Sunday, 31 December 2017

Days 360 – 365

Day 360

26 December 2017: Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3, 'Organ Symphony' (1886)
Another personal favourite. Actually, they all are from here on in, as I've deliberately saved the best until last. Camille Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony was one of the very first symphonies I ever studied back in my youth. I borrowed the miniature score from Newcastle Library, and found that it had been copiously notated by an anonymous previous owner, helpfully pointing out fugues entries, variations on the main theme when they appeared, and so on. Basically, all stuff that as an A level music student learning my craft I found incredibly useful.

I think I can cite this symphony was one of the reasons why I embarked upon the Symphony A Day project. I know this work inside out, but not his other two numbered symphonies, nor the two unnumbered ones that I wasn't even aware of this time last year. It was as much as anything the desire to hear these other works, and other less familiar symphonies by well-known composers that got me started. In Saint-Saëns case, all it did was make me aware of just how big a gulf in quality there is between this and the other four, although they are all certainly worth hearing.

There is an effortless brilliance about this symphony, a shimmering vitality that sets it apart from other contemporaneous works from a period that could tend toward stodginess. The fact that its cyclic form is based upon one of the more memorable themes ever written certainly helps. Fans of the film Babe will certainly recognise it, as its theme song If I Had Words (also a hit for Yvonne Keeley and Scott Fitzgerald in 1978) is based on this tune. The novel prominent use of an organ and two pianos in the score is another selling point, and the gratuitous organ chord that opens the 'fourth' movement (although technically part two of the second movement) is a magical moment. And while the organ-driven finale certainly grabs the headlines, the 'second' movement (part two of the first movement) Poco adagio is absolutely beautiful. I will never tire of hearing this symphony.

Day 361

27 December 2017: Schubert – Symphony No. 9, 'The Great C Major' (1826)
It's hard to believe that Franz Schubert's final completed symphony lay neglected and unperformed for more than a decade after his death. It was eventually published in 1840 – confusingly, as Symphony No. 7 in C major – having received a first public performance only the previous year. It was, for a long time, considered too long and complex for both audiences and orchestras; in fact, it remains challenging to play even now. It may not have seen the light of day at all had it not been for some devoted championing from first Mendelssohn and then Schumann.

Schubert is thought to have attended the premiere of Beethoven's ninth symphony the year before he started work on this piece, and no doubt felt that the boundaries of symphonic form had been shifted by that masterwork. The fact that both this and his huge String Quintet – also in C major – run to nearly an hour of music can probably be attributed to the fact that they were written after he had encountered the Beethoven. The forward-looking approach to tonality is another outstanding feature, with modulations to the mediant and submediant throwing listeners off balance. There is even a brief quotation of the Ode To Joy from Beethoven's ninth in the final movement, again as if to acknowledge the influence of the master. In this symphony, it is possible to get a feel for how the unfinished eighth (see Day 310) might have turned out. And having moved up a gear with these late works, the greater the sadness that he should have died tragically young at the age of 31, two years after completing this symphony, having never heard this performed.

Day 362

28 December 2017: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique' (1893)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final symphony has become known by its French title of Pathétique despite the fact that it is an incorrect translation of the Russian word Pateticheskaya, meaning passionate. Quite possibly, the reason it stuck was because of the tragic circumstances surrounding it. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of this just nine days before he died of cholera, an event that scholars have been exercised over for years in trying to establish whether it was a tragic accident or suicide. Although this has always been one of my favourite symphonies, it does occasionally bring me out in a cold sweat listening to it. This is attributable to the fact that, as a budding conductor at university, I took part in a conducting masterclass given by Elgar Howarth, which involved working on the first movement of this. It was one of the most nerve-racking things I ever did, although incredibly rewarding.

Tchaikovsky conceded to Rimsky-Korsakov that it was in fact a programme symphony, although the programme was never divulged, and it clearly went to his grave with him. The form is certainly non-standard for a symphony, with a dark opening movement followed by a waltz-like scherzo in the unusual time signature of 5/4. The third movement has all the feeling of a finale, ending in such a triumphal manner that audiences for over a century have burst into spontaneous applause at the end it, assuming the symphony to be over. What follows, however, is a heart-wrenching, desolate final movement in which Tchaikovsky appears to stare his own mortality in the face, providing fuel for those who maintain that his death just weeks later was at his own hand. Whatever the background to the composition, it is a devastating document.

Day 363

29 December 2017: Sibelius – Symphony No. 7 (1924)
Jean Sibelius's seventh symphony is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the title of greatest symphony ever written. His lifelong mission as a composer had been to pare down his art to say the maximum amount with the minimum of material, and it reached its zenith in this work. In it, he condensed symphonic form into a single movement of around 22 minutes in length. I certainly can't think of many other pieces as tightly-wrought and intense, where every single note has a purpose and nothing is wasted.

