The D minor symphony opens with the strings alone, setting a threatening mood. Later on in the first movement an insistent rhythm gives the feel of a march, and the texture and dynamics build up, propelling the music on and on. There is a brief transition to a major key and a sudden lyrical style – a glimmer of hope? But the mood darkens again before the end of the movement and a solo violin sounds pleading and desperate. The allegretto second movement is a waltz, with simple Classical sounding melodies. Mark Wigglesworth has described it as a parody and I can see why – something about the tempo (slightly slow for a dance perhaps?) and instrumentation makes it sounds mocking and forced. The Largo again opens with the strings, this time playing at their most expressive – long, beautiful, sorrowful melodic lines. Spine tingling the whole way through.
The final movement is a fast paced march complete with powerful brass and timpani, and the strings playing as though in a whirlwind. It culminates in D major, with most of the orchestra playing repeated quavers on the dominant note, A, and has a sense of defiance to it. There is some dispute about the intended tempo for this section, which was written in the score as 184 quavers per minute. I listened to one version at approximately this tempo, one at 300 quavers per minute, one at 400 and one at 170. I found the slow versions much more effective, sounding dramatic and intense compared to the more hurried ending of the fast versions.
For a work which was intended to mark a celebration, I was shocked at the sense of despair it evokes so clearly.