Thursday, 30 November 2017

Days 331 – 334

Day 331

27 November 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 6 (1947)
Sergei Prokofiev was riding on something of a crest of a wave in the mid-1940s. Musically speaking, of course, as life in his native Russia was unspeakably grim due to the ravages of World War II. His fifth symphony of 1944 had been a triumph, and buoyed by its success he spent 1947 fundamentally revising his savaged fourth symphony, and writing a new, sixth symphony. The fifth, written during the war, was uplifting and largely positive. This post-war composition, however, is much darker and reflects upon the heavy cost of Russia's victory over the Nazis. That he chose to travel a gloomier path in this work was a particularly bad piece of timing, as on 20 February 1948, the Soviet Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov issued his infamous decree on 'formalism' in music. As a consequence, this symphony was immediately condemned as 'anti-Soviet' – despite it being critically well-received at its premiere the previous October. Public performances were banned, and the revised fourth was never to be publicly performed in Prokofiev's lifetime.

It is, of course, a magnificent work, and together with its predecessor and successor it forms a trilogy of quite exceptional quality with which Prokofiev would round off his career as a symphonist. The opening movement is a sombre elegy to the war dead, while the soaring beauty of the central Largo plays on the composer's greatest strength – his extraordinary gift for melody. There's nothing especially 'formalist' about the bright and breezy finale, which leads one to believe that Zhdanov didn't actually listen to the whole work. The 'posthumous vindication' he received five years after his (and on the same day, Stalin's) death was welcomed, but it remains tragic that Prokofiev was denied the acclaim at home he deserved in his lifetime.

Day 332

28 November 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 40 (1788)
Probably the best-known of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's final three symphonies, all of which he composed during a frantic two-month period in the summer of 1788. And while there are many who would make a case for his last (the 'Jupiter') being the greatest, this has the benefit of familiarity to those of us of a certain age due to its first movement being a Top 30 hit single in the UK (in two different versions) in 1971. Not 'arf, pop-pickers.

It is known as the 'Great G Minor', to distinguish it from his other symphony in the same key: the 'Little G minor' No. 25 (see Day 86). It is odd that the only two minor key symphonies he ever wrote should share the same key; maybe like Spinal Tap's affinity with D minor, he considered it 'the saddest of all keys'. The work's opening is unusual, with its famous main theme being heard a few bars into the work over the top of murmuring strings, rather than announcing itself from the off. It's a device that would barely attract a second thought within a couple of decades, but it was another of the many symphonic innovations for which Mozart was responsible. Despite its minor key designation, it’s far from a tragic work, rather more wistful, and its popularity has seldom waned in the two centuries since its composition.

Day 333

29 November 2017: Martinů – Symphony No. 6, 'Fantaisies symphoniques' (1953)
Bohuslav Martinů is composer I know far less about than I should, and in picking just his fourth and sixth symphonies this year I feel I've really just scratched the surface of his output, and may even have chosen two quite unrepresentative works. This is the last of six symphonies that wrote in an eight-year period immediately upon emigrating to the US after the war. He began working on the piece in New York in 1950, before returning to it three years later in Paris. The Only Fools and Horses fan within me wishes he could have completed it in Peckham.

It's a work that Martinů himself described as 'without form', stating that 'something holds it together, but I don’t know what'. It opens with a disorientating flurry of notes from flutes, trumpets and strings that could easily have been lifted from an aleatoric piece by Lutosławski. It soon occupies more familiar mid-twentieth century territory with neo-classicism rubbing shoulders with atonality in constant unease. There's some wonderful lyricism in amongst the unsettling bustle of the central Poco allegro, while the finale evolves from a four-note theme taken (and reversed) from the opening of fellow-Czech Dvořák's Requiem (and also, as it happens, the opening of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 4, although it's quite unlikely Martinů would have encountered it). I now feel obliged to hear the rest of his symphonic output. There are times when my stated aim this year to close some of the gaps in my music listening, seems to have actually opened up new ones.

Day 334

30 November 2017: James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (2015)
I mentioned at the time when I featured Silvestrov's eighth symphony (see Day 315) that it was the most recent symphony featured so far. Well a couple of weeks later, along comes the latest symphony by James MacMillan to usurp that position. Premiered at The Proms just two years ago, and released on CD as recently as October 2016, this really brings us bang up to date in symphonic terms. It's also appropriate to feature some music by a Scot to mark St Andrew's Day.

I think this is absolutely magnificent. He is, in my opinion, Britain's finest living composer, and I'd go so far as to say that it is my favourite symphony of the 21st century so far. In common with most of his works, the string writing is absolutely phenomenal, and percussion also plays a prominent part – most notably at the end when a carillon of bells are sounded to produce an astonishing aural effect. Another brilliant feature is the use of quotations from the Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver's Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium, which are woven into the complex texture of the work. I watched its Proms premiere on BBC Four – brilliantly conducted by Donald Runnicles, for whom it was effectively a 60th birthday present – and immediately watched it again on iPlayer, so blown away by it was I. Every listen seems to reveal a new layer of wonder.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Days 324 – 330

Day 324

20 November 2017: Minna Keal – Symphony (1987)
There is precious little of Minna Keal's music available, and the only recording of this symphony comes from an LP given a title that she used to describe her own career – A Life In Reverse. Hers was an extraordinary life. Born London as the eldest daughter of a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she attended the Royal Academy of Music and studied composition with William Alwyn (see Day 93). Sadly, she was persuaded by her family to leave the college to run the family publishing business, and she gave up composition completely for 46 years. After retiring at 60 from the clerical job she was by then employed in, she took up piano teaching, and a fortuitous meeting with the composer Justin Connolly provided the impetus for her to start composing again, which she did in her mid-sixties. Treating her pension as a form of student grant, she set about picking up where she had left off almost half a century earlier and studied composition with Connolly and, subsequently, Oliver Knussen.

