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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

48 comments on “The Greatest Unloved Symphonies”

  1. Karl Henning

    Very nice post! Chuffed to bits that you’ve included the K.543, LvB Eighth, Sibelius Third (which we heard live here in Boston!) . . . but especially the Leningrad. That recording of Lenny’s is something else, of course. FWIW, the two recordings which sealed the deal for me with the Leningrad were the old Karel Ančerl (and monaural, I believe!) and the St Petersburg Philharmonic led by Yuri Temirkanov . . . that was a cassette I bought in the shoe-box kiosk in the Grand Hall of the Philharmonic in Petersburg.

  2. Stirling Newberry

    I would put in a vote for the Stenhammer #2, an under-rated composer in general, Rubbra’s #2, a complex and organically evolving work, Nielson’s discursive and fragmentary #6, Liszt’s lush and visionary Dante Symphony as other great unloved works in the form.

  3. Michael Wheatley

    So glad you mentioned Shostakovich’s 7th! I think this symphony is often dismissed merely because Shostakovich decided to forgo a traditional development in place of his Boleroesque foray in the first movement. However, in our post-minimalist era, this certainly is deserving of reconsideration. It is a very well-paced and brilliantly constructed work! The desolation of the Allegretto… arguably his finest chorale ever at the beginning of the third movement… the flute duet, also in the third movement, is without doubt among his most lyrical and heart-wrenching moments of any of his symphonies. And when the theme from first movement finally returns at the end of the fourth — EPIC!!!

    However, my friend, I have to disagree with your recommended recording. (In my opinion) Bernstein, in his late years, was stretching everything to Mahlerian proportions, be it Beethoven 7, Brahms 4, or Shostakovich. His recording of Shostakovich’s 7th w/ Chicago, for me, stretches a 70 minutes symphony to nearly 1.5 hours. For me, it’s too much of a good thing, and it collapses under its own weight.

    My most highly recommended recording of the Leningrad is with Oslo Phil., Mariss Jansons conducting. It’s dramatic and very compelling in the climaxes, appropriately slow-paced in the third movement, and thrillingly forward-moving in the final movement.

    As for another overlooked symphony, Shostakovich’s 4th has been overlooked since its inception, initially for wholly political reasons. Vassily Sinaisky’s recording with the BBC Philharmonic is nothing short of the massive revelation this work deserves.

  4. Peter M

    Great list, Ken. Firstly, Thomas Fey with the Heidelberg Symphoniker is a good version of Mendelssohn 1 which I would highly recommend. I love it and have seen various music critics be sniffy about it.

    I have more Prokofiev symphony sets than I care to count and agree to a certain extent about the Gergiev set but I think the 6 on the set is really cracking, particularly the finale. As with any complete set none are complete benchmarks for all works. Having said that there are a couple that are underrated substantially, such as the LPO/LSO/Weller set which has very good recordings of all except the 6th which is a tad disappointing. But the Russian Overture gets a brilliant performance-love that piece.The RSNO set is overrated IMHO. The Naxos set in Ukraine is actually good from an interpretative POV but sadly sounds like it was recorded in a large bathroom for the most part. The 4th from that set is the best. Even the BPO/Ozawa set which is critically derided contains some good performances such as the 7th and 5th. Reviewers are obsessed with the Karajan 5th but I’ve never seen the attraction myself.

    Agree about the final LSO/Davis Sib 3 being awesome. However, is the playing really ropey in the final set?? Or we’re you referring to the studio LSO set from the 90s?

    I do rate the RLPO/Petrenko Manfred as well as the LPO/Jurowski discs.

    Hee Hee, Prokofiev really is rock n roll!!

  5. Peter M

    Prokofiev 2 I mean, that is. Although the sentence works both ways!

  6. Chris

    Just read your excellent blog. I agree with most of it of course and am now going to listen to Mendelssohn 1 and perhaps post a youtube of me air conducting Manfred in my bathroom.
    One important omission though–Rachmaninov 3rd Symphony. I have done it twice–it is at least as good as the 2nd, better than the 1st.

  7. Geoff

    I’d add Sibelius 6, Mozart 38 and Haydn 102. Absolutely with you on Schumann 2, Beethoven 2 and Manfred. Prokoviev 6 too.

