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Stravinsky Symphony No 1 in E Flat

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Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton | 16:56 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Wednesday afternoon's concert from Hoddinnott Hall (live on Radio 3, and Thierry's last from our own studio) will feature Stravinsky's Symphony No 1 in E Flat Major, a work that I was unfamiliar with until now, and if I had heard it on the radio, I would definitely not have guessed it was a work by Stravinsky.

When I think of Stravinsky, my mind generally moves straight to the big ballet scores. The scores he produced for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, for me, rank among some of the finest scores in the repertoire in terms of their energy, orchestral colouring and dramatic drive. What better evocation of the fairground is found in classical music than the opening of Petrushka? What more violent, genuinely terrifying music is there in ballet than the Sacrificial Dance from the Rite of Spring?

It is understandable, perhaps, that this symphony, as a purely symphonic work, should have a less pictorial vibe. Nonetheless, the Symphony in Three Movements is still recognisable as a work of Stravinsky, although it too has no explicit programme. With its jazzy syncopations (I find it impossible to sit still in it - although the viola section would say I find it impossible to sit still at any time), angular melodic lines, and quite dissonant harmonies - it is essentially Big Igor in symphonic mode. To that end, if it is the Stravinsky of Petrushka, Les Noces, or the Rite that you seek in the Symphony No 1, you may be very surprised.

If someone had taken Stravinsky's name off the front cover, and told me it was a work by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, or even Tchaikovsky, I would have believed them. This is a youthful work written between 1905 and 1907, and the first of Stravinsky's official output. In its traditional structure and traditional harmonies, one hears more the influence of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and his Russian master predecessors, than the emerging voice of the composer widely regarded as the most influential of the 20th century. Although arguably the material played by the pianissimo and still diminuendoing tremolando basses at the end of the third movement can also be found in Firebird (I seriously think it is, it is almost exactly the same as the bit before the amazing horn solo near the end of the ballet's score), to me there is little else to link this work with his better known scores.

That is not to say that this symphony is not a viable work - it is charming, pleasant, uplifting and buoyant. However, it is simply incredible to think that the Symphony No 1 predates Petrushka and Firebird by only three and four years, and the Rite of Spring by less than a decade. Perhaps if Rimsky-Korsakov's death in 1908 had not ended Stravinksy's formal composition studies, and thus encouraged the young composer to adopt influences from further afield, it would have taken longer for these behemoths to be conceived. Indeed, perhaps they would never have been conceived at all.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs an afternoon concert of Honegger and Stravinsky tomorrow (Wednesday 20 June) at 2pm, at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay. Tickets are available by calling 0800 052 1812. The concert will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.


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