Monday, 30 October 2017

Days 295 – 302

Day 295

22 October 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 8 (1890)
My listening schedule for this year does, at times, throw up little clusters of symphonies that lend themselves to being considered together. It did this week, when a trio of eighth symphonies found themselves in close proximity, so here they are as a three-day sequence, beginning with Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8. This was the last one Bruckner actually completed, his ninth remaining unfinished at his death in 1896. As you've no doubt noticed, I tend to put the year of composition in parentheses in the title above, but this is often problematic for works that are later revised or written in stages. In Bruckner's case, it's never more than a vague approximation given his obsessive revision mentality. This was composed in 1884-85, orchestrated in 1886-87, the completed score was then sent to the conductor Hermann Levi, who rejected it, it was then revised in 1889-90, and finally first performed in 1892. The version widely accepted as definitive is the 1890 revision, so that's what I'm going with.

That it was only revised once indicates the notoriously self-critical Bruckner was at least reasonably happy with it. Rightly so, as it is a magnificent work. Performance times for Bruckner symphonies vary so much that it's hard to say which is the longest – this alone varies on record between 71 minutes (Leinsdorf) and 104 minutes (Celibidache), which is a remarkable difference. It's safe to say it's a contender to be the longest, however, and its profundity of tone affords it an additional gravitas. I have occasionally seen this symphony given the subtitle 'Apocalyptic', and although it is of dubious origin, is does seem to fit. The first movement bucks the trend he set himself by shying away from the usual blaze of glory conclusion in favour of a quiet and reflective ending. Following the pattern of Beethoven's ninth, Bruckner reversed the usual slow movement–scherzo order of inner movements. This does give the whole a greater sense of balance than, for example, the seventh symphony that preceded it, where the two huge opening movements heavily outweighed the latter two. The vast Adagio of the eighth is one of Bruckner's finest slow movements, while the finale was apparently influenced by a visit to Vienna by the Cossacks, with brass and military music the order of the day. As the work draws to a close there is an almost desolate feeling of all energy spent, yet somehow one final push is summoned to produce a mighty denouement with the final chord being played out over a whole minute of music. It was the last final symphonic chord Bruckner was to write, and a fitting way to sign off.

Day 296

23 October 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 8 (1812)
The second of my trio of 'No. 8's is the shortest symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. Sitting as a rather unloved sibling between the mighty seventh and the epic Choral symphony, Beethoven's eighth is something of an oddity. It even left its audience cold back in the time of its first performance, with a contemporary account stating, rather euphemistically, that it 'did not create a furore' – unlike the aforementioned seventh (see Day 251), which was ecstatically received and was also performed to a greater reception at the premiere of this work.

It's a perfectly good symphony of course, but rather like the similarly squeezed fourth, its relative insignificance only comes about because of the works it sat alongside chronologically. The opening movement stands as an equal to any of the others he wrote, but the movements that follow are all shorter and more lightweight. Its lack of a slow movement was also highly unusual, with a coquettish, four-minute Allegretto scherzando taking its place. The lively final movement bears some similarity with the two final movements of the seventh, with its insistent rhythms throughout. It also features a remarkable coda that includes a modulation of a semitone from F# to F which was an utterly outrageous manoeuvre in the early 19th century. After producing symphonies at fairly regular intervals throughout his career, Beethoven would leave the genre alone for ten years after this one. It's fair to say he would come back with a bang.

Day 297

24 October 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 (1889)
To complete my trio of 'No. 8's, here we have Antonin Dvořák's late masterpiece. When I featured his seventh a few weeks ago (see Day 255), it kicked off a little Twitter debate over which was the greatest of his symphonies. Certainly the ninth is the most popular, but there was a lot of love for No. 7 and similar amount for this work. It came very quickly to the composer, who took little more than a month to complete the piece, seemingly driven by a determination to write a symphony different from its predecessors.

The work opens with a long theme for the cellos, and it is they who drive the melodic content of the symphony. It is melody that drives this piece forward, something for which Dvořák had a great gift. The result is that his symphonies generally take a unique shape compared to the classical tradition, not feeling the need to burden himself with a first subject–second subject approach that would, after all, limit him to just two tunes! The darkly chromatic slow movement was indeed quite unlike anything Dvořák had written before, with an almost Sibelian bleakness that is at odds with the joyful nature of the rest of the work. A delightful allegretto soon gets things back on track, before a bright fanfare signals the start of the magnificent finale. Those prominent cellos return with a glorious melody that even by Dvořák's standards is pretty memorable, and after a reflective section towards the end of the movement, there's a sudden acceleration towards a suitably triumphant ending.

Day 298

25 October 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 2, 'To October' (1927)
With fifteen symphonies, Dmitri Shostakovich is the composer I've featured most often this year. I've gone through them mostly chronologically, but have broken the sequence for his third, subtitled 'The First of May', which I obviously had to feature on the first of May (see Day 121), and this symphony, subtitled 'To October', which commemorates the October Revolution of 100 years ago. Now, there is something of an anachronism here, as the October Revolution took place on 25 October 1917, but in the New Style calendar this corresponds to 7 November. It is universally known as the October Revolution though, so I'm going with the old date in the new calendar, or something like that.