This symphony, was only her third with an opus number and was her first orchestral work. It was given its first concert performance at the 1989 Proms, conducted by Knussen. By the time of this performance, she was the ripe old age of 80! It was somewhat unfortunately programmed in the same Prom concert as the world premiere of John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, which became one of the most commercially successful pieces of music of the late-twentieth-century. Up against this, Keal's work was overshadowed more than it needed to be, although her story was of sufficient interest to BBC News, who ran a piece on Keal that day. It is a fine work and a tantalising glimpse of the talent that was lost for nearly 50 years.

Day 325

21 November 2017: Arnold – Symphony No. 9 (1986)
Of all the symphonies I've listened to this year, I think this devastating final symphony from Malcolm Arnold may be the one that has had the most profound effect upon me. I found listening to this to be a deeply moving experience, knowing just how much of an effort it must have been to compose the piece at all. In the work, he sought to reflect upon the 'five years of hell' he'd just suffered; his ongoing mental illness had caused him to spend long spells in a psychiatric hospital. The end result is the most extraordinary symphonic score, with huge swaths of it written for just a few instruments at a time – almost like a 45-minute long two-part invention. How much of this is due to his declining mental facilities we may never know. We do know that it was entirely what he intended, and, in his own words, he hoped it would be the last thing he ever wrote.

The second movement, with its repetitive chaconne theme and sparse orchestration reminds me of the bleak slow movement of Shostakovich's eighth symphony, and even if it is more abstract than DSch's desolate post-war landscape, the effect is no less humbling. This, however, pales into insignificance against the vast final Lento. Nothing I've ever heard conveys such emptiness as this sombre 23 minutes of virtually nothing. Slow-moving and sparsely orchestrated, the gossamer-thin material winds its way almost painfully through the hollowed-out shell of where a grand symphonic finale should be. It's an incredibly bold artistic statement, and the effect is staggering.

Day 326

22 November 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 14 (1969)
I probably shouldn't have put this one in to bat immediately after yesterday's austere symphony from Malcolm Arnold. Following that with Dmitri Shostakovich's bleak setting of eleven poems on the subject of death might just have us all reaching for the Prozac. Anyway, Shostakovich 14 it is, and I think it's fair to say this one of his lesser-known symphonies. It may well be that the subject matter is off-putting, because its modest scoring for strings, percussion, plus soprano and bass soloists is not especially demanding.

While it may not be a great hit with concert audiences, Shostakovich himself held it in high regard, saying, 'everything that I have written until now over these long years has been a preparation for this work'. It sets works by four poets: Federico García Lorca, Wilhelm Küchelbecker, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Guillaume Apollinaire, with the latter accounting for more than half of them. It is a protest against death, and specifically unnatural death – be it suicide (No. 4), murder (No. 6), or war (no. 5), Indeed, all of the poets featured met untimely ends themselves. In truth, it's no more a symphony than On Wenlock Edge, but the importance placed on it by the composer, who saw fit to designate it a symphony, demands that we dismiss it at our peril.

Day 327

23 November 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 8, 'Lieder der Vergänglichkeit' (2005)
The choice of this today means I've ended up with back-to-back symphonies that could quite easily have been passed off as song cycles. Krzysztof Penderecki's eighth symphony is a quite different proposition to yesterday's Shostakovich. It is a choral symphony, so could, of course, have been considered for the traditional Sunday slot. However, as today is his 84th birthday, then this seems a fitting work to mark the occasion.

I was absolutely blown away by this. I love Penderecki's work, and have done ever since I heard his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima as an impressionable A level music student back in the Early-Eighties. Many of his generation (I'm looking at you, Górecki and Kilar) re-invented themselves as Sacred Minimalists. And while Penderecki too moved away from the extreme avant-garde writing of his early career, the direction he took was far more interesting. Aligning himself with the Late-Romantics, he evolved a style that seems to imagine what Bruckner or Strauss would be writing if they were still alive now, but with a century of extended techniques behind them. So here we have a song cycle that, on the face of it, belongs to a lineage from Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, but with modernist twists such as tone-clusters and glissandi in the mix. The result is a richly coloured, and at times extremely powerful work. The closing bars where the final chorus notes glissando up almost beyond the range of human hearing is a stunning piece of writing.

Day 328

24 November 2017: Orrego-Salas – Symphony No. 2, "To the Memory of a Wanderer" (1954)
One of the down sides of opting to challenge myself to a symphony a day, as opposed to any old random piece of classical music a day is that I am, obviously, restricted to listening only to symphonists. So that means that while eminent names from music history such as Ravel, Delius, Wagner, Verdi, Chopin, Debussy, Grieg, and Bartok don't get a look in, obscure composers such today's subject Juan Orrego-Salas are given a little bit of limelight. I'll come clean and admit that I may not have discovered him at all had this not popped up on my smartphone a few months ago as a YouTube recommendation!

This symphony is the second of six from the Chilean-born composer, who is, at the time of writing, 14 months away from his 100th birthday. The 'wanderer' of the title was a friend of his: a Swiss photographer called Werner Bischoff, who died at the Machu Picchu site in the Peruvian Andes shortly after Orrego-Salas started working on this symphony. As one might expect from a South American composer, there are Latin rhythms a-plenty, although as Orrego-Salas studied in the US in his twenties, and eventually relocated there permanently, there is a North American sensibility to his work too. Aaron Copland, one of his teachers at the Tanglewood Music Center, was said to be a big fan of his work, and it's not fanciful to suggest that Orrego-Salas was an influence upon his eminent teacher.

Day 329

25 November 2017: Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 (1896)
Another unfinished symphony, although Anton's Bruckner's final symphonic statement was actually far closer to being finished than many other more famous works that have gone on to be completed by others after their deaths. With three movements complete, Bruckner died while composing the finale, and rather like Schubert’s 8th (see Day 310), it has become accepted into the symphonic canon in its curtailed form. It's a fabulous work, and the fact that the stupendous Adagio is the final completed movement, and thus the last we hear of Bruckner the symphonist, seems strangely apt – even though it was clearly not meant to be that way. The fourth movement was, however, a long way down the line with around 600 bars of ordered, orchestrated music extant. Some sadly were lost when souvenir hunters ransacked Bruckner’s house after his death, but there is far little work required to complete it than the fragments that were somehow fashioned into Elgar's 'third symphony'.

The question over what to do with this final movement for most of the last 100 years or so has been to simply pretend it doesn't exist. There has been far less compulsion within the industry to complete this work than there has with, say, Mozart's Requiem or Mahler's tenth symphony. Various attempts have been made, with perhaps the most convincing being the completion by a quartet of musicologists led by Nicola Samale, and recorded in 2012 by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. I listened to this for the first (and second) time today and while I cannot doubt its authenticity and the sincerity of the effort of those involved, it just didn't sit right with me for some reason. I can only put this down to my being too used to it ending after movement three. Time will tell if this four-movement version becomes accepted as the norm. Given the myriad of versions of his earlier symphonies, and the consequent debate over their definitive versions, I can see no reason why not.

Day 330

26 November 2017: Berlioz – Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840)
Almost certainly the earliest example of a symphony written for wind band, Hector Berlioz's Great Funeral and Triumphal Symphony is an extraordinary piece of work from a composer who just didn't do ordinary. This was his fourth venture into the field, following the dazzling and ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique (see Day 45), the symphony-cum-viola-concerto Harold en Italie (see Day 134), and the gargantuan dramatic symphony/concert opera Roméo et Juliette (see Day 260).

This is actually a much more modest affair in terms of length, although it was intended as grand, ceremonial music and scored for a wind band of about 200 players. And the fact that it features an optional choral finale part means it becomes the latest instalment in Choral Symphony Sunday. It was commissioned by the French Government, for the tenth anniversary of the Second French Revolution, which saw King Charles X overthrown. Berlioz was no supporter of the revolution though, and perhaps showed his contempt by spending a mere 40 hours fashioning the symphony from existing incomplete works. It opens with a funeral march, taken from his Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de la France. There is then a Funeral oration, featuring a solo trombone part, which started life as an aria from an abandoned opera Les francs-juges. The triumphant Apotheosis finale sets words by Antony Deschamps in a brilliant choral setting, and although Berlioz later revised the symphony to add a part from strings, it is in its wind band version that it continues to be performed today.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Days 317 – 323

Day 317

13 November 2017: Nielsen – Symphony No. 6 (1925)
As we approach the end of the year, there will an increasing number of final symphonies, and today we have the last symphony composed by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. After the hugely popular fifth (see Day 256), Nielsen decided to produce something completely different from its predecessors. The original idea was to strip everything back to basics, to produce music that was idyllic and 'gliding more amiably', and thus he initially entitled the work Sinfonia semplice. Quite what happened to that concept, we may never know, but the finished product turned out to be anything but simple and actually left its audience rather bemused.

For all he intended this to be a departure from his earlier works, the opening of the symphony is readily identifiable Nielsen. It does take some undeniably strange turns thereafter though, not least in the bizarre Humoreske second movement, in which a trio – well, more of an argument really – for triangle, glockenspiel, and side drum holds sway, while woodwind instruments attempt to keep the music together and a slide trombone interjects disdainfully from time to time. The contrast between this and the intense writing for strings that follows in the third movement couldn't be more stark. The finale is a theme and variations, in which the theme is stated on a solo bassoon, with variations that range from sparsely orchestrated chamber groups, through an orchestral waltz, a section for percussion alone reminiscent of Britten's Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, to a final light-hearted conclusion. The sixth symphony is as rarely heard as the fifth symphony is ubiquitous, but it's certainly never dull.

