Top nine symphonies – Jeremy Pound

In the November issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale from 30 September, we invite nine leading conductors to name the nine symphonies that inspire them most – one chooses his finest First, the next his finest Second and so on.
Now it’s our turn.

A
a
-
Rating: 
0

But, being greedy, we’ve each decided to have a go at all nine. Importantly, we’re going for the symphonies that appeal to us most as listeners, not attempting to say what we believe are the greatest. To kick off, deputy editor Jeremy Pound names his Dream IX.

First Symphony
My symphonic dream team starts off with something of a wildcard in the No. 1 shirt. Encouraged recently after an interview with conductor Martyn Brabbins to try out Ives’s Fourth, I soon found myself captivated instead by the same composer’s First on the same disc. Begun in 1898 while Ives was still a student (precocious blighter), it doesn’t pretend to break any new ground, and in fact casts more-than-knowing winks at Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, not least in the cor anglais solo that begins the second movement. Corny? Yes, maybe. But it is, however, also superbly well written, brilliantly orchestrated and often exquisitely beautiful.
Recommended CD: Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Litton (Hyperion CDA67540)

Audio clip

Second Symphony
‘Where the birds sing, where the fish glide noiselessly through the water, where the sun warms and the wind strokes mildly round one’s curls’ – Nielsen’s own description of the second movement of his Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments sums up its appeal pretty nicely. The work overall was inspired by a comic illustration of said four temperaments – volatile, lazy, melancholy and sanguine – that the composer saw hanging on the wall of a pub and Nielsen explores each character trait with brilliant observation and humour. The music is affable enough in itself, and that charm is increased severalfold once you’ve seen the illustration. One to put you in a good mood.
Recommended CD: BBC Scottish SO/Vänskä (BIS BIS-CD-1289)

Audio clip

Third Symphony
If I had to choose one desert island symphonic movement, it would be the finale of Mahler’s Third, which over the course of 25 minutes builds to its glorious climax with a simplicity of means that defies the composer’s everything-bar-the-kitchen-sink reputation. But I’ll admit to having my concentration and patience tested by the preceding five movements. My weakness, I accept it. Schumann’s superb Rhenish Symphony, in contrast, holds my attention throughout, from its life-affirming opening, through the lyrical, flowing second movement and the solemn procession of the fourth to the buoyant, celebratory finale.
Recommended CD: Philharmonia/Muti (EMI 097 9932)

Audio clip

Fourth Symphony
What is it about Fourth symphonies that makes composers go off on a bit of a wild tangent, before returning to more familiar territory with their Fifth? Sibelius, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams’s challenging Fourths all instantly spring to mind here, and are wonderfully enjoyable to get to grips with. But, for me, the more easily accessible pleasures of Brahms’s Fourth still hold sway. The whole work, and the fourth-movement passacaglia in particular, is a model of symphonic craftsmanship. And is there any moment more sublime than the hymn-like melody in the strings in the second movement?
Recommended CD: Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Mackerras (Telarc CD80465)

Fifth Symphony
Something of a head-to-head here, between two Fifth Symphonies written a mere six years apart. So, then, Shostakovich’s 1937 ‘Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’ with its faux-triumphant (but fantastically rousing) finale? Or Vaughan Williams’s 1943 work, premiered amid the ruins of wartime London and whose ‘serene loveliness’, according to conductor Adrian Boult, ‘shows what we must work for when this madness is over.’ The emotional hearts of both symphonies lie in the third movements – bleakly bitter in the Shostakovich, profoundly wistful in the Vaughan Williams. Both are achingly beautiful in their very different ways but there’s something about the way that Vaughan Williams evokes his English countryside roots that inevitably wins me over. Parochial, but fair.
Recommended CD: London Symphony Orchestra/Hickox (Chandos CHAN9666)

Sixth Symphony
Talking of very beautiful but very different masterpieces, just how does one choose between Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphonies, the Pastoral and the Pathétique? Not too difficult, in fact. You’d gladly share a beer or two in the company of the Pastoral, but the Pathétique is the friend you turn to when times are really tough. Over the course of four movements, Tchaikovsky explores each and every mood of someone on the brink – despondency, wistful reminiscence, false optimism and then downright despair. Even with the knowledge of what happened next, there’s something strangely comforting in sharing the thoughts of a composer who has faced the abyss. Maybe one’s own life isn’t so wretched after all…
Recommended CD: Russian National Orchestra/Pletnev (Virgin 561 6362)

Audio clip

Seventh Symphony
Beethoven dances his way through the four movements of his exhilarating Seventh Symphony. Mahler creeps gingerly and memorably through the night in his. But then there’s Sibelius. One movement, 20 minutes in total, key and tempo changes aplenty, and a distinctly valedictory feel as that quintessentially Sibelian brass carries us off into the sunset at the end. Utterly majestic. I’m not entirely surprised that the Finn chose to burn his Eighth Symphony – where could he possibly go from here?
Recommended CD: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Segerstam (Ondine ODE10072)

Audio clip

Eighth Symphony
I first got to know Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony when, back in 1987, I hacked my way through its central Allegro non troppo as a back-desk second violinist at school. Even in the less-than-deft hands of the Abingdon School First Orchestra it made an impression, and that’s saying something. Since then, I’ve got to know the work properly and, thanks to performances such as the scintillating live account I heard from the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew Litton a few years back and the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko’s recent CD, I still find myself astounded by its thrilling brutality and expressive power. As Petrenko himself says, it’s ‘one of the truly great pieces inspired by the Second World War’. (The school orchestra, I should also hasten to add, has improved in leaps and bounds since my day…)
Recommended CD: RLPO/Petrenko (Naxos 8.572392)

Ninth Symphony
I somehow reach the last of my Top Nine without so far having included any Beethoven or Mahler in there, which seems a little daft given that it’s their overall symphony cycles I’d want to have above all others. And for all the brilliance of both composers’ Ninth Symphonies, it’s Schubert who nicks this final slot. Epic in scale – Schumann praised its ‘heavenly length’ – the ‘Great C major’ seems way ahead of its time, a symphony of Brucknerian scale and scope composed 40 years before Bruckner himself put pen to symphonic paper. Now add to that Schubert’s unrivalled gift for melody, and that ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ moment as the trombones emerge over the horizon in the first movement. A major masterpiece indeed, in more ways than one.
Recommended CD: Berliner Philharmoniker/Harnoncourt (Elatus 0927467502)

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine