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.

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