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. 

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