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.

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