The Greatest Unloved Symphonies

I just conducted Bruckner’s Second Symphony for the first time a few days ago- even many of the most pro-Bruckner opinion makers seem to think that only his symphonies from the Fourth onward are worth doing, and the often over-zealous defences of the early symphonies by well-intentioned  fans of the composer sometimes do more harm than good. Fond as I am of it, I still struggle to accept the Third Symphony as being on anything like the same level of inspiration and accomplishment as the Fourth, and perhaps, in my case, that slightly discouraged me from spending more time with the other earlier works. Until now! Learning the Second has been a real revelation- it’s a totally echt-Brucknerian masterpiece, that works structurally, melodically and sonically. Does more early Bruckner await?

Anyway, the experience of learning to love this underrated work by one of the greatest symphonists of all time got me thinking about what other examples there are of major works by major, mainstream symphonists that get unfairly overlooked or dismissed. No off-the-beaten-track composers qualify- you’ll have to look elsewhere on this blog for defences of the symphonies of Gál, Magnard or Piston. Also, for a piece to qualify, it has to be genuinely unfairly overlooked or maligned- Brahms 3 is the least often played of his four symphonies, but its quality is not in dispute, and it is hardly a rarity. What do you think are the works of the major composers we don’t hear often enough, or don’t understand well enough? Has your orchestra made any big discoveries in recent years? Please share your thoughts!

10- Bruckner- Symphony no. 2

What astounds one the most about this work is how completely it embodies the unique musical personality of Bruckner. It has everything we value in the later works- the sense of awe and isolation, the moments of existential terror and unbearable desolation. It’s also full of astounding rhythmic innovations the likes of which had not been seen in the music of any previous symphonist. A must hear.

Recommended recording- Eugen Jochum, Bavarian Radio Symphony. The piece has become something of a plaything for smaller orchestras of late, and it works fine when played by the likes of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, or, dare I say, the SMP, but Jochum’s recording has a maturity and a breadth of vision that no modern version can match.


9- Beethoven- Symphony no. 8

We all know that Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are all a little overlooked in favour of 3, 5, 7 and 9. No’s 2 and 4 both deserve to be heard more, and the 6th seems to inspire, by far, the most wrong-headed assessments these days- it’s proto- modernism and minimialism, not muzak. I fear it is music that is too modern, original and visionary for most 21st  ears. However, I’ve chosen the Eighth because so few people seem to full appreciate just how astoundingly brilliant it is. Yes, it is funny, and yes, it is short, and yes, it is less outwardly dramatic than the odd-numbered symphonies, but if there is cleverer Finale out there to any symphony, I don’t know what it is. Get a good musician to talk you through how it is put together and you’ll never hear it the same way again

Recommended Recording- Not an easy choice- it’s one of those symphonies that really suffers from plodding tempi and muddy textures, but all too many period and HIP performances lack muscle and temperament. John Elliott Gardiner’s performance with the ORR is probably my favourite performance of his classic cycle for Arkiv, and the last movement in particular is refreshingly Dionysian, even if it could use a bit more raw power and depth in the sound.


8- Shostakovich- Symphony no. 7

Always popular with listeners and players, an alarming number of critics and conductors seem unable to keep up with Shostakovich’s wartime masterpiece. One of Britain’s best composers told me last year he considers it the greatest symphony written by a composer born in the 20th c. Keep that in mind as you listen for layers of irony, tragedy, violence, consolation and struggle.

Recommended recording- More so than most of his symphonies, quite a number of Shostakovich’s usually-most-reliable Russian interpreters (Mravinsky, Kondrashin) seem a little scared of the dark core of this symphony and tend to gloss over the top of the music. The best recording by far is Bernstein’s with Chicago, although the recorded sound is not my favourite.


7- Mozart- Symphony no. 39

Mozart’s last three symphonies seem to have been conceived and composed as a trilogy and can be heard as a summing up of his whole outlook on life and music. No. 39, the first of the three, is hardly a rarity, but it’s nowhere near as celebrated as the 40th and the Jupiter, whose emotional narratives are more direct and easier to follow. It’s also more feared than loved by orchestral violinists everywhere, most of whom earned a few grey hairs practicing the excerpts in the last movement for auditions.

