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.

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