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.

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