinds fluttering away in the background while an other-wordly melody winds its way rather aimlessly. Then out of nowhere a snare drum initiates a militaristic march that eventually loses out to the returning woodwind flurries. This tension between these two opposing forces sets up the central core of the piece. Beginning in a conventional B major, the music darkens in tone when an insistent woodwind theme is repeated over and over again, at which point the snare drum re-enters the fray. Never has a snare drum been put to better use in a symphony. With the instruction to improvise 'as if he wants to stop the orchestra at all costs" a full-on war develops between the drummer and the orchestra, in which the latter ultimately triumphs. And that's just Part One! The second, shorter half of the symphony doesn't quite match up to the drama of the first, but it does feature some brilliant fugal writing and the work ends in a truly uplifting blaze of glory.

Day 257

14 September 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 36, 'Linzer' (1783)
The story of the composition of this symphony may be exaggerated, but I hope it's true. Knowing the many feats attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I have no reason to doubt it anyway. Mozart had married Constanza Weber the previous year, much to the disapproval of his family. In order to bring about a reconciliation, the Mozarts travelled back from their home in Vienna to visit his father Leopold's home in Salzburg. En route, they decided to accept the invitation of Count Thun-Hohenstein to stay with him in Linz for a few days. So the tale goes, the Count promptly announced that there would be a grand concert to mark the occasion, featuring a symphony by the great Mozart. The only problem was that Mozart hadn't brought one with him.

Well what else could the most prodigious composer who ever lived do under the circumstances, but write a new one in four days flat, of course! It really doesn't sound like something composed in hurry though, in fact it is just about the most assured symphony he'd written up to that point in his life. Unusually for Mozart, it starts with a slow introduction, before letting rip into an occasionally fast and furious Allegro. The sublime second movement could easily have been given words used as an aria in one of his operas, although the mood is darkened somewhat by the use of trumpets and timpani. The scherzo includes a trio that features an elegant duet for oboe and bassoon, while the as-Presto-as-possible finale ends the work on a suitable high. Vintage Mozart.

Day 258

15 September 2017: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3: 'Jesus Messiah, Save Us!' (1983)
The female Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya was a quite formidable figure. A pupil of Shostakovich, she forged her own path musically, saying quite proudly that 'there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.' She had a point, as her style is totally unique and characterised by solid blocks of sound, completely bereft of melody. Her penchant for unorthodox combinations of instruments also marks out her individuality. This symphony, for example, is scored for five oboes, five trumpets, five double basses, three tubas, piano, trombone, percussion, and a solo voice who recites 11th century liturgical texts.

I first encountered her music just last year, when this symphony was featured in one of the more memorable Proms performances of recent times. This falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category, as there is pretty much nothing symphonic about this work at all. It's a single movement piece of about 15 minutes in length, in which the repeated wall of block chords are the only thematic material. It is nevertheless an extremely striking composition, with the pleading voice appealing for salvation coming from a sound world of despair. It's a work of almost brutalist simplicity, but the effect is devastating.

Day 259

16 September 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 (1883)
Anton Bruckner's finest hour (and a bit), in my opinion. It says something for how well this symphony was received, and how happy the notoriously self-critical composer was with it, that he only felt the need to revise it once! The influence of his idol Richard Wagner is at its strongest in this work, with the second movement being a moving tribute to him written at a time when Wagner's death was anticipated. It is suggested that the cymbal clash at the climax of the second movement was written by Bruckner at the point when news of Wagner's demise reached him.

I fell in love with this work when I was a student, after buying a copy of the famous 1989 Karajan performance that turned out to be his final recording. It was as if Karajan knew of the recording's finality as he poured every last drop of his blood into it. For it to have been such a profound work as this was entirely fitting. It is an absolutely magnificent symphony. The opening theme for horns and cellos emerges from a trademark Bruckner primordial soup of hushed strings, but despite its length, the first movement maintains its focus throughout. The sublime second movement is the most moving music he ever wrote, starting with the first symphonic use of the Wagner tuba (four of them), a simple, rising three note theme is taken to extraordinary heights, and if the cymbal clash does represent Wagner's death then it is marked with a cry of praise to the heavens for his life. After a splendid scherzo, there is a slight feeling of anti-climax about the finale, if only for the fact that it fails to balance the gigantic opening two movements. It's a minor quibble, however, as they would have been difficult movements for any composer to follow.

Day 260

17 September 2017: Berlioz – Roméo et Juliette (1839)
For rather different reasons to the Ustvolskaya featured a couple of days ago, this also falls into the 'symphony only because the composer says it is' category. Hector Berlioz called it a symphonie dramatique, although there are some who argue that it's more of a 'concert opera'. Whatever it is, this monumental slab of words, music, and drama is one of the grandest occupants of the Choral Symphony Sunday slot. Only the infamous Gothic Symphony of Havergal Brian (see Day 50) and Mahler's third symphony (see Day 78) have been longer.

