Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, author
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A new review from critic John Puccio at Classical Candor. Read the whole thing here

Buy your copy from Amazon here:

Bobby and Hans vol 3

A short excerpt:

….The main thing is that Maestro Kenneth Woods and his Orchestra of the Swan play both symphonies exceedingly well, which is all we really want…Maestro Woods and his team play up the more tranquil sections deftly, like the long, slow introduction and the elegiac Adagio. Still, Woods finds himself at home in the sprightly, energetic moods of the second-movement scherzo as well, catching its bouncing rhythms in easy fashion…The composer said he considered the symphony’s big, central Adagio “more consolation than funeral music,” even though it does have a very solemn tone. Nevertheless, Woods manages to make it quite affecting, quite beautiful, quite graceful; at least until the midway point when the high violins disrupt the tranquility of the setting. This is probably as close as we get in the music to Gal’s private adversities, but Woods does not overdramatize or over sentimentalize it. By the time the finale draws to a close, we recognize, at least in hands of Woods, a memorable and perhaps unfairly underappreciated work.
11 months ago | |
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“If there was anything that Brahms profoundly detested, it was theorizing. For him, music was a matter of living perception, of living experience; he considered it pointless t to speculate about the conditions of its effect. That concepts such as expression, sincerity, profundity and greatness cannot be measured in music does not alter the fact that they exist.”

Hans Gál,  Johannes Brahms, His Work and Personality

Buy it here


1 year ago | |
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And suddenly it was April…

2013 is shaping up to be the slowest year yet for the blog, but not for lack of good intentions or good ideas. It’s just been, yet again, even busier and wackier than past years- a trend which is getting increasingly daunting as it continues

Looking back, it felt as if from January 2nd, when I returned from a short New Year’s break to a massive stack of scores and cello parts, to March 23rd, it has been one, long, mad dash of intense activity. After all of that, April has shaped up as a busy-but-not-crazy month, a time of transition and preparation for another frighteningly busy run into the summer holidays starting in May.

I wanted to quickly catch up with loyal readers and a quick look at what I’ve been up to, and what’s been on my mind. I think there’s too much to squeeze everything into one post, so I’ll break it up by months.


My first big undertaking of 2013 was a very, very exciting recording project. David Yang, the very multi-talented violist in my string trio (please buy our CD!!!!!), is also a very gifted narrator, and has a long-running “music and storytelling group” called Auricolae, for which he’s commissioned a staggering array of pieces by all sorts of fascinating and diverse composers. Auricolae put out a lovely if not well-promoted album in 2009 or so which I love and which my children love (buy it!), and I was thrilled when David asked me to play on the follow-up, the aptly-title “Auricolae- The Double Album.”

A double album of twelve virtuosic new works for violin and cello, no matter the intended audience, is no small undertaking. On the program were four pieces by David himself- a sort of Klezmer folklore-comedy tetralogy with its own Gotterdammerung-esque payoff. David’s music is solidly folk based (he self-deprecatingly insists he only uses 3 chord progressions. I think he’s being too modest- I count at least 5 over the four works), but incredibly witty and damnably challenging to play.

A modest example of Yangian string writing- to be played at the speed of light on four espressos

A modest example of Yangian string writing- to be played at the speed of light on four espressos

On the other extreme are three haunting miniatures by Gerald Levinson- music of extreme sophistication, rarified beauty and profound imagination. Levinson’s music is famously challenging, but, in the end, it was the 2 pages of harmonic glissandi at the end that nearly did us all in. It’s so frustrating to play that you almost would give up on the piece (that passage is about as idiomatic as transporting elephants on unicycles), but the impact for the listener is quite magical. Preparing a piece that requires  at least 10 minutes of vigorous hand-washing   to get the rosin off your fingers every time you rehearse or practice it is a big ask, but if it’s great music, you wash your hands and get on with it.

The violinist on the project was Diane Pascal, former first violinist of the Lark Quartet, now based in Vienna. We’d never worked together before, but hit it off straight away- we both like to work hard, have a laugh, and prefer to cut to the chase in rehearsal. Having played several of the pieces before with other fantastic violinists, it was interesting doing it with someone completely new- it’s always interesting to realize what bits of the experience are “the piece” and which are “the performance” and one’s understanding of where that line is drawn changes every time you do a piece with someone new. We rehearsed very intensely for four days in Cardiff, then recorded at our producer, Simon Fox’s private studio in Somerset for  four days.

In the end, the Levinson proved not to be as hard to record as feared- it’s hard enough to play at all that you have to be so prepared to even start to rehearse it that it no longer ends up being all that hard to play once you know it. Does that make sense? Still, Diane and I were both hugely relieved to say goodbye to those harmonics. I loved learning and recording Jay Reise’s wonderful “The Warrior Violinist,” a heartbreakingly powerful story, with some staggering violin writing that Diane dispatched with truly jaw-dropping virtuosity. That was the first thing we rehearsed together, and when she finished the cadenza that starts the piece, I was, for once, speechless. The ending is one of the saddest things I’ve ever played- never mind that it’s ostensibly for children- I still tear up if I play it back in my head.

Simon Fox manning the console while recording Auricolae, The Double Album

David’s pieces were always going to be challenging to record because the idiom is so familiar that everything has to be not only technically solid, but stylistically true, and there is, literally, always at least one nearly impossible run in every piece that takes gazillions of hours practice. As with the harmonics in the Levinson, each time Simon declared one of those licks “covered,” I felt ten years younger.

The Everest of Yang. Actually not too bad at a sane tempo, but once you ramp it up to quarter equals 500, it gets rather tricky

The Everest of Yang. Actually not too bad at a sane tempo, but once you ramp it up to quarter equals 500, it gets rather tricky

One of the pieces also includes a substantial quotation from one of the Bach Suites. In that case, I sent David and Diane off so I could focus, but it came together in basically one take. It did get me thinking about what it would be like to record solo Bach for real…

Stravinsky said it best-

Stravinsky said it best- “good composers borrow, great composers steal” How great does that make this? The final episode of the new Chelm Tetralogy by David Yang

Harmonics also proved a nemesis in Andrew Waggoner’s excellent Stravinskian setting of the Emperor’s New Clothes. As with the Levinson, I had to grudgingly admit that they worked musically, but I do confess to believing that the novelty of writing extended  passages in harmonics begins with Ravel and ends with the Shostakovich Piano Trio. There’s really nothing new left to do there, folks. Well, until Levinson and Waggoner, I guess. Let’s hope nobody else comes it with more new ways of using harmonics.

On the last day, we recorded my piece (see how I just dropped that in!)- a setting of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. I hadn’t finished a decent-sized piece in at least fifteen years, but having played the Auricolae repertoire for a few years, I was fascinated to take up the challenge, and I also wanted to include a chance for David to display his real talent, which is playing the viola. I thought that the metamorphosis from duckling to swan in the story could be mirrored musically from a metamorphosis from violin to viola, with the viola emerging at the end of the piece as the voice of the swan. Between that original idea and the finished piece, a lot changed, and I’ll have more to say about the piece here when the CD is coming out.

What  I do want to say about it all now is how useful the exercise of writing the piece was to me as a performer. Every book on conducting has at least one tip of the hat to the idea that “all conductors should study composition” or “every conductor should try his or her hand at composition,” and, of course, the study of orchestration and analysis, which all good composers pursue, is a core part of every composer’s training. That said, very, very few conductors I know ever compose anything, although many excel at arranging (especially once they realize how crap most pops arrangements really are). In fact, many of the great composers who take up conducting seem to end up paying a price for the time on the podium in reduced productivity as composers. Perhaps all conductors should compose, but most composers should avoid conducting?  Many writers have speculated as to whether we’d have a great deal more from both Boulez and Bernstein if they’d not been so successful as conductors. What about Mahler- if he’d been able to give up the day job, would we have Mahler string quartets and maybe an opera to compliment the symphonies? It wasn’t always so- the great conductors of the past were the great composers of the past, and nobody ever accused Mendelssohn, Haydn or Bach of not being prolific enough. Wagner excelled at both according to his own writings.  And if Bernstein and Boulez paid a price for conducting too much, was it because they were so extraordinarily good at it? Nobody ever worried that Stravinsky or Copland were conducting so many Brahms cycles that they didn’t have time to write because nobody was that interested to hear their Brahms.

Anyway, this little project gave me a chance to walk the walk- so they say every conductor should compose? Fine, I thought, bring it on- I can compose, I have composed, I shall compose.

I actually started improvising and composing very young, and maybe had a little bit of a spark for it. However, over the years I found that the composition student scene wasn’t for me, and that living the idea that every conductor should compose is harder than it sounds. First of all, even the really, really, really good composers often struggle to find people who really want to play and hear their music until it becomes established. In a busy life, it’s hard to rationalize spending time writing something that you know will attract even less interest than Otto Klemperer’s “97 Pedantic Variations on a Theme of Max Reger.”

I suppose one might think that a conductor is ideally placed to compose- theoretically, since I’m not financially dependent on composing, I can write anything I want, and could, if I wished, make one of my orchestras play it. I did try to write a piece for my orchestra in La Grande as part of my farewell season there, but I just couldn’t do it. I find total freedom to write whatever I like not-at-all empowering. It’s like being dropped down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean- all you can see is waves, but you know in exactly one direction, you could swim to shore in five minutes, but any other course would leave you lost forever in open waters. “Swim any way you like,” they say? No thanks! For me, the remit of an Auricolae piece- a story, an instrumentation, a known narrator and a duration- were incredibly freeing.

I think one often loses the playful freedom in creativity that I believe we’re all born with not because of an erosion of our capacity to create, but because our accumulation of knowledge leaves us too intimidated to allow ourselves the freedom to create to our own level. My recent experiments in writing always ended in frustration and humiliation, as I gave in to the voice that kept comparing my scribblings to “real” music- if, as a conductor, you set down your score of Mahler 6 and then try to write a five-minute piano piece, it’s all but impossible not to think you’re completely wasting your time and the paper you’re writing on. And the oxygen you are breathing. That voice can be useful if it pushes you to write better, but not if it stops you writing altogether- it always stopped me.

In that sense, the fact that I had a deadline and a recording planned was extremely liberating, and kept me on track through a number of brick walls. Creativity is a complicated process, but in the end, we’re social animals, and sometimes the rather shallow desire to avoid humiliation and disappointing one’s colleagues overrides concerns that seem stronger on the surface, like an a strong sense of being an imposter. I didn’t want to admit to everyone that I couldn’t finish Duckling, so I finished it.

So, to the axiom “all conductors should compose” I would amend: “should compse complete pieces.” It’s healthy and fun and interesting to play at composing, to improvise at the piano, to sketch and start things, but writing a complete piece, from beginning to end, is infinitely harder. After such a long break, I had several days where I just felt that I no longer had the energy or the skill to find a way through a problematic passage. Brahms said that ideas were a gift, but pieces are the result of hard, hard work, and it’s true. Composing anything decent is incredibly hard work- composers should get way more hugs and free beer than they do. If you don’t put yourself through that every once in a while, you forget what it’s like. You forget getting to that point where you want to light the piano on fire, and your brain feels pulverized, blank and dead, but you also forget how sometimes the solution just comes out of the blue the next day- as if all night in your sleep, the brain was quietly computing the equation of how to get from this idea to that one. Other solutions take longer- in some instances there were days and days of trying and failing before finally cracking it. And all of this struggle was just for a silly children’s piece. All conductors should compose. How dare we take charge of a symphony or an opera if we can’t even write a short work?

And of course, the end of the process, when I went back to what I do for a living, was rich with irony- here I was a professional cellist and conductor who had been playing at being a composer. At least I would know how to write for strings, I thought. And when I first read through it? I couldn’t play it! Shit. Too many fifths, some impossibly tricky runs, but at least I’d avoided writing whole pages of harmonics. It is irritating that one has to practice music one has written- you would think that having created it would get you some kind of pass, but no, apparently not.

In the end, Duckling was one of the two pieces we recorded on the last day of this amazing project- it had turned out to be the longest of the 12 works, and the inclusion of the viola meant it needed a different mic setup, so it made most sense to record either at the beginning or end of a day when it would cause minimum disruption to the continuity of the disc.

David had been amazing to watch throughout the week doing all the different accents and voices- I wish we’d filmed him. It was also incredibly interesting to see how Simon got him to use the mic as an instrument, making him speak up to the ceiling, straight on, to the left or down to the floor- all in the context of a live performance of often very complicated music. By the time he got out his viola and sat down to play, I’d almost forgotten that 95% of what I’ve done with him as a colleague is as a violist, and after days of the slender textures of only violin and cello (think Ravel and Kodaly Duos with a bit of jabbering on top), the sudden arrival of a string trio texture felt positively symphonic.

All in all, a big and hugely exciting project- and I haven’t even had time to mention several other remarkable works in that daunting stack of 12 scores. When was the last time you came across an album of contemporary music that could be enjoyed equally by hard core new music geeks, New Yorker-reading/latte-sipping culture snobs, and three-year-olds? I hope it sells 10 million copies.

The rest of January was focused on two other projects- first was the editing and mastering of the third volume of Bobby and Hans, a task that spilled over into February. I think the ins and outs of how a recording session becomes a record is something to talk about in a blog post all its own. Then, at the end of the month, came an SMP gig that culminated in Bruckner 2. During the intermission for that concert, I wrote a short poem about Bruckner and the trombone- I hadn’t finished a poem in many years, but this one has turned out to be the most popular post in the history of the blog (it took 8 minutes to write and got 1000 times more hits than this post will ever get). Who knew that poetry was so in? There’s even talk about reprinting it in The Bruckner Journal, pending discussion on the editorial board over whether they’re ready to publish the word “fuck” in a scholarly journal.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that conductors should compose, and write poetry.

