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Symphony No 3 in B flat minor, Op 11
1895/6, revised 1902; first performed in Paris in 1904 under Camille Chevillard

'Magnard: The Four Symphonies' (CDD22068)
Magnard: The Four Symphonies
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Movement 1: Introduction et Ouverture: Modéré – Vif
Track 1 on CDD22068 CD2 [12'23] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 2: Danses: Très vif
Track 2 on CDD22068 CD2 [6'08] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 3: Pastorale: Modéré
Track 3 on CDD22068 CD2 [8'21] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 4: Final: Vif
Track 4 on CDD22068 CD2 [10'41] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)

Symphony No 3 in B flat minor, Op 11
Symphony No 3 in B flat minor, Op 11, was written in 1895/6, received further attention from its composer in 1902 (when, perhaps significantly, d’Indy was working on his own Symphony No 2, also in B flat), and was not heard until November 1904 when it was performed in Paris under Camille Chevillard. Thanks to the support of Ferruccio Busoni it received a further performance in the 1905/6 Berlin season. A recording of the work by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was issued by Decca some thirty years ago, and by the modest standards of Magnard’s other works this symphony may be said to have achieved unusual success. Particularly arresting is the coolly luminous sonority of open fifths with which the work opens, seemingly announcing a deepening preoccupation with archaic models embracing ‘organum’, the ancient system whereby plainchant was harmonized exclusively through parallel movement of the fifth and octave. The first movