It’s been a long, strange gap between top 10 lists here at Everything But the Music, mostly because I like to tell myself that I’m busy and don’t have as much time as I’d like to dedicate to writing. The truth is that I’m lazy and these are a lot of work to compile, fun as they may be. At any rate, with the incredible success the previous lists enjoyed (tens of page views!), I figured now was as good a time as any to dive back in and give the fans what they want, or perhaps the exact opposite of what they want depending on your viewpoint. Without further ado, here it is: the definitive, inarguable list of the ten best symphonies numbered 2.
Honorable mention: Symphony no. 2 by Alfredo Casella
Casella is something of an afterthought anymore, surpassed in notoriety by his countryman Ottorino Respighi, and it’s too bad, because his music has many great qualities. His musical circle is staggering: he studied in Paris with Faure, was classmates with Ravel and Enescu, rolled with Debussy and Stravinsky, and met Strauss and Mahler. The last of these proved to be an enormous influence – Casella’s music is deeply indebted to Mahler, whose works he studied intensely.
The Second Symphony, written between 1908 and 1910, is a supremely confident work written by a supremely sarcastic man; Casella advertised his first two symphonies like this: “Two solid symphonies for sale, written in the German, Strauss-Mahler tradition. Thorough workmanship. Unoriginality guaranteed. Offers to Alf. Cas. Box 724, Rome.” It is indeed a work that firmly rests in the German tradition (sorta like Respighi’s Sinfonia Drammatica), but it also has some twists thrown in, none cooler than the second movement’s exoticism and rich color. It may be a derivative work, but it’s a ridiculously polished and exciting derivative work that deserves further listening.
Recommended recording: Gianandrea Noseda is a longtime favorite of mine, and considering the fact that there are only two commercial recordings I’m aware of, his recording with the BBC Philharmonic seems reasonable enough to recommend.
10) Symphony no. 2 by Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky
Tschaikovsky’s first three symphonies languish in obscurity relative to his last three symphonies, and I’m not really going to try and argue that they shouldn’t. But they’re still pretty terrific works, especially the 2nd. Subtitled “Little Russian,” a reference to the folk music of Ukraine that is used to great effect in the work as opposed to a Russian midget, which is something completely different and I urge only the bravest among you to click on this link that explains what that is.
The 2nd was well-received from its premiere, though Tschaikovsky himself was not as happy with it and revised it pretty substantially. Today we mostly hear this revised version, and it’s not hard to see why it would have been popular – it’s got pretty much everything we all love about Tschaikovsky (the melodies, the emotional swells, the magnificent woodwind writing, the powerful brass) without the things we don’t (the occasional bout of long-windedness).
The first movement is based on the horn solo heard at the work’s outset, a variant of the folk song “Down by Mother Volga,” and contains, to my ears, some of Tschaikovsky’s most passionate writing, which is saying something because he’s kind of a drama queen. The second movement is a pretty sweet march and the scherzo is about as high quality a scherzo as one could hope to do when trying to sound like Beethoven. The finale, to me, is where this symphony makes it hay. Tschaikovsky’s symphonic finales are problematic in that they usually pale in comparison to what came before them, but this is the glaring exception to that rule. It has tremendous excitement and rhythmic energy but it doesn’t come off quite as schlocky as the roughly similar finale to the 4th. I’m a big fan of this piece, and I’m pretty stoked to hear it live again soon (on a program with the Strauss Four Last Songs…interesting pairing).
Recommended recording: The tempi in this symphony are a huge deal to me – I was visibly angry during a performance I heard in college with Pavel Kogan leading the Utah Symphony at the unmitigated disaster that was his “interpretation” – and Abbado and Chicago nail them here. And the big brass chorale to open the last movement cannot possibly sound more bad ass than this.
9) Symphony no. 2 by Ralph Vaughan Williams
According to a conversation between George Butterworth and Vaughan Williams himself, the latter never intended to write a symphony until the former gave him shit about it. He ended up writing nine, which is sort of like saying you’re going to use drugs recreationally and eventually blowing dudes for product. His late symphonies are incredibly interesting, but his early symphonies remain his most popular (the 5th probably sneaks in there as well).
