It’s been hailed as “the saddest of all keys.” Andras Schiff called it “Beethoven’s key of existential struggle.” It was Brahms’s Tragic key- the world of his brooding First Piano Concerto and his Tragic Overture- both quite symphonic works. Yet Brahms never wrote a D minor symphony- maybe the thought of writing a whole symphony in the saddest of all keys was just too scary to contemplate for even so dark a chap as Brahms.
In fact- one of the striking commonality on this list is how few D minor symphonies end in D minor, and the list includes several of the most inspirationally affirmative creations in any medium ever created by human kind. Perhaps more than any other key, D minor seems to be an obstacle to be overcome, the key great composers struggle to escape. In that sense, it really is the most Beethovenian of keys.
The list follows. Read it then let us know what I missed in the comments.
15- Shostakovich Symphony no. 12
Few works ever written suffer from as dodgy a reputation as this one. Shostakovich’s own comments on the piece were so laced with contradictions and doublespeak that they’ve only fuelled critical scepticism. I never worried too much about the programmatic elements or the critical barbs, and neither should you- put it on, turn the stereo up to “whoa boy” loud and prepare to be blown away. I grew up with Haitink’s fantastic Concertgebouw recording which has the advantage of including a great overture that nobody knows, the Overture on Russian and Khirgiz Folk Themes. But I don’t think you can expect to hear many more exiting performances of anything than the video of Mravinsky on scary form with the Leningrad Phil.
14- Prokofiev- Symphony no. 2
Are any two consecutive symphonies in any cycle more different than Prokofiev’s First (the witty and elegant “Classical”) and his Second- surely one of the noisiest works in the literature. And I mean that in a good way. Once you absorb the thrill of Prokofiev’s bad-boy raucous provocation the work also shows real depth and emotional power. But we love it for the bad boy noise.
13- Haydn- Symphony no. 26 “Lamentatione”
The only way you’re ever going to get a “best symphonies in the key of ____” list on this blog without Haydn is if he never wrote a symphony in that key. He makes quick work of getting on the D minor list with this astoundingly original work from his early years. Thomas Fey’s recording is a good starting place.
12- Bruckner- Symphony no. 3
It is sometimes said of Bruckner’s symphonies that he tried to write Beethoven’s 9th Symphony 9 times. For such a completely original composer, I think that’s quite unfair. His first essay in the key of Beethoven’s 9th is curiously one I struggled with for years- I found the stepwise ascent at the end of the opening trumpet theme banal and it maybe me suspicious of the whole work. Fortunately, age has brought wisdom on this front and I’m looking forward to conducting it very soon.
11- Franck- Symphony in D minor
The classic example of a work of vast audience appeal that was once a staple of our musical diet that has largely fallen out of the repertoire to the detriment of both musicians and listeners. And we wonder why audiences shrink? Francophone Bruckner- what’s not to love? Nobody has ever made a better case for the piece than Charles Munch.
10- Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 8
John McCabe is unambiguous in asserting Vaughan Williams as the greatest symphonist of the 20th C.. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to see his point. I certainly don’t understand why this fantastic work isn’t done more often. The Fifth and the “London” are concert mainstays, but the “London” often overstays its welcome. The Fourth is a masterpiece, but not for every occasion, nor is the bleak Sixth or the gigantic Seventh. One would hope this gem of a work would get programmed much more often. The ICA Classics DVD of Adrian Boult conducting this piece is an incredibl document.
9- Rachmaninoff- Symphony no. 1
If Shostakovich 12 has the worst critical reputation of any work on this list, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony certainly got one of the worst critical receptions of all time after its premiere. Much blame must be assigned to the conductor, Glazunov, who was reportedly terribly drunk and not sympathetic to the piece. It’s Rachmaninoff’s most “modern” work- angry, austere and violent, with hardly a shred of the appealing melancholy of this later, mega-popular works. It feels more authentically Russian than almost any of his other works: closer to the weirdness of Mussorgsky, where his later works take on more of a Tchaikovskian technical perfection. Rachmaninoff went on to be a great composer, but had he developed more along the lines of this work, he might have been one of the greatest. Maestro Noseda’s recording with the BBC Philharmonic makes a great case for the work in great sound.
8- Philip Sawyers- Symphony no. 2
I know- I’m biased, but Philip Sawyers’ work absolutely deserves its place so high on this list (and he’ll be cross/embarrassed I’m listing him, as it’s not very English to appear on a “best-of” list— so you know I mean it). Philip doesn’t actually specify a key on the title page, but the D minor in which it opens and closes leaves no doubt about the fierce and stormy world of this bracing 20 minute masterpiece. With a language that seamlessly integrates a compelling sense of harmonic possibility and intent with twelve-tone technique, it ranges from ferocious intensity to passages the composer once described to me with a note of surprise in his voice as having a “sort of crazed Mahlerian grandeur.” It’s a piece you really have to hear- again and again. And if you want to hear it, you’ll have to listen to my recording of it. Hah! Listen on Spotify here (then buy the CD to keep the music coming) Philip Sawyers – Symphony No. 2
7-Schumann- Symphony no. 4
The number of this work is misleading- it’s actually his second, and very much a companion piece to the “Spring.” He also revised the two works at the same time in 1853. The work marks one of the most important innovations in symphonic form in musical history- the first few symphony in one movement, the father of Sibelius 7 and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and countless others including Sawyers 2 mentioned above (a work Bobby would have loved). Schumann worked for over 10 years to get the transitions right- they make the piece, and that’s why it’s a crime to play the original version against his explicit wishes. The real point of the piece is the fire in its belly- the inspiration and the passion that only Bobby Schumann could muster. Support Vftp and buy my recording (you’ll like it).
