Not the Mahler symphonies

James JollyMon 26th April 2010

Help with an alternative nine and a half!

Were it not for the spectacularly disruptive effects of Eyjafjallajökull last week I’d be on my way to LA (via Japan and New Zealand). There, I’d planned to record a radio show with Jim Svejda, the hugely popular and erudite host of “The Record Shelf” on KUSC (and syndicated on various NPR stations throughout the States). We usually chat about the Award winners each year, but we thought that for Mahler Year we’d offer a slightly subversive alternative to the deluge of Mahler recordings and concerts. “Not the Mahler symphonies” is going to be nine and half symphonies (the half is for the Adagio of No 10) not by Mahler, and not from the “core” repertoire, that would provide an unusual alternative. Since I’ll now be chatting with Jim “down the line” from London, I thought I’d rope in some ideas from visitors to this site. Here are my nine (with runners-up), please feel free to offer alternatives…which Malcolm Arnold symphony, for example, should go in? And Roy Harris?

Symphony No 1 – Kalinnikov

A terrifically red-blooded Russian symphony, with a melody that links the first and last movements that will stay with you for days.

(Honorable mention to Vaughan Williams for one of the most assured symphonic debuts)

Symphony No 2 – Vaughan Williams (A London Symphony)

A symphony I love both as a response from someone who loved the city, but also “pure” music. 

(Hm to: Bernstein and Hovhaness)

Symphony No 3 – Berwald (Symphonie singulière)

Berwald’s music sounds quite unlike anyone else’s and seems to occupy a place between the classical and the romantic that is quite unique. I love the rhythmic energy of this delightful symphony.

(Hm to: Szymanowski)

Symphony No 4 – Lou Harrison (Last Symphony)

Ever since Argo recorded this piece I’ve loved this piece for its extraordinary explosion of colour and vitality. The coyote stories that provide the theme for the finale never fail to entrance. This is music that just exudes a love of life.

(Hm to: Rautavaara and Pärt)

Symphony 5 – Simpson

 I was torn between Nielsen and Simpson here (something that Simpson would have appreciated as a great champion of the Dane), but Nielsen isn’t that far from the core repertoire. Simpson’s Fifth, written for a large orchestra, is surely one of the great late-20th-century symphonies – it draws a palette of immense subtlety and proves that cogent symphonic thinking was in excellent hands.

(Hm to: Nielsen)

Symphony No 5 1/2 – Don Gillis

Well, I couldn’t resist this – great fun!

Symphony No 6 – Bax

It was Jim Svejda who introduced me to this symphony, reckoning it one of the greatest of the 20th century. And having played it numerous times since, I’m inclined to agree.

(Hm: Martinu)

Symphony No 7 – Prokofiev

One of the loveliest of Prokofiev’s seven – melodically irresistible and full of charm. It’s a mystery that, apart from Valery Gergiev, no one ever plays it!

(Hm: Rautavaara)

Symphony No 8 – Myaskovsky

I wanted to include something by this remarkably productive symphonist. His Eighth is a lovely work, overlaid with a nice sense of mystery (the Svetlanov recording is a bit scruffy but certainly conveys the work’s powerful message).

Symphony 9 – Schuman

William Schuman strikes me as a hugely underrated composer: tonal but not bland, with a winning musical language. The symphony is subtitled The Ardeatine Caves after the site of a truly horrific Nazi mass-murder of 335 Italians, and a feeling of unease, anger and pain infuses the piece. If you like Shostakovich this would be worth exploring… 

Over to you!

If you want to check out any of my nine and a half, here are some links:

Kalinnikov from Passionato

Vaughan Williams from Passionato

Berwald from Passionato

Harrison from eMusic

Simpson from Hyperion

Don Gillis from ClassicsOnline

Bax from The Classical Shop

Prokofiev from Passionato

Myaskovsky from ClassicsOnline

Schuman from ClassicsOnline

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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