Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Great Seconds

Note: This is the second in what will be a monthly series this year on great symphonies. See my January 2, 2010 post for Great Firsts.

When considering Second symphonies, I once again give the nod to Gustav Mahler as the greatest of them all. Mahler composed his number two over six years and it was his most famous work during his lifetime. It was the only one of his symphonies that he himself published with an official title. He envisioned the work as an extension of his First Symphony and gave it the name “Resurrection.” The symphony is much more ambitious than Mahler’s First, being some 25 minutes longer.

It begins with a long first movement that lasts over 20 minutes. Heavy basses and cellos supported by tense, constant violins and violas. A sense of weightiness not present in his first symphony is at the core of the movement’s development. An issue is being wrestled with, seemingly overcome only to appear again. Almost six minutes in a passage of exquisite delicacy gives way to a pastoral setting. The Wagnerian influences are obvious. Eventually, the movement becomes a conquering march that is met with an obviously powerful adversary. By movement’s end both the heroic and the challenge are equally presented. The next movement is slow but more purposeful than lyrical. This movement is nicely balanced between strings, brass, and winds. The third movement begins with percussion only followed by a sting section supported by clarinets and flutes. The entire orchestra is eventually used building to a climax followed by an idyllic interlude that returns to a gigantic sound which falls off into a quiet string moment where the basic theme is carried with certainty. The fourth movement is perhaps the most famous in the symphony’s construct. It is entitled Urlicht (Primeval Light). For first time we experience the human voice in my blog’s consideration of the symphonic form. The soprano voice is solidly but tenderly supported by a wonderful brass section. The voice carries the emergence of the entire symphony giving way this time to an oboe before the movement magically shifts time, offering some folk melodies along with classically romantic moments. It is a beautiful piece of music, one of Mahler’s shortest movements. The theme here is more clearly identified by the words being sung, which read in part, “I am from God and want to return to God! The loving God will give me a little light, which will light me into that eternal blissful life!” The symphony is, among other things, about life’s struggle to the end, and the spiritual rewards of a life well lived.

The fifth and final movement carries this idea to fruition. It begins with a huge bang and clash, a return to struggle. This movement weighs at 34 minutes, longer than many other entire symphonic works. Naturally, something of this length is complex, rich with musical ideas. Of the many highlights in this expert composition is the use of trumpets throughout the course of the movement recalling the basic, heroic theme of the first movement. In due course, the entire orchestra examines this, at times quietly giving way to at about 8 minutes to a surge by the horns marking conquest or at least success. Then the movement returns to near silence, percussion builds, and the horns take on a melodramatic appeal. Strings racing. At 15 minutes we are in a gentle period again, like the lazy flow of a river. This gradually returns to near silence again. The theme is vaguely present, faintly presented. I should note that, during more tranquil moments throughout the symphony, Mahler makes use of certain aspects of the orchestra located offstage. Horns and other instruments are composed into the symphony with specific instructions to be spatially separated from the orchestra, played out of the sight of the audience and the conductor. The subtlety midway through the finale surpasses anything Mahler had previously composed. At times a single flute is supported with underlying percussion, faint (offstage) trumpets.

A little over 20 minutes in a female chorus of human voices softly takes the theme into its own. A strong contralto performance leads the voices back to the repeat of the theme by French horns and trumpets. Then a chorus emerges, beautifully featured with solo trumpet that evolves into a special sweetness that only Mahler, because of his graveness and sincerity, can pull off without it sounding kitsch. This lasts about 5-6 minutes before a solo voice is supported by the entire orchestra. The final six minutes of the symphony brings forth the male voices of the chorus and the symphony concludes on a high note by combining and juxtaposing full chorus and orchestration to maximum intensity and fullness that surpasses even George Frideric Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus” and includes the ringing of bells. The chorus sings: “Rise again, yes, rise again, Will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered, To God will it lead you!” A magnificent composition, filled with touching moments amidst great turmoil and, in the end, spiritual triumph.

