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 Rather like his eighth symphony, this is a difficult listen but a vital historical document.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.

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