Anything else? Fix cars? Juggle? Bungee jump? Smash atoms?

Suzanne and I spent our New Year's getaway in Hay on Wye, land of lovely bookstores, where I found myself haunted by waterfowl

Suzanne and I spent our New Year’s getaway in Hay on Wye, land of lovely bookstores, where I found myself haunted by waterfowl


1 year ago | |
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The Coleg Harlech Orchestral Summer School, where I taught a few summers back, has fallen victim to education funding cuts. It’s very sad news.

For 38 years, musicians of all ages and abilities gathered in this gorgeous corner of Wales to tackle some of the big-boned masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire. My concert with them culminated in Mahler 5. Everyone was deeply affected by the breathtaking views and enjoyed the festive post-rehearsal celebrations over excellent Snowdonia Ale in the pub across the road. The Stalinist architecture on the campus and the not-quite-good-enough-to-be-Stalinist  food was the source of more amusement than disdain, and players ranging in ability from rock star to true amateur were all made to feel welcome and challenged. Alongside rehearsals for the main concert were the reading and repertoire sessions- the real reason everyone came. Where else could you get through a list like this in one week?

Arnold- The Inn of Sixth Happiness
Janacek- Taras Bulba
Mahler – Symphony No 5
Niccolai- Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor
Prokofiev- Selections from Romeo and Juliet Suite No.  2
Rachmaninov – Isle of the Dead
Ravel – La valse
Shostakovich – Symphony No 6
Walton- Variations on a Theme of Paul Hindemith

Here’s the announcement from the course directors, Fiona and Huw Hughes.

I do hope they can bring it back in a new venue with proper support.

Dear everyone

You are receiving this message, either because you are a former student or former tutor/conductor at the Coleg Harlech Orchestral Summer School. We are sorry to have to tell you that this wonderful event is to be no more.

The college is experiencing severe financial difficulties and they have had to put a business plan together to try to overcome their problems and secure their future.

The news article at this link gives more detail

This plan was approved at the Board of Governors’ meeting last week and they intend to sell off all their residential accommodation by the end of July this year. Obviously this has sounded the death knell for the orchestral week.

Many former students and indeed the current conductor/tutor team have suggested we seek an alternative venue and continue to run the summer school along the same lines. This is not necessarily straightforward. Coleg Harlech own and run the Orchestral Summer School and employ the three of us to run the musical elements of it. To take this formula to another venue would mean preparing a business case and persuading another organisation to take it on as none of us are in a position to take on the financial risk of running it. This may be a possibility at some point in the future but certainly is not an option for this summer.

Running the Harlech Orchestral Summer School has been a roller coaster ride. When it is going well, the sun is shining and everyone is happy it is the best place in the world, but there have been lows such as the year Nigel Seaman (brass tutor) had to undergo major heart surgery shortly before the course and we anxiously awaited daily progress reports – thankfully he went on to make a full recovery. Another low point was the year asbestos was found in the tower block and the course had to be cancelled with just three weeks to go. Last year was a struggle with new accommodation and eating arrangements. We only just managed to recruit in time but then it was such a huge success both socially and musically in the end, a real high note to go out on.

The Harlech Orchestral Summer School has been an important part of our lives for so many of us and we share a real sadness at its loss.  Like us, many of you have been attending this course for decades. So many people have contributed to its success over the last 38 years.

The course was set up by the first director, Haydn Davies, the first conductor, Vilem Tausky, conducted the Harlech Orchestra for 25 years. The three of us were all students on the course during his latter years.  The course director at the time was Helena Braithwaite and the librarian was Hugh Thomas. After Vilem retired various conductors were enlisted including Gareth Jones, John Pryce Jones and Wyn Davies. During this time Hugh became course director followed for one year by Richard Whitehead while Roger Clift took on the librarian role. In 2003 Fiona was head hunted (for the only time ever!) when Coleg Harlech invited her to take on the role of librarian. That was when she and Huw recruited Caroline Webb as course director and we went on to engage other new conductors including Mark Robinson, Michael Williams and Baldur Brönnimann. When Caroline stepped down we invited Helena Braithwaite to come back as course director which she did for a couple of years before handing over the reins to Janet, resulting in the team we have had for the last few years. Since Janet has been part of the team we have also engaged Kenneth Woods, seen the return of Wyn Davies and finally welcomed Peter Stark. We are indebted to all of the conductors, directors and librarians who have helped to develop the course.

Another of the strengths of the course has been the wonderful contribution made by our section tutor teams. The course has seen many tutors over the years and we would like to pay tribute to every single one of them, not only for their inspiring professional input but also for their good humour and patience, especially with the mountain of paperwork that is asked of them!

The one constant for the last 23 years has been our leader, Louise Lang.  We are sure everyone has appreciated her excellent musicianship and leadership.  She has been there through thick, thin and, it must be said, hangovers!

The welcome and support that we have received from the college has made our work so much easier.  Thanks are due to all the administrative staff, the catering and domestic teams, theatre and site staff.  At a time when Coleg Harlech is facing a challenging time in its history, we would like to extend our very best wishes to all colleagues we have worked with.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we want to thank every student who has turned up over the years.  In addition to the obvious musical contributions, students have helped us in many ways: with recruitment; wonderful compositions and arrangements for the mid-week concerts; patience and understanding with occasional accommodation problems; ensuring newcomers were welcomed and that the social side of the course was as enjoyable as the musical.  Without the students, Harlech Summer School Orchestra would not have been possible; the friendship and enthusiasm from staff and students alike over the years has meant a lot to us.

The combination of the contribution of the conductors, tutors, college staff and orchestra members resulted in something far greater than the sum of the component parts.  We will all have our own special memories of our summers in Harlech and have formed friendships that will last a lifetime.

Our thanks and best wishes to you all.

Fiona, Huw and Janet


Co-Directors/Librarians Orchestral Summer School | Coleg Harlech WEA

Mrs Fiona Hughes                                                    Mr Huw Hughes

Strings, Keyboards & Harp                                    Co-ordinator Wind, Brass & Percussion Co-ordinator                                  


1 year ago | |
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The expressions “long-awaited” and “much-anticipated” are clichés that have long since left their real meanings and original usage behind. In classical music-speak, “long awaited” or “much anticipated” are usually used to refer to routine weekly debut performances by young soloists. One usually encounters these expressions in reviews and press releases in contexts like this:

“This performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the 793rd performance of this work the the orchestra has given this year, marked the long-awaited and much-anticipated _SO debut of 19-year old violinist…..”

It does beg the question of how long people could have been awaiting the debut of someone who only finished at Curtis two weeks ago, and how much audience members could really have anticipated an appearance by a violinist they’d never heard of until reading said press release.