Vaughan Williams didn’t actually call this work Symphony no. 2, but it is the second symphony he wrote. He called it A London Symphony, which sounds like the ultimate musical journey around one of world’s great cities, but its composer insisted that it was absolute music (though it does have London “sounds” in it…pick a side Ralph!). Vaughan Williams revised it twice, shaving 20 minutes or more off the time and tightening things up, and the result is a concise and evocative 40 or so minutes that take the listener through a jolly London day. It has everything that makes Vaughan Williams great: melody, lush orchestration, structural complexity, and an inexplicable sense of ease and relaxation that no other composer I know of is capable of generating. Gun to my head, I’d say this is Vaughan Williams’ greatest symphony (I reserve the right to take that back!).
Recommended recording: I have a kind word to say about Andre Previn about as often as I have a kind word to say about genital herpes, but dammit all if that bird-looking motherfucker doesn’t have a superb recording of “London” with the Royal Philharmonic. To quote Sidney Deane: “The sun shines on a dog’s ass some days. Anybody can win the lottery.”
8) Symphony no. 2 by Alexander Borodin
Borodin was a chemist, which I think is every bit as funny as stories about baseball players back in the 1950’s who worked regular jobs in the summer. It’s impossible to imagine a scenario today in which a composer, no matter how prominent, worked a day job as improbably disassociated from what we know him or her for (I would have typed this same paragraph about Charles Ives). It’s not like he wrote music on the side and we discovered it a century later and decided it was decent…he was one of The Russian Five (not to be confused with the Seattle Seven), or as they were known (and my penis was not), The Mighty Handful! To top it off, Borodin was a women’s rights activist who was a co-founder of the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg…what a guy!
A few people I know and whose opinions I genuinely respect think Borodin’s Symphony no. 2 is actually pretty terrible. They’re insane, of course. I’m not going to try and argue that it’s the greatest thing ever to come out of Russia or anything, but I will say that it’s probably the most Russian-sounding thing you could possibly imagine – the opening movement might as well have been written in leftover borscht juice. The third movement is one of the most beautiful and sensual things that anyone has ever written, a gorgeous depiction of Slavic minstrel singing, presumably to chicks. This entire symphony is superb, especially given its stop-and-start (pesky dayjobs!) conception, and is one of the most characteristically nationalistic works of the entire 19th century.
Recommended recording: There are quite a few I enjoy, including Mitropoulos, Kubelik, Gergiev, Rozhdestvensky, and someone called Fedotov, but this disc featuring one recording apiece from each of the Kleibers is an entertaining means of comparing the two. Carlos is better, if only because of the sound, but Erich could certainly bring the nasty when it counted, like in the first movement’s climax.
7) Symphony no. 2 by Jean Sibelius
Sibelius’ most popular symphony is also his longest, a delightful bit of irony considering that he was obsessed with the ultimate condensation of the symphonic form, something he obviously ended up achieving. Like the symphony preceding it, the Second owes something of a debt to Tschaikovsky, though there are plenty of Sibeliusms (new word!) to be found in the score, chief among them the woodwind writing. Interestingly enough, Sibelius completed the final revision of his tone poem En Saga, a work that sounds (at least to my ears) entirely more characteristic of Sibelius’ mature style, and the cantata Tulen Synty, at roughly the same time; something about the historical tradition of the symphony must have been in play to cause such a disparity in these works respective sound worlds. As an aside, you know what other music came out in 1902? The Entertainer, The Romanian Rhapsodies, Nielsen 2, and Mahler 5. Think about that for a second, and then don’t forget to watch American Fucking Idol next week and cry.
There is an awful lot to love in Sibelius 2, from the pastoral opening movement’s grand sweep and colors to the borderline creepy relentlessness of the surging finale, but for me there are two moments that really stand out. One is a bit obvious, that being the coda, which is about the most triumphant music one could ever hope to hear, a mystically powerful wall of brass with enough juice to crack a hole in the sky for a quick shot of heaven (and presumably the destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere and the death of all living beings, but greatness comes at a price people…what a way to go!). The other bit occurs in the second movement, a movement that shares much in common with its counterpart in the First Symphony. After the initial statement of the gorgeous main theme of the movement, the strings get low and put a bow on the theme in the winds with rolling sixteenth notes before turning it into a simmering cauldron over which the celli and basses menacingly play a fragment of the theme in sequence. It’s as quick a turn on a musical dime as can be, and it kinda sums up Sibelius perfectly.
Recommended recording: I’ve admittedly been on a bit of a Bernstein kick in the last year or so, but his Sibelius half-cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic is rad as hell. I normally cede all my Sibelius needs to Alexander Gibson, but this DVD is just too much fun to pass up. This performance of the 2nd is emtionally draining and sounds like every single member of that band gave everything they had.
6) Symphony no. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov
It took Rachmaninov ten years to write a symphony after the reception of his first threw him into a depression. The premiere performance was legendarily terrible, an under-rehearsed train wreck led by an alcoholic (Glazunov) who seemed to give much less than a shit. Even the reception and subsequent Glinka Award he received for his Second Piano Concerto wasn’t entirely enough. In spite of several setbacks during the compositional process, Rachmaninov ultimately got his swerve back with the overwhelmingly positive vibes (and another Glinka Award) that his Second Symphony brought him.
Rachmaninov’s 2nd is characteristically Russian in structure, utilizing a unifying motif that is employed throughout the symphony a la Tschaikovsky 5. The other thing it has, and you’re not going to believe this, is a virtually limitless supply of melody that walks the line of cheesy in the 3rd movement (cheesy enough to be used by Eric Carmen in “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”). It has become one of the most popular symphonies of the 20th century, routinely performed all around the world and a staple of the symphonic repertoire.
Recommended recording: Apparently the sun shines on a dog’s ass more than I expect, because here’s Andre Previn again with the London Symphony in one of the undisputed champions of this work. I swear if Previn shows up one more time I’m going to try and get Mia Farrow on Line 2.
5) Symphony no. 2 by Aram Khachaturian
Khachaturian is an interesting figure in 20th-century music, renowned somewhat for his ballets (more specifically individual pieces within those ballets) with a splash of recognition reserved for his Violin Concerto. He was regarded within the Soviet Union as being the third of a pretty epic triumvirate of composers, the other two being Shostakovich and Prokofiev, yet his reputation lags pretty substantially behind both of his famous contemporaries as the years pass. I don’t know that I get it, honestly – nobody writes music with more character and energy than Khachaturian…nobody.
I wrote about Khachaturian’s 2nd Symphony a while back, and I’m sure that I stand by my good thoughts, even if I don’t remember what those thoughts actually were. It was composed in 1943, during which time I think there was maybe a war or something, and it gets its name “The Bell” from the motive that permeates the work (spoiler alert: it sounds like a bell!). As I noted in my previous post, if you like Shostakovich’s war symphonies (especially the “Leningrad”), the chances are pretty high that you will enjoy The Bell (unrelated but also important, if you like tacos supreme(s) and you also like nacho cheese Doritos, chances are pretty high that you will enjoy Taco Bell).
There are so many great moments in this symphony, and the unifying motif really holds it together beautifully. The whole work drips with intensity, which you’ll probably figure out after hearing the first 30 seconds, but it also has some tremendously beautiful and exciting music. The second movement is perhaps the highlight of the work, a frenetic scherzo with some of the most nervous rhythmic energy you could possibly hope to hear and quite possibly one of the coolest endings in the repertoire. This symphony is concise, it’s scary, and it’s fiercely passionate, overflowing with drama and raw animal power. It’s a hell of a journey, that’s for God damn sure.
Recommended recording: Truth be told my favorite recording is probably the one referenced in the link to my previous post on the matter, so I suppose I should re-upload it. But I’m trying to keep shit commercial and everything, and because of that I’m going to point you towards the composer-led Vienna recording on Decca. It’s not as awesome, but it sounds approximately 62x better, and that’s gotta count for something.
4) Symphony no. 2 by Johannes Brahms
It took Brahms 15 years to complete his Symphony no. 1. It took him less than a year to complete his Symphony no. 2. Funny how that works – sorta like how we hounded and questioned Lebron James because he wasn’t fulfilling his potential and choking in the Finals and shit, only then he DID show up in the Finals, AND the Olympics, and is now playing basketball better than the game has ever been played by anyone (yes, including MJ). Once Brahms got that monkey (let’s name him Beethoven!) off his back, he never looked back, and he ended up being regarded as every bit the symphonist as the previously removed monkey.