  8. Brummie Maestro

    I would vote for the Korngold and Nielsen 1,2,3&6 @kennethwoods – all underrated & all brilliant

  9. Stirling

    I would put in a vote for Stenhammer #2, Nielsen, Liszt Faust, Rubbra #2. And yes Haydn deserves his own post.

  10. Tom

    Yes to all that you’ve written. Mahler 7 gets an airing every couple of years here in Boston, but I’ve never heard those other pieces in concert.
    I’d throw in, Bruckner 6, Sibelius 6, Liszt’s, A Faust Symphony …

  11. Zoltan

    Another vote for Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony. How such a fantastic works gets neglected and is seen as inferior to his other major works is beyond me (most recently it was dismissed in a biography I read). It is heartbreaking, consoling, angry and all the emotions are woven together in a clearly understandable (and audible) motto theme which gives the symphony a mold. Terrific piece!

    This post also reminded me when I first listened to Dvorak’s 3rd: I couldn’t believe how incredibly good it was! And when I thought that nothing else can surprise me I heard the slow movement of the 2nd (yeah, I went backwards like a crab: fault those critics who mention only 7-9 when talking about “Tony D”).

  12. Q @Manganpaper

    Yes indeed, those early symphonies of Schubert, while reflecting his awe of Beethoven and delight in Rossini, do show a bold originality in their own right. On its own terms his impish “Little C Major” can just about hold its own next to that true Titan of the form, the “Great C Major”. Thumbs up to all your other recommendations except the Mendelssohn First (for, whatever his age in his short life, little Felix tended to lean on routine far too much). Traditionally Tchaikovsky’s marvellous Second Symphony is called the “Little Russian” (for readers who were puzzled by your modernised demonym). His Manfred is “a terrible beauty” of course; absolutely terrifying in its spiritual implications, in fact, with that looming “Question” coming back at you and all the harrowing brass avalanches (Didn’t Weill borrow the Scherzo theme for his Three Penny?).

    There many worthy candidates out in the wilderness, aren’t there? You rightly mention Magnard, but a few other symphonies that are neglected in the wider world (that is, outside their respective national entities or peculiar cults) are:——

    Mily Balakireff’s Symphony Nᵒ 1 in C (a grand, discursive master-piece; Beecham was its great champion in the West half a century ago ) — Someone here has voted Rachmaninoff’s Third to be placed beside his Second for rightful attention, so I nominate his powerful Symphony Nᵒ 1 in D minor as well — Of many great works from his prolific pen there is Hilding Rosenberg’s Symphony Nᵒ 3, “The Four Ages of Man” (which evidently he modelled on Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe) — And speaking of Sweden, there are Franz Berwald’s four symphonies, truly remarkable for their time circa 1840 — Eugene Aynsley Goossens’s Symphony Nᵒ 1, Op 58 — E. J. Moeran’s Symphony in G minor (and his name is pronounced “MOHR-‘n”) — Paul Dukas’s Symphony in C — Hector Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (definitely a guys’ symphony!) — Karl Weigl’s Symphony Nᵒ 5, “Apocalyptic Symphony (To the Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt)” — Alexander Glazounoff’s Symphony Nᵒ 3 in D (youthful, yet accomplished), his Nᵒ 4 in E flat, and Nᵒ 7 in F, “Pastorale” (Tiomkin was his pupil before emigrating to Hollywood, and it certainly sounds evident in works like the Seventh)— Anton Rubinstein’s Symphony Nᵒ 4 in D minor, Op 95, “Dramatic” — Sergei Taneieff’s Symphony Nᵒ 4 in C minor (some serious fun) — Leevi Madetoja’s Symphony Nᵒ 2 in E flat (or any work by this pupil of Sibelius) — Hakon Børresen’s Symphony Nᵒ 2 in A, “The Sea”, and his Nᵒ 3 in C (this Dane is jovial rather than melancholy) — Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony in C minor, and his milder Symphony in E — Vassily Kalinnikov’s Symphony Nᵒ 1 in G minor (a century ago it was enthusiastically espoused on America podia by the likes of Rodziński and Toscanini—and by Damrosch who inadvertently offended Prokofiev when he likened his “Classical” Symphony to Kalinnikov’s music).

    If I may include Joseph Haydn’s “Philosopher” Symphony (Nᵒ 22 in E flat), I’ll then leave off this litany. There are really so many, you could post a weekly series just on neglected symphonies (let alone all the unsung operas, concertos and sonatas).

