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.

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