6- Sibelius Symphony no. 6
It’s often called “Sibeslius’s most elusive symphony.” I suggest one could also call it his most beautiful. This work is also much more accessible than its reputation- it’s not a tough nut like the Fourth or Tapiola. It’s a work of deepest contemplation rather than struggle. Sibelius 6 is a bit of a rarity in the concert hall, but there are a lot of good recordings. The concert film of Simon Rattle doing the 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies in one concert with Berlin is a really interesting document, and my god, that orchestra really plays. It’s in the Digital Concert Hall- probably worth a trip behind the paywall.
5- Beethoven- Symphony no. 9
Beethoven 9 not at the top of the list? Am I nuts? Nope- D minor is just that competitive. It’s fashionable among a certain type dis this work. Some can’t get on with the form of the Finale (it makes perfect sense and works). Some don’t get the whole affirmation thing. I don’t get them. Live it’s an even more special animal, with a power to unite audience and performers in pure joy that goes beyond any work. My favourite recordings are Bloomstedt’s 70’s era Dresden performance and Furtwangler’s harrowing wartime aircheck. I’m not sure there will be a convincing HIP recording until someone lets the cellos and basses vibrate in the recit- it makes no sense non vib unless the bass-baritone is going to sing it that way. (He isn’t.)
4- Dvorak- Symphony no. 7
Given the stature of his other works in D minor, it’s a real pity we don’t have a Brahms symphony in this key. Or do we? More than one commentator has answer the question “What is the greatest Brahms symphony” with “Dvorak 7.” It’s only an unfair ranking because, strong as Brahms influence is in it, it’s pure Dvorak through and through- his voice, his language. The rhythmic intricacies and tensions of the first movement are worthy of a doctoral dissertation. Kubelik’s Berlin Philharmonic recording is one of ten best recordings of anything ever made by anyone, anywhere at any time.
3- Shostakovich Symphony no. 5
No musical work more vividly captures the bitter complexities of life in the 20th c. than Shostakovich’s “reply to justified criticism.” Read all about the work here. Surprisingly (and a little sadly), I don’t think a recording has been made yet that does justice to the whole thing. Mravinsky is, of course, indispensable, and the first movement is devastating (if a little too fast at the beginning and ending), but he skates over the surface of the Adagio. Bernstein is magical there (pity about the flute solo), but blows it in the Finale with the Keystone Cops ending. Rostropovich’s take on the Scherzo is the only one that captures the mix of brutality and irony that I think Shostakovich intended. More recent recordings seem to suffer from a lack of tobacco and chest hair. It’s not a symphony that suits an Ikea aesthetic. Overall, Barshai is a pretty good starting point.
2- Mahler- Symphony no. 3
No other work by Mahler so embodies his credo that “the Symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” I find it the most wonderfully bizarre of all his works. What a long, strange trip it is- from the gigantism of the first movement through those quirky and vaguely threatening intermezzi, then the astounding contralto song (very trippy) and the completely wacko children’s chorus. Only Mahler could have had the vision and the mojo to compose a Finale which could pull the whole thing together and launch the listener into an eternity of transcendent love. There are surprising number of really good recordings of this piece, although it’s not easy to find one where the trombone solo, the posthorn solo and the contralto are all on the same exalted level. I’ve always thought Bernstein did it particularly well.
1- Bruckner- Symphony no. 9
If D minor is “the key great composers struggle to escape,” then, truly, nobody ever fought harder to escape it’s icy clutches than poor old Anton Bruckner, who struggled up the perilous ascent to D major in this work for ten years, then died just a few yards from the summit. The Finale was all but finished when he put his pen down for the last time, but friends and neighbors pinched huge portions of the manuscript as souvenirs, and so for most of the last 100+ years, we’ve only really known the work as an awe-inspiring three-movement torso. Even in this form, it’s the greatest D minor symphony ever written. The reason it’s the greatest D minor symphony is the same reason it took Bruckner so long to find a way to get to D major- no piece of music since the Mozart Requiem has made the key of D minor sound as Apocalypse inducing, pants crappingly terrifying as Bruckner 9. The surviving fragments of the Finale can be heard to fascinating effect on the lecture (which he gave in both English and German) disc accompanying Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s very fine recording. There are a number of completions and realizations- Simon Rattle’s performance of the latest Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs completion in the Digital Concert Hall is very good. The greatest performances, sadly, are of the torso- all by guys who knew a thing or two about mortality. I grew up with Karajan’s 70’s era Berlin recording and still love it. It was one of the last works Bernstein ever conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was the only time he did the piece, and his interpretation (and their playing) is incredible. But Gunter Wand at age 147 or whatever he was in this film has to win the prize.