As for the symphony itself, well it's not his greatest work. It's mercifully short, at around 17 minutes, but after the brilliance of his first symphony this clumsy piece of Soviet propaganda makes for a poor listen. It starts promisingly enough, with some of the earliest usage of tone clusters in twentieth century music, and some typically skittish writing for smaller ensembles within the group. In the days before Socialist Realism had raised its ugly head, we are able to hear in this music the direction Shostakovich would have taken but for political interference. The choral finale that occupies most of the second half of the work is, however, an abomination. Beginning with a factory whistle summoning the workers, there follows a clumsily scored hymn in praise of Lenin with the final line 'This is the slogan and this is the name of living generations: October, the Commune and Lenin', being shouted by the choir at the end. Subtle it ain't.

Day 299

26 October 2017: Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1939)
I haven't been keeping count, but Arnold Schoenberg might take the record for the longest time to complete a symphony that I've featured this year. Brahms took over 20 years to produce his first symphony, Rimsky Korsakov finished revising his first 25 years after beginning it, and Balakirev and Kodaly took around 30 years to complete their first contributions to the symphonic repertoire. In taking fully 33 years to realise the final version of this symphony, Schoenberg may take some beating. To be fair to all the aforementioned, none of them spent every day working on their troublesome work, and all produced other compositions in the meantime. Nevertheless, the importance of the symphony as a public statement can be gleaned from such procrastination.

What makes this of particular interest is the sea-change that happened in Schoenberg's style between this work's start date of 1906 and its completion in 1939. At the outset, the composer was pushing the fringes of tonality within a Late-Romantic idiom. In the intervening years, he effectively invented serialism, abolishing tonality in favour of 12-tone technique. By the time Schoenberg revisited Chamber Symphony No. 2, he had emigrated to America following the rise of the Third Reich, and had started to allow tonality back into his music after three decades of hardcore serialism. The result is extraordinary; a piece that hankers back to the Romanticism of his Verklärte Nacht, but is imbued with the atonality that permeates his subsequent work.

Day 300

27 October 2017: Rautavaara – Symphony No 7: Angel of Light (1994)
I would have included more symphonies by Einojuhani Rautavaara this year, but recordings of some of them are quite hard to obtain. Hence, I've had to make the jump from number three (see Day 119) to number seven with a degree of reluctance. This really is a thing of beauty though, and thankfully there are some very fine recordings out there, including a Grammy-nominated one by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam. It has rapidly become a favourite of mine, and is a worthy way to bring up the triple century in my Symphony a Day journey.

The apparently free-moving music is actually drawn from a theme that has its roots in the commission that gave the work its original name The Bloomington Symphony. It was commissioned by the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, and Rautavaara extracted the letters of the orchestra's name that can be notated musically, B–G–S–H–C–H–E–S–A (German notation for B flat–G–E flat–B–C–B–E–E flat–A). These notes initially appear in fragmentary form on glockenspiel and vibraphone, before emerging in full played by the brass section. His ability to take such unpromising material and turn it into deeply spiritual music is what marks Rautavaara out as one of the great composers of his generation and the overwhelming beauty of sections of this work is instantly appealing.

Day 301

28 October 2017: Parry – Symphony No. 5, 'Symphonic Fantasia 1912' (1912)
This is quite magnificent. Hubert Parry wrote five very fine symphonies, all studiously ignored by the orchestras of this great nation, but the neglect of this work is particularly shameful, given that it is the best of the lot, in my humble opinion. Yes, it followed hot on the heels of Elgar's second and probably seemed a bit lightweight in comparison, but it is still a considerable work of high merit. At around 27 minutes, it is comfortably his shortest symphony, but its terse, interconnected structure with four linked movements represents Parry's most mature orchestral work.

Parry had been in ill health when he composed this work, something which had caused him to resign as Professor of Music at Oxford. Ironically, this freed up more of his time for composition and the fifth symphony was one of a batch of late works that represent the best of his output. He also wrote a book, Instinct and Character, which was rejected by his publishers and to the best of my knowledge remains unpublished. The book was an expression of his ethical views, and these lent themselves to the individual movement's titles – Stress, Love, Play, and Now. The second movement, Love, contains one of the most wonderful melodies Parry ever wrote, and as such is the glowing heart of a work that oozes class and style.

Day 302

29 October 2017: Malipiero – Symphony No. 10, 'Atropo' (1967)
Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero was something of a late-flowerer of a composer. He was born in 1882, the same year as Stravinsky, Szymanowski, and Kodály, and yet he feels like a more modern composer than any of those, primarily because most of output was written in his later years. This symphony, for example was the tenth of eleven to which he gave numbers, all of which were written after he'd turned 50, as too were three other works he called symphonies – Sinfonia in un tempo, Sinfonia dello Zodiaco, and Sinfonia per Antigenida. Stylistically, his music is an interesting mix of contemporary techniques inflected by a strong influence of pre-19th-century music from his homeland.

This short symphony, with a running time of around 13 minutes in the only recording that I'm aware of, is dedicated to the German conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was a champion of his music. The name ‘Atropo’ comes from the ancient Greek goddess who ended the life of mortals by cutting their thread. It's a very fine symphony, and a poignant tribute. The opening woodwind theme is almost certainly a quoted melody from early music, although I can't identify it. This is heard over a ground bass, but the mood soon changes as the music moves into the angular contrapuntalism that readily identifies his style. A lovely but all-too-short Tranquillo slow movement again opens with a delicate theme – for strings this time – over a ground bass. The closing moments of the finale are especially pleasing with the woodwinds intoning in a madrigal style against a backdrop of unsettling harp and celesta accompaniment, before low brass chords add a suitable full stop.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Days 289 – 294

Day 289

16 October 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 94, 'Surprise' (1791)
You're probably aware that, with one or two date-specific exceptions, I've been working through composers' works in chronological order. So you may be wondering why, after featuring Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 100 last month (see Day 247), I've suddenly jumped back to number 94. Well I'm afraid I can offer no more adequate explanation than the fact that I simply forgot about this one!