Day 318

14 November 2017: Lennox Berkeley – Symphony No. 2 (1958)
I've been a fan of Lennox Berkeley for as long as I can remember. His Serenade for Strings is fantastic, and, as a guitarist, I've been familiar with his lovely Guitar Concerto for quite some time. I fell slightly out of love with him when I decided to perform his fiendish Theme and Variations for Guitar, Op. 77 for a class test at University, but that was more down to my own incompetence as a performer. Ironically, I got on far better with his son Michael's Worry Beads a couple of years earlier. Anyway, I digress. His symphonies have escaped me up until now, and to be honest, the reviews I'd read of them didn't fill me with much hope.

The criticism most frequently levelled at Lennox Berkeley is that he was a miniaturist. The composer Hugh Wood referred to him as 'only a divertimento composer', and his symphonies are about as large-scale as anything he wrote. This is the second of four, premiered by the CBSO, as it happens during the brief period when Andrzej Panufnik was their musical director. The ten-minute-long Lento would seem as if to set the tone for a work of grand scale, but whenever it develops any kind of momentum or drama, Berkeley seems to rein the music in, which can make for a frustrating listening experience. A brief jaunty dance-like Scherzo is much more in his comfort zone, and this is bookended by another Lento, one that is far more impressive than the one that opened the symphony. The Allegro finale is energetic enough, but feels like a bit of a lightweight ending, and just adds support to the view that Lennox Berkeley just didn't do grandeur. 

Day 319

15 November 2017: Rosetti – Symphony in G min, A42 (1787)
Francesco Antonio Rosetti: names don't come more Italian than that. So it comes as a surprise to most, including me, to discover that he was in fact Bohemian, having been born Franz Anton Rösler in Litoměřice, now part of the Czech Republic. If asked to list composers of the classical period, Mozart and Haydn would trip off the tongue fairly easily. After that, maybe Clementi, Boccherini, Bachs JC and CPE, and then a bit of head-scratching. Rosetti's name probably wouldn't be immediately forthcoming. He did, however, compose about 50 symphonies, very much in the three-movement early-classical tradition.

This is probably the best-known, and certainly most-frequently recorded, of the bunch. Remarkably, this is the only surviving one in a minor key – although the catalogued A50 was listed as being in A minor, but has been lost. It is a splendid little piece, and one that employs a broad tonal range, especially in the first movement where the music passes through several keys over its seven-minute duration. There is even an example of bimodality at one point; highly advanced stuff for the 1780s. He’s always going to struggle to find concert airtime against his Viennese counterparts, but certainly worth hearing more of than we do at present.

Day 320

16 November 2017: Panufnik – Symphony No. 10 (1988)
Another final symphony, this time from Andrzej Panufnik. Not only was it his last – written when he was 74 years old – but it was also his shortest symphony, and represents something of an anomaly in that was only one of his symphonies to be numbered rather than titled. The work was commissioned by his old friend Sir Georg Solti for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. Panufnik completed it quite quickly, however, and it was premiered in 1990 – the Chicago SO's 99th year. The premiere was probably brought forward to ensure the first performance preceded its inclusion in that year's Warsaw Autumn Festival, in which Panufnik, following the fall of communism, felt able to end his voluntary exile, and made a triumphant return to Poland for a series of concerts of his music. 

Having initially formed the idea of writing something akin to a concerto for orchestra, Panufnik decided instead to showcase their supreme sound quality, through different instrument combinations. He was drawn back to familiar themes: three-note cells and geometric forms. In contrast to the Sinfonia della Speranza (see Day 285), however, Symphony No. 10 is a tightly argued single-movement work of about 17 minutes’ duration. It represents a neat full stop to his symphonic life. Having made his celebratory return to the land of his birth, the following year he received a knighthood from his adoptive homeland. Sadly, by then he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and died just weeks after receiving it.

Day 321

17 November 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 8 (1955)
I haven't made much of a secret of my love of Ralph Vaughan Williams over the course of this year, but I have to confess that when I started hoovering up recordings of his symphonies back in the mid-1980s, this one left me a bit cold at first. It took me a while to fully appreciate it, but the invention and orchestral colour on display in this work is really quite something, especially given the composer's age when he wrote it. RVW completed this when he was 83, showing that as his years advanced, his powers were far from waning. Long gone was the folk-music influenced early style, and instead there's an appetite for experimentation where there would have been every justification for a degree of end-of-career laurel-resting.

It's the shortest of RVW's symphonies, and strangely the first to which he gave a number – the previous seven having all been given either titles or simply a key designation. The central movements are of particular interest, with a brief militaristic Scherzo scored only for wind instruments followed by a gorgeous Cavatina for strings alone. The finale unleashes 'all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer', to use RVW’s words, in a percussion-driven Toccata that is so-far removed from The Lark Ascending it is scarcely recognisable as the work of the same man. And the remarkable thing is that there was yet more to come from the affable octogenarian!