So unique was the work that Sibelius himself wasn't even sure if he could call it a symphony. In fact, when it was premiered it carried the title Fantasia Sinfonica No. 1, and not designated as Symphony No. 7 until its publication the following year. A symphony it most certainly is though, with its unifying features being a logical extension of cyclic form. It's as if the four movements are playing simultaneously and Sibelius is operating a remote control to flick between them, and yet the composition works as if the events are happening seamlessly. There is recurring horn theme, which is identified in the sketches as 'Aino' (the composer's wife) and struck me on first hearing as bearing a striking resemblance to a similar passage in Brahms's first symphony. This acts as a totemic symbol at key points throughout the work, providing further unity. The final four bars comprise one of the most breathtaking symphonic endings ever written, a prolonged cadence in which sections of the orchestra all resolve on to a final C major chord one by one. Given that barely a week goes by when I DON’T listen to this symphony, I listened to it twice today!

Day 364

30 December 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 10 (1910)
There are, I believe, Gustav Mahler purists who to this day still refuse to accept any completions of his final masterpiece, believing the sketches that remained incomplete at his death to be only of interest to scholars. And while I am generally somewhat wary of some well-meaning attempts to finished incomplete works (notably Elgar's third symphony, which he'd barely started) Mahler's tenth was tantalisingly close to being fully conceived. Two movements – the opening Andante–Adagio and the short, central Purgatorio movement – were, to all intents and purposes, complete and orchestrated. The remaining movements were fully written out in draft form on short score (four staves), and it was the realisation that the entire work had been conceived and notated that encouraged scholars to flesh out the bones of the skeleton.

After initially withholding the score, Mahler's widow Alma eventually sent the manuscripts to various composers (reportedly Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Britten) who declined to take on the task, although various musicologists have made attempts at completing the work. The 'performing version' that is now widely recognised as the definitive version was produced by the genius that was Deryck Cooke. I strongly recommend watching the YouTube video I've linked here, which matches a performance of the symphony to the handwritten score that Mahler left. It is fascinating to see just how much (or how little) intervention was required to pad out what at times was little more than an unharmonised melody for an unspecified instrument, and yet at all times sound authentically Mahlerian. I will be forever grateful to Cooke for his work, if nothing else because it meant the world gets to hear the impassioned 'Almschi!' ending. Yes, Mahler may well have orchestrated it differently, and would undoubtedly have cut or revised some sections, but as a means of presenting the work in the state it was when Mahler died, it is an astonishing achievement. Mr Cooke, I salute you!

Day 365

31 December 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 9, 'Choral' (1824)
And finally ... I had to finish with Ludwig van Beethoven's magnum opus. The last occupant of Choral Symphony Sunday is the greatest of them all, and with it I have brought my Symphony A Day journey full circle. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago I (inadvertently) started with Brahms's Symphony No. 1, a work that he agonised over for about 20 years, conscious of the fact that it would be compared unfavourably with Beethoven's ninth. It is hard to appreciate just how immense an achievement this was at the time. It was the longest symphony ever written to date (surpassing his own Eroica by about 15 minutes) and the first to feature a choir and soloists. Unsurprisingly, few composers felt the urge to match or surpass its scale for decades afterwards.

While the choral finale is the stand-out feature of the piece, it cannot be overlooked that the other three movements are breathtakingly good. The first movement's opening inspired Bruckner to such an extent that he virtually copied the template for every symphony he wrote. The scherzo is conceived on a Mahlerian scale some 40 years before Mahler was even born. The sublime slow movement, placed third in one of many masterstrokes Beethoven pulls in this work, would have elevated this to a higher plane in itself. However, three of the greatest symphonic movements ever written are merely a preface to the choral finale that must have been jaw-dropping for the Viennese public of the 1820s. That it should be built upon a tune of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity is astonishing, with some observing that it is actually a symphony within a symphony, with a discernible four sub-movement structure. It is a breathtakingly brilliant work, in the view of many the greatest symphony ever written, and an absolutely fitting way to complete the year.

Thank you for reading!

Monday, 25 December 2017

Days 352 – 359

Day 352

18 December 2017: Rubbra – Symphony No. 11 (1979)
You're probably all bored with me droning on about how tragically undervalued Edmund Rubbra's symphonic canon is, so I shall resist my usual moan for this, his final symphony. At barely 15 minutes long, it vies with the tenth for the tag of his shortest symphony – depending upon the performer, there would only be seconds in it either way – and in this work Rubbra demonstrates his genius in distilling symphonic form into something that could almost be described as a miniature.

Unlike the tenth, which is in four distinct sections, this is a genuine single-movement work. As with many of earlier works, everything derives from the material heard at the opening, which in this case is a theme for horns, accompanied by harp chords. The music is, for the most part, quite sparsely scored and in the end it just seems to evaporate into thin air with no warning in one of the least symphonic endings I've ever heard. The question of whether the composer knew this would be his final symphony, or indeed, in Rubbra's case, his final orchestral score, is again open to debate. There is, however, no sense of a full stop in this work, more a feeling of music still carrying on but with the audience having left.