Haydn was very fond of the crowd-pleasing gimmick. Whether it was the musicians leaving the stage one-by-one in the 'Farewell' (see Day 62), a bagpipe drone effect in 'The Bear' (see Day 151), or Turkish percussion and trumpet fanfares in his 'Military' Symphony No. 100, the desire was always to get the crowd on their feet and give the reviewers something to write about. The 'Surprise' features probably the most famous device of them all. The slow movement begins very quietly with an almost nursery rhyme theme, then suddenly at the end of the first repeat there is a fortissimo chord that must have made the audience at the first performance collectively crap themselves. It has to be said that it's an otherwise forgettable symphony, that probably wouldn't be considered one of his greatest compositions. But as ever with Haydn, it was all about giving the punters what they want.

Day 290

17 October 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 6 (1923)
Sandwiched between his mighty fifth and sublime seventh symphonies, Jean Sibelius's sixth is by no means his most popular. It is nevertheless an enigmatic work many consider his best. All three symphonies were, in fact, worked upon almost simultaneously in the years after World War I. Sibelius references all three in a letter of 1918, although his ideas for this symphony and the seventh were far removed from how they eventually turned out. In the letter, he described this work as 'wild and impassioned in character' while the final product is rather more restrained. It is both traditional, in the sense of having a conventional four-movement structure, and yet breaks with tradition in its use of the Dorian mode – seemingly as a consequence of his developing interest in the music of Palestrina at the time.

Sibelius himself referred to the symphony as 'pure cold water', drawing attention to its contrast with the extravagances occurring elsewhere in the musical world at the time, notably in Vienna and St Petersburg. Possibly because he was concerned at all aspects of the world seeming to accelerate out of control, time seems to stand still in this piece, the tone having been set by the exquisite, clear as crystal opening with strings and woodwinds interweaving beautifully in modal lines. This may well have seemed like a palate-cleanser, with serialism and expressionism holding sway at the time. The ending is incredible with hesitant phrases eventually dwindling away to emptiness; not for nothing was Michael Tilson Thomas's 1988 TV essay about this symphony entitled Journey Into Silence. For a work of such clarity of purpose, it still takes a few listens to fully absorb its intricacies, and therein is the mark of great art.

Day 291

18 October 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 3 (1896)
I bloody love this symphony. There have been many (far too many) works that I have featured this year whose neglect has dismayed me, but the fact that performances of this are as rare as hen's teeth actually angers me. It's a quite magnificent work, written, as it happens, in the same year as he was married, which may go some way to explaining the moments of sheer bliss that permeate throughout.

A sublime, slow-moving chorale opens the first movement, which probably contributes as much as anything to the lazy nickname he's acquired over the years of 'the French Bruckner'. This opens out into a glorious piece of Late-Romanticism, with wondrous sweeping melodies that at times are quite Mahlerian. After a lively scherzo featuring what sound like French country dance themes, there is an exquisite Pastorale that alone could ensure the work's immortality. The crowning glory is the closing section of the finale when the opening chorale returns fully orchestrated; an absolute masterstroke.

As for why he continues to be neglected, well he had the misfortune to be born in the same year as Sibelius, Nielsen, and Glazunov (1865), and this symphony dates from the same year as Mahler's mighty third. I've considered in these pages before that the late-nineteenth century produced so many magnificent composers that many perfectly good ones have ended up as B-listers. One doesn't need to scratch too far below the surface to discover more wonderful music from this period, and Magnard – and this symphony in particular – is worthy of higher ranking.

Day 292

19 October 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 6 (1935)
As with his fifth symphony (see Day 252), Arnold Bax composed this in his remote retreat in Morar on the west coast of Scotland. It is dedicated to Sir Adrian Boult, and it was the legendary conductor who imparted an indirect influence over the direction this composition took. Boult had long championed Bax's music, but occasionally criticised its lack of formal discipline. Bax thus set about producing a more structurally controlled, and ultimately very satisfying, piece. Of his seven symphonies, this was reportedly Bax's personal favourite. And although I'm also a fan of his third symphony, I'm inclined to agree with his assessment.

I've always tended to view Bax as an English Sibelius, and there are a number of parallels between the two composers. Apart from the coincidental fact that they both composed seven symphonies, they both had an interest in depicting the environment around them in music, Bax dedicated his fifth symphony to Sibelius, and in this work Bax even went so far as to quote Sibelius. At around the mid-point of the lengthy final movement the strings quote a theme from Sibelius's Tapiola – a work that reduced Bax to tears on first hearing – and the theme evolves constantly towards a triumphant climax. This then subsides into a beautiful, peaceful epilogue that features a part for solo horn that seems closely related to the trumpet solo in the slow movement of Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony. I’d argue this is Bax’s finest symphonic movement, and as a whole I find it the most sharply focussed of his symphonies

Day 293

20 October 2017: Hindemith – Symphony in B flat for concert band (1951)
Paul Hindemith's contribution to the symphonic canon is significant, if largely ignored. Depending on how you count them, there are between six and eight, comprising six works called symphonies (my definition for the purposes of this diversion) plus a set of Symphonic Dances, and his famous Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The first of those was his Symphony: Mathis der Maler, which I featured earlier in the year (see Day 131), which was an ambitious work based on music from his opera of the same name. Eighteen years later Hindemith took a very different approach to the concept of a symphony with this work written for concert band (one made up entirely of woodwind, brass and percussion).

In the intervening years since Mathis der Maler, Hindemith had been driven out of his native Germany by the Nazis and had taken up permanent residence in the US. Indeed, Symphony in B flat was written for the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own", and Hindemith's genius for understanding the characteristics of the groups of instruments he was composing for shines through. This cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, features a distinct jazz influence undoubtedly drawn from his adopted home, especially when the saxophones are prominent early in the middle movement Andantino grazioso. The final movement makes use of the rather more conventional device of a fugue, or rather a double fugue, which drives the piece to a raucous conclusion.

Day 294

21 October 2017: Górecki – Symphony No 3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' (1976)
Way back in the mid-Seventies, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki – a composer little-known outside his native Poland – began writing his third symphony, as he continued to set his career along a simpler harmonic path, having turned his back on the avant-garde style for which he had become known. It was universally panned. According to one story reportedly emanating from the composer himself, one early performance was attended by Pierre Boulez who loudly exclaimed 'Merde!', as the final chords faded out. Fast forward a decade and a half, and in 1992 (incidentally, the same year that, as a student at Keele University, I wrote my graduate dissertation on contemporary Polish Music featuring Górecki as something of a bit-part player alongside his more famous compatriots Lutosławski and Penderecki) Elektra-Nonesuch released a recording of the 16-year-old symphony, capitalising upon the fact that it had found its way onto the regular playlist of the then-recently launched Classic FM. That recording has, to date, now sold over one million copies.

The biggest-selling record of a symphony of all-time? Almost certainly. The greatest symphony of all-time? Absolutely not. It was a phenomenon that went to the very heart of what is good and what is popular. This music clearly struck a chord with huge numbers of people, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a critically mauled work of art found its way into the hearts of its intended audience. I will confess to having some disdain for the work's popularity at the time, and recall attending a performance at the South Bank in about 1994 where I was bewildered by the thunderous ovation the (to my ears) thoroughly mediocre piece was receiving. In listening to it today, I did so for the first time in about 10 years. There's no denying that it has a hypnotic beauty I underestimated at the time, and I can certainly appreciate what others see in the symphony. Still prefer his early work though!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Days 282 – 288

Day 282

9 October 2017: Khachaturian – Symphony No 3, 'Symphony-Poem' (1947)
Well this is a quite extraordinary work. Armenian-born composer Aram Khachaturian operated when the land of his birth was part of the Soviet Union, but there's is no doubt that coming from a country on the Europe – Asian border, he was somewhat detached from the European symphonic tradition. It's a single-movement work of around 25 minutes' length, bearing little resemblance to any other work can think of from the time, or since for that matter. It was written to mark the 30th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, but its uncompromising nature led to it almost immediately being banned as 'formalist' in the Soviet Union: one of many works to fall foul of the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1948.

Of the many things that make this symphony stand out from the crowd, it’s the orchestration – with a scoring that calls for 15 trumpets and an organ – that is most bizarre. It opens with a lengthy fanfare featuring the trumpets in all their glory, which then gives way to an organ voluntary of dazzling brilliance. Name another work that opens like that. These two instrumental blocks continue to have an ongoing dialogue in an astonishing opening section where the mood never dips below intense. Finally, about seven minutes in, a moment of calm descends for a strings-led central section that features Eastern-inflected folk melodies for which Khachaturian is famous. The opening music returns in the final section, more agitated than before and with everything turned up to eleven. Quite what it has to do with the Russian Revolution I know not, but it's a mightily powerful work that I'd love to hear more often.

Day 283

10 October 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 2, 'Illuminatio in tenebris' (1974)
As today is her 79th birthday, I'm happy to have another excuse to feature a symphony by the wonderful Gloria Coates. I have rather messed up the chronology in my selections to date, having gone first with her fourth symphony back in March (see Day 67), and then her first in July (see Day 184). Then again, this was originally composed in 1974, but subsequently revised in 1988, between the composition of her sixth and seventh symphonies, so ordering it is a little bit troublesome. The Latin subtitle translates as 'light in the dark', with all three movement based on natural examples of light emerging from darkness: Aurora Borealis, Aurora Australis, and Dawn.

Her trademark string glissandi feature prominently throughout, especially so in the central movement Aurora Australis where the opening high note in the violins steadily descends in an apparently continuous glissando through the orchestra over about two minutes. The symphony also carries a second subtitle of Music in Abstract Lines, which may be a reference to the glissando markings in the score, usually notated as a line between two notes. The overall effect is unsettling but with moments of clarity emerging from the mists created by the unstable pitches throughout. About as clear a depiction of light in the dark, therefore, as one could imagine.