Day 322

18 November 2017: CPE Bach – Symphony in G major, Wq 182:1 (1773)
When I last featured Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, it was with one of his Wq 179 symphonies; a collection of nine known as the 'Berlin Symphonies' (see Day 157). About ten years later, CPE Bach moved from Berlin to Hamburg, where he succeeded his godfather, Telemann (from whom he also acquired his middle name, Philipp) as Kapellmeister. While in Hamburg, Bach wrote a major set of six string symphonies, which were not published in his lifetime, primarily because they were commissioned by a Baron van Swieten, who intended them for private use. Nevertheless, they became popular after his death, and are considered important in his body of work, as the central group of a total of 18 symphonies that are known to have survived to the present day.

This is the first of that set of six, and it was an appropriate choice for today, given that I'm singing his Magnificat this evening with Newcastle Bach Choir. It is short, as all symphonies of the time were, and follows the standard three-movement design – fast-slow-fast – adopted from the Baroque concerto. The thematic development is distinctly classical though, and the emotionally charged passage in the middle of the finale seems to echo the Sturm und Drang style being explored at the time by Haydn elsewhere.

Day 323

19 November 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 9 (1910)
Over the last 30 years or more, my opinion on which of Mahler's symphonies is the greatest has tended to vary. At one time or another I've held No. 1, 2, 4, 5 and 8 in the highest regard. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it's this symphony I'd take to my Mahler-only Desert Island. Having circumvented the so-called Curse of the Ninth by designating Das Lied Von Der Erde a symphony (see Day 288), Mahler then moved straight on to this work and confronted the very real prospect of his imminent demise head on. It was to be the last work he completed (he died while writing his tenth), and in the finale, he seems to be composing his own death.

Apart from its vast scale – performance time averages around the 80-minute mark – it's about as conventional as Mahler symphonies get. It's purely instrumental, the orchestral forces called for aren't especially large for the Late-Romantic era, and it has a four-movement structure, albeit a non-standard one with the outer ones being two huge slow movements. Where it leaves all of its peers behind, however, is in the sheer intensity of its musical language. No less a judge than Alban Berg described the first movement as 'the most heavenly thing Mahler has written'. It has the feel of a long farewell, both to his own time on earth and to the passing of the symphonic tradition to which he belonged. A trademark Scherzo follows, given the very specific marking of Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (In the tempo of an easygoing Ländler, somewhat heavy footed and very vigorous), although the main theme is in fact a rhythmic transformation of a theme from the first movement. The pent-up venom and anger is poured into the Rondo-Burleske third movement, which is about as dissonant as anything Mahler ever wrote. With all ire spent, the scene is set for the final movement, which I rarely manage to get through dry-eyed. I've never heard anything that matches its searing beauty and power, and the closing section, where every ounce of life force is squeezed out until all that remains is silence, is at once heart-breaking and life-affirming. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Days 310 – 316

Day 310

6 November 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 8, 'Unfinished' (1822)
We'll probably never know why Franz Schubert didn't finish this symphony. It's not as though he died in the middle of writing it, as Mahler, Bruckner, and Borodin had with their 10th, 9th, and 3rd symphonies respectively. He went on to live for another six years, during which time he completed his Symphony No. 9, the 'Great C Major'. Speculation has abounded over the last couple of centuries as to what caused Schubert to abandon it after completing the first two movements and sketching out a Scherzo. Perhaps the most persuasive is that he felt unable to match the quality of the first two movements. Some musicologists have pointed out that all three movements for which music exists are in B minor and triple time, which may have created a problem Schubert felt incapable of resolving – either have the fourth movement follow the pattern making it sound samey, or buck the trend leaving the finale seem incongruous.

Whatever the reason, we have been left with two of the greatest symphonic movements ever written, which are actually perfectly capable of standing on their own as a concert piece. I've never heard any of the completions of the Scherzo and nor do I intend to, as I generally find that such realisations are a disappointment. The perpetual wonder over how Schubert might have completed this is part of its mystique, and I still find it hard to believe that music written in the early 1820s could be this intense. This is one of the first pieces of classical music I ever got to know. My father (by the bye, whose 80th birthday it would have been today) didn't have many classical records but he did have an LP of this, so I've known and loved it from a very young age. As such, it's one of my life-long go-to works.

Day 311

7 November 2017: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No 4, 'Los Angeles' (2008)
I featured Arvo Pärt's third symphony back in April (see Day 114), which was a work written on the cusp of the transition between his old avant garde style and his newer, more simplistic language. I said at the time that, as a consequence, I found it the most satisfying of his orchestral pieces. Pärt didn't write another symphony for 37 years, and when he did revisit the form in 2008, he was fully immersed in his tintinnabuli system. Tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum, "bell") is the name Pärt gave to the musical language he evolved from the mid-seventies onwards and is characterised by slow arpeggiated triads and stepwise melodic lines. Edgar Allen Poe similarly invented the word tintinnabulation to indicate the lingering sound of a ringing bell in his poem The Bells: the sound Pärt aims to evoke.

The public penchant for what has been dismissively termed 'holy minimalism' has led to Pärt's music, along with the stylistically similar Tavener and Górecki becoming hugely popular. The recording of this symphony by the LA Phil (who jointly commissioned it, hence the name) under Esa-Pekka Salonen was nominated for a Grammy, although it didn't win (beaten by Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, as it happens). It's a perfectly pleasant work, but while the tintinnabuli style lends itself to smaller pieces, here Pärt employs it over a 35-minute symphonic span and quite frankly, it becomes tiresome.

