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.

No comments:

Post a Comment