Day 353

19 December 2017: Glière – Symphony No. 3, 'Ilya Muromets' (1911)
Many countries seem to have laid claim to Reinhold Glière. I've seen him described as Russian, German–Polish, French, or even Belgian, when in fact he was born in Kiev in modern-day Ukraine. The latter pair of countries have no premise in fact beyond the spelling of his surname, which he changed from Glier to Glière, while German–Polish relates to his parentage. Whatever his nationality, he was a highly respected composer and teacher, whose pupils included Myaskovsky and a pre-pubescent Prokofiev. His works are less well-known than those of some of his contemporaries, however, with probably only this work, his Harp Concerto, and Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra in the public consciousness.

This is an epic masterpiece, and should really secure Glière's reputation as one of the great Russian composers. It is, however, very rarely performed as its 75-minute duration puts it into that category of symphonies that would occupy almost an entire programme by themselves – an honour usually conferred only upon the likes of Mahler or Bruckner. It depicts a legendary Russian folk hero, not well-known to the outside world, and tells a lurid tale of great battles, of his decapitation of a bandit who can kill with a whistle, and ultimately the demise of him and his army having been turned to stone by heavenly warriors. That final scene is one of the most extraordinary passages I've ever heard, as the gradual petrification of the army is indicated by a long-held pedal note in the orchestra that occupies almost the entire final ten minutes of the piece.

Day 354

20 December 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 7 (1952)
Sergei Prokofiev was, by the time he composed his seventh and final symphony, a proscribed and poverty-stricken composer. He was persuaded by Samuil Samosud, who conducted the premiere, to change its quiet and reflective ending to something more positive in order to try to win the Stalin Prize First Class, worth 100,000 rubles. The means by which he chose this was about as perfunctory as he could have conceived, simply tacking on a brief reprise of the opening music of the final movement. The knowledge that this was a cynical exercise to please a draconian regime has persuaded many record labels to add the false ending as a 20-second skippable fifth movement – if they include it at all. Indeed, Prokofiev himself reportedly told Rostropovich, "You will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me."

I'm fairly sure that of all the 365 symphonies I'll have featured by the end of the year, this is the only I've actually played in, having been called upon to bolster the percussion section in a Keele Philharmonic performance back in 1992. That was, I think, the first time I'd ever heard the work, but it made an instant impact upon me and I consider this to be my favourite Prokofiev symphony. The ecstatic main theme of the opening movement is another product of an apparently endless stream of magnificent melodies from his pen. The final ironic twist of fate in Prokofiev's unfortunate life occurred the following year when he died on the same day as his nemesis, Stalin. We can only speculate as to the direction his music may have taken had he been able to compose during the subsequent Khrushchev thaw, but there are still plenty of wonderful pieces like this to celebrate, even if he wrote them in reduced circumstances.

Day 355

21 December 2017: Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 9 (1957)
The final symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams has, rather belatedly, had something of a renaissance in recent years. By all accounts, it received a lukewarm reception at its premiere back in 1958, just four months before he died. According to the by-then 86-year-old composer, the critics were just peeved that he was still around. Certainly it was out of step musically with developments elsewhere in the musical world, but it's still an absolutely wonderful work.

I've known it since the mid-Eighties but have to confess that I was completely oblivious to its associations with Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles until quite recently. In his sketches, Vaughan Williams actually gave specific designation to themes used in the second movement, such as 'Stonehenge theme', 'Barbaric march', and 'Tess theme', and there are eight bell-strokes that signify the hour of Tess's execution. It is perfectly possible to enjoy this work without knowledge of any of this, as indeed I did for at least twenty years. Despite the fact that Vaughan Williams was in his final months, having composed well into his eighties, this symphony actually makes one wish he'd lived longer as he seemed to be moving in an interesting direction. For his life's work to end with this poignant alliance with one of literature's most tragic figures is perfect in itself.

Day 356

22 December 2017: Mozart – Symphony no. 41, 'Jupiter' (1788)
And so we come to the end of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's significant contribution to the symphonic repertoire. Again, it's doubtful that Mozart would have known that this was his last symphony, but the fact that his last is also his longest, and, some would argue, his greatest symphony is quite fitting. As seems to be the case more often than not, he had nothing to do with the symphony's name, 'Jupiter', which originates from the finale's borrowing of a theme from Carl Ditters's Der Sturz Phaëtons –  Phaëton being the ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter.

While the impetus for Mozart's writing of his final three symphonies in an intense six week burst remains a mystery, there is no doubt that the reverence in which this work, and the other two in the trilogy, is held has been sustained for the 230 years since its composition. Brahms considered them the most important symphonies ever written, and the first of countless recordings of the work dates from over 100 years ago. Mozart doesn't break much new ground in this work, but in the finale he achieves a level of complexity never previously heard in music, culminating in an astonishing five-part fugato. The symphony is packed full of some of his most glorious tunes and will probably be just as popular in another 230 years.