Recommended recording- I appreciate the series of recordings Charles Mackerras made with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, in spite of the fact that I find the use of harpsichord throughout his cycle of the complete symphonies unfathomably irritating. Fortunately, I’ve trained myself to ignore it, and at least it’s recorded with very little presence by the Telarc team who must have realized how insanely out of place it sounded. Other than that, the playing has finesse and muscle and the tempi are suitably alive and balances are good. I don’t know his later recording for Linn. I’d love to hear a version with modern tempi from the VPO or Dresden, but without keyboard, please.


6- Schumann- Symphony no. 2

I suppose all of Schumann’s symphonies are in some way undervalued. The fiction about the superiority of the original version of the D minor has done a great deal to worsen people’s understanding of Schumann’s entire output and development as a composer. The Spring seems to have slightly dropped out of the repertoire altogether, and the reduction of the E flat major work with which he ended his career into a trite series of never-intended picture postcards of buildings and waterways has also led to a near pervasive misunderstanding of the staggering originality of the piece. However, of all the Schumann symphonies, the Second is the greatest, the most perfect and the most original- almost certainly the greatest symphony written since the death of Beethoven, and so many folks don’t get it.

Recommended recording- Well, what do you expect me to say? Please buy mine, if only for the program notes. Of the big-band recordings, my easy favourites are Sawalisch and Dresden, followed (at some distance, it must be said) by Cleveland and Dohnanyi.


5- Sibelius- Symphony no. 3

It’s a sad fact of human nature that most of what you read about most pieces of music is a first reaction to the first minute or so to the work, and this includes reviews, programme notes and essays. That’s one reason that 90% of people think of Haydn’s music as simple and straightforward- their attention wanders before it gets really interesting (it usually gets pretty interesting by the 2nd bar, but in some of the rondos, he keeps the listener waiting for 30 or 40 bars before letting loose with everything he’s got up his sleeve). The mention of  Haydn is no accident, because if Sibelius ever channelled Haydn, it was in this piece. Don’t let the genial tone of the opening, the graceful and apparently understated second movement, or the triumphant conclusion fool you- this is a deep, deceptive and profoundly original piece, full of surprises and shadows.

Recommended recording- There are a surprising number of good recordings of the Third in spite of its Cinderella status in the hall. Colin Davis has one of the best endings, with a real build up of momentum in his later recording, but the LSO’s playing is pretty ropey throughout the cycle. I think he tends to be the only one who gets the ending right. Berglund with COE is really interesting, and Gibson and the RSNO is also rather special

4- Mendelssohn- Symphony no. 1

Some people just can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that a 15 year old could have written a truly great symphony, even if right around this time he was also writing the Octet, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the peerless A minor String Quartet. I find myself shaking my head in complete despair every time I read things like “hints of the mature Mendelssohn” or “youthful.” This is a great piece- fiery, dramatic, beautiful, fully thought out and totally original. The Scherzo is mind-shatteringly good on so many levels. Only Mendelssohn could have written it, and it’s as good as anything he wrote.

Recommended recordings I’ve never heard one I liked. This piece seems to suffer out of all proportion from conductors’ and producers’ inability to get to grips with Mendelssohn’s unique and personal idiom- some treat it like early Mozart, others like Brahms. Blech to both! Hopefully, someone will do it justice in my lifetime. Let us know if you’ve heard a really convincing one.


3- Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 8

RVW’s Fifth is his most popular, and possibly his most perfect, symphony, but the works that follow it are often problematic to program and perform. The Sixth is almost unbearably bleak, the Seventh tends to show its cinematic roots a bit much for many tastes (and is expensive to put on), and even devoted RVW interpreters often express a degree of befuddlement with the Ninth. But the Eighth? It’s just a great piece- a perfect symphony that works for audiences and players alike. What’s not to love? Why isn’t it played?

Recommended recording- Adrian Boult and the LPO are always the place to start. With RVW. The classic CD version from Decca is great, but start with the DVD on ICA classics if you can. Truly masterful work on the podium, and a nice performance by the orchestra.


