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.

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