Day 357

23 December 2017: Dvořák – Symphony No. 9, 'From the New World' (1893)
Some symphonies are so well-known it seems rather superfluous to write anything about them, and I think we can put Antonin Dvořák's New World Symphony in that category. If anyone has any statistics on which works are the most frequently performed in a calendar year worldwide, I'd be surprised if this wasn't in the top five. Quite often familiarity breeds a small amount of contempt, with much pointing out that some of his other late symphonies are equally as good, if not better. Be that as it may, I can't think of many symphonies with as many memorable tunes as this one.

The Czech composer was, by this stage of his life, director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. In that post, he was reportedly introduced to African-American spirituals by a student of his called Harry T. Burleigh. And while there is no direct quotation of any particular spiritual here, the influence of the genre is clearly discernible, especially in the first two movements. The slow movement Largo features, of course, the most famous melody Dvořák ever wrote, and for a generation of British people it will, sadly, be forever associated with a particular brand of bread! Neil Armstrong listened to this in Apollo 11 on his way to the Moon; a new world rather different to the one Dvořák conceived, but indicative of the spirit of adventure this symphony evokes.

Day 358

24 December 2017: Hely-Hutchinson – Carol Symphony (1929)
Well, we needed something suitably festive for Christmas Eve, and although there a few symphonies around with a Christmas theme, including Alan Hovhannes's Christmas Symphony (AKA Symphony No. 49) and William Henry Fry's Santa Claus Symphony, this seems to fit the bill quite well. It is just about the only piece the South African-born British composer is known for, although he did briefly serve as Director of Music at the BBC before his death. He died tragically young, at the age of just 45, during the appalling winter of 1947, having contracted pneumonia seemingly as a result of refusing to switch on his office radiators in Arctic temperatures.

Each movement is based on a popular carol. The first features O Come All Ye Faithful, in which the carol theme is heard in the manner of a Chorale, while busy strings scurry around it. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen forms the basis for a second movement Scherzo. There is a lovely slow movement based on the Coventry Carol, but with a central section built on The First Nowell. This central section has, incidentally, acted as theme music for two separate BBC programmes down the years. Here We Come A-Wassailing features in the fugal finale, which ends with a reprise of O Come All Ye Faithful – complete with bells. I think this an absolutely charming piece of music; perfect for sipping mulled wine in front of log fire!

Day 359

25 December 2017: Penderecki – Symphony No. 2, 'Christmas' (1980)
The second of my Christmas specials, with Krzysztof Penderecki's second symphony being a fine way to mark Christmas Day. This has long been a personal favourite of mine, even though it drove me mad for a while. At some time in the Early-Nineties I must have recorded a performance of this from the radio, and then inadvertently recorded something else over the first 20 minutes or so. Consequently, I was left with the closing ten minutes as an unidentified piece that I didn't know well enough to identify. In those pre=Shazam days, I recall playing it to a number of people who, naturally enough, couldn't identify it either, and it was several years before I eventually heard the symphony somewhere else to have my light bulb moment of recognition.

I was unaware of the 'Christmas' moniker applied retrospectively to it – which doesn't appear on the score – and the Silent Night motif from which it derives its name had managed to slip past me unnoticed. Quite why the quotations are there is something of a mystery. The celebration of Christmas was important to Penderecki, but no explanation has ever been proffered as to why this carol is quoted at various points throughout this symphony. Furthermore, it's not as though they're elaborated upon or woven into the fabric of the piece. None of this detracts from the work though, which is a spectacular example of Penderecki's neo-Late-Romanticism. The overall theme is dark, and not especially festive, but there are moments of almost epiphanal brightness.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Days 345 – 351

Day 345

11 December 2017: Górecki – Symphony No. 4, 'Tansman Episodes' (2010)
It's often overlooked, given that the phenomenal success of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's Symphony No. 3 occurred in the early 1990s, that the work actually dates from 1976. There was thus a gap of over 30 years between his third and fourth symphonies, so it's not surprising then that the two works are quite dissimilar. Indeed, consciously so, as his intention was to deviate as far from that template as he could when he began working on this piece. Górecki was a very private man and the success of the third deprived him of some of that privacy, something which he came to resent to a certain extent. The name, incidentally, is a tribute to the Polish composer Alexandre Tansman – 36 years Górecki's senior.

In the Symphony No. 4, there are juxtapositions of massively contrasting music: brutal dissonances followed by soothing tonality. There are sections that occupy the same sound world as the third, but there are also throwbacks to his earlier avant garde style. In short, a summation of his life's work, and one he unfortunately failed to live long enough to see through. It was unfinished when he died in 2010 – written out only in short score – but his son Mikołaj went on to complete the work, following his father's instructions. It is an odd work to be honest. The crunching chords of the opening movement make for a powerful call to arms, and the beautiful Largo is dreamy enough. The third movement is just bizarre though, starting as a march somewhat reminiscent of early Shostakovich, it suddenly gives way to a slow-moving passage for cello and piano that seems to have been parachuted in from another work by an entirely different composer. The finale contains music that sounds not unlike John Adams before the opening music returns once again, initially as part of the Adams-like passage. Unsurprisingly, Classic FM have not been all over this symphony in the way they were with its predecessor.