“Long-awaited” can also mean, in certain rare instances, that Hell has finally frozen over, as in:

“This concert marked the long-awaited return of the orchestra’s former music director, Maestro Burnedbridge, who has not been invited back to conduct the orchestra since calling the organization’s executive director a “miserable scumbag” and lighting the board president’s mailbox on fire when he left the group in 1977.”

However, last Friday, I think I can honestly say I participated in a concert that was genuinely long-awaited and much-anticipated, not least by those of us involved in it.

It was a grey and dreary day that began with misting rain, which evolved through the evening into a fairly serious snow storm. In a lovely church in central Malvern, a group of musicians gathered to rehearse and perform a concert for local music lovers. Nothing unusual there….

But this group of musicians was the English Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra returning to their historic hometown of Malvern after a long absence, offering the first concert of their new self-promoted subscription series. On the podium was their new conductor, making his long-awaited and much-anticipated debut with the ensemble.

I’d been aware of the ESO since I moved to the UK, but it was really last summer that the winds of fate started blowing the orchestra and I towards each other in earnest. Some informal discussions with musicians from the orchestra intrigued me, and they encouraged me to strike up a dialogue with the ESO management. Further discussions with the ESO brain trust were even more encouraging- I think we all felt like we were in broad agreement about what a truly modern orchestra ought to look like and how it can make itself matter to people. They saw me work, listened to my recordings and asked around. I checked them out. Musicians who had worked with me elsewhere offered support, feedback and encouragement to both sides. What the heck, we thought- let’s put some concerts in the diary and see if we can make this thing work. No guarantees, no high-powered agents, no elaborate contracts. Just goodwill, high hopes, trust and instinct.

And so the months went by as we waited for Friday’s concert. Programs were planned, soloists engaged, announcements sent out, orchestra branding was refreshed, the website redesigned, posters and fliers printed, music ordered, and so on. All of this before a note of music could be played. Of course, I’d worked with many members of the ESO in other great orchestras in Cardiff and Stratford, but working with individual members of an orchestra, especially in other orchestras with their own traditions and characters, is not the same as working with the actual orchestra itself. What was the ESO going to be like? Would we get on? Could they still play? Did they want to play?

Well, one thing I was sure of before we’d played a note together was that this was an orchestra that, by and large, really, really wanted to play. The orchestra had been through a lot of ups and downs since 2006 or so- from moments of great financial peril, to moments of great artistic expectation when Tod Handley, in their darkest hour, took up the role of Principal Conductor and led them in a series of concerts that people in and around the band are still talking about with a sense of genuine awe, to heartbreak when Tod’s health finally gave out. What’s remarkable is that, through it all, the core of this orchestra, all busy, high-powered professional musicians with lives to get on with and mortgages to pay, has remained remarkably stable. Players have been incredibly loyal and patient. Again and again over the last 8 months, I’ve heard members of the orchestra say “this is the orchestra we really love to play in,” or words to that effect.

It is not always thus in the music world- it’s all too easy for orchestral colleagues to take each other for granted, or for management and players alike to casually assume that life would be perfect if only the other party were doing as good a job as they were. It’s easy for conductors to forget which orchestra they’re conducting. Orchestras can be cesspools of envy, jealousy and frustration, where everyone finds themselves consumed with ennui. If only the union would let us do something different, muse management. If only I could get out of this concert, thinks the player.

And there we were on Friday. A management team that had stuck it out, battled through financial catastrophe, sorted the finances and built a visionary outreach and education project. A group of musicians who had continued to make the orchestra a priority through all the lean years because it was the orchestra they wanted to be playing in. And an American conductor, making his long-awaited, and much-anticipated debut with the orchestra in a program of Ullmann, Mozart and Beethoven. Nobody wanted to be there more than he did.

More to the point- when was the last time you went to a concert where you honestly felt that everyone involved really, really wanted to be there, doing exactly what they were doing?

So, how’d it go?

We started rehearsal with the Ullmann, and knowing the difficulties of the piece inside out, I began with the Finale. The first section of the movement is challenging in a manageable way, but the middle section is extremely, extremely difficult. I remember watching the recording session in the booth last year when the English Chamber Orchestra (no relation) recorded it. When they got to that middle section, it crashed and burned so badly that all of us in the booth were reduced to sympathetic howls of laughter. Of course, working with the speed and focus of all great British orchestral musicians, the difficulties were soon surmounted. So, would the ESO have all sussed out the traps and prepared so meticulously that we could just read it through at concert level? What would happen when we read the piece for the first time?

Well, I gave my first-ever ESO upbeat and the orchestra ripped into the Finale with genuine ferocity. I could tell immediately that this is still a string section proud of its history as a string orchestra. The sound was big and powerful, the articulation already remarkably coherent and the phrasing already mostly there. Then we got to “the” passage. Hilarity ensued. Then we sorted it out

The rest of the rehearsal felt, dare I say, rather normal. Soloist Chris Richards sounded great on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. There were balance issues to sort and articulations to agree on, but it came together without drama or frustration. Regular Vftp readers will know I’ve not always had happy experiences with the piece. After the break, it was on to Beethoven 2- a tricky and unforgiving piece even by Beethoven’s standards. Lots to do in not very much time, but it all came along quickly in spite of the fact that it was becoming obvious to me that all of us were getting tired. By the end of the afternoon, I was really struck by the individual and collective musicianship and intelligence of the orchestra.

We finished at 5:30 with the rain falling outside in huge, grim sheets- it was that uniquely British rain that feels like it’s made of one part water and two parts misery. By 7:30, the rain had changed to snow- a substance I’m told many people in this country believe to be toxic, flammable, acidic, explosive and carcinogenic. In most cases, the mere forecast of snow leads to the national closure of all airports and schools for weeks. Apparently, growing up in the shadow of the majestic Malvern Hills has made the citizens of this beautiful town in the heart of Elgar country more resilient in the face of the white death, especially when good music is on offer, than most of their countrymen. We had an audience.

ESO 22 March 2013

Ken and the ESO’s maiden voyage in Malvern
Picture by Benjamin Ealovega

And they had a concert- by a gathering of musicians who all seemed to want to be there. And the concert?

It was a good gig.

A very good gig.


1 year ago | |
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It was music to the ears of classical aficionados worldwide when President Barack Obama became the first American president to officially call for a national commitment to take exposition repeats in last week’s State of the Union speech . Obama brought repeat supporters to their feet with an oratorical flourish culminating in the statement that “I don’t care if it’s a crescendo, or a dimenuendo, a sharp or a flat- I want this to be an America that respects all forms of musical notation equally, and from 2013, that’s going to include a nationwide respect for exposition repeats! If a theme is worth hearing once- it’s worth hearing twice! If a theme is worth hearing once- it’s worth hearing twice!”