    Someone should make an onomastic study of symphonies that bear nicknames, compared with those that don’t, and determine whether the former works—by virtue of their name-colour, as it were—might be drawing extra attention from audiences, and from those extremely influential folk, the devisers of concert programmes.

  13. Kenneth Woods

    @Q Thanks for the detailed response!

    I have to stand up for my avoidance of “Little Russian” as a title for Tchaik 2 (which I’m conducting in April). It must be one of the most unhelpful of titles as to most Western readers who don’t know where Little Russia is, it creates and expectation of something that is “little” and “Russian” or “a little bit” Russian. Why should we feel trapped by the names of the past? The fall off in popularity between the nicknamed Haydn symphonies and the non-nicknamed one is so extreme that I’ve long thought that all Haydn symphonies should have nicknames- whoever silly and un-historical- or none of them should. As an experiment, I put a made up name for a Haydn symphony on a concert poster a few years ago, and it did sell better than the non-nicknamed ones usually do.

    I like your description of Manfred. Terrifying, indeed!

    I like all your other suggested works, although I think most of them are best on another list of “great works of the unknown symphonists” rather than of standard rep composers. Especially glad to see Dukas and Suk on your list- those are both pieces I admire and that I’d love to do. I have done Rach 1, and I absolutely love it- such a strange, powerful and often angry work. There are some other works on your list I’ve never heard, so I’ve got some homework in my future.

    Thanks again

  14. Kenneth Woods


    I like your description of your backwards exploration of Dvorak as “crab like.” This happens also with Haydn- almost everyone starts with 104. Such a pity! It’s too sophisticate a piece for most young conductors and musicians. Beter to start with the Sturm und Drang works and work your way out. Rach 3 is definitely looking like it should have been on the list!

  15. Robert Berger

    The three symphonies of the sady neglected Czech composer Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900 ) are just plain gorgeous, and Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit sym. on Chandos do them full justice.
    The three of Max Bruch are also sadly neglected and deserve to be performed . The Conlon/Cologne EMI recordings are excelent .
    No 8 by Nikolai Myaskovsky is absolutely haunting .

  16. Robert Berger

    Actualy, Little Russia is another name for the Ukraine, one which Ukrainians do not like . The Tchaikovsky 2nd makes use of Ukrainian folk songs, hence the name .

  17. Q @Manganpaper

    Ah, but Western readers who “don’t know” can surely better themselves by looking up historical names such as “Little Russian”, which has been the name of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony for a century and a half. I really don’t believe that the euphemising of traditional titles and shielding of these good folk from international onomastic disputes will do them any favours in that regard, nor will heed paid to the incentivised outrage invested in any “offence” that Ukrainians or Serbs or Flemings or Persians may choose to take from these musical titles. (The name “Ukraine” means “at the border”, i. e. with Mother Russia, which could just as well give offence by its tangential nature, if one had a mind to it.)

    In any case, I am now listening to Louis Vierne’s Symphony in A minor, a major work that sits squarely in the French tradition. Tremendous!

    Happy Listening, all!

  18. Kevin Scott

    All of the symphonies listed are fabulous nominees, and I agree with all of them! But there are still a few left out. Of the American symphonists, I’ll start with Bernard Herrmann’s sole symphony dating from 1941. Though some critics have named the composer’s influences (Sibelius, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Walton and a dash of Piston), this virile symphony is the concert cousin to his film score for Welles’ Citizen Kane. That it continues to be neglected (very few performances and only two recordings to date) stuns many of those who admire this work.
    Other American composers whose symphonies are “unloved” include Randall Thompson’s first symphony, Jerome Moross’ first (and only) symphony, the nine symphonies of Elie Siegmeister and the seven of Peter Mennin, as well as the other four symphonies of William Grant Still apart from the celebrated “Afro-American.” My personal favorite is his fourth from 1947, which is an epic work that, along with his second, can stand against the best symphonists of any country.

    Of recent vintage, I would like to name Arnold Rosner’s epic fifth symphony to this list. The work, written in response to the Vietnam War and George McGovern’s 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon, is in the form of a symphonic mass that lasts close to 45 minutes, and would be a wonderful addition to any orchestra’s programs. Also on the list are the nine symphonies of William Banfield, whose symphonies embody jazz, gospel and spiritual elements in its melodic syntax.