Day 312

8 November 2017: Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5, 'Reformation'(1830)
The Lutheran faith celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2017; a fact I have to confess I was blissfully unaware of until it cropped up on the news last week. Thus, without thinking, I very nearly managed to schedule Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's commemoration of the founding of it for the anniversary itself (I missed by 8 days). It only ended up being this end of the year by virtue of being No. 5 of five symphonies the composer wrote. The misleading, posthumous numbering of Mendelssohn's symphonies by his publishers often gives rise to the mistaken belief that this was his final symphony. In fact it was written second when he was just 22 years old – the actual sequence in order of composition 1–5–4–2–3.

It's a work Mendelssohn went on to disown and refer to as juvenile. It was never published in his lifetime, and it seems that on the few occasions it was heard, the critical response had been less than favourable. The fact that it was completed too late for the tercentennial Augsburg Confession celebrations, for which it was intended, may also have resulted in Mendelssohn turning his back on the work. Thankfully, it was eventually published some two decades after the composer's death, and it's a very good, if rarely heard, symphony. The Protestant tradition is represented in the outer movements, with the finale featuring Luther’s chorale Ein feste Burg, having previously been hinted at in the opening. The first movement also periodically employs a cadence known as the Dresden Amen, which again has connotations with the Lutheran church. The brief inner movements are less than memorable, but do not detract from the overall whole.

Day 313

9 November 2017: Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 7, 'Dedicated to those who brought down the Wall in peace' (1990)
Today being the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, here we have the seventh symphony by the American-born-German-resident Gloria Coates. Regular readers will be fully aware by now that I've become quite evangelical about Coates's music and this is the fourth of her symphonies I've featured this year. She was in the process of writing this work at her home in the then German capital of Munich when the news of events in the former capital broke. Inspired by this, Coates gave the composition the title it now bears, and also the name 'Symphony'. It was part of a re-evaluation process that saw her revisit six of her previous works and re-designate them as symphonies, with the result that this became No. 7 at the same time as Music on Open Strings (see Day 184) became No. 1 and Illuminatio in Tenebris (see Day 283) became No. 2, and so on.

The selection of those works to be classified together as a symphonic canon is an interesting one. In her own words, she "decided to take the ones that satisfied several criteria ... and the fact that they were introverted but had an emotional expression." There is certainly the unifying feature that they all make use of her trademark glissando writing, and use of microtones, although they're hardly the only seven of her works up to that point that could be characterised by that alone. This work rather distinguishes itself from its predecessors in its greater use of brass and percussion, and that the central movement employs a mirror canon in almost conventional chorale-like writing. At least one regular Twitter follower has become a huge fan of Gloria Coates's music as a result of my featuring some of her output this year, and this really pleases me.

Day 314

10 November 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 4, 'Symphonie Concertante' (1932)
Rather as Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (see Day 229) is a violin concerto in all but name, this is really a piano concerto, and a particularly fine one at that. What possessed Karol Szymanowski to call it a symphony is a mystery. Lalo does at least call his work Spanish Symphony, which is more of an abstract title than anything directly descriptive. Even if Szymanowski had left it as Symphonie Concertante I probably would have passed over it, as I've excluded a few of those this year on the grounds of ambiguity. But no, he consciously chose to call it Symphony No. 4, so in it comes.

A clue as to why Szymanowski avoided the designation piano concerto might be gleaned from his correspondence, in which he confesses to fellow-composer Stanisław Wiechowicz that he wrote the piano part with a view to making it easy enough for him to play himself. Thus by calling the work a symphony, he may have drawn away the expectation that a concerto would showcase a degree of virtuosity that he clearly did not possess. Spurious titles aside, it's a marvellous work. There is a beautiful slow movement that bears a close resemblance at times to the corresponding movement in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, written the previous year. The final movement is a blaze of colour that features an oberek: a lively Polish dance in quick triple time, which brings the symphony (or concerto – whatever) to a rousing conclusion.

Day 315

11 November 2017: Silvestrov – Symphony No. 8 (2013)
Valentin Silvestrov's eighth symphony was composed just four years ago, and as such this is the most recent symphony featured so far (although, there is a more recent one coming later). Silvestrov, is another of those composers who has been a great personal discovery for me this year. His timeless musical language is probably best described by the composer himself; “I do not write new music. My music is a response to, and an echo of, what already exists.”

This symphony is a perfect example of his art. There is music that appears to be entirely original, but from the slow-moving, almost primeval world he creates, faintly recognisable details emerge. At around the 12-minute mark a delightful waltz tune emerges, then just after half-way there is a piano tune that sounds suspiciously like Chopin, and towards the end, a tune of seemingly Debussian origin is heard doubled between the flute and celesta. The way that this seemingly pre-existing, but actually original, music seamlessly emerges and then disappears into the fabric of the symphony is what makes Silvestrov's music so appealing to me.