Although exposition repeats exist in at least 10 per cent of all classical movements, their presence has often been overlooked, downplayed or demeaned in the concert hall compared to other forms of musical notation such as pitches and rhythms.

“America is changing, and I want my daughters to grow up in a world where it is okay to take the exposition repeat even in the first movement of Rachmaninoff 2″

Wilfred Pennyschnauzer, deputy vice president of the West Poughkeepsie Campaign for Equality for Exposition Repeats said he wept when Obama uttered the fateful words on Tuesday evening. “I gotta tell you,” he said, his voice still choked with emotion, “we’ve all known there were enlightened places where you could take an exposition repeat without too much fear of grumbling from tired violinists or impatient society ladies, but you shouldn’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to hear the Eroica with the exposition repeat. Just to hear the President of the United States say to the nation, and the whole world, that all exposition repeats can and should be taken in every town and village- well that meant a whole lot. It’s good to hear the President saying we should respect all kinds of music notation- not just the pitches and the loud dynamics.”

A number Beltway pundits, however, sounded a cynical note after the broadcast, noting that as recently as his first presidential campaign, Obama had described the exposition of a Sonata-Allegro movement as “a sacred union between one set of musical ideas and one run-through by the performers.”

“I don’t think this is real leadership,” said Wagner von Hanslick from the left-leaning think tank, the American Musicological Institute, “as much as it is Obama following a demographic shift in the US population. Exposition repeats are no longer considered a tedious necessity- they’re supported by over 64% of the American people. Obama is just recognizing that the national consensus has changed, and he has to change with it if he wants to stay popular.”

Indeed, Obama’s position on exposition repeats was reported by sources close to the president as “evolving” for much of his first term. Much to the dismay of exposition repeat rights activists who had hoped for early decisive action, presidential pollsters had floated a number of trial balloons in 2009 -10 exploring public reactions to more modest policies that would allow for performers to take exposition repeats on a case-by-case basis, as long as “it doesn’t make the concert too damn long,” without specifically acknowledging the repeat sign as a form or music notation worthy of equal consideration as accidentals, accents and tempo markings.

Even as recently as December, Obama was reported to be hedging on whether he would include plans for the official recognition of exposition repeats in his second term.  Many Washington insiders attribute the final public shift in policy to Vice President Joseph Biden’s December 21s appearance on the Sunday morning program, “Musicology Today,” in which the famously loquacious VP said bluntly “For Pete’s sake, guys- can’t we just accept that exposition repeats are an intrinsic part of a well balanced Sonata-Allegro structure? Just take the damned repeats for godsake!”

Vice President Joe Biden;

Vice President Joe Biden; “For godssake- it’s not freakin’ rocket science: Brahms writes a repeat, just take the damn repeat!”

Republican leaders expressed dismay and scepticism at the President’s embrace of a form of musical notation long scorned by the American musical establishment. “Job creators are busy people, and making them sit through a repeat of the exposition of a Brahms symphony or a Schubert sonata is just going keep them from having the time they need to create jobs,” said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“Exposition repeats are for socialists. Listening to all those themes a second time gives me dry mouth.”

Maro Rubio, delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union addres, also felt that insisting on universal implementation of exposition repeats was “un-American.”

“America is a free country,” he said between sips of bottled water. “We think concert creators should be free to pick and choose which bits of Beethoven’s genius they give a shit about, and ignore what doesn’t appeal to them. Recognizing that the Mahler who wrote the Alma theme in the Sixth Symphony is the same unique creative artist that wrote the exposition repeat which follows it a few bars later is the first step on the road to Socialism. First we have to take the repeats, then we follow the symphony with an encore performance of The Internationale. If people want to hear exposition repeats, they can move to Finland or some other communist hellhole.”

Speaker John Boehner was reduced to tears on Tuesday at the thought of having to hear the exposition of Mozart's Jupiter twice.

Speaker John Boehner was reduced to tears on Tuesday at the thought of having to hear the exposition of Mozart’s Jupiter twice.

House Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio said that he wouldn’t consider allowing exposition repeats without pre-agreed cuts. “Long concerts are already bloating our national attention deficit. If the President wants to repeat the expositions of Sonata-allegro movements in core repertoire, he’s going to have to come up with compensating cuts in the other movements”

However, long-time Obama confidant and senior political advisor David Plouffe predicted swift passage  of the “American Exposition Respect Act.” “Republicans are looking at the polls and seeing the same numbers Obama did- fighting this thing is a loser, and if we pass it, it should momentarily placate our liberal base, so the President can go back to doing what he does best- murdering people with drone aircraft, protecting the financial interests of the Wall Street elite and destroying the lives of governmental whistle-blowers. The Republicans want the government and the President to focus on those things as badly as we do.”


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I just conducted Bruckner’s Second Symphony for the first time a few days ago- even many of the most pro-Bruckner opinion makers seem to think that only his symphonies from the Fourth onward are worth doing, and the often over-zealous defences of the early symphonies by well-intentioned  fans of the composer sometimes do more harm than good. Fond as I am of it, I still struggle to accept the Third Symphony as being on anything like the same level of inspiration and accomplishment as the Fourth, and perhaps, in my case, that slightly discouraged me from spending more time with the other earlier works. Until now! Learning the Second has been a real revelation- it’s a totally echt-Brucknerian masterpiece, that works structurally, melodically and sonically. Does more early Bruckner await?

Anyway, the experience of learning to love this underrated work by one of the greatest symphonists of all time got me thinking about what other examples there are of major works by major, mainstream symphonists that get unfairly overlooked or dismissed. No off-the-beaten-track composers qualify- you’ll have to look elsewhere on this blog for defences of the symphonies of Gál, Magnard or Piston. Also, for a piece to qualify, it has to be genuinely unfairly overlooked or maligned- Brahms 3 is the least often played of his four symphonies, but its quality is not in dispute, and it is hardly a rarity. What do you think are the works of the major composers we don’t hear often enough, or don’t understand well enough? Has your orchestra made any big discoveries in recent years? Please share your thoughts!

10- Bruckner- Symphony no. 2

What astounds one the most about this work is how completely it embodies the unique musical personality of Bruckner. It has everything we value in the later works- the sense of awe and isolation, the moments of existential terror and unbearable desolation. It’s also full of astounding rhythmic innovations the likes of which had not been seen in the music of any previous symphonist. A must hear.

Recommended recording- Eugen Jochum, Bavarian Radio Symphony. The piece has become something of a plaything for smaller orchestras of late, and it works fine when played by the likes of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, or, dare I say, the SMP, but Jochum’s recording has a maturity and a breadth of vision that no modern version can match.