Day 284

11 October 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 38, 'Prague' (1786)
Skipping over Symphony No. 37, for the entirely justifiable reason that he didn't actually write it, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 38th Symphony has no such question mark over its authorship. It was Mozart's first symphony for three years – quite a sabbatical by his standards – having been concerned more with operas and piano concertos in the meantime. It was his opera The Marriage of Figaro that led to this symphony being first performed in Prague, and hence its nickname. Mozart had written Figaro earlier in the year, but the Vienna audience were bemused by it and it closed after just nine performances. The punters in Prague, however, lapped it up, and as a direct consequence Mozart was invited to perform in the city, with this symphony receiving its premiere there on 19 January 1787

He rewarded his adoring public in Prague with one of his finest works. It is an unconventional symphony, comprising just three movements instead of the more usual four. The first movement, however, is on a much grander scale than anything written before, running to almost 15 minutes in length. The slow introduction of which Mozart was fond at the time, is far longer than any of his other, admittedly few, examples and sets the tone for  a stream of melodic consciousness that develops along broadly sonata form lines. The exquisitely elegant slow movement almost matches the first in scale, while the exhilarating finale shows the influence of the recently composed Marriage of Figaro, with an opening theme that is taken from a duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II of the opera.

Day 285

12 October 2017: Panufnik – Sinfonia della Speranza (1987)
I discovered Andrzej Panufnik in 1989, when his Sinfonia Sacra (see Day 77) was performed at that year's Proms and instantly became one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. Although I remain a huge fan of Panufnik, I will concede that nothing really comes close to the Sacra in his symphonic output and it does rather dominate his other nine. If there is a candidate to take on the mighty Sinfonia Sacra in my affections, it is this work, the Sinfonia della Speranza (Symphony of Hope).

It was Panufnik's ninth symphony, and was commissioned by The Royal Philharmonic Society for their 175th anniversary. He found this already daunting prospect exacerbated when it was pointed out that the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s ninth. After shying away from the choral symphony he initially conceived, Panufnik instead marked the occasion with this his longest and most ambitious symphony. He set himself the ‘formidable task of composing a continuous melodic line of about forty minutes’ duration’. As with many of his later works, a three-note cell is the starting point, and it acts as a prism creating, in Panufnik’s words, ‘a spectrum of colours … and shaping the melodic line’. The symphony's arching, rainbow structure and continuous melodic thread, give the piece a greater formal unity than any of his other large-scale works, and the return of the opening theme at the end is tremendously satisfying moment. 

Day 286

13 October 2017: Vierne – Symphony No. 1 for organ in D minor (1899)
Louis Vierne is probably the lesser-known of the two giants of the organ symphony. Continuing the tradition of his mentor, Charles-Marie Widor, whose Symphony No. 5 (the one with the famous Toccata) I featured in January (see Day 11), Vierne wrote six organ symphonies of his own, of which this is arguably the best-known. Although following in his master's footsteps, I find that Vierne had a far greater gift for melody than Widor and I have to say I rather prefer this symphony to any of the ten Widor produced.

Cast, unusually, in six movements, its pleasing structure comprises an opening Prélude and Fugue, a calm Pastorale and Andante sitting either side of a spritely Allegro vivace, before the symphony closes with his greatest seven minutes of music: the mighty Final, which is every bit the equal of Widor's Toccata. Vierne thought highly enough of this movement to subsequently take it in isolation and arrange it for organ and orchestra in 1926. Incidentally, Vierne's death is worthy of comment, falling into the Tommy Cooper category of dying doing what he loved best. He apparently suffered a heart attack during a recital at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he had been principal organist for 37 years, playing his own Triptyque, with the composer Maurice Duruflé sitting beside him at the console. No doubt the way he would have chosen to go.

Day 287

14 October 2017: Brian – Symphony No. 32 (1968)
Having featured Havergal Brian's name-making first symphony, The Gothic, earlier in the year (see Day 50), we now fast forward fully forty years to his last contribution to the symphonic canon. The combination of Brian having lived so long and having produced so many symphonies, it's easy to forget that he was actually fifty when he completed his first symphony – demonstrating just how prolific he was in later life. The excesses of that earlier work had long been abandoned though by the time he had reached his dotage, with this 20-minute work being rather more typical of the conciseness he later adopted.

This was not just his final symphony, but the final work he ever completed in a life and prodigious life. Written, incredibly, when he was 92 years old. It is, if truth be told, not his greatest symphony, but the fact that he still had something as eloquent as this to say two years into his tenth decade is absolutely astonishing. Havergal Brian was a master of counterpoint and that dominates the writing in the first movement, which has the feeling of a Bach invention in its constantly moving and interweaving parts. It gradually diminishes as the movement goes on, eventually dissolving away to leave just a solo violin before gathering itself again as the movement closes. The Adagio second movement, actually just sounds like a continuation of the first movement, and it's probably the absence of pathos from this movement that gives the symphony an overall feel of sameness. It is, however, the only symphony written by a nonagenarian I'm featuring this year and that makes it noteworthy in itself.

Day 288

15 October 2017: Mahler – Das Lied Von Der Erde (1909)
'But surely this is a song cycle?' I hear you cry, with some justification. Well yes, but Gustav Mahler subtitled this composition Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester, and as I'm sure you're all aware by now my rule is that if the composer chooses to call it a symphony, then it is one. This is widely regarded as Mahler's attempt to cheat the 'Curse of the Ninth', which decreed that no major composer since Beethoven would go on to complete a tenth. It's something of fallacious superstition, given that of the most famous examples, Schubert left two symphonies unfinished, Dvorak had lost symphonies published after his death, while Bruckner and Spohr wrote additional unnumbered symphonies. Nevertheless, Mahler took the curse seriously, and chose not to number this as his ninth. He would, of course, go on to complete a Symphony No. 9, and die leaving his tenth incomplete!