Day 316

12 November 2017: Borodin – Symphony No. 3 (1887)
Alexander Borodin was born 184 years ago today, so to mark the occasion here's his final contribution to the symphonic repertoire. As with the Schubert featured six days ago, this is an unfinished work. However, while there is ongoing speculation as to why Schubert left his eighth in a state of incompletion, Borodin's remained unfinished for the perfectly understandable reason that he died while he was writing it. He actually died quite suddenly, so had made no attempt to sketch out other movements in anticipation of being unable to complete the work. What remained was a completed second movement (written, as it happens, five years earlier), and a sketched-out first movement that, as luck would have it, he played to Glazunov prior to his demise, who went on to complete what remained.

The orchestration is pure Glazunov, and thus we have to assume it was his decision to give the beautiful opening theme of the first movement to a solo oboe, which is joined in harmony by the whole woodwind section. It's a wonderful beginning to a sweetly orchestrated lyrical movement that is among Borodin's finest. A brilliant Scherzo in 5/8 meter follows, and this features a reflective central section – a trio of sorts – and related in feel to the first movement. Both movements were originally intended for string quartet, and there is a small-scale delicacy about the piece that belies its designation as a symphony. What might have followed, we can never know, but there's enjoyment enough to be had from the 18 minutes or so that Borodin left us with.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Days 303 – 309

Day 303

30 October 2017: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Symphony No 3 (1992)
I think it's fair to say that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich will not be a name familiar to many, especially not outside her native America. She does, however, have a number of significant firsts that mark her out as a special talent whose music should be better known. As a student at Juilliard School of Music, she became, in 1975, the first woman to earn a doctorate in composition. Then, in 1983, her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) earned her the honour of becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Today's symphony dates from ten years after her prize-winning first, and is the third of five she has completed to date. It was written for the New York Philharmonic's 150th anniversary, and as a string player herself, she chose to focus on the virtuosity of the orchestra's normally overlooked viola section. It is in two distinct sections, although the second half is effectively a second (Molto vivace) and third (Largo) movement played without a break. Musically, Zwilich's later style (of which this is typical) involves the tonal treatment of atonal material, rather as earlier composers such as Frank Martin have done in the past. It's an outstanding piece, with the tension set up from the outset, as the aggressive chords that open the work always threaten to disrupt the more lyrical music that follows. The soaring, impassioned string writing that closes out the symphony is breathtaking, with the tension seemingly taking an eternity to be released. Quite brilliant.

Day 304

31 October 2017: Rimsky Korsakov – Symphony No. 3 (1874)
Another third symphony, although a very different one to yesterday's. Given that none of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov's are especially well known, I did debate whether featuring all three might be a bit excessive. They have, however, turned out to be among my more pleasant discoveries this year. If nothing else, with Rimsky, you know you are going to get dazzling orchestration and wonderful use of colour, and this is no exception. That I was able to hear any of this through my St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra reading, which sounds like it was recorded in a cave, is a minor miracle.

Although Rimsky began working on this symphony in 1873, he gave himself something of a head start by making use of a Scherzo previously composed some ten years earlier, and matching it with a Trio dating from the year before – written, as it happens, while he was on honeymoon. You'd have thought he might have had better things to do. He follows this at-times odd movement, in the unusual time signature of 5/4, with an Andante of occasionally searing beauty, and the finale sees the themes of the opening movement return. And it is that opening movement that is the symphony's highlight in my view. It's one of his finest pieces of writing, with its hushed ending being particularly exquisite.

Day 305

1 November 2017: Schnittke – Symphony No. 1 (1974)
It is to my eternal shame that it has taken me 305 days to get to the music of Alfred Schnittke. I am probably compounding that shame by going with this, his first symphony, as it really isn't very typical of his symphonic output. By rights, I should have also selected a later symphony for balance, but I doubt I'll be able to squeeze it in now. You'll just have to take it from me that if this isn't to your taste, his rather more conventional later music might be.

Conventional is certainly not a word you could apply to this work though. As first symphonies go, this is absolutely bonkers! After some very early works in which he experimented with Serialism, Schnittke evolved a technique that he termed 'polystylism'. This involved throwing all musical styles from history into a big pot and revelling in the collisions and juxtapositions it throws up as a consequence. It's interesting that this symphony should come up exactly 100 years after yesterday's Rimsky Korsakov, as pretty much everything that happened in music in the intervening century is covered here – and much of what preceded it. So we have quotes from Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B flat minor sitting alongside a Grapelli-esque improvisation for violin and piano; Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries competes with what might well be Jelly Roll Morton. It's not an entirely new idea – Charles Ives took a comparable approach in his Symphony No. 4 (see Day 123), and Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (see Day 223) inhabits similar territory. At a monumental 75 minutes in length, I can't pretend it’s an easy listen, and the wholesale lifting of material does give this a feel of a musical collage at times rather than a work of composition. It is a piece that demands your attention though, and it's certainly never dull.

Day 306

2 November 2017: Mozart – Symphony No. 39 (1788)
There are many myths and mysteries surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and possibly the most intriguing of all regards what it was that inspired him to compose what turned out to be his final three symphonies in an intense two-month spell in the summer of 1788. Usually, Mozart worked to a commission, and had little spare time to compose music for the sheer hell of it, least of all three major symphonies that had no apparent prospect of performance at a time when his financial position was particularly perilous. Recent research by H.C. Robbins Landon may have solved the mystery, suggesting that they were, in fact, performed in his lifetime after all at a series of subscription concerts. There is also further first-hand evidence from an audience member at a concert in Hamburg, describing the opening of a Mozart symphony that seems to correspond with this one. From Mozart's own correspondence and available documentation, however, there is no certainty that any of these three symphonies were performed before his death three years later.