9- Beethoven- Symphony no. 8

We all know that Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are all a little overlooked in favour of 3, 5, 7 and 9. No’s 2 and 4 both deserve to be heard more, and the 6th seems to inspire, by far, the most wrong-headed assessments these days- it’s proto- modernism and minimialism, not muzak. I fear it is music that is too modern, original and visionary for most 21st  ears. However, I’ve chosen the Eighth because so few people seem to full appreciate just how astoundingly brilliant it is. Yes, it is funny, and yes, it is short, and yes, it is less outwardly dramatic than the odd-numbered symphonies, but if there is cleverer Finale out there to any symphony, I don’t know what it is. Get a good musician to talk you through how it is put together and you’ll never hear it the same way again

Recommended Recording- Not an easy choice- it’s one of those symphonies that really suffers from plodding tempi and muddy textures, but all too many period and HIP performances lack muscle and temperament. John Elliott Gardiner’s performance with the ORR is probably my favourite performance of his classic cycle for Arkiv, and the last movement in particular is refreshingly Dionysian, even if it could use a bit more raw power and depth in the sound.

8- Shostakovich- Symphony no. 7

Always popular with listeners and players, an alarming number of critics and conductors seem unable to keep up with Shostakovich’s wartime masterpiece. One of Britain’s best composers told me last year he considers it the greatest symphony written by a composer born in the 20th c. Keep that in mind as you listen for layers of irony, tragedy, violence, consolation and struggle.

Recommended recording- More so than most of his symphonies, quite a number of Shostakovich’s usually-most-reliable Russian interpreters (Mravinsky, Kondrashin) seem a little scared of the dark core of this symphony and tend to gloss over the top of the music. The best recording by far is Bernstein’s with Chicago, although the recorded sound is not my favourite.

7- Mozart- Symphony no. 39

Mozart’s last three symphonies seem to have been conceived and composed as a trilogy and can be heard as a summing up of his whole outlook on life and music. No. 39, the first of the three, is hardly a rarity, but it’s nowhere near as celebrated as the 40th and the Jupiter, whose emotional narratives are more direct and easier to follow. It’s also more feared than loved by orchestral violinists everywhere, most of whom earned a few grey hairs practicing the excerpts in the last movement for auditions.

Recommended recording- I appreciate the series of recordings Charles Mackerras made with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, in spite of the fact that I find the use of harpsichord throughout his cycle of the complete symphonies unfathomably irritating. Fortunately, I’ve trained myself to ignore it, and at least it’s recorded with very little presence by the Telarc team who must have realized how insanely out of place it sounded. Other than that, the playing has finesse and muscle and the tempi are suitably alive and balances are good. I don’t know his later recording for Linn. I’d love to hear a version with modern tempi from the VPO or Dresden, but without keyboard, please.

6- Schumann- Symphony no. 2

I suppose all of Schumann’s symphonies are in some way undervalued. The fiction about the superiority of the original version of the D minor has done a great deal to worsen people’s understanding of Schumann’s entire output and development as a composer. The Spring seems to have slightly dropped out of the repertoire altogether, and the reduction of the E flat major work with which he ended his career into a trite series of never-intended picture postcards of buildings and waterways has also led to a near pervasive misunderstanding of the staggering originality of the piece. However, of all the Schumann symphonies, the Second is the greatest, the most perfect and the most original- almost certainly the greatest symphony written since the death of Beethoven, and so many folks don’t get it.

Recommended recording- Well, what do you expect me to say? Please buy mine, if only for the program notes. Of the big-band recordings, my easy favourites are Sawalisch and Dresden, followed (at some distance, it must be said) by Cleveland and Dohnanyi.

5- Sibelius- Symphony no. 3

It’s a sad fact of human nature that most of what you read about most pieces of music is a first reaction to the first minute or so to the work, and this includes reviews, programme notes and essays. That’s one reason that 90% of people think of Haydn’s music as simple and straightforward- their attention wanders before it gets really interesting (it usually gets pretty interesting by the 2nd bar, but in some of the rondos, he keeps the listener waiting for 30 or 40 bars before letting loose with everything he’s got up his sleeve). The mention of  Haydn is no accident, because if Sibelius ever channelled Haydn, it was in this piece. Don’t let the genial tone of the opening, the graceful and apparently understated second movement, or the triumphant conclusion fool you- this is a deep, deceptive and profoundly original piece, full of surprises and shadows.

Recommended recording- There are a surprising number of good recordings of the Third in spite of its Cinderella status in the hall. Colin Davis has one of the best endings, with a real build up of momentum in his later recording, but the LSO’s playing is pretty ropey throughout the cycle. I think he tends to be the only one who gets the ending right. Berglund with COE is really interesting, and Gibson and the RSNO is also rather special

4- Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 1

Some people just can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that a 15 year old could have written a truly great symphony, even if right around this time he was also writing the Octet, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the peerless A minor String Quartet. I find myself shaking my head in complete despair every time I read things like “hints of the mature Mendelssohn” or “youthful.” This is a great piece- fiery, dramatic, beautiful, fully thought out and totally original. The Scherzo is mind-shatteringly good on so many levels. Only Mendelssohn could have written it, and it’s as good as anything he wrote.

Recommended recordings- I’ve never heard one I liked. This piece seems to suffer out of all proportion from conductors’ and producers’ inability to get to grips with Mendelssohn’s unique and personal idiom- some treat it like early Mozart, others like Brahms. Blech to both! Hopefully, someone will do it justice in my lifetime. Let us know if you’ve heard a really convincing one.


3- Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 8

RVW’s Fifth is his most popular, and possibly his most perfect, symphony, but the works that follow it are often problematic to program and perform. The Sixth is almost unbearably bleak, the Seventh tends to show its cinematic roots a bit much for many tastes (and is expensive to put on), and even devoted RVW interpreters often express a degree of befuddlement with the Ninth. But the Eighth? It’s just a great piece- a perfect symphony that works for audiences and players alike. What’s not to love? Why isn’t it played?

Recommended recording- Adrian Boult and the LPO are always the place to start. With RVW. The classic CD version from Decca is great, but start with the DVD on ICA classics if you can. Truly masterful work on the podium, and a nice performance by the orchestra.

2- Mahler- Symphony no. 7

Mahler’s 7th and 8th symphonies tend to be the ones that most show up the hubris and idiocy of  those who consider themselves too wise, clever and perceptive to understand either piece. When you hear a commentator talk about the 7th or 8th as a “failure,” it tells you only about their lack of knowledge and taste. Of the two, the 7th is ever so slightly more at risk because it lacks the sense of grand occasion which keeps Mahler 8 in the hearts of the public in spite of critical misunderstanding. A full defense of the piece would take too long for this post, but is unnecessary. My advice is to listen carefully and remember that everything in it is there for a reason- if it sounds banal, or sentimental or bizarre, it’s because Mahler meant it to, and it’s up to us to try follow him. As with Shostakovich above, it’s disheartening how many critics can’t seem to understand the role of irony and parody in a work like this. But I’m sure you can, dear reader.

