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.

No comments:

Post a Comment