    Though they are repertoire in the concert band world, the symphonies of David Maslanka, Alfred Reed and James Barnes are still unknown to orchestra audiences. Maslanka’s taut fourth, and Barnes’s searing and epic third (the slow movement is in the same league with those of Bruckner and Mahler), are two symphonies that stand out, and are worthy to be named alongside the symphonies written for orchestra.

    Of the symphonists outside the United States, I’ll name several: Healey Willan’s post-romantic second symphony is not known outside Canada, as are the symphonies of Clermont Pepin, whose ultra-modernist third (“Quasars”) is quite a feat for the musicians. Michel Edward is another composer from Canada whose two symphonies await world premieres. Both are extremely tonal, yet highly individual, works that owe allegiance to no music school.

    In Europe, the seven symphonies of the maverick Dutch composer Matthijs Vermeulen are in dire need of performances here in America, as well as the three symphonies of his compatriot Wilhelm Pipjer.

    Finally (for now), there are many British symphonists who are still unknown on these shores, among them Havergal Brian, George Lloyd, Daniel Jones, Robert Simpson, Benjamin Frankel and Malcolm Arnold. With the exception of Brian and Lloyd (some of their symphonies found their way onto programs here in the States), the remaining composers rarely have their large-scale works performed, let alone considered, by conductors here. Perhaps it is time to look past the tried-and-true and seek the real treasures that are hidden from view.

    Kevin Scott

  19. Kevin Scott

    p.s. -Re Mendelssohn’s first symphony – Bernard Herrmann conducted several performances of this youthful work with the CBS Symphony Orchestra in the 1940s, as well as with the Halle Orchestra in the same decade, and in 1962 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. Unfortunately, no acetates or tapes of his broadcast performances are available at this time. I do hope Pristine Audio Classics will issue one of his performances in the not-too-distant future.

  20. Q @Manganpaper

    A funny afterthought: Many Ukrainians (including one prominent diplomat serving in Britain) have also expressed displeasure and taken offence at the “the” in “The Ukraine”!

  21. Deryk

    nteresting piece, although I shall, like no doubt others, differ on

    For instance, to begin at your beginning, Bruckner 4 is my LEAST
    favourite of the 10. Number 2 was admittedly low on the list until
    perhaps 20 years ago.

    Beethoven 8: YES! Although NOT JEG. Try Scherchen or Barbirolli,.

    Shostakovich 7: agree, but again I would rather listen to Polyanski
    (Chandos) than Bernstein.

    Although, if you really want to hear this work,. try and find the 1964
    performance (20th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad)
    under Karl Eliasberg, who conducted the legendary performance in 1942.

    This performance, in which a number of the players from 1942 are
    present, may be poorly recorded, but it is a shattering experience; the
    final, in particular, has a sense of grinding struggle which is quote
    overwhelming. Many years later a group of Germans who had been part of
    the besieging army travelled to Leningrad to meet Eliasberg. They had
    listened to the broadcast of the symphony and, as they told him, when
    they heard it they realised that would never take the city.

    Schumann 2: I shall have to check out your recording.

    Sibelius 3: my *un*favourite Sibelius symphony is – unfashionably – the
    second. I have always loved the 3rd and would go with Barbirolli and

    Mendelssohn 1: hmmmm, can’t such I much care for his symphonies apart
    from 4.

    RVW 8: most conduct this as if to show that it is pointing the way
    towards the 9th. There is – floating around on the web somewhere – a
    concert performance by the LPO under Rozhdestvensky, who seems to relate
    it more to its predecessors.

    And the world premiere under Barbirolli is available and well worth hearing.

    As for the rest: might I suggest trying either Beecham’s 1938/9
    performance of Schubert ? Or Oswald Kabasta’s (1943 IIRC).

    Prokofiev’s symphonies I’m afraid do not speak to me – in fact little
    of his music (Nevsky aside) does.

    BTW, when did Tchaik 2 become the “Ukrainian”? It *should* be, as Little
    Russia is what Ukraine was called when it was written. I suggested, in a
    review a few years back, that retitling it “The Ukrainian” might get it
    played more…

    Thanks for the thought-provocation.

  22. Tom

    My vote goes to Nielsen No. 1.
    That 1st mvmt. is to me as irresistibly full of momentum and energy as that of the
    Haffner or LvB 5; and the wonderful description orgoglioso!
    I love the deep Brahmsian melancholy of the Andante and the totally original
    take on a “scherzo/intermezzo’ movement that is to me like a Midsummer’s day dream.
    And then a finale as irresistible as those in the Mozart and Beethoven works.