Recommended recording- Everyone who is interested in Mahler should see Bernstein’s DVD performance with the VPO. The performance of the first movement is one of the worst professional recordings in existence, the last movement, possibly the best. If ever there were a document of a great conductor willing a reluctant and ill-prepared orchestra to achieve something truly special, this is it.  Haitink conducts this work incredibly well- the Concertgebouw Christmas Matinee film is wonderful.

Honorable mentions-

There are a lot of other wonderful works by major composers that could go on this list. In many cases, the problem is that these composers have more than one unfairly neglected work in their ouvre. Here are a few examples:

Dvorak- the early symphonies.  Big Tony might be the only composer whose symphonies are popular in exact correlation with the order in which they were written, with the last symphony (New World) the most popular and the First (Bells of Zlonice) the least. Is the Fist as good as the Ninth? No. Are they all worth playing? Yes. Is the gap in quality between, say, Six and Seven, or even more starkly, Five and Six enough to account for the huge falloff in popularity. Heck no.

Recommended recording- Because there is more than one unjustly neglected Dvorak symphony, you need a box set. The best are Kubelik with the Berlin Phil (my favourite) and Kertesz with the LSO (a classic that everyone should own)

Schubert- Symphonies 3, 4 and 6. I absolutely adore Schubert 3, 4 and 6 and could conduct them every week. There’s nothing in music like the Unfinished,  and the Great Sea Monster is a law unto itself, but 3,4 and 6 are endlessly delightful, original and rewarding pieces. What about 5? It’s my fault entirely, but too many massacres at the hands of orchestras who can’t play it have made it hard for me to listen to it. I also have associated it in my mind with a performance I covered with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the orchestra did admirable work in 120 degree heat and 100% humidity, but I’ll forever associate this delightful work with human sweat and the pungent fragrance of horse shit from the nearby stables after that night.

Recommended recording- Kleiber’s effervescent recording of the Third ought to be magic enough to persuade any sceptic to learn the early symphonies. Harmoncourt has done a worthy, if slightly slow, Fourth, and Muti has always been a champion of early Schubert

Prokofiev- The symphonies other than Five and the Classical. They’re all great works, consistently strong, original and moving. The  Fourth is so good he wrote it twice. The Seventh is both wonderful and surprisingly playable- it should be done more often. The Second is total rock ‘n’ roll.

Recommended recording Again, you’re ideally looking for a box. I’d avoid the famous one on Philips with a noted Russian maestro and wonderful British orchestra. It’s distressingly sloppy in many places and doesn’t hold up to repeated listening. Let me know if you find one you love.

So the final slot on this list goes to-

1- Tchaikovsky- Manfred Symphony. Each of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies is among the most popular and most frequently played works in the entire repertoire. One seems to hear performances of the Fourth with the kind of frequency you encounter politicians saying ill-informed things about the arts. Also, although the Third remains a rarity, the First (“Winter Dreams”) has really come into the repertoire  in the last ten years, and the Second (“Ukrainian”) has always been a favourite of audiences and youth orchestras. But the greatest of them all is hardly ever heard. I was 43 before I heard a live performance of the Manfred, which is all the more unfortunate because it is exactly the kind of piece that should be heard live.

Recommended recording- Really, you have to hear it live. Even a halfway decent live performance is more immediate and impressive than something polished up and fine tuned in the studio for a work like this.


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From the December 2012 issue of The Strad

A disc of String trios where time and place play an inescapable role

Buy here from MDT UK

Buy here from Arkiv USA

Buy here from Amazon UK

Buy here from Amazon USA

Epomeo Play Krasa and Gal

Here is music for string trio by two composers of Jewish heritage from the same generation, whose experience of the cold hand of Nazism resulted in different fates. The Viennese Hans Gál managed to escape to Britain in 1928 and lived to the ripe old age of 97; the unluckier Czech-born Hans Krása enjoyed, if that’s the word, a brief stay of execution at the Jewish show camp of Terezin before being murdered in Auschwitz aged 44. The players of Ensemble Epomeo capture the charm of Gál’s delightful neo-Classical Serenade (1932) with a sense of line and subtlety of texture. But, one feels, they could have brought more muscle to the emotional sound world of the F sharp minor Trio, with its nostalgic throwback to pre-war Vienna viewed from the sanctuary of 1970’s Edinburgh (and which in its original version included a viola d’amore).

However, they certainly don’t hold back in the short Krása pieces, written during the composer’s last days in Terezin. Here they exploit the dance-of-death tendencides of the Tanec and the sense of order overthrown in the Passacaglia and Fugue (each of which dissipates into Expressionist anarchy) and a frightenly challenging end. A warmly-recorded and thought-provoking disc.

Matthew Rye


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I don’t play trombone, but

If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would…

Bathe in yak’s blood for a month

Shave with an axe

Tattoo a picture of Thor’s hammer on my forehead

If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would…

Practice starting a lonnnnnnng note REALLY fucking pianissimo, then make a lonnnnnnnnnnnnng diminuendo to nothing

And practice the silence that follows that note, and the breath that precedes it.

If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would

Practice Ride of the Valkyries on the prow of a Viking attack ship

Use the severed head of a conquered Gaul for a mute

Clean my horn with the swaddling clothes of a new-born prince


If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would…

Take a lesson from James Brown

And another lesson from James Bond

If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would…

Imagine that when I play the last quarter note of the piece, the entire room would be engulfed in white fire, then go totally black on the cutoff

Imagine the first soft chord of “that” chorale is so in tune that the entire universe hums and the mountains sink contentedly, just a little, into the earth beneath them every time my section plays it.

Find a sound made of stone, and another made of glass, and another made of water, and one more, made of blood


If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would…

Spend a month watching the loneliest man in the world, and trying to imagine my sound was his voice when at last God chose to listen to him

And I would also imagine my sound was the voice of God when he answered the loneliest man in the world with an implacable “No.”

And I would imagine my sound was the disinterested emptiness of Nature, when God had again left that man alone again

If I were to play trombone in a Bruckner symphony, I would… 

Shine my shoes with Donald Trump’s hairpiece

Brush my teeth with steel wool

Wear a suit that would make Armani himself weep with jealousy, and a pocket silk of royal blue

Fill my handmade alligator-skin shoes with tiny, sharp stones, so I never feel too comfortable

And, underneath, I would wear a loin cloth made from the hide of the fallen king of the Wyoming buffalo, who I would have killed with my bare hands and skinned with my embouchure


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It’s time for the third installment in our Explore the Score series on the Schumann symphonies. Our new recording of Gal’s 2nd Symphony and Schumann’s Fourth has just been released on Avie Records. Ordering via these links helps support these important recordings.


Explore the score: Schumann Symphony no. 2.

Explore the score: Schumann Symphony no. 3.

Bobby and Hans vol 3

Schumann: Symphony No.4 Op.120 (final version)

Robert Schumann- Composer, writer, ladies man, hard drinker and inventor of

Robert Schumann- Composer, writer, ladies man, hard drinker and inventor of “Klangfarbenmelodie”

‘If the Third Symphony represents Schumann’s closest approach to symphonic monumentality, the Fourth Symphony is his most ingenious experiment in form.’ Hans Gál

The work known to most modern listeners as Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was, in fact, the second he completed. After the huge success of his First Symphony in 1841 (the ‘Spring’), Schumann, with typical single-mindedness, forged ahead through the remainder of the year with his focus squarely on orchestral music. In the spring of 1841, he completed the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, then immediately, according to his wife Clara’s marriage diary, began work on a D minor Symphony on 31 May. While the Spring Symphony had poured out of him in practically a single gesture only months earlier, progress on the D minor was more sporadic, with entries in the Hashaltbuch noting numerous bursts of productivity and other periods where the work was set aside due to travel, illness or the urgency of other projects. Finally, Schumann declared on 4 October that he had ‘finished polishing the symphony.’

No doubt the summer of 1841 was a busy one, but there were sound musical reasons why Schumann might have needed more time to work on his new symphony. Although the ‘Spring’ takes interesting steps towards achieving symphonic cohesion through the cross-referencing of themes and motives across movements, the D minor was a radical new approach to symphonic form – a symphony in a single breath. Although Schumann had clearly fashioned the D minor Symphony after Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Schumann’s experiment in what he initially even called a ‘Symphonic Fantasy’ was, even in its first manifestation, more structurally ambitious than Schubert’s prototype, and would become, in time, a model for such revolutionary works as Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and Sibelius’s Seventh.

The ‘Spring’ Symphony had been rapturously received at its premiere by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Schumann’s friend Mendelssohn, but Mendelssohn was unable to conduct the premiere of the D minor Symphony, and the job fell to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Ferdinand David, who seems to have managed only a lacklustre job. Schumann expressed disappointment with the performance on 6 December 1841, but he was confident that the merits of the symphony (and the Overture, Scherzo and finale, first heard in the same concert) would soon be recognized: ‘I know they are not at all inferior to the First, and must succeed eventually.’ Certainly, many of the early reviews of both pieces were positive. If the premiere had not been a triumph, neither was it a catastrophe. Nonetheless, Peters Edition declined to publish the D minor as his Op.50, and Schumann set the work aside to attend to new projects.

He returned to his symphonic Cinderella in 1851. The success of his fourth and last symphony, the E flat major work published as his Third and dubbed the ‘Rhenish’ (a title Schumann never used nor intended) had renewed his enthusiasm for the genre, and he had also recently completed preparing the unfinished D minor symphony written by his friend, the recently deceased Norbert Burgmüller, for publication. Although Schumann spent only a week or so revising and re-orchestrating his own D minor Symphony, the changes are extremely important and telling, and all for the better: this is a revision undertaken by a master at the peak of his powers. Most importantly, Schumann attended to the transitions and connections between the different movements and sections of the work, making them more compelling and seamless. He refined the work’s orchestration for performance by the 45 or so musicians of his Düsseldorf orchestra or the Leipzig Gewandhaus, (not a modern symphony orchestra of over 80 players), and made other significant alterations, such as changing the meter of the first movement’s Allegro from the relatively heavy and insistent ‘in one’ to a more varied ‘in two’. The premiere of the revision (catalogued as Op.120) on 30 December 1852 was one of the last great public and critical triumphs of his career, and this time, he had no difficultly in finding an enthusiastic publisher.

In its final form, the first movement represents one of the most original re-imaginings of Sonata form of the post-Beethoven era. The slow introduction begins with a powerful multi-octave A pedal, not on the downbeat as one might expect (and as Schumann had written in the 1841 version), but on the upbeat. This metric dislocation is loaded with tension, and the theme that follows is notable for its economy of rhythmic and intervallic materials- it’s all in quavers and mostly written in step-wise motion. The transition into the movement’s main Lebhaft section is another significant improvement. Schumann replaces the original version’s somewhat formulaic fanfare chords, which don’t seem motivically well-connected to the preceding or subsequent material, with something far more fluid and organic. The continuous quaver motion of the melody metamorphoses into a growling bass ostinato, and the violins introduce the main theme of the Lebhaft, derived from the quaver theme, in semi-quavers. The exposition is extremely terse, and essentially monothematic setting the tone for the symphony as a whole. The development lurches from a jovial arrival in F major to a fortissimo unison E flat, dominated by the stentorian power of the trombones, and even introduces new and contrasting material previously withheld. Only in the last third of the movement does Schumann introduce the lyrical second subject we might have expected much earlier, and this soaring theme provides the impetus for an ecstatic coda, which eschews any Beethovenian restoration of order and  stability (note how all the accents and emphases fall on wrong or weak beats and bars).

To treat the following Romanze as a broad, big-boned Romantic slow movement is to misread both Schumann’s intent and his metronome marking. The lilting theme in the solo oboe and cello is modelled on a courtly Renaissance dance, and Schumann reportedly originally intended to double the pizzicato accompaniment in the strings with guitar or lute. Even the return of the symphony’s portentous introduction is notably fleeter and more fluid than in its first incarnation (albeit not in all performances. Such dalliances can be beautiful and convincing in the moment, but they surely take away from the sense of unity and direction which is so central to the D minor’s whole conception). As if to underline the sense of continuation and interconnectivity between the first and second movements, the following middle section, with its elegant violin solo, is actually a fairly direct variation of the symphony’s opening (and the reprise of it just heard), the violin triplets embellishing a cantus firmus in straight quavers and step-wise motion. The Scherzo offers an abrupt and violent contrast, while nonetheless growing organically from motives found in the symphony’s opening bars. The Trio, like the Introduction, is a study in continuous quaver motion, integrally connected to both the symphony’s opening and the violin solo in the Romanze, and is as dreamy and sensual as the Scherzo is violent and severe.

The transition to the finale shows Schumann completely at home in the dramatic world of high German Romanticism, with stormy tremoli and dramatic brass fanfares that might evoke memories of Weber’s Der Freischütz, especially the dark and brooding Wolf’s Glen. In the main body of the finale which follows, Schumann changes the meter from 2/4 to 4/4, and (in the revision) integrates the theme of the first movement with the triumphal new theme of the finale (an incredibly powerful link, which Schumann had not developed in the original). This is music that has often been subjected to the indignities of a comedy tempo. The brass chorale at the end of the exposition (repeated in the revision, not in the original, which tells one that repeats in Schumann’s time were anything but pro-forma) also originally appears in the first movement, and proves increasingly key in driving the symphony toward its  destination. The structure of the Finale neatly parallels that of the first movement, gradually increasing in intensity as it adds new themes, but this time the musical journey heads surely towards the closure so emphatically avoided by the first movement, in an utterly characteristic meeting of Apollonian rigour and Dionysian ecstasy.

C Kenneth Woods, 2013

Recommended recording of the 1841 version- Thomas Zehetmaier, Northern Sinfonia, Avie Records


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