Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Myaskovsky, Copland and Liszt

Thats not a bad harvest for the latter half of a single week in London April 29, 30 and May 1, the middle symphony in the Barbican, the other two in the Festival Hall. At the Barbican Antonio Pappano led the London Symphony Orchestra; for the other two Vladimir Jurowsky the Philharmonic, all performances exemplary.

We don’t hear much of Nikolay Myaskovsky’s symphonies; did he flood the market, with twenty-seven of them? I cherish the only one I know, which is number 6 in E flat minor, Opus 23, 1923, particularly for its helter-skelter scherzo (with a slow flute trio of enchantment) and its luscious slow movement. The opening movement is frantically romantic, full of tension and silent gasping pauses; the finale is a bit of a let-down, so desperately jolly as if sucking up to the party bosses; quoting French Revolutionary songs somehow doesn’t help. Jurowsky conducted it as if his life depended on it. It is a long work, its course stated in the programme to be 75 minutes but Jurowsky passed the post at 62.

Copland kept his symphonic tally down to three and the Third Symphony is also long. By 1946 he had established himself as American’s most prominent composer and felt he had to make a statement. He did. It is a fine work yet has elements in it that are overblown, bordering on the portentous. Some of the finest moments are those in which this urban Jewish composer manages to evoke the wide open parts of his continent with widely spaced ethereal high notes, nothing in the middle, supported by a strong bass. The finale is preluded by the Fanfare for the Common Man which became so popular that it/is often played by itself, even used for commercials! Pappano gave it the works. God bless America!

The cliché has it that the Devil always gets the best tunes but in Liszt’s A Faust Symphony in three Characteristic Pictures the Devil steals the tunes of Faust and Gretchen and twists them, mangles them, parodies them in the finale; the first two movements being portraits of Faust and his loved one. Liszt does not tell the story at all, he sketches the characters of all three, except for one episode in Gretchen when the music seems to be saying: “He loves me: he loves me not”.. Sometimes it appears almost as if Liszt is improvising, not at the piano as he was frequently apt to do but on the orchestra. A section comes to an end and the textures pares down to a single line, as if Liszt was wondering what to do next. Sometimes, notably in the symphonic poem Orpheus and in Gretchen, Liszt put aside his virtuoso habits and his devilish complexities and wrote gentle, purely lyrical music. There are some longueurs in the symphony but on the whole the work goes ahead meaningfully and poetically. The melodic material is memorable. And Liszt makes sure that we know the tunes by repeating them again. Faust, the first movement is dramatic, searching and often frantic; Gretchen is graceful, lyrical and as beautiful as Goethe portrays her. Mephistopoles is Allegro vivace, ironico, he has no tunes of his own but transforms the themes of his victims. How to end?

Liszt sums up with an epilogue of almost political correctitude although he calls it a mystical chorus (with tenor solo) proclaiming that “everything is transitory... eternal womanhood leads us on high!! ... das Ewig weibliche!”.

Liszt finished his Faust Symphony in 1857. At the very beginning Faust has a motive that seems to question, with notes of the whole-tone scale, a device that looks to the future of melody and harmony, a pioneering gesture all Liszt’s own. The transformation of themes owes much to the Symphonic Fantastique that Berlioz composed some twenty years earlier.

The symphony was passionately and superbly played. Jurowsky solved the problem of the final by employing an eighty-strong chorus. Too often the final chorus is sung by a small body so that the performance ends in anti-climax. Not so here; Liszt’s symphony ended powerfully.

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