    I wonder if Mr. Woods has ever conducted it and, if so, if it is as fun
    to play as it sounds? My favorite recording is Previn’s on RCA.

    Although stretching the term symphonist, my runner-up is Barber’s First,
    which gets my vote for Greatest Symphony by an American. Now if only he had labeled
    his Essays as symphonies…

    To quote Deryk,
    Thanks for the thought-provocatio

  23. Thomas

    I agree with Thomas Ulicky about Barber’s First. I just listened to it
    again the other night. I would also vote for Roussel’s 3rd and Martinu’s
    6th (or 4th).

  24. David

    I go 98% of the way with the list Kenneth Woods proposed. I especially admire the Schumann #2, Beethoven #8, Mozart #39, Sibelius #3, and so on. I would like to add Bruckner’s #1. This is a symphony I had paid little attention to until I heard it live a decade ago here in Seattle conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. It suddenly seemed very exciting. I also like my recording with Skrowaczewski. Last month one of the local community orchestras performed the Prokofiev #7 and did a very creditable job. I had never heard it live before and was impressed. Two British symphonies I love and will probably never hear live are the Rubbra #6 and Alwyn #4. I have recordings of Rubbra with Norman del Mar and the Alwyn with the composer conducting. As for Stenhammar, I prefer the first symphony to the second. Never heard either of them live. And way outside the ordinary repertoire I would like to hear any symphonies by Lajtha and Gál. By the way, I love the Rachmaninov #3 and t!
    hink it is his best.

    What would the list look like if we noted the symphonies we detest in the common repertoire? It might turn out to be very long and contentious.

  25. Nathaniel

    I agree about Mackerras’s Mozart. His 38-41 with the Scottish Chamber
    Orchestra (Linn) is one of my favorite Mozarts. DSCH 7 with Mark
    Wigglesworth (BBC Wales) is superb, although I agree that Bernstein is more
    or just as convincing. I’ve been listening to Klemperer’s Beethoven lately
    and realized again and again how amazing he was in Beethoven. It’s a
    delight to listen to these old war horses and still be completely drawn to
    them via Klemperer. The re-mastered EMI set has several performances of
    some of the symphonies (like the 3rd and the 7th). It only has one
    performance of the 8th (haven’t heard it yet). I’ve actually heard some of
    the earlier Membran set and it has a fantastic live (1960) 8th From Vienna
    (also Philharmonia).

  26. Lisa Hirsch

    Funny, I had the urge to hear the Schumann symphonies the other week – it’s been a few years – so I’ll generally support Ken in naming any Schumann symphony. The set I’ve been listening to is John Eliot Gardiner, on Arkiv with the ORR. Great performances, and the set includes the so-called Zwikau symphony, both versions of the 2nd, an overture, and a kickass performance of the Konzertstuck for four horns. Available on

    I’ll also support any of the smaller-scale LvB symphonies. My favorite of them is the 4th, but heck, 1, 2, 4, 8, love ’em all.

  27. Q @Manganpaper

    Found a nice potential pairing of two symphonies (though for their dimensions it would have to be in a “monster concert”, as they used to say): Anton Grigorievitch Rubinstein’s Symphony № 5 in G minor, “Russian” (1880) right next to our above mentioned bone of contention (on which we were Poles apart ~ Ha!), Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” (or “Ukrainian”, if one must).

  28. marco polo ignacio

    add rachmaninov symphony 1, also 3. they were both overshadowed by the 2nd

  29. Pingback: Almost unknown symphonies

  30. Thomas Roth

    Boris Tchaikovsky: Sevastopol symphony and much else. A great composer.
    Roy Harris: 3, 6 & 7.
    William Schuman: 3 & 5.
    Wilhelm Stenhammar: 2.
    Ib Nörholm: 2
    Karl-Birger Blomdahl: 3
    And many more…

  31. Sally

    Thoroughly enjoyed playing Bruckner 2: great and memorable tunes (still singing them) and a fantastic play (even from the back). Pleased to see you’ve included Manfred – played it once, requiring real stamina!

