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 ... 😉


  1. I just discovered your blog. Great. Many known, but many not - and worth hearing. If you are continuing on your journey, there are a few great symphonists I was surprised not to see on your list. The four symphonies of Heinrich Gernsheim (maybe Brahms imitated him, rather than the other way around); the prolific Joachim Raff, whose descent into oblivion was undeserved; Zdenek Fibich; the other Franz, Schubert's good friend Franz Lachner; Richard Wetz (if Bruckner's 9 leave you wanting to hear more). Looking forward to spending more time with your list! Best regards,

  2. Quite surprised not to see Weinberg on the list ....

  3. Just stumbled across your site. Intruiging structure, and I am really enjoying your piquant introductions and summaries: I am already tempted to dig out symphonies I have previously encountered but perhaps underestimated. Many thanks!