2- Mahler- Symphony no. 7

Mahler’s 7th and 8th symphonies tend to be the ones that most show up the hubris and idiocy of  those who consider themselves too wise, clever and perceptive to understand either piece. When you hear a commentator talk about the 7th or 8th as a “failure,” it tells you only about their lack of knowledge and taste. Of the two, the 7th is ever so slightly more at risk because it lacks the sense of grand occasion which keeps Mahler 8 in the hearts of the public in spite of critical misunderstanding. A full defense of the piece would take too long for this post, but is unnecessary. My advice is to listen carefully and remember that everything in it is there for a reason- if it sounds banal, or sentimental or bizarre, it’s because Mahler meant it to, and it’s up to us to try follow him. As with Shostakovich above, it’s disheartening how many critics can’t seem to understand the role of irony and parody in a work like this. But I’m sure you can, dear reader.

Recommended recording- Everyone who is interested in Mahler should see Bernstein’s DVD performance with the VPO. The performance of the first movement is one of the worst professional recordings in existence, the last movement, possibly the best. If ever there were a document of a great conductor willing a reluctant and ill-prepared orchestra to achieve something truly special, this is it.  Haitink conducts this work incredibly well- the Concertgebouw Christmas Matinee film is wonderful.


Honorable mentions-

There are a lot of other wonderful works by major composers that could go on this list. In many cases, the problem is that these composers have more than one unfairly neglected work in their ouvre. Here are a few examples:

Dvorak- the early symphonies.  Big Tony might be the only composer whose symphonies are popular in exact correlation with the order in which they were written, with the last symphony (New World) the most popular and the First (Bells of Zlonice) the least. Is the Fist as good as the Ninth? No. Are they all worth playing? Yes. Is the gap in quality between, say, Six and Seven, or even more starkly, Five and Six enough to account for the huge falloff in popularity. Heck no.

Recommended recording- Because there is more than one unjustly neglected Dvorak symphony, you need a box set. The best are Kubelik with the Berlin Phil (my favourite) and Kertesz with the LSO (a classic that everyone should own)


Schubert- Symphonies 3, 4 and 6. I absolutely adore Schubert 3, 4 and 6 and could conduct them every week. There’s nothing in music like the Unfinished,  and the Great Sea Monster is a law unto itself, but 3,4 and 6 are endlessly delightful, original and rewarding pieces. What about 5? It’s my fault entirely, but too many massacres at the hands of orchestras who can’t play it have made it hard for me to listen to it. I also have associated it in my mind with a performance I covered with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the orchestra did admirable work in 120 degree heat and 100% humidity, but I’ll forever associate this delightful work with human sweat and the pungent fragrance of horse shit from the nearby stables after that night.

Recommended recording- Kleiber’s effervescent recording of the Third ought to be magic enough to persuade any sceptic to learn the early symphonies. Harmoncourt has done a worthy, if slightly slow, Fourth, and Muti has always been a champion of early Schubert


Prokofiev- The symphonies other than Five and the Classical. They’re all great works, consistently strong, original and moving. The  Fourth is so good he wrote it twice. The Seventh is both wonderful and surprisingly playable- it should be done more often. The Second is total rock ‘n’ roll.

Recommended recording Again, you’re ideally looking for a box. I’d avoid the famous one on Philips with a noted Russian maestro and wonderful British orchestra. It’s distressingly sloppy in many places and doesn’t hold up to repeated listening. Let me know if you find one you love.

So the final slot on this list goes to-


1- Tchaikovsky- Manfred Symphony. Each of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies is among the most popular and most frequently played works in the entire repertoire. One seems to hear performances of the Fourth with the kind of frequency you encounter politicians saying ill-informed things about the arts. Also, although the Third remains a rarity, the First (“Winter Dreams”) has really come into the repertoire  in the last ten years, and the Second (“Ukrainian”) has always been a favourite of audiences and youth orchestras. But the greatest of them all is hardly ever heard. I was 43 before I heard a live performance of the Manfred, which is all the more unfortunate because it is exactly the kind of piece that should be heard live.

Recommended recording- Really, you have to hear it live. Even a halfway decent live performance is more immediate and impressive than something polished up and fine tuned in the studio for a work like this.

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51 comments on “The Greatest Unloved Symphonies”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    I agree with all of those. The Magnard symphonies are very good, and although they’ve been well-recorded, they’ve not made it into the concert hall. Martinu got some well-deserved attention from the BBC a few years ago- he’s a sensational composer.

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