Spring Symphonies: 26/60 Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements

This is - by the accounts of the composer - a war symphony, written between 1942 and 1945 and premiered in 1946.  It was his first work that could be properly said to mark his move to the United States.  To be honest it only occasionally strikes me as a war symphony - perhaps the problem is my bias towards more turbulence than this work shows - though it is certainly more turbulent than any of his other symphonies and yet remains a fine example of the neo-classical in Stravinsky’s catalogue.

Stravinsky is one of those composers who is timeless and above ordinary analysis - his works, when they work, just catch you unawares - “how did he come up with that idea?” is the thought that so often comes for mind.  And to have such a strong voice dominating nearly a century with so many styles of music is marvellous - I think he was the Beethoven of his time and - just - my time.  That latter point is hard to get your head round really.

The first movement (Overture; Allegro) opens with an emphatic opening salvo which is - like the rest of the first movement this is slightly off-kilter.  Its not so far off The Rite of Spring which Stravinsky was revising at the time he was writing this work.  The piano’s percussive quality adds a vehement intent to the piece - quite spiky and often with irregular beat patterns.  If parts of the Rite of Spring had appeared as war music we would perhaps have found them more immediately convincing but this symphony’s scale is smaller, it’s reach more internal than external by which I mean less showy, less visceral and more about an inner turmoil.  Stravinsky allows full orchestral reign now and then and these outbursts are telling. Its truculent music whilst at the same time nervy and anxious.  There are more frequent reminders of Stravinsky’s pioneering ballet in this movement and much cyclic, circling and pirating of themes and rhythmical figures.  There’s also a harking back 25 or so years earlier to Pulcinella.  It doesn’t I think it’s fair to say, in these intricate passages of 18th century pastiche really feel like a war symphony.  Though in the approach to the movements final passage the tutti passages do pick up some real bite, most particularly in the repeats of the opening motto - where there is some darkness but the end fades out.

The quirky relaxed gait of the Andante second movement has a puckish quality.  The harp is prominent (a sign of the source material).  The middle section is perfectly unworldly and when a string quartet breaks out we might be in the hands of Schönberg.  It is a very attractive movement of little impact but great interest.  The repeat is of the starting material doesn’t take us much further.  But the sudden urgency between shifting woodwind and string chords ushers ( if that’s the word) an ungainly angular theme.  This is the third movement (Con moto) and it’s bludgeon opening gives way to a tight passage led by bassoons which gains urgency and depth and fills the orchestra - again back to Pulcinella orchestration but with a dazzling brilliance that combines both piano and harp.  Its vivid and exciting. There’s a zest to this music which reminds me of John Adams and at one point I got a hint of Bernstein. Horn calls come straight from 1913.  It drops back to a more martial beat and attempts a reprise of the opening salvo.  The man just keeps on creating. 

The concertante style reappears with its suave delicate nuances but building to something a bit more reciprocating - the music is harsh and louder and much more emphatic than elsewhere.  There’s a savagery here too underlined with a sudden fierce some chord which kicks the legs from under the music and the listener.

So why this symphony?  For me it is the Rite of Spring re-imagined in symphonic form but also in short form.  The other symphonies - all of which I love - have their place but this one seems to me to be an under played, under recorded and under recognised gem.  Stravinsky at the height of his neoclassical powers recalling the height of his brutal powers.

Here’s the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gergiev playing the first movement.


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