  32. Paul Pellay

    Just alighted on this a month after it went up, and I can’t resist adding my own observations. First, your list:

    10 – Yes, Bruckner 2 is really overlooked, and I can’t understand why. Haven’t heard either of the Jochums – I was reared on Haitink, and I think he still stands up well. I’d add the 3rd to the list, but not in the later revisions from 1878 and 1889, where all those arbitrary cuts just disrupt the music’s flow – the 1873-74 version is the one that really sounds “finished” to me – Inbal does well with it in his Frankfurt recording (the first ever made of this version, I think).

    9 – The 8th remains my favourite of all the LVB symphonies. My introduction to it was the old Ansermet recording – the old Suisse Romande Orch. may not have been the last word in polish, but they had absolutely the right spirit. Of the moderns, I’d go for Vänskä.

    8 – The Leningrad will stand for all the DSCH symphonies which have been overlooked in favour of 5 and arguably 10 (though I’d single out 6 as my personal favourite). Bernstein always had the measure of the work like few others; I’d add Järvi (a few executional spills here and there, but the performance really lives dangerously) and Barshai to a very select list. Maybe Berglund, too…….

    7 – I’ve long gravitated away from Mozart in favour of Haydn, but I still fondly recall and old record of it with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the LSO. Should that ever find its way on CD I’d gladly reacquaint myself with the work.

    6 – Schumann’s 2nd is special, isn’t it? Hard to find a performance that does justice to it, though. I’m still looking, though a Mitropoulos recording with the old Minneapolis SO certainly gets close. As for Dohnanyi, I recall a live perf. with the BBC SO back in the late ’80s as being much superior to his Cleveland recording which came out at about the same time, I think. I will admit you’ve now gotten me curious about your recording!
    As for the two versions of the D minor, I’ve always tended to split the difference – the first version is better scored, while op.120 is better music!

    5 – Sibelius 3 has been a favourite since childhood – I got to know it through the old Anthony Collins / LSO recording. I’ve since grown to like Vänskä a lot (though some may find him a little too controlled). Have you tried Rozhdestvensky in this work?
    Of the other Sibelius symphonies, no.6 is still rather underrated, I think.

    4 – As for the Mendelssohn 1, I’m with you on this one: a good recording is just as elusive for me. I first encountered the work in an early ’80s broadcast with (I think) Raymond Leppard. Can’t remember the orch., but I have yet to hear a recording that approached it (then again, I may be remembering through rose-tinted ears!).
    The “Reformation” is another which doesn’t pop up often. My last live hearing of it was a couple of years ago in Memphis, of all places. The conductor, Ward Stare, had programmed it for the Memphis SO’s Martin Luther King memorial concert (a little bit of lateral thinking on his side, methinks!)

    3 – RVW 8 – agree with you on all counts. No disrespect to “Glorious John” (the work’s dedicatee after all), but Sir Adrian pretty much had a lock on this piece!

    2 – With Mahler 7, Bernstein’s best outing of this work is still his first NY recording, I think. Levine has his moments too.

    I won’t dwell overmuch on the honourable mentions, save to say this on Dvorak – to your choices for the recorded cycles, may I take the liberty of adding Rowicki’s set (with the LSO as per Kertesz)?
    As for Prokofiev…………I differ somewhat over the Gergiev (I rather like it, and it has the best 6 on record so far), but might I suggest the Rozhdestvensky instead if it’s a cycle you’re looking for? In many ways his is still the most consistent cycle around, even if one only gets the second (and less successful) version of no.4.

    1 – Yes to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. Jurowski’s my man for a live recording, with Muti as a runner-up for a studio option.

    As for my nominations for unloved symphonies, most of them have been covered by previous correspondents above. But I will add my bid for a few which have slipped the net:

    Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony 2 “Antar” (even though he changed the subtitle to Symphonic Suite). As gorgeous a piece of “Russian Orientalism” as Sheherazade (and maybe, just maybe a better piece in my view), and all but unknown.

    Randall Thompson’s Symphony 2 in E minor (1931). Once quite popular in the US (and a favourite of Bernstein, who made his first public conducting appearace with it in 1940 at Tanglewood), but now languishing in obscurity. I always think of it as the Symphony which heralded what I like to think of as the “Americana” sound which I associate with Copland, Piston, Barber, Bernstein, Schuman and all the others. I seriously believe that were it to be programmed with any regularity today, audiences would fall in love with it all over again.

    William Schuman’s Symphony no.6 (1948), my nomination for the Great American Symphony. I think the only reason it so rarely surfaces is because it’s so hair-raisingly difficult (though I’ve just seen that Slatkin is programming it in Chicago next season – I might even fly over for that……….!)

