As most of you know, I spend lots of my time working with choirs and immersing myself in choral music. I’ve usually got a rehearsal to prepare or a concert to plan. But today, I’d love to share with you two of my favourite orchestral pieces. Actually I’ve got many favourites, so this is just two of them.
Sibelius: Symphony No.2
When I was studying A level music, my main set work was Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 (1937), and I absolutely love that. I remember one of my lecturers was a viola player, Stephen Williams, and he introduced us to a number of other symphonies written just prior to our set work. He played us the 1st movement of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony (1902) and I remember being rather outspoken about it after he’d played it, telling him that I thought it didn’t have a very satisfying shape or climax. Luckily for me, he encouraged me to give it a second chance and lent me the LP (remember those?). Needless to say, I handed it back the next week having completely transformed my opinion.
Sibelius writes music that develops organically. He presents various ideas/themes in a rather disjointed manner, and then proceeds to knit them together towards a climax. In this 1st movement, the climax itself is a bit disjointed as the brass section swell and fade when we get there, and I guess that’s what I didn’t really grasp on my first hearing.
I love the power of the pulsating rhythms that accompany many of the melodies. And you will also hear especially at the beginning of the middle section a Sibelius trait – his themes often feature a long held note ending with a flourish: the oboe tune at 4mins is also accompanied by bustling quavers simmering away underneath the tranquil melody.
This YouTube recording is really good. And if you’re enjoying it, do listen to the other movements. Well worth it. Sibelius Symphony No.2
William Walton: Symphony No.1
William Walton wrote the first of his two symphonies in 1933, 4 years before Shostakovich wrote his famous 5th. And I didn’t meet this piece until I went to Bristol University. One of my lecturers was the composer Derek Bourgeois, and I remember he gave us one of the themes from this symphony as an aural dictation exercise one week. Needless to say, most of us made a pig’s ear of it. In my 2nd year he conducted the University Symphony Orchestra and we got to play some amazing pieces including this symphony. I played 2nd Timpani, and we made a lot of noise! Apart from the 3rd Slow movement, this piece is pure energy. From the very start, the 2nd violins have a quiet twitchy ostinato, accompanying a Sibelius-like melody on the oboe. The 1st movement of most symphonies is composed in Sonata Form: Exposition – Development- Recapitulation. And here is a very clear example of a composer developing his ideas in the central section, building towards a climax which leads into the restatement of the opening ideas at the end. This performance is definitely the one I would recommend. Andre Previn conducting the LSO in 1966. Some of the ensemble is a bit relaxed in the first section, but it all pulls together excitingly as it develops. Walton: Symphony No.1 1st movement
I aught to add, that I conducted this piece myself once. I was MD of the Downland Chorale, based in Coulsdon, and we were planning to perform Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast. We made this symphony the first half of the concert and to my delight, I found fixing the orchestra a breeze – everyone wanted to play Walton 1st Symphony!
Personally, I generally can’t have music on in the background – I find it destracting. Both these pieces demand your undivided. Don’t try to read at the same time, and if you try to do the washing up while listening, don’t be surprised if you break a few of the more fragile items.
Before I leave you, here’s a couple of photos of my Dahlias! I’m a Dahlia virgin. I put these tubers in about 6 weeks ago, probably earlier than I should, but I’m delighted to see them coming through this week. If you’re wondering why I’ve put a metal grid over them, it’s to stop the cats and foxes from digging them up. My next challenge is to protect them from the slugs.
Have a great week and enjoy the sunshine if you can.