There’s a lot to soak in in Brahms 2, especially in the opening movement, the longest in Brahms’ symphonic output. The most notable feature is probably the part that sounds like the “Lullaby” that may or may not have actually been influenced by the “Lullaby” at all (for what it’s worth, the 2nd was composed at Portschach on Lake Worth, apparently “near the summer home” of the couple that he had written the Lullaby for a decade earlier, certainly a fascinating coincidence if nothing else), a gorgeous theme in the violas and celli that that flows along like a gentle river.
For my money, the symphony really takes off in the final three movements, a rapturous Adagio non troppo, a lilting Allegretto (that surely had some kind of influence on the Nachtmusik I in Mahler’s Symphony no. 7), and a spirito-licious finale (that surely had some kind of influence on the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1…that guy had good taste) that is probably the coolest thing Brahms ever did in his life. There is hardly a more exciting minute in all of music than the coda of this finale, a frantic runaway train on poppers and crunk juice that excites even the most hardened of trombonists.
Recommended recording: A shout-out to my friend James Smock, who introduced me to this recording of Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony in the majesty of LP sound. Walter’s take isn’t quite as heavy-handed as others, and you will not find a more beautifully nuanced and elegant opening movement. I didn’t like this piece all that much until I heard this recording. It shifted the way I listen to Brahms, and that’s a hell of a statement to make.
3) Symphony no. 2 by Robert Schumann
Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 is actually the third one he wrote, after the Spring Symphony and the initial version of what would become his Symphony no. 4. The spirit with which both of those works were composed was largely a confident and exuberant one, coming on the heels of his marriage to Clara. The Second, completed five years later, comes from a much darker place, on the significantly worse heels of perhaps the worst year of the chronic nervous breakdowns that ultimately led to his infamous jump into the Rhine.
This is music of struggle and striving, a piece whose scope is far beyond its length. The opening introduction, taking an obvious cue from Haydn (to say nothing of Beethoven and Schubert…did I mention that the Austro-German symphonic tradition has some pretty big names in it?), is a mysterious and penetrating glimpse into Schumann’s soul and it lays the foundation for the entire work. The frenetic scherzo is chock full of manic energy, and the Adagio third movement is quite possibly the most beautiful thing Schumann ever wrote, especially the first two minutes or so, which are absolutely stunning. The finale gets back to the big-boned or festively plump Schumann we know and love, an ebullient romp that culminates in arguably the baddest-ass ending in the entire symphonic repertoire.
The Second is the pour-over coffee of Schumann’s symphonies, the one that seems to be most revered by the connoisseurs who embrace the challenges. It was without question the last one I came around to liking, and I don’t really know if I’m qualified to say that I “get” it any more than anyone else, but once you’ve acquired the taste for it, it certainly stands out from his other symphonies, which is quite an accomplishment considering how much of a nerd I am for the rest of them.
Recommended recording: With respect to the pretty solid efforts of Szell, Bernstein, Schwarz, and even Eschenbach, no set of Schumann symphonies can compete with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Staatskapelle Dresden, who sound like they’re from a planet inhabited by orchestral Gods and mighty stallions of the Apocalypse and the finest cave aged cheeses. I also have to give a shout out to my good friend Ken Woods’ take with the Orchestra of the Swan that’s paired with Hans Gal’s absolutely fascinating Symphony no. 4. It’s a hell of an effort and a bit of a different take on the piece (leaner textures and greater clarity) that I really dig.
2) Symphony no. 2 by Gustav Mahler
It’s amazing to think that it was only 65 years or so ago that Mahler was a fringe member of classical music’s notables, a morbid curiosity for those who liked their shit long and loud and their chicks thick and mouthy (wait, this isn’t about me). His popularity in America was far less than that of Edward McDowell – not just the composer Edward McDowell, the Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Rhode Island College Edward McDowell who gets a sterling 4.0 for Overall Quality on RateMyProfessors.com (but doesn’t get the chili pepper icon signifying his hotness…a pity!). Now you can’t swing a dead cat or your own balls without hearing a Mahler symphony, and his symphonic reputation appears to be on a par with that of Beethoven at this point.
Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 has become an occasion piece, something that is performed when a new hall is opening or an old hall is closing or someone important retires or dies. Certainly part of that is logistics – there’s a lot of performers required to perform it – but it now has the stamp of importance placed upon it in such a way that it obscures just how awesome a work it is. It’s what Beethoven tried to do in his Ninth: encompass the entire human experience into one magnificent piece. The result is something like Sam Waterston’s Abraham Lincoln versus Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln…don’t get me wrong, because Sam Fucking Waterston y’all, but the tools with which to work are just superior as time goes by.
Enough has been written about Mahler 2 that it serves me little purpose to say anything about it. Suffice it to say, it’s an experience all its own, uplifting and exhausting all at once, and that’s just the finale. The Second contains some of Mahler’s most gut-wrenching music, but also contains perhaps the single most beautiful thing he ever wrote (the chorale in the 4th movement), and in spite of its oversaturation in the last 15 years or so, there’s a reason it’s as unfailingly popular as it is: it stares you in the face and asks you deep questions about life and universally binds us all together into something better than the cruel miasma of human existence.
Recommended recording: It has to have Janet Baker singing the Urlicht. That’s where you begin. After that you have some options, but it probably makes sense to go with Lenny and the LSO. There’s a DVD set out there with the complete symphonies and this performance (or a derivative thereof) is included, but this is one of the first LPs I remember getting when I decided that getting cool recordings for $3 at dusty holes in the wall was fun. Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to recommending a Mahler recording outside of the Seventh. Everybody does Mahler now, so you’ll manage, I’m sure.
1) Symphony no. 2 by Alan Hovhaness
On a list that includes Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius, and Mahler, it’s probably a little crazy to put Alan Hovhaness at the top, but from time to time the gods smile upon the world in some unexpected places: for example, the single greatest pitching performance in the history of professional baseball, the only perfect game in World Series history, belongs to the almost clinically mediocre Don Larsen. This isn’t to suggest that Alan Hovhaness is mediocre – far from it – but true greatness can happen anywhere. And Hovhaness 2, more commonly known as Mysterious Mountain, is true, true greatness.
The 20th century was filled with all manner of crazy shit from serialism to avant-garde to electronic music to aleatory, and Hovhaness’ Second Symphony stands out like a beacon of tonality and seeming normalcy. The key word in that sentence is probably “crazy,” and the second key word is probably “shit,” but the one that I’m actually wanting to make a point about is “seeming.” Mysterious Mountain is incredibly complex, a tapestry of mixed meters and double fugues and rich textures and unbridled intensity. Because of the unusual metric structures, time disintegrates and all that’s left is the sensory overload that is the color palette that Hovhaness employs to perfection.
Quite frankly, I’d take it a step further than placing this symphony at the top of a Symphonies no. 2 list – I don’t know that I wouldn’t put it at the top of a Symphonies no. anything list, and I would drive the point home by using a horrendous double negative. When Galactic Overlord Xenu returns to cleanse the world of Thetans and pull the trigger on the H-bombs at the bases of volcanoes, I hope we get a 20-minute warning, because there’s nothing I’d like to hear more before I go in a fiery atomic explosion of Scientology than Hovhaness 2. It’s the coolest, most underrated, most subtly bad ass piece of music there is, and it stands at the top of the mysterious mountain that is this sweet, sweet list.
Recommended recording: ArkivMusic says there are 10 recordings in stock, but there is but one recording of Mysterious Mountain: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA. This is my first entrant on the list of recordings that so dominate the field that others cease to exist. There is literally nothing not to love about this, from the lush string sound to the gorgeous playing of Bud Herseth to the note-perfect interpretation by the Mad Hungarian. This is it and that’s just the way it is; it’s sort of like when people try to argue that anyone other than Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all-time. They’re not. He is. This recording is. Accept it. Embrace it.
Apologies to: my Lord this is a spectacular number. Sorry Elgar, Beethoven (Beethoven!), Alwyn, Lutoslawski, Nielsen, Enesco, Mendelssohn, Alfven, Prokofiev, Sessions, Chavez, Zemlinsky, Walton, Piston, Furtwangler, Bruckner, Hanson, Bernstein, Schubert, and, most painfully, Ives.