As for the work itself, it is rightly viewed as one of Mozart's masterpieces. In his later career, he had begun to look back to the contrapuntal style of his predecessors Bach and Handel, and Symphony No. 39 demonstrates this neo-Baroque (for want of a better term) sensibility better than most, particularly in the final movement. It begins with an extended slow introduction, just as his previous symphony the 'Prague' had (see Day 284). The introduction is so long in fact that the Allegro, when it finally kicks in, almost seems like an afterthought. The Adagio is surprisingly dark at times for a Classical slow movement, while the Scherzo is typically Mozartian, with its rising, arpeggiated main theme. The joyous finale is similarly brief but brilliant in its display of contrapuntal wizardry.

Day 307

3 November 2017: Bantock – Celtic Symphony (1940)
Having featured Sir Granville Bantock Hebridean Symphony back in May (see Day 130), here we have him again returning to Hebridean folksong in this his fourth symphony. The Celtic Symphony, is a late work, written when the composer was 72, but there is no evidence of his powers diminishing here. I had the pleasure of attending a rare performance of this work at the Proms in 2013, sitting perfectly between Sibelius's Violin Concerto and Elgar's Enigma Variations. That it was its first performance at the Proms was saddening, but typical of a dropping off of interest in Bantock around the time of this work's composition. Bantock has been performed at the Proms on 107 occasions, but only a handful of those came after his death in 1946.

It's a lovely work, written for a string orchestra plus six harps, and echoes some of the works for strings written by his near contemporary, Vaughan Williams. In fact, the opening chord did lead me to immediately think I'd put on RVW's Tallis Fantasia by mistake! The Hebridean folk tune used in this work is An Ionndrainn-Mhara (Sea-Longing) and is heard on a solo cello around the mid-point of the work, roughly where the slow movement would be, were the movements not all linked into one 18-minute whole. There are memorable moments aplenty, not least near the end of the work when all six harps are released into a glissando frenzy – and if you had six harps at your disposal, why on earth wouldn't you do that?

Day 308

4 November 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 (1888)
Within classical music circles, I don't think it's ever been cool to like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The fact that, as music critic Harold C. Schonberg put it, he had a 'sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody' just made him very much the ABBA to Mahler's Joy Division. This has, of course, led to his music becoming hugely popular in concert halls, with this in particular being one of the more frequently performed symphonies. It may well be that his hogging of orchestral repertoire time has led to a degree of resentment among fans of other composers, and perhaps with some degree of justification. Then again, if writing great, popular tunes was easy, we'd all be able to do it.

The fifth symphony represents Tchaikovsky's best example of cyclical form, with the opening theme, first heard in the clarinets, returning at various points throughout the symphony as a kind of leitmotif, transforming as it does from initial solemnity to a triumphant march. The slow movement is beautiful with luscious themes tumbling over each other from the off. The first of these strongly resembles the first few notes of John Denver's Annie's Song, although it's probably coincidental. Denver certainly seemed surprised when the similarity was pointed out to him. A delightful waltz, or rather a series of waltzes occupies the third movement, but it is the finale that really divides opinion. The false-sounding triumphalism of the final march caused Tchaikovsky himself to admit, after a couple of hearings, that ‘it is a failure’. It's the only section in the symphony that misses a beat for me too, but given the splendour of the rest of the work I can forgive him this momentary lapse in taste.

Day 309

5 November 2017: Casella – Symphony No. 3 (1940)
Alfredo Casella had a complex relationship with the symphony. He wrote three, although the composer himself would probably say he only wrote two. He effectively disavowed his first symphony (see Day 102) to such an extent that he re-used an entire movement in another work he called a symphony three years later – now universally referred to as Symphony No. 2. Even that was a piece Casella subsequently dismissed as unoriginal, actually saying as much in a spoof advertisement trying to sell both resolutely neglected symphonies. Today's work, written some 30 years later (coincidentally, completed in the same year as Bantock's Celtic Symphony featured on Friday) was simply published as Sinfonia per orchestra, Op. 63, still seemingly unsure as to whether to count the first two. The fact that it took him three decades to produce a third (or second!) symphony is probably indicative of his ambivalence to a form that very few Italians were tackling in the first half of the twentieth century.

I've always heard in his music the influence of Mahler, especially in his work’s highly emotional content, but I hadn't realised until quite recently that there was actually a direct link between the two in that Mahler had commissioned Casella to produce a two-piano arrangement of his seventh symphony. Casella was a tireless champion of Mahler's music, something for which the Austrian was always grateful. One can detect influences of Stravinsky – especially in the music for oboe and bassoon that opens the work – and Shostakovich in the mix, but the Scherzo is almost unashamedly Mahlerian. Likewise, the exuberant finale with its bouncing horns owes a debt to his idol. It's a genuinely uplifting ending, and it is unsurprising that it was this symphony that triggered a recent rekindling of interest in Casella's work after decades in the wilderness, caused mostly by his toxic support for Mussolini's regime, which he had renounced by the time of this symphony.