Though not of the same metaphysical plateau, the four movements of Jean Sibelius’ Second actually fit together in some respects better than the Resurrection. They offer that rich Scandinavian texture of openness that equals Mahler and yet are distinctively brighter, not brooding at all. Sibelius opens his Second with a solid melody expressed at one point or another by each section of the orchestra, always returning to a lavish harmony. The second movement begins with just cellos and basses in short, sharp notes. This builds with old instruments moving off into other themes as new ones gather keeping the short, sharpness as an undercurrent as the orchestra builds to a splendid passage about 8 minutes into the movement. Then fading away to silence. Sibelius had a genius for silence throughout his body of work. The silence always gives way to a return to the original melody to be built again in variation. The movement becomes heavy near its end. Silence again. Then rich strings to a conclusion supported by horns and flutes. The next movement is very fast and rhythmic, the orchestra at time swarming, at times silent. Then a bass drum introduces a bassoon supported with other winds in a beautifully touching passage before giving way to an uplifting of the entire orchestra into a richly satisfying melody that seamlessly begins the fourth movement. It is one of the great moments in the late-Romantic repertoire. The movement meanders wonderfully through multiple layers of sound, resting on softly repetitive cellos and winds again, which builds into an almost slow, grotesque melodic variation that is ultimately mastered powerfully by the horns. The end is strident and strong.

“The Little Russian” is the title for Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Second. It begins with a brief flair followed by several solo wind sections with little string support until the whole symphony slowly emerges with horns pulling everything upward to a deeper bass line. This entire movement is a series of bravely grand sweeping moments and soft ones flavored with soft solitudes. Ending with a wonderful horn and bassoon piece. The second movement begins with a slow bas drum keeping time. The tone is light and alert throughout as Tchaikovsky mixes in all sections of the orchestra equally. The third movement is comparatively fast, requiring expert dexterity and finesse. Lots of flute action. The strings dominate near the end and drive the pace to conclusion. The fourth movement begins as if it were a Franz Joseph Haydn symphony or even Modest Mussorgsky. Yet, as it develops, it becomes an example of how a large late-romantic orchestra can fill the space with music and sound unlike any previous orchestration. It ends in a spectacular fashion that is inspired and impossible to appreciate without feeling amazed at the height to which it leaves us. The symphony was highly successful in its day (1872) but, despite this, Tchaikovsky revised it in 1880.

Antonin Dvorak composed his Second in 1865 at age 24. Adding this symphony over some other Seconds to my list of Greats would be questionable to some. Dvorak’s Second has little information on it on the internet. You can’t even find a video of any part of it on youtube. Still, this is my list. The opening is almost Wagnerian in its softness then sudden emotional power. There is an excellent interplay between strings and winds/horns throughout the first movement, with a swirling undercurrent mixed with spritely moments. The second movement has a sweet melody throughout, but often played in deeper notes. Dvorak shows a gentle touch at times, with quiet parts similar to Mahler’s but never as extended before returning on a brisk dance cadence. There is an excellent clarinet solo that comes toward the end of each variation on the melody which holds the movement together in a delightful tone. The finale is at moments lush with late-romantic sound, dominated by layered strings and solid support from the horns and winds. Occasionally, turmoil and struggle break through, pitting sections of the orchestra against itself then abruptly giving way to a slower-pace with a balance between the winds and strings floating. The movement examines this pace with interesting variations for several minutes before once again giving way to a large full-orchestral sound. After another classic late-romantic sweetness the symphony concludes with on confident, triumphant note. It is interesting to note that this symphony was Dvorak’s Opus 4. Only his fourth composition. That makes the work even more amazing and revealing of his genius.

Serge Prokofiev’s Second is probably my most controversial selection. It is a two movement masterpiece, by far the most “modern” of these other symphonies (composed in 1924-25). The first movement is heavy with horns and percussion commanding over the strings. The movement expresses much passion and desperation tinged with discord. The extended second movement features “Themes and Variations.” It begins quietly with low strings and bassoons unfolding into a beautiful slow melody. Over the course of the next 23 minutes, this movement wanders and explores the possibilities of this melody in complimentary and contrasting modes. At times the strings finally express their complete energy giving way again to powerful percussion, then swirls of flutes, clarinets and strings. The symphony evolves with frequent mutations each building on the one before it. Walls of sound giving way to a spectacular, slow climax around the 20 minute mark, at which time the symphony returns to its quiet beginning. Immensely satisfying.

When compared with serious contenders like the Seconds of Robert Schumann or Johannes Brahms, it is rather bold to hold the Prokofiev (and Dvorak) above them. But, this Russian symphony is much more complex, more deeply textured, and uses the full body of the orchestra more so than the string-heavy other Seconds mentioned. This makes Prokofiev more equal and comparable to the other composers in this post. A superbly worthy Great Second.

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