Top nine symphonies – Elizabeth Davis
In the November issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now, we invite nine leading conductors to name the nine symphonies that inspire them most. Now it's our turn: Elizabeth Davis picks her top nine
I have never been able to draw up my desert island discs – let alone choose my luxury item. Partly this is because the more music I hear, the more I realise is still waiting for me; and partly because my favourites change depending on mood, company and time of day (as another member of the BBC Music Magazine team observed the other morning, for example, 9am is too early for Mahler.) So this is a snapshot of my current symphonic listening: what I would take to a desert island if I were stranded tomorrow. I look forward to coming across this list in a couple of years – or even a couple of months – and entirely disagreeing with it. Feel free to do the same.
Sibelius’s First is a relatively recent discovery but it has earned its place on the list – not least because of its stirring opening movement (not to mention the thrilling third). Forget coffee: listening to this symphony first thing in the morning sets you up for the day ahead better than any espresso. Sibelius wrote the piece at the – relatively – young age of 33 and it fizzes with youthful enthusiasm and wide-eyed Romanticism.
Like double cream or full fat milk, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is a decadently rich affair. The velvety melodies of the first movement complement the sparky rhythms of the second, before leading into a deep, brooding Adagio. Rachmaninov’s music seems to prefigure the grand, sweeping scores of the early films and tempts the listener to nostalgia and sentimentality. Well, like double cream, a little bit won’t hurt.
Brahms’s Third Symphony has an embarrassment of musical ideas and, in fact, came to the composer relatively easily: it took four months to compose, in contrast to the 20 years spent on his First Symphony. It’s a work that lifts you up, carries you along, shows you the elegance and – in the third Poco Allegrettto movement – melancholy of the world before placing you gently back in it, a touch wiser.
I recently asked a pianist which was their favourite Beethoven Piano Concerto. Number Three, they said, confidently. A pause. Actually, Number Five. Another pause. Definitely Number One… And so we went on. I feel much the same about his symphonies. The great man features twice in my list and his first entry is for a beautiful symphony that’s often over-shadowed by the drama of the Fifth or the ecstasy of the Ninth. Beethoven at his brilliant best.
After the second performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony the composer declared ‘I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure’. I can’t agree, Pyotr. The symphony boasts lush textures, irresistible rhythms and emotive melodies. Characteristics it shares, in fact, with some of his more famous works: Tchaikovsky may be forever linked in the popular psyche with pirouettes and fairytales – but there’s something distinctly balletic about his Fifth Symphony as well.
Back for his second entry, my top sixth symphony is Beethoven’s Pastoral. The work’s unbridled joy and unashamed sentimentality (in, for example, the bird song passage) is irresistible. Whether it was intended as a landscape drawn in music or simply a sensuous response to the beauty of the countryside, the work is one of his most splendid – and popular.
Bruckner, another heavyweight of the form gets my Seventh spot. His symphonies are architectural masterpieces and, like cathedrals, caverns and castles, offer you the space to think. Bruckner has reduced me to tears and made my heart jump with happiness – sometimes, as with the Adagio of the Seventh, within the same movement.
Whatever you think of Mahler’s music, you can’t help admiring his audacity. Nowhere is this character trait more obvious than in his Eighth Symphony. With enough soloists for a small opera, this symphony is a far cry from Haydn’s symphonic experiments a couple of hundred years before. But with much of the symphony’s text taken from Goethe’s Faust perhaps it isn’t surprising that Mahler’s score is one of the most ambitious ever written.
The first time I heard Dvořák's Symphony ‘To the New World’ I was sitting in a piazza outside the cathedral in Siena. After a sweltering day in Tuscany I was enjoying an open-air concert. The beautiful setting, the calm of the cooling evening and Dvořák's naïve, utterly beguiling melodies combined to create a treasured musical memory.
Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine