Friday, March 19, 2010

Great Thirds


Proof of purchase. Two recordings of Mahler's weighty Great Third. One in the upper left is Benjamin Zander conducting (with accompanying lecture CD, 2004). Next there is the great Bernard Haitink with the Berlin Philharmonic (1990). To its right is a young Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Beethoven's "Eroica" in spirited fashion (1988). Beneath that is the recording of Henryk Gorecki's Third (1992) that was so commercially popular. To its left is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1985) in a solid, emotional performance of the Schumann symphony. Finally there is Lutoslawski conducting himself with the Berlin Philharmonic (1986). I have very few composers in my collection conducting themselves, which makes the Lutoslawski CD a special, well-worn recording.

The greatest Third symphony belongs to someone we haven't mentioned so far, which might be rather surprising considering he is probably the greatest composer of all time. Ludwig von Beethoven's first two symphonies are certainly not mediocre works. But, they don't compare strongly with the other symphonies I have thus far mentioned.

This all changes with Beethoven’s Third. Although today it sounds to us as a typically classic composition, at the time most patrons of the arts thought it was an overblown, laborious piece that lasted far too long. Most symphonies ranged from 20 - 30 minutes at the time of its composition (1805). Beethoven's Third is a good 45 minutes in length.

But, there is not a weak or wasted moment in this magnificent four movement piece of art. It is truly one of the greatest symphonies ever composed. Though each movement is strong, my favorite passage is the second movement. It is, overall, an inspiring composition.

Beethoven originally conceived of the work as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte for the Frenchman's leanings toward individual freedom and democracy at the close of the French revolution. But, when Bonaparte crowned himself King of France, Beethoven disgustedly changed the dedication of his Great Third to one of the composer's patrons and stuck the label "Eroica" on it.

Needless to say, no one finds the work too cumbersome today. Its length is expected and the strength of each moment is satisfying and distinctive, making it seem as if it doesn’t last as long as it does. With Beethoven’s Third we are witnessing the birth of Romantic music from the more strictly Classical style of say, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn (Beethoven personally knew them both). The symphony is rich with emotional elements in addition to the technical expertise required to play it. Beethoven also uses the entire orchestra with equal respect. No one section dominates the piece. To that extent, it is probably the most balanced symphony we have mentioned thus far.

Despite the fact that Beethoven's Third is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, Mahler manages a fairly close runner-up to it with his massive Great Third. If audiences in Beethoven's day thought his Third ran too long to be enjoyable, they would have gone screaming from the performance hall 100 years later when presented with Mahler's Third, which – weighing in at about 100 minutes - is the longest symphony in what is considered the "classical repertoire."

Mahler’s Third is composed in a non-traditional six movements, two of which by themselves are longer than most other symphonies. It employs a larger than usual orchestra. As with his Second, many of the instruments are meant to be performed offstage to provide a sense of space and distance. Mahler’s Third also marks an interesting contrast with his first two brilliant symphonies in that the string section is largely secondary to the horns and winds, which dominate throughout.

Unlike Beethoven’s Third, Mahler’s was well-received by the late-Romantic audiences of his day. Besides his Second, this symphony was the only other one Mahler composed that was popular during his lifetime. In addition to the larger orchestra, the symphony calls for a children’s choir in addition to a regular full chorus. This is truly composition on a huge scale.

For me, the work is not as satisfying as his first two symphonies. The individual components are all expertly conceived but they don’t fit together quite as well as the other symphonies we are mentioning here. The highlight of the symphony lies in its third movement as far as I’m concerned. And despite its slightly weak overall cohesiveness, it remains a pleasure to experience, especially in individual components. More often than not, I don’t listen to the entire thing. I don’t have 100 minutes and when I play Mahler I listen. I don’t do other things. 30 minutes here, 17 minutes there, the children’s choir movement at Christmas. That is my actual experience of Mahler’s Third.

Robert Schumann’s Third (subtitled “Rhenish”) is one of the highest examples of a classic-Romantic symphony available. It is a pleasure to listen to, its length is around 35 minutes, and the orchestration is balanced. It is an upbeat piece that came along in 1850. Much of the symphony is based on folk tunes and it takes on a folk-like character as a whole. There are several emotional moments in the symphony. It was very popular in its day and is certainly one of the compositions that make Schumann one of classical music’s great creative forces. The symphony consists of five movements. My favorite part is the symphony’s great fanfare-type opening movement. The other movements are lyrical and highly accessible. The finale reprises the wonderful themes of the powerful opening, transforming them into a triumphant conclusion. A fabulous piece of music.

My other two choices for Great Thirds are a bit more controversial but they are honest ones from a personal perspective. Both are the most recent symphonic works I have mentioned thus far and they happen to both be by Polish composers. The first I’ll discuss is Henryk Gorecki’s Third, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, composed in 1976. As the title indicates this work is in contrast to the uplifting Thirds of Beethoven and Schumann. But, strangely for me at least, I find this work very uplifting, if more bleak. My friend Jean (who has a good bit of piano training and skill) dislikes the piece. I can see why. The symphony is a musical Nazi death camps memory. The orchestration heavily favors the string sections, with a detectable but subdued contribution by other orchestral elements.

The orchestra itself merely serves for creating a musical mood and space for a female soprano part. Often the symphony seems to take on an ethereal quality that I find relaxing and virtually hypnotic due to its slow, repetitive simplicity. It is a three movement work, with the second movement being my personal favorite. All three movements are marked Lento with some additional, separating notation. Gorecki’s Third has the distinction of being one of the best-selling classical music recordings of all time and clearly resonates with many listeners despite its distinctively modern compositional style. It simply strikes a universal, emotional chord, and is an outstanding listening experience.

Finally, there is Witold Lutoslawski’s Third, which – as I have posted before – is the one symphony I have listened to the most over the last two decades of my life. I do not really have sufficient musical knowledge to express exactly how this symphony is composed. It is, by far, the most contemporary sounding work that we have considered to date. Completed over a ten year period in 1983, I can only describe Lutoslawski’s Third as a soundscape of layers and textures of music, dramatically presented in a rather complex, emotional, melodic style. Although the symphony is composed in three “movements” it is seamlessly performed as one continuous piece.

There are periods in the 31-minute work where the performers are instructed to improvise within a specific pace of time. The conductor leads the orchestra as in any other classical composition but this control is lessened at specific intervals so the performers can play freely around a specific chord or chords. Then, just as the orchestra was released into this ad lib type performance, the conductor brings the players back into a controlled structure. This makes the piece spontaneous in many respects and virtually guarantees it will never be performed exactly the same way twice. My favorite passage is when the string section is whipped into a spontaneous frenzy that sounds to me like a hive of bees. The other passage I enjoy is near the end when spaces of silence are placed, controlled, between full, powerful orchestral notes. Lutoslawski’s Third is magical and powerful throughout and ends with an optimistic flair that is punctuated by the same four separated notes hit in time by the entire orchestra with which the symphony begins. Unfortunately there is no recording of this symphony available on youtube or other such places on the web.

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