    I could go on, but this is one of those subjects that could well remain open-ended for all eternity. Fun, isn’t it?!

  33. Pingback: On My iPod: 'Castle' star Stana Katic on collecting folk music and … | Used Martin Guitars

  34. takis

    What about Raff and his extremely picturesque symphony “Im Walde” no.3?
    Franz Schmidt no.4
    Honneger-especially no.2 and 4
    Goldmark Rustic wedding
    and , already mentioned above, Korngold and Fibich

  35. Iain

    I see Malcolm Arnold’s name was briefly mentioned above, but I have to emphasis that it is almost comical that he is all but forgotten. His symphonies vary but reach the peaks of perfection with the 3rd, the 5th and his masterpiece, the 7th. The last is spine-chilling.

    You are right about RVW’s 8th, but what of the war requiemesque 3rd. Oh, and the mighty 4th. It is easy to spot a fan of RVW– they dislike his unoriginal 5th, but love his 2,3,4,6,8. His 9th is of course unlistenable.

  36. Michael Thallium

    Dear Kenneth,
    Just today I downloaded the Prokofiev’s 2nd Symphony from iTunes. After thinking about it, I decided to go for the version of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonid Grin ( I didn’t know neither this orchestra nor the conductor and that’s the main reason I decided to go for that version. Sometimes, you find great music outside the “acclaimed conductors” circle. I’ve listened to this recording twice and it seems great to me, although it’s true that I cannot compare: I’d never listened to this symphony until today. And you were right, this is pure rock n roll!!
    Michael Thallium

  37. Gunnar Isaacson

    I love Sibelius 3. Every note seems to be right where it needs to be.

    Not a symphony, but I’ll add Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Someday I’ll hear it live.

  38. Prentiss Glazier

    I was surprised to agree with you and so many writers on so much! So many of these works I already felt were underrated. I’d like to add the symphonies of Martinu, especially the 6th (“Fantaisies Symphoniques”), and three by Mexican Carlos Chavez (“Sinfonia India” “Sinfonia Antigona ” and Sinfonia Romantica”). These are wildly colourful and hauntingly evocative works. Canadian composer Claude Champagne’s “Symphonie Gaspesienne” has it’s faults, but like the Manfred, great virtues.

  39. James

    I totally agree about Sibelius Number 2, and I’d definitely add the 6th as well. The rest of the pieces… well besides the Schubert I don’t really know them so I can’t comment. Thanks for the information and I look forward to starting to get to know them.

  40. Alan Howe

    Perhaps the greatest neglected symphony to come out of the 19th century Austro-German tradition is No.3 (“Tragica”) by Felix Draeseke. For me it ranks with Bruckner 8 and Brahms 4 – and it was written at roughly the same time. There are a couple of recordings of the piece (on cpo and MDG) and an extended essay can be read here:

  41. harriter88

    Hi from the USA.Nice that you mention Walter Piston.His 4th is wonderful.Peter Mennin is one my Country’s greatest symphonists,along with Ives copland,sessions and Piston.His 5th and esp his 7th are great works,and never played(prob because they are 2 damn difficult 2 listen 2 and play).Jean Martinon recorded the 7th after it was written in the early 60’s(premiered by Szell)with the Chicago SO.A stellar recording.Gerard Schwartz and David Allen Miller are two conductors who have recorded his works- the two works i mentioned along with his 3rd as well as his his concertato Moby Dick.Some of these are uploaded 2 YouTube.Cheers.

  42. Bill Longcamp

    What about Kurt Atterburg? 8 or 9 symphonies of variable style, color and complexity.

  43. John Novacek

    Ken, marvelous, thought-provoking post. So glad I ran across it.

    Listening to Bruckner 2nd on the headphones while I type. I came late to Bruckner, but have been on a kick for the past several years. The 2nd was the one symphony with which I had no prior experience. Captivating work; I do hear it still as transitional–all the characteristics are there, but perhaps not yet the full breadth. (Love Robert Simpson’s well-known book on the composer.)

    Somehow I’ve had a bit of trouble returning to Mahler after my Bruckner immersion; the overwhelming sophistication (dense contrapuntal layering, irony) have momentarily lost a bit of their appeal, great as the music is. The Mahler 7th has actually been proving an effective re-entry point. It was (curiously) the first Mahler symphony I ever ran across. (Bernstein’s first recording.)