If we accept that is a symphony, and not a song cycle, then it is oddly imbalanced one. There are six movements, but the work is dominated by the sixth – Der Abschied – which occupies nearly half of the symphony's overall length. It's a lovely piece, usually performed by an alto although it can be performed by a baritone, and over its near-thirty-minute duration it dwells upon the theme of leave-taking culminating in the final word 'ewig' (forever) repeated as the music fades away to emptiness. Up to that point, the preceding movements lend themselves more to the song-cycle interpretation of the composition. Each is a relatively straightforward setting of a different poems of Chinese origin, ranging from a raucous drinking song to a soft and gentle mediation on beauty. Bernstein considered this Mahler's greatest symphony, and although I can't concur, I do find it a less demanding listen than some of his work.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Days 277 – 281

Day 277

4 October 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar' (1962)
Yes, a choral symphony and it's not even Sunday! Following on from his 11th and 12th symphonies, which commemorated the events of the years 1905 and 1917 respectively, it could be said that this is the third in Dmitri Shostakovich's trilogy of 'history plays'. The historic event he chose as the subject for this symphony was about as bleak as one could imagine. Babi Yar was the site of an horrific massacre of an estimated 150,000 mostly Jewish Ukrainians in 1941 by the Nazis, although the work is not based entirely upon these events. The symphony is in five movements and each is a setting of a different Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem concerned with the events and hardships of the Soviet people during the war. The first movement is a setting of Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar, hence the symphony's title. 

There is some debate over whether this is a symphony in strictest sense, with some considering it an oratorio or even song cycle, but Shostakovich called it a symphony and gave it a number so the matter is not up for discussion in my view. The scoring is unusual: a large orchestra is called for, plus a bass soloist, and a chorus of basses singing almost entirely in unison. This does lend the piece a suitably dark tone throughout, in keeping with its subject matter. The first movement, mostly concerning the massacre itself, is as harrowing as one might expect. And while the sinister burlesque of the second movement might hint at mocking gallows humour, by the time we come to the desolate third movement depicting the wartime struggles of the country's women there really is a feeling of no hope remaining for humanity. Rather like his eighth symphony, this is a difficult listen but a vital historical document.

Day 278

5 October 2017: Brahms – Symphony No. 4 (1885)
I can't think of a symphonist more consistently brilliant than Johannes Brahms. This is his fourth and final symphony, and I can't find fault with any of them, with this one in particular being a long-standing favourite of mine. My introduction to this symphony actually came via an arrangement of the scherzo by keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman called Cans and Brahms, which featured on the Yes album Fragile. After taking twenty years agonising over his first symphony, he was a more confident symphonist by this time and he started working on number four barely a year after the premiere of his third. That said, he did apparently make a two piano arrangement of the work to test the water with his colleagues before trusting it to a full orchestra. Ever the self-critic, it seems.

It's a simply marvellous piece. The first movement has a lilting theme of falling and rising thirds that has an insistent momentum to it, while the beautiful Andante moderato second movement begins with an exposed and almost funereal modal melody, but gradually develops into some of his most impassioned music. Following the aforementioned scherzo, the final movement is a memorable passacaglia. There was a conducting element to my music degree, and one of the tasks I was given was to conduct the university orchestra this finale, and by studying the score so closely I was able to see at first hand just how beautifully put together it is. The passacaglia theme is supposedly borrowed from JS Bach, and over a brilliant set of 30 variations (plus a coda) the momentum steadily builds until a shift into a quicker piu mosso tempo sends the symphony sprinting triumphantly towards the finish line. 

Day 279

6 October 2017: Vaughan Williams – Sinfonia antartica (1952)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was no stranger to film music. He received many plaudits for his first score 49th Parallel in 1940. He then wrote others for the British Ministry of Information during the war, as well as the 1947 historical drama The Loves of Joanna Godden. In the same year, he was approached to compose the music for the forthcoming Ealing Studios film Scott of the Antarctic, which featured an all-star cast including John Mills (who played Captain Scott), James Robertson Justice, Kenneth More, and Christopher Lee. To say that RVW rose to the occasion is a minor understatement, and the quality of the music he produced, as well as the heroism of the story, drove him to expand the score into a full-blown five-movement symphony, completing it four years later.

The music memorably used during the opening titles of the film forms the first subject of the first movement and the symphony as whole contains very little original thematic material of its own, with all of its main motifs having featured in the film. Vaughan Williams had composed far more music than was used so his task was essentially one of forming it into a symphonic structure. The scoring is particularly evocative with a large orchestra bolstered by a wind machine to depict the Antarctic blizzards, as well as a wordless solo soprano and female chorus. He also employs an organ to quite spectacular effect in the central movement Landscape, which is meant to represent the impassable ice falls referred to in the quote from Coleridge's Hymn before Sunrise that prefaces the movement in the score. All of the movements have an associated short literary quotation, most memorably the final movement, which quotes from the final entry in Scott's journal. These superscriptions are occasionally recited before each movement in performance – including the recording I grew up with by Andre Previn and the LSO. It's doubtful that Vaughan Williams intended them to feature as part of the performance given that the fourth movement is supposed to follow the third without a break, but I quite like to hear them. It's a surprisingly infrequently performed work, possibly due to the requirement for voices that are sparingly used, but it's one of my favourite RVW symphonies.

Day 280

7 October 2017: Glazunov – Symphony No. 5 (1895)
I quite fell in love with Alexander Glazunov's fourth symphony when I featured it back in April (see Day 109) so I was rather looking forward to this one when I saw it looming on the horizon in my schedule. As with all of his eight completed symphonies, it is scandalously neglected. He had the misfortune to be active as a composer at around the same time as Tchaikovsky's final years, and although seen as an heir apparent to The Five or The Mighty Handful of Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (Glazunov's mentor), he tends to be overshadowed by them instead. His legacy in his home country appears to be one of an old-fashioned composer who shunned the modernism of his successors such as Stravinsky. There has been a reappraisal of sorts, but it's still rare to hear a Glazunov symphony in the concert hall.

Nevertheless, this is a classic from the period in the Russian arts known as the Silver Age. Glazunov did ally himself with the Russian sensibilities of his predecessors in The Five, but this definitely looks back to the Germanic tradition largely abandoned by them. Many have detected the influence of Wagner in this symphony, while others Tchaikovsky, and it is this amalgamation of Russian and Teutonic styles that makes Glazunov such an individual voice. Although the fourth is a more attractive work dripping with gorgeous melodies, this seems to have a grander stature and its powerful, optimistic finale is a joy throughout. 

Day 281

8 October 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No 9, 'Sinfonia Sacra' (1972)
Not the first Sinfonia Sacra I've featured this year so far, but today's occupant of the Choral Symphony Sunday slot is a very different beast to the purely orchestral Andrzej Panufnik symphony of the same name (see Day 77). Edmund Rubbra's choral symphony actually started life some ten years earlier as an oratorio based on the Resurrection. After completing his eighth symphony in 1968, Rubbra decided that the oratorio had become too unwieldly and difficult to ally to his innate sense of form, and that the material would be better served if recast as a symphony.

Using JS Bach's Passions as a model, Rubbra included a role for the Evangelist, but broke with tradition by writing for a female voice: a contralto. He also adopted Bach's policy of employing Lutheran chorales, but set them alongside Catholic hymns in an act of unification. The symphony opens with the crucifixion, with the first words sung being Christ's last words on the cross: 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' It's a beautiful piece of writing, and the chorale settings that follow at the end of each section are stunning; demonstrably the work of a highly accomplished writer for voices. Sinfonia Sacra is an absolute masterpiece that in just about any other country would take its place as one of the great choral works. For some reason, we Brits just don't treasure individual voices like Rubbra's.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Days 270 – 276

Day 270

27 September 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 (1944)
This symphony represented something of a return to form as a symphonist for Sergei Prokofiev. His fourth symphony (see Day 215) had been so much of a failure fifteen years earlier that when he came to revise it in 1947, he didn't so much edit is as completely bin it and start again. His decision to revisit the fourth, was largely attributable to this symphony's huge success.

Written during World War 2, and consequently seen as Prokofiev's 'war symphony', it is in fact quite an uplifting work on the whole. This was a marked contrast to Shostakovich's desolate eighth symphony, composed the previous year (see Day 158), and the comparison undoubtedly aided Prokofiev in that it was a far better received work. Prokofiev undeniable talent as a tunesmith is displayed in a glorious opening theme, which he intended as 'a hymn to free and happy Man'. A lively toccata second movement is followed by one Prokofiev's more impassioned slow movements. A variation of the symphony's opening theme starts the finale, which steers away from the triumphant ending it seems to be heading towards, concluding instead on an ambiguous unison B note. At its premiere in Moscow in 1945 it was an instant hit, and has remained one of Prokofiev's most popular and frequently performed pieces.

Day 271

28 September 2017: Schmidt – Symphony No. 3 (1928)
If ever a composer has been treated unfairly by history, then it is the Austrian Franz Schmidt. Among his teachers at the Vienna Conservatory was Anton Bruckner, while as cellist with the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, he was often conducted by Gustav Mahler. His career as a composer was slow to develop, but he earned a high praise for his often large-scale works, with his four symphonies being among his best works. His legacy has, however, been sadly tarnished, as towards the end of his life he found his music embraced by the Nazis. Despite having no apparent sympathies with the antisemitism of the regime, his reputation has been under something of a cloud as a consequence since his death in February 1939 – before many of the atrocities of World War 2 were committed.

This symphony was another to have been one of the contenders for the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition, won by Atterberg's Symphony No. 6 (see Day 217). That beat off competition from, among others, Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony, part 1 (see Day 50), and Hans Gál's Symphony No 1 (see Day263). Having listened to all of those as part of this exercise this year, I think I had been a judge I would have declared this the winner. There are elements of Strauss in his advanced harmonic language, although its lightness of feel, especially in the first movement is almost Schubertian – appropriate given that the final brief for the Columbia Competition was to produce a work that was 'an apotheosis of the lyrical genius of Schubert'. This is the first Schmidt I've ever heard, but it won't be the last.