Day 346

12 December 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 7 (1939)
Another last symphony, this time, the seventh of seven from the pen of Arnold Bax. It's often wondered, when considering the final symphony of a composer's output, whether they knew that this would be their last word in the genre and write accordingly. The fact is, very few people know when they're going to die no matter how ill they are, so I'm always wary of reading too much into such music. As I'm approaching the end of this year, and consequently working my way through a succession of 'last symphonies', I find it impossible, however, to escape the association with the composer's imminent demise when hearing the closing bars. That this symphony should end with an epilogue of almost heart-breaking poignancy seems like the saddest of farewells to the world. In fact, Bax lived for another 14 years after completing this symphony, rendering any such thought of finality utterly redundant.

The work was premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of "British Week" at the 1939 World Fair in New York. As a consequence, Bax dedicated it to 'The People of America', removing its initial dedication to the conductor Basil Cameron. Not regarded by many as his greatest symphony, it is nevertheless a fine work. The first movement's sonata form features a second subject as lyrical as anything he ever wrote. This is followed by an understated, almost glacially serene slow movement, punctured only briefly by a central section marked, In Legendary Mood. The Finale is, unusually for Bax, a theme and variations, and carries its strength from the fact that the theme is another of his best. All of which leads towards the enigmatic Sereno epilogue, which at the very least was a stunning way to sign off as a symphonist.

Day 347

13 December 2017: Lutosławski – Symphony No. 4 (1992)
Witold Lutosławski is perhaps unique among his contemporaries of the Polish post-war school in that he stayed true to his principles of composition regardless of the political or pecuniary pressures upon him. While the likes of Górecki, Kilar, and Penderecki all felt the need to modify their language or change their musical direction altogether, often gaining wider audiences in the process, Lutosławski continued to plough his furrow influencing a whole generation of composers on the way. As a largely unsuccessful composition student, I certainly, shall we say, allowed myself to be influenced by Lutosławski.

This work was given its UK premiere at the Proms in August 1993, conducted by the composer at the ripe old age of 80, just six months before he died, and I feel privileged to have been there to see it. It's a stunning work, in which Lutosławski was still, in the last decade of the 20th Century, rethinking the whole concept of symphonic form. Believing the Brahamsian model to be imbalanced, with too much emphasis placed on the first and last movements, he structured Symphony No. 4 in such a way that the first section merely prepares the way for the main body of the work. Everything flows seamlessly throughout its single 25-minute arch, with his trademark aleatoric passages interplaying with strict notation. Fully deserving of the ‘we're not worthy’ gestures I may have been guilty of performing at its conclusion in the Albert Hall back in '93!

Day 348

14 December 2017: Magnard – Symphony No. 4 (1913)
Please will someone explain to me why Albéric Magnard isn't better known? Every time I listen to one of his symphonies, I find the sheer ecstasy of his writing on a par with just about anything by Strauss or even Mahler. Maybe it's just me turning a blind eye to some perceived flaw in his technique or some other criterion that would mark him out as being second-rate. More likely is that history has just been kinder to his contemporaries.

This symphony is his last surviving work. There were other pieces in progress when he died a year later defending his property from invading German troops, notably a song cycle Douze Poèmes en musique. Sadly, they, and he, perished in the fire that consumed his summer retreat, 20 miles north of Paris in 1914. Thankfully, this work of brilliance survives. He reportedly wrote directly onto orchestral score, rather than produce a short score or piano reduction first, which I believe gives this work an immediacy and vibrancy. The orchestral colours were conceived with the music rather than applied later. The final movement is a particular favourite of mine. It begins as a lively Anime, but gradually gives way to grander, expansive cathedral of sound, before taking a surprising turn towards a quiet, reflective ending. It really is quite heavenly.

Day 349

15 December 2017: Grace Williams – Symphony No. 2 (1956)
This is the second of a pair of symphonies from Welsh composer Grace Williams, a noted former pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It almost goes without saying that it's a rarely performed work, and there is but one recording of it, made in 1979 by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) under Vernon Handley. I loved her first symphony when I featured that back in June (see Day153), but that hasn't even had the luxury of a studio recording. I do feel a sense of duty to try to promote these works in my own small little way.

This is a far more muscular work than her first symphony. The influence of her teacher is clear to hear, with this symphony occupying at times a similar sound world to the late symphonies of RVW. The first movement has a distinct militaristic feel with its trumpet fanfares and side drum interjections. The mood changes dramatically for the Andante sostenuto second movement, which opens with harp chords underpinning an oboe solo before icy strings form the backdrop for a bleak landscape. The boisterous scherzando feels a little like it is marking time before the finale, in which Grace Williams really comes into her own. It's a wonderful slow-burner of a movement. The music starts from the landscape of the Andante sostenuto and builds to an impassioned climax at around its mid-point, and from there it develops a rhythmic energy that propels it towards an uplifting coda.