    Sibelius has always been a passion. Though for me the first movement of the 5th is his highest achievement, the more ‘modest’ 3rd and 6th symphonies have always been my favorites. Happy to see the 3rd on your list. I agree that it’s neo-classical facade has caused some to miss its genuine greatness.

    Have been dipping into to the Shostakovich 7th lately; truly one of the most unfairly disparaged of works. The historical context may have caused it to be heard as a period piece? The 8th and the 14th are for me the greatest Shostakovich symphonies. The 4th is a real trip, and too-little known/performed. Withdrawn because of the Lady Macbeth criticism, I think. The very-different follow-up (No. 5) seemed to have cemented his style.

    I also believe Schumann’s 2nd to be his finest. Perhaps less picked-upon than it once was?

    I recall Tovey ranking the Dvorak 5th and 6th with the symphonies of Brahms. I like them and delight in their many surprises, though I admit to hearing a significant step-up in maturity with No. 7. The (occasionally Wagnerian) 4th has always been a pleasure–one of the most stirring of scherzi. Don’t yet know the first three.

    Love the Vaughan-Williams 5th and 6th. I’ll check out the 8th.

    The Beecham recording of Schubert’s 3rd and 6th always made me smile, though I can’t say that they strike me as fully-achieved works. The 4th starts marvelously. Again, you’ve inspired me to go back. Still hard to believe that if Beethoven had died at the same age as Schubert, we’d only have his 1st Symphony!

    I don’t know Mendelssohn’s 1st or the Tchaikovsky Manfred. I hope to rectify that soon

    One query. I’m always surprised when orchestral musicians tell me that Brahms 3rd is by far the least played of the four. I remember reading that Brahms himself thought it over-played. I would think it one of the most immediately impressive of symphonies, with a third movement melody to die for. (Just heard a pop tune over the radio that undoubtedly cribbed its harmonic progression and line.) What would cause its (relative) neglect? The transcendental, albeit quiet, ending?

    Thank you again for this. Look forward to our work together next summer.

  44. Kenneth Woods

    Hi John

    How great to hear from you! Thanks for the comment.

    I looked up some stats. Here are numbers of performances of the Brahms symphonies from three major orchestras.

    NY Phil Brahms Performances between 1877-9195
    Symphony 1 338
    Symphony 2 334
    Symphony 3 163
    Symphony 4 263

    Vienna Philharmonic, 1842-1974
    Symphony 1 33
    Symphony 2 33
    Symphony 3 26
    Symphony 4 33

    Berlin Phil
    Symphony 1 54
    Symphony 2 53
    Symphony 3 43
    Symphony 4 49

    I do think it’s the ending. People are sadly shallow- I think it’s the most moving ending of them all.

    Let me know if you find a good recording of the Mendelssohn- I’ve never found one with as much steel and fire as I think the piece needs. It’s very much on my bucket list of things to record some day.

    Speaking of Vaughan Williams- I’ve since conducted the Fourth for the first time. That’s an amazing work, and a very different animal from the Fifth

    Looking forward to next summer!


    Taken from Walter Frisch’s fab book Brahms: the Four Symphonies

  45. Susan Scheid

    You know, while Shostakovich’s 7th may well be undervalued by conductors and critics, I think it’s overvalued in terms of concert programming. I’m all on board with the 4th, as some have noted here, and I’d also add the 8th.

  46. Ian

    I would like to nominate as unjustly neglected the 7 ( yes seven ) symphonies of Felix Weingartner all now recently recorded by CPO.

  47. craig kowald

    Several other fine works worthy of mention: The d’Indy symphonies, especially the 2d; Gliere 3d; von Hausegger Natursymphonie; and the Rott. Then there is Bax. It is baffling that he is NEVER played in the states. A brilliantly inventive, though sometimes rambling 7 symphony cycle. So much orchestral color and writing for horn that rivals Mahler and Strauss. I once asked Peter Oundjian why. He said it was about $. Huge obscure works are just too risky. Still hold out hope to hear even one symphony live.

  48. Gerard Hofman

    The symphonies of the Austrian Composer Franz Schmidt (1864-1934) are really great, not only the more often played 4th symphony, which is one of saddest works I know, not less emotional en complex as an Mahler symphony. But the other symphonies are not less interesting. I really don’t understand why they are not performed more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *