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This work was commissioned by the BBC for the 88th Season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts and first performed on Friday 23 July 1983 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
It is both surprising and understandable that Hugh Wood should have waited until the age of fifty to bring forth a symphony. Surprising, because even in such early works as the FIRST STRING QUARTET (1962), when he was ostensibly mastering the intricacies of strict serialism, there was already a latent sweep on invention and an urge to integrate contrasting material on a large scale - subsequently fulfilled in such works as the CELLO CONCERTO (1969), the VIOLIN CONCERTO (1972) and the THIRD STRING QUARTET (1978). Understandable, because through his scores and writings on music alike there runs an almost Brahmsian awareness of the Great Tradition and the responsibility it places upon any composer who aspires significantly to add to it. Scored for large forces (including quadruple flutes, trumpets and trombones, six horns, and two tubas), the new SYMPHONY is Wood’s first substantial piece in four years and, at around 35 minutes, his longest altogether. Appearing as it does, it will inevitably be heard, as his major statement to date; but the humility beyond the ambition should not be underestimated.
The work is cast in four distinct movements, though as in the VIOLIN CONCERTO there is only one pause in the music, between the second and third; even here the break is minimised in effect by a resumption of motivic arguments. In terms both of harmonic structure and of expressive development, the four movements seem to have been conceived as a single, unified progression. While melodic and harmonic details are both derived from an intensive working of a handful of intervallic figures, in a way that owes much to his earlier serialism, Wood’s handling is here free enough to encompass a large-scale sense of tonal structure as well. Ths same tritone that inflicted so much of the melodic writing in the CELLO CONCERTO also affects the SYMPHONY. The music struggles to escape from an uncertain E/E flat area which dominates the first movement, towards an eventual unequivocal A major in the work’s final pages. Emotionally, however, this trajectory more closely resembles that of the THIRD QUARTET - except that where the QUARTET opens in frozen despair, the SYMPHONY begins in tumultuous violence.
Entitled ‘Tempesta’ and launched with a fortissimo timpani figure on the pitches F, F sharp, E, E flat, the first movement could be described as a frustrated sonata structure. For while its recurrent crescendi of motivic activity strain to fulfil the demands of exposition, development and recapitulation, they never really succeed in pulling the underlying tonality away from the grinding ostinati of the opening, so that the quieter music that infiltrates the later stages comes more as a release than as a fulfilment – paradoxically conferring upon the entire movement the retrospective feeling that it is a mere upbeat to a far longer structure. This is strengthened by the unexpected appearance during the recapitulation of a new, motto-like figure on the pitches G, E, E flat, D, which surges up ‘estatico’ in the strings and which, transposed by a tritone, proves to be the germ of the long slow movement.
This is headed ‘Elegia’, and follows ‘attacca’ upon the fading of the first movement in drum beats. Its opening section, marked ‘adagio’, consists of a long, finely arched melody and the cellos that eventually passes to the violins before being cut off by a new, slightly faster section (Tempo II, ‘piu mosso’) featuring woodwind chords and touches of tuned percussion. This is shortly interrupted by the still faster Tempo III, ‘con motto’ comprising an extended viola melody, ‘molto cantabile’. When the pace returns to Tempo II, it seems that the shape of the movement is going to be broadly symmetrical, with the final resumption of Tempo I. But there is another continuity as well. At the head of the movement, Wood quotes in Greek the words ‘ The God Forsakes Antony’ – the title of a poem by Cavafy evoking the foreboding of the Roman hero as he is seems to hear the ‘exquisite music’ of an invisible, valedictory procession-of-the-life-that-is-passing, in hints of distant percussion. Now, with the return of Tempo II, ‘alla marcia’, it grows more insistent. And though Tempo I and the broken-off violin melody are in turn resumed, swelling to a huge climax before sinking to the depths, this is by no means the conclusion. String quartet reverberations dissolve into a flute-led quotation from one of the most magic of all professionals, which fades into an unaccompanied string line. There is another upswelling, and only then is this extended movement allowed to subside, with a permutation of the SYMPHONY’S opening figure.
After the pause, this is immediately taken up ion the scherzo ‘con fuoco’, whose storm tossed textures repeated high G’s. The central trio comprises yet another of the composer’s passionate string lines, aloft over bustling woodwind. The scherzo then returns in varied form (the Gs are low), with its toccata-like climax calming into a motto perpetuo of tuned percussion, against which Wood launches the stately opening brass chorale of his finale.
This takes the form of a large-scale passacaglia upon a ground bass, which is revealed in Variation 2 (for harps, timpani and double basses). Variations 3 and 4 comprise a pair in which the basses are joined contrapuntally by the cellos and then violas. The texture grows ‘poco e poco piu animando’ in Variation 5 to reach ‘molto vivo’ in Variation 6, with woodwind flurries and declamatory trombones intensified in Variation 76 by rushing strings. Variation 8, marked ‘cantabile urgente’, brings back the first movement motto, which in variation 9 is treated by inversion. There is a sudden switch to a texture of delicate woodwind over chiming harps and percussion for Variation10, but no let-up in the increasing pace, which reaches ‘vivacissimo’ in Variation 11, with strings reeling up and down against trilling woodwind, and ‘precipitoso’ in Variation 12, at which point the momento collapses into a reprise of the slow movement’s cello melody, fading away at the end of Variation 13.
A somewhat spectral sequence ensues, with the fragmentary solo phrases over muted trombone chords of the ‘lento’ Variation 14, growing still more vestigial in Variation 15, though the return of the motto in Variation 16 instigates contrapuntal continuity once again. Despite the marking of its opening wind chords (still ‘adagio molto’), Variation 17 shows further signs of renewal with the gradual adumbration of the tuned percussion moto perpetuo, which swells through variation 18 to regain the movement’s opening texture once more in Variation 198. This return the remaining three variations enrich and amplify – the titinnabulations around the brass chorale gradually spreading to the rest of the orchestra and the final burst of A major, intercut with dramatic pauses, accumulating an almost Janacekian jubilation.
© Bayan Northcott
Hugh Wood's Cello Concerto pays homage to that of Elgar, but in his Symphony the references are to Mozart and Wagner, among others, while the sound-world evokes that of Mahler and Berg. In the elegaic slow movement the Mozartian and Wagnerian references hark back to a distant world, one recalled with affection. The Scherzo unfolds angular Mahlerian string unisons under chattering woodwind, punctuated by jagged brass figures (all delivered superbly). There was equally impressive execution of broadly spaced, sustained brass chords in the finale, where past and present, tradition and modernity, are movingly reconciled. Elgar would have approved.
Barry Millington, The Times, 22/03/1995
It is a Symphony that is constantly looking over its shoulder. And yet the piece is so well dramatised, so sure in its timing of incident, that it catches the listener up in its first onslaught of sound and refuses to let go until the final passacaglia has reached its close. An exciting performance under Andrew Davis must have helped: but Wood's Symphony seems to me to wield an impact rather greater than the sum of its contents.
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 22/03/1995
Hugh Wood’s Symphony … proved to be the most fruitful of Prom commissions for some years. This large-scale four-movement piece … had all the hallmarks of a mature, creative mind in the white heat of inspiration … Most impressive of all, indeed, is the Brahmsian passacaglia, whose 22 variations grow ever more expansive, resulting in a final A major peroration that successfully resolves the tonal conflict at the root of the Symphony’s structure. Wood has never composed anything finer and this symphony deserves to be in the repertoire of every major orchestra.
, Guardian, 24/07/1982