Top nine symphonies – Rebecca Franks

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: Rebecca Franks picks her top nine

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This is one of the trickiest tasks I’ve had to do for a while. Perhaps it would have been even tougher to draw up a list of the nine ‘greatest’ symphonies, at least here there’s the get-out clause of subjectivity – this is a personal list of the symphonies that most appeal to me. But in many cases it was a close-run thing, and a lot of symphonies I love have been consigned to the cutting-room floor. There’s no Bruckner, for example, nor any Vaughan Williams. Quirkier choices like Rautavaara, Webern and Berlioz haven’t made it through, but perhaps they’d be in second place. And how about Schubert and Schumann? Or contemporary symphonists like David Matthews and Peter Maxwell Davies? With so much fantastic music to choose from, nine just isn’t enough…

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First Symphony
No. 1. Here’s where it all begins. The first time a composer makes their mark on the symphonic landscape. Often, though, earlier works become overshadowed by what follows. As great symphonies go, would you choose Beethoven’s First over any of his others? Mozart penned his first at the tender age of eight, egged on by his father, so perhaps that’s allowed to languish in obscurity. One obvious exception is Mahler’s mighty first, still one of the most popular of his nine symphonies, and one of my favourites. There’s that wonderful opening with the stirrings of nature, the eerie double-bass Frère Jacques melody, and the cry of pain that rips everything apart in the finale.

Second Symphony
Rachmaninov’s double-cream symphony, chosen by Elizabeth Davis, brings back memories of a youth orchestra tour to Italy, concerts in the heat of the Venetian evening, swimming in Lake Garda. In at number two, though, is an English symphony written just three years after Rachmaninov’s. After his First Symphony, with its Adagio of sombre beauty, was acclaimed as ‘the greatest symphony of modern times’, Elgar had much to live up to in his Second. Dedicated to the memory of Edward VII, it boasts an Allegro first movement with that most Elgarian of instructions – nobilmente – and a grave C minor slow movement.

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Third Symphony
I toyed with putting Anthony Payne’s compelling elaboration of Elgar’s Third Symphony in this spot: as inspiration goes, this meeting of minds surely scores highly. But then I’d have had to leave out Schumann’s Rhenish, Beethoven’s Eroica or – here’s what tipped the balance – Brahms’s Third. Ever since hearing it performed at the Proms by the Berlin Philharmonic, whose players were utterly caught up in its passionate ebb and flow, it’s been my favourite of Brahms’s four. Bursting and bubbling with freedom and happiness – the notes FAF, standing for ‘Frei aber froh’, sound throughout – and with that poco allegretto which catches at your heart, this symphony has a spirit quite unlike his other orchestral works.

Fourth Symphony
Martinu and Mendelssohn go head-to-head here, with two fresh, buoyant symphonies. Mendelssohn’s Italian was written in Berlin in 1832, just after the German composer had just been taking in the sights of Naples, Florence and Rome, among other places. From the perky first movement, to the whirlwind saltarello/tarantella finale it’s a symphony that whisks the listener off their feet. Over a hundred years later, Martinu penned the fourth of his six symphonies. It too is an optimistic work, showcasing his colourful, seductive orchestration. It’s a tough call but, as the Czech composer’s symphonies have been a recent discovery for me, after first getting to know his Oboe Concerto, Martinu’s Fourth Symphony is my final choice.

Fifth Symphony
Swans in flight, so the story goes, were the inspiration for the wonderful affirmative brass theme in the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. It’s an evocative image, and this Symphony is immediately appealing - quite different in character from the more austere, jagged (but no less great) Fourth Symphony. Written by the Finnish composer for his 50th birthday, Sibelius twice revised it, unhappy with his first efforts. But the final result is magnificent, and both its organicism and use of triumphant, majestic brass point the way to his symphonic swansong, the Seventh Symphony. (And, perhaps, Rautavaara’s Cantus articus for birds and orchestra.)

Sixth Symphony
Not often, but just sometimes, a piece of music leaves you lost for words. For me, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is one of them. As Jeremy Pound described in his ‘Top Nine’, Tchaikovsky takes the listener on a journey of despair. Coloured with tinges of false hope, in the end it takes you into the darkness. A live performance of this symphony by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev, for whom the Pathétique is something of a calling card, is seared on my memory.

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Seventh Symphony
If I could only listen to one more Seventh Symphony, it would have to be Beethoven’s. Described by Wagner as the ‘apotheosis of the dance’, it has an irresistible energy, and the minor-mode Allegretto, with its obsessive dactylic rhythms, is a noble outpouring of melancholy. Yet there’s another symphony that I have to nominate for this entry, and that’s Dvořák's darkly-hued Seventh. This was the first symphony I ever played – and I can still picture those opening bars and the pencil scribblings in the hired part. Highlights are plentiful: turn to the restless, stirring first movement, the gorgeous Poco Adagio, or that wonderfully lyrical, almost Brahmsian, third movement.

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Eighth Symphony
This slot was one of the more difficult ones to fill. William Boyce’s short, attractive three-movement so-called Symphony No. 8 in D minor, suggested by a friend, could have been a wild-card entry. Or how about turning to the Father of the Symphony, suggested another: Haydn’s Le Soir would, indeed, be a fine choice. Schubert’s Unfinished has always appealed, but it seems a shame not to include a complete symphony. So, in the end, I’ve gone for Shostakovich’s Eighth, one of his war symphonies. The C minor is fierce and powerful but, like Beethoven’s Symphony in the same key, ends in the major key – in this case in serenity rather than triumph.

Ninth Symphony
Who else could it be, but Beethoven? After he threw down the gauntlet in 1824 with his choral symphony, he was for years the composer that everyone struggled to follow. Written around the same time as Beethoven was grappling with the idea of God in his Missa Solemnis, this Symphony sees Beethoven exploring the question of humanity. Cast in dark D minor, the symphony’s epic opening movement is followed by a furious Scherzo and radiant B flat major Adagio. But it’s the finale which is strikingly original. Featuring vocal soloists and chorus, it opens with fragments recalling previous moments, the music gradually building until the jubilant Ode to Joy bursts forth.

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine

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