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.

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