Day 272

29 September 2017: Alice Mary Smith – Symphony in C minor (1864)
The Victorian English composer Alice Mary Smith wrote two symphonies, of which this is her first. She was born into a comfortably off London family, who were able to send her for private music lessons with George Alexander MacFarren and William Sterndale Bennett; both eminent composers in their own right. Although she died at the relatively young age of 45, she nevertheless left a substantial body of work. Insofar as any of it is known today, this symphony, and its successor Symphony in A minor written 13 years later, have at least gained from the benefit of fine recordings by the London Mozart Players, under Howard Shelley.

This is a very substantial work, and while there are echoes of Mendelssohn at times, it would be pretty hard to find a composer from this period who wasn't influenced by him to some extent, especially in Britain. British symphonies from the middle of the 19th century are very thin on the ground, and this is of such high quality that it's a real shame it is as neglected as it is. The Allegretto amorevole slow movement displays an elegant grace, and contains a lovely cello melody that any of the Viennese greats would have been proud of.

Day 273

30 September 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 6 (2000)
Ever since I discovered Valentin Silvestrov's music earlier this year, I've been looking for excuses to squeeze a few of his symphonies into the schedule, and what better excuse could I have than the fact that today is his 80th birthday? He's still thankfully very active with his eighth symphony having been published as recently as 2013, and there have been two further as-yet unpublished symphonies since then. An intensely personal work, this was composed after death of his wife, Larissa, in 1996.

This is a glacial epic. It's almost an hour long, and the music is relentlessly slow moving, never developing anything that might be described as momentum. It starts with a shattering opening chord, described by Silvestrov as 'primordial chaos', but from that emerge thin slivers of musical ideas that disappear almost as soon as they materialise. The ideas eventually form into a recognisable melodic line in the massive, 25-minute slow movement, which finally identifies itself as a close relation of the theme from the Adagietto of Mahler's fifth symphony. I will concede that, on the whole, this symphony is probably a little bit too long. Allowing the listener to dwell in its delicate splendour is, however, a fine way to overstay its welcome.

Day 274

1 October 2017: Tippett – Symphony No. 4 (1977)
Sir Michael Tippett's final symphony has been a favourite of mine for many years. This is a far more focussed work than the messy sprawl that was his third symphony (see Day 175), although it draws upon all of the phases of his career up to that point. So alongside the angular, rhythmically complex style of his later years, there can be heard some of the lyricism that permeated his early work. Perhaps with this career-summation theme in mind, he described this as 'a birth to death piece', even going to the extent of writing a 'breathing effect' part in the score. This was originally performed by a wind machine, but now the sound effect is more routinely electronically taped or sampled.

Tippett, especially in his later years, was very fond of self-quotation, and this symphony opens with an ominous theme that he would go on to reuse in the central movement of his fourth piano sonata, six years later. The symphony is in a single movement with seven distinct sections and features Tippett's mosaic approach to composition, where clearly distinct, and quite unrelated, thematic groups are juxtaposed and played off against each other to dramatic effect. There has been something of a question mark over Tippett's reputation as a composer since his death, with his later works occasionally dismissed as failing to stand the test of time. I would cite this as the best example of his late pieces, and would love to see it recognised as one of the great post-war British symphonies.

Day 275

2 October 2017: Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
Referred to by the composer as his 'war symphony', although unlike his compatriots Prokofiev and Shostakovich, whose own 'war symphonies' I discussed a few days ago, this was written by a composer who had long since left his native Soviet Union and was by now safely ensconced in his adopted home of the USA. Although its three movements were said by Stravinsky to have been inspired by footage from the war in Japan (first movement) and Germany (third movement), in fact the material used was drawn from film projects that never came to fruition. Most notable of these was The Song of Bernadette (1943) for which he was eventually overlooked as composer in favour of Alfred Newman, whose work won him an Oscar.

Although technically belonging to what is broadly referred to as his neoclassical period, the tone of this symphony is hued by the fact that he was, at the time, rescoring his seminal ballet The Rite of Spring. Parts of this symphony, especially the first movement, do sound like a throwback to his earlier, strident musical style typified by The Rite – a style he consciously moved away from almost immediately thereafter. The trademark ostinati appear throughout, with their use in the third movement apparently depicting goose-stepping Nazis. Fans of the enfant terrible Stravinsky, who may feel he lost his way somewhere as a composer after that early shock of the new, will feel right at home in this work.

Day 276

3 October 2017: Ibert – Symphonie marine (1931)
Jacques Ibert was a contemporary of Les Six, but took a very individual approach to composition and as such never aligned himself with any particular movement. He was the first post-World War 1 winner of the Prix de Rome, and although highly successful in his day, his music has tended to drift into obscurity since his death. His best-known concert work is perhaps his flute concerto, but his many film scores also secured his reputation, the most notable of which was his music for Orson Welles's 1948 adaptation of Macbeth.

It was another of his film projects that gave life to this symphony. The Symphonie marine was composed for the 1931 short film S.O.S Foch, from director Jean Arroy. Purportedly the first European talkie, it is a dramatic documentary on the rescue of a cargo ship in distress on a wild sea. Ibert may well have drawn upon his own experiences as a naval officer during World War 1 when composing the work. It is a lively and at times light-hearted work, featuring some prominent solo parts for saxophone. There is a rhythmic vitality throughout that is quite infectious, while some of the seascape depictions clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Debussy's La Mer.