It's difficult to know where to start with such a vast, programmatic piece. Although obviously based on the Shakespeare play, the plot has been altered slightly in that Juliet awakes from her sleep prior to Romeo's death, and far more is made of the reconciliation between the two families at the end. That is turned into a grand choral finale that owes a nod of gratitude to the finale of Beethoven's ninth, written just 15 years earlier. The highlight of the symphony is without question the 20-minute Scène d'amour of Part II; an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that it is, to my mind, the best music Berlioz ever composed. Overall, it's a daunting listen, but a fully rewarding one.

Day 261

18 September 2017: Glass – Symphony No. 3, for strings (1995)
I've enjoyed the vast majority of the symphonies I've listened to this year, but if I was putting together a bottom five, then Philip Glass's second symphony would be in it. As I said at the time, it was the work of a composer with a very limited musical vocabulary, and what ideas there were ended up being spread very thinly over its 45-minute length. This, thankfully, is a more concise work and a considerably better listen as a consequence.

It was commissioned for, and premiered by, the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1995. The first movement features an off-beat melody against an insistent pounding bass line, while the short, lively and rhythmically complex second movement forms a satisfying contrast. The third movement is trademark Glass. With its three-against-four cross-rhythms underpinning a solo violin melody, it occupies much the same sound world as Pruit Igoe from his Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. It feels as though many of the pretensions towards grandeur that plagued his second symphony have been abandoned here and he's gone back to what he does best, and the symphony is all the better for it.

Day 262

19 September 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 3 (1983)
My love of Polish music began with Witold Lutosławski. I first encountered him when his Musique Funèbre was performed at the Proms in August 1988. As it turned out, that early work was not really very typical of his output, but it encouraged me to delve deeper and I've been a huge fan ever since. This symphony comes from the other end of his career, completed as it was when he was 70 (although he had started working on it ten years earlier). By this point, he had refined his technique of 'limited aleatorism' for which this symphony is a brilliant showcase. This involved Lutosławski interweaving ad libitum sections, where the players have a degree of freedom of the tempo in which they play their designated material so that they are intentionally not together, and ad battuta passages, which are under the control of the conductor.

Much has been made of the fact that during the work's composition period, his native Poland had suppressed the burgeoning trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity). This work has been interpreted as a protest against this, just as Panufnik had reacted to the situation with his Sinfonia Votiva (see Day 248) two years earlier. If that was the Lutosławski's intention, he never expressly stated it. The percussive four-note unison E that begins, ends, and periodically interrupts the music certainly gives the impression of trying to beat the freedom inherent in the music into submission. Whatever the interpretation, it is an absolute masterpiece. Lutosławski's brilliance stems from his ability to write at-times uncompromising music within readily identifiable formal structures, which enables him to make a connection with his audience that many of his contemporaries fail to achieve.

Day 263

20 September 2017: Hans Gál – Symphony No. 1 (1927)
Given that the Austrian-born Jewish émigré Hans Gál spent nearly 50 years in the UK, and was even awarded an OBE for his services to music, I find it quite baffling that I was completely unaware of his existence up until about six or seven months ago. This is the first of his four symphonies, and the only one he wrote when he was still living in his native Austria. At that time, he was a highly regarded composer and teacher, holding posts at the University of Vienna and then Mainz Conservatory.

This work was entered by Gál into the famous International Columbia Graphophone Competition of 1928, which was won by Kurt Atterberg's Symphony No. 6 (see Day 217) beating off competition not only from this piece, but also other notable symphonies by Havergal Brian, Czesław Marek, and Franz Schmidt. This piece effectively won its regional final, although at time it was entitled Sinfonietta. By 1933, however, the Nazis had risen to power and Gál was dismissed from his post and his music banned on account of his Judaism. He fled to London immediately after the Anschluss of 1938, and soon afterwards he moved to Edinburgh where he remained until his death in 1987.

This symphony is a very enjoyable listen, with its feet firmly planted in the Germanic symphonic tradition. The melodic lines are especially strong, flirting as they do between atonality and the straightforward diatonic. Had I discovered him earlier, I might well have found room in my schedule for the other three.

Day 264

21 September 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 12, 'The Year 1917' (1961)
Following on from his 11th symphony, which marked the year 1905, this work commemorates another significant year in Soviet history: that of the year of the Russian Revolution. The revolution led to the Communist Party seizing power under its leader Vladimir Lenin, and Shostakovich dedicated this symphony to Lenin's memory. Shostakovich was, by this time, a member of the Communist Party – undoubtedly after a degree of coercion – but his decision to compose such a patriotic piece seems odd when he was under far less pressure to toe the party line now that Kruschev was in power and carrying out a process of de-Stalinization.

It is the considered opinion of many music writers that this is one of the runts of Shostakovich's considerable symphonic litter. There is no disputing the fact that it is a far less weighty piece than its predecessor. Indeed, given the significance of Lenin and the year 1917 to the Russian authorities at the time, and even to this day, its treatment here seems almost half-arsed. I find it a perfectly agreeable work, but there's little doubt it does pale into insignificance alongside his symphonies of the previous twenty years or so. The second movement, Razliv, which actually quotes the 11th symphony, is very profound, but the triumphant finale is less convincing than similar episodes in his symphonic past and has the feel of composing by numbers. It isn’t as bad as some have painted it, however.

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