Day 350

16 December 2017: Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 (1971)
Dmitiri Shostakovich ended his symphonic cycle with this purely orchestral, non-programmatic work, which was something of a back-to-basics approach after his trilogy of 'history plays' (Nos. 11–13), and what was effectively a song cycle for No. 14. Shostakovich was 65 by this point, and in poor health. As with the Bax three days ago, the question of whether Shostakovich intended that this would be his final symphonic statement is debatable. There is much here that point towards a summation of all that has gone before in this work, with some commentators commenting that this is a birth-to-death piece.

The strongest evidence for this belief would have to be the first movement, which was originally entitled "the Toyshop". It has a childlike vitality, certainly, with playful quotations from Rossini's William Tell Overture. I doubt if Shostakovich would have been aware of its use in the Lone Ranger, but there is a generation for whom that music will be associated with childhood Saturday morning cinema trips to watch the Masked Deputy! The contrast with the dark second movement, with its solemn Wagnerian brass chords in dialogue with a solo cello, could not be starker. A short and typically acidic scherzo, paves the way for the finale. This is the longest movement of the work, and has caused many people to speculate that Shostakovich is contemplating his own death. It has a strange, mystical quality quite unlike any of his other symphonic movements, and ends eerily with percussive musical fragments played over a string-harmonic chord sustained for almost two minutes.

Day 351

17 December 2017: Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 10, 'Alla ricerca di Borromini' (2013)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was nothing if not prolific. He was 78 years old when he composed this, his 327th work with an opus number. He was, at the time, being treated at University College Hospital, London for leukemia – which would eventually claim his life three years later. In those three years he managed to produce 11 more works, including a String Quintet and an hour-long work for mixed choruses and orchestra, The Hogboon.

This penultimate occupant of Choral Symphony Sunday is Max's finest work, in my opinion. I don't like everything he wrote by any means, indeed some of his earlier works such as the infamous Eight Songs for a Mad King I find thoroughly unpleasant. When he's good he's very good, and this is an absolute masterpiece. The title translates as 'in search of Borromini': the 17th century Baroque architect. The chorus features in the second and fourth movements, with the second being a setting of a sonnet to Borromini, and the fourth setting poetry by the early-19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi. It's a highly accessible work, and seems to represent a composer at peace with himself at the end of his life.

I'm hoping to squeeze another Choral Symphony Sunday in before the end of the year, if I could only think of another choral symphony I haven't done yet ... 😉

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Days 338 – 344

Day 338

4 December 2017: Stanford – Symphony No. 3, ‘Irish' (1887)
The symphonies of Charles Villiers Stanford are not particularly well-known, even in this country. And while the five produced by his compatriot Parry have received a modicum of attention in recent years, Stanford's seven remain largely unperformed. It was not always thus, as this symphony was highly successful in its time, and was performed reasonably regularly up until Stanford's death in 1924. Sadly for him, the next generation of composers – some of whom were his pupils – swept away the old guard whose music was seen as derivative, and the tide of opinion has never really turned.

Certainly it's an accusation that holds some water in this work. It's a fine piece, but betrays the fact that Stanford had, shortly before starting work on this piece, attended the UK Premiere of Brahms's fourth symphony. The influence of that work is strong here, with the slow movement in particular bearing more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart in the Brahms. And although it celebrates his Irish ancestry, with folk tunes a-plenty smattering the score, the work has a distinctly Brahmsian feel to it. It's a skill in itself to take Irish music and make it sound Germanic, but it was simply the way of things for composers of the Victorian era who had few other points of reference when refining their art.

Day 339

5 December 2017: Honegger – Symphony No. 4, 'Deliciæ basiliensis' (1946)
In the same year as the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger produced his sublime third symphony (see Day242), he was commissioned to write another by his compatriot Paul Sacher. Apart from being fabulously wealthy, and in a position to commission works from the world's greatest composers (including Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith), Sacher was also founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, and it was they who premiered the work. Honegger had, as it happened, recently enjoyed a stay in the Swiss countryside close to Basel, and was inspired to incorporate some folk tunes from the region in the composition. This idyllic depiction of the city gave rise to the symphony's title, Deliciæ basiliensis (The Delights of Basel).

This is a lighter work than its immediate predecessor the Symphonie Liturgique, although there is also an air of sadness to it. As Honegger described it, the happier passage are those that "raise the hope of an escape ... to spend a summer in Switzerland." The central Larghetto is a perfect depiction of this: while slow-moving chords travel morosely over a plodding bass, a solo flute takes off on a flight of fancy playing music seemingly unrelated to what is going on around it. Although not as neglected as many of the composers I've featured this year, Honegger's symphonic output is deserving of a wider audience than it presently gets.

Day 340

6 December 2017: Ester Mägi – Symphony (1968)
In a nation that is dominated, musically speaking, by Arvo Pärt as the only composer to have established an international reputation, Ester Mägi is revered in her home country as 'the First Lady of Estonian music'. Approaching her 96th birthday next month, Mägi is a distance removed from the Pärt much beloved of compilers of tiresome Relaxing Classics compilations. She was collector of folksongs as a student, and there is a strong Estonian folk music influence in her work., While there are elements of modernism in the mix, it is for the most part tonal and harmonically engaging. Much of her work was composed for chamber ensembles, and this work, although written for full orchestra, has the feel of a Sinfonietta with a running time of under quarter-of-an-hour.

Symphony – sometimes erroneously referred to as Symphony No. 1, when there has been no 'No. 2' in the ensuing 50 years – was written when she was in her mid-forties. Its rhythmically dynamic and forceful style shocked the predominantly male establishment at the time, with one contemporary reviewer questioning whether it was "possible at all for a woman to write such music." The powerful folk-dance opening is quite reminiscent of Bartok, while the woodwind-driven Andante has a dark, unsettling feel with its constantly changing metre. There's a return to folk rhythms in the Presto finale, with the opening music returning to great effect at one point. An insistent 5/8 rhythm drives the music headlong towards its apparent close, only for a dark and reflective coda to provide a surprising conclusion.

Day 341

7 December 2017: Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 3 (1936)
In later life, Sergei Rachmaninov was pretty much a full-time concert pianist. From the end of World War I until his death in 1943, Rachmaninov produced just six works to which he gave opus numbers, aside from piano music that he composed for his own recitals. This symphony was the penultimate of those works, coming after his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and followed only by his Symphonic Dances of 1940. Given the psychological problems that he'd suffered in the past as a result of his pieces being poorly received, it's perhaps unsurprising that he concentrated more on his astonishing skills as a performer. That said, given the quality of this final trio of compositions, there is a sense of a great voice remaining regrettably silent.

Here's a thing though. I may have heard this symphony before today, but I can't be sure. I was, however, absolutely certain that when I heard the main theme from the first movement, it was a tune I recognised. I have no idea where from, and I spent most of the day Googling where I might have heard it before, but to no avail. I can only assume that it's such an instant tune that it feels as though you already know it the second you hear it, which is a rare gift. Rachmaninov considered it one of his greatest works but the audiences and critics of the day were left nonplussed by it, and it's still rarely heard today – certainly compared to the ubiquitous piano concertos. And it while it may lack the searing melodic intensity of those great works, it's still a symphony of great substance.

Day 342

8 December 2017: Glass – Symphony No. 4, 'Heroes' (1996)
Falling squarely into the category of 'symphony only because the composer says it is', Philip Glass's 'Heroes' Symphony is really a collection of minimalist re-imaginings of tracks from David Bowie's album "Heroes". Even that wasn't a new idea, as his first symphony 'Low', written four years earlier (see Day 31) was also based on a Bowie album released in 1977. While part of me wishes Glass had worked his way through the whole of Bowie's back catalogue, if nothing else to hear what the hell he would have made of Earthling, I am of the belief that he should really only have played this card once.

Having been performed on the Park Stage in 2016 as a tribute to David Bowie following his untimely death earlier in the year, this is probably the only symphony ever to be played in full at Glastonbury. And despite my reservations about the concept, I do actually like it. Glass's approach is subtly different to the 'Low' Symphony in that it uses fewer direct quotations, and concentrates more on fragments or melodic shapes for material. Also, he was a more accomplished orchestrator by the time he came to write this, so it sounds that bit less clunky. There is just enough of the Bowie in there to provide an element of familiarity, while being an undeniably original piece of work. Meanwhile, we wait for Glass to announce plans for his 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)' Symphony.

Day 343

9 December 2017: Schumann – Symphony No. 4 (1841)
Rather like his contemporary Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann's symphonies are anachronistically numbered. His Symphony No. 4 was actually the second he composed – hot on the heels of his first 'Spring' Symphony earlier the same year (see Day 38) – although he withheld it from publication and it only saw the light of day in 1853, following a series of revisions. There is a degree of controversy over just how complete the symphony was in 1841, with his wife Clara maintaining that it was merely a full written-out sketch. Brahms, however, heard the original 1841 version and, despite the fact that the essentially unfinished work (then with a working title of the 'Clara Symphony') had been poorly performed, he preferred it to such an extent that he arranged for it to be published 50 years after the event.

Although it predates the second and third, I actually regard this as Schumann's most mature symphony, which could of course be attributable to the revisions that he carried out with the experience of those two symphonies behind him. Its innovative employment of connected movements and re-use of earlier music throughout the work marks the piece as truly outstanding. The transition between the scherzo and finale is almost Wagnerian, and possibly his finest moment as a composer. It is a symphony of high romanticism and one that, in spite of my general apathy towards Schumann, I do keep coming back to.

Day 344

10 December 2017: Atterberg – Symphony No. 9, 'Sinfonia visionaria' (1956)
Kurt Atterberg's final symphony was, like Beethoven's, his ninth, and also like Beethoven's, a choral symphony. This latest occupant of the Choral Symphony Sunday slot is one of the least frequently performed. Even in his native Sweden, it was only played twice in the eighteen years Atterberg lived after completing the work. Beyond Scandinavia, any symphony requiring a chorus to sing in Swedish isn't going to find itself in too many concert programmes.

The text comes from an Old Norse poem drawn from Runic mythology entitled Völuspá (also known as "The Speech of the Prophetess") and deals with her prophecy of the dissolution of the world. Although the symphony is in one continuous movement, it can be divided into two parts. The first depicts the creation of the earth, in the manner of the first book of Genesis, then part two is devoted to the arrival of humans, the ensuing "folk wars", and the resultant destruction of the heavens and the earth. It is remarkable that Atterberg covers all of this inside 40 minutes, and even though there is a nod towards serialism in some passages, its mostly modal tonality and use of folk melodies makes it an undemanding listen.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Days 335 – 337

Day 335

1 December 2017: Kilar – Symphony No. 5, 'Advent Symphony' (2007)
As it's the First of December, and the start of Advent, it's appropriate that today should feature Wojciech Kilar's 'Advent Symphony'. I'm sure there are pedants out there who will point out that Advent actually starts on Sunday, but most Advent Calendars begin on the first so that's what I'm going with! That said, as it's a choral symphony, it could easily have filled the Choral Symphony Sunday slot. Kilar is a composer I became a fan of when I serendipitously discovered his stunning orchestral piece Krzesany in my first year at Uni. The Keele Philharmonic Orchestra were scheduled to perform Lutosławski's Livre pour Orchestre, a work of his I didn't know. So I went to the University library, borrowed the LP of it to play in one of the listening booths upstairs (yes kids, that's the way it worked in those days), flipped it over to listen to the unknown-to-me piece by the unknown-to-me Polish composer on the other side and was knocked sideways by a work that has become one of my favourite compositions ever. 

This symphony – Kilar's last – was composed 33 years after Krzesany, and in common with many of the enfants terrible of the Polish avant garde, he had abandoned his earlier experimental style in favour of a more simplistic musical language. It's a style I have to confess I've become less tolerant of in recent years, and listening to so many of Górecki, Pärt and Kilar's symphonies this year hasn't aided that view. I suppose I should be grateful John Tavener never wrote any symphonies. Anyway, this is firmly in that sacred minimalism genre and the music does at least fit the meditative nature of the religious festival it celebrates. The name actually comes from the fact that it was commissioned by the Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice, Poland and makes use of two traditional Silesian Advent hymn tunes. All pleasant enough, but four slow movements of quite sparse music running to a total of forty minutes is just too much for my tastes.

Day 336

2 December 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 104 in D major, 'London' (1795)
It has never been adequately explained why this, the last of Josef Haydn's vast symphonic output, is referred to as the 'London' symphony. Yes, it was written in London, but so too had the previous eleven. I have seen a theory proposed that the main theme of the finale is meant to emulate the calls of London street-traders, which seems plausible enough. Either way, the reasons why this final block of twelve symphonies were composed and first performed in London are obvious when one considers that Haydn made the huge sum of 4000 gulden from the premiere alone – almost as much as he might expect to earn in a whole year in those days – stating in correspondence that "such a thing is possible only in England."

Once again, Haydn favours the slow introduction in this symphony; which accounts for about a quarter of the first movement's length. After ramping up the tension with dramatic power chords, a breezy D Major Allegro gets the proceedings fully under way. A deceptively quiet opening to the Andante disguises a central section that is as impassioned as anything Haydn ever wrote. The lively Menuetto e Trio sets up a glorious finale, marked Spiritoso, in which its folk music element is attributable either to the London street-traders’ cries mentioned earlier, or to a Croatian folk tune as some Haydn scholars have claimed. The drone over which it is played out is similar to a device Haydn had employed before in his 'Bear' symphony (see Day 151), and this obviously pleased the London crowd as much as it had the Parisians a decade earlier.

Day 337

3 December 2017: Scriabin – Le poème de l'extase, 'Symphony No. 4' (1908)
OK I'll admit that this was a bit of a borderline selection. Alexander Scriabin's 20-minute symphonic poem was published, unequivocally, as Le poème de l'extase, with no reference to it being a symphony at all. The composer did, however, routinely refer to this as his 'fourth symphony' after publication, and likewise his Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, composed the following year, he referred to as his fifth. As a companion of sorts to this symphony, Scriabin wrote a 369-line poem, which effectively gave titles to the three sections of the work, one of which was, 'The glory of his own art'. It's fair to say he had something of an ego.

This symphony dates from what is generally referred to as Scriabin's 'second period'. This is characterised by a general moving away from the romanticism of his first period, towards the out-and-out dissonance of his 'third period'. I find this transitional phase the most interesting, even if it was rather short-lived. Pretty much all of this piece is written in the whole-tone scale, giving it a slightly other-worldly feel. And given that it is allied to some of the most colourful orchestration imaginable, the end result is an opulent, ravishing work that, rather like Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, fills me with regret that he sought to abandon this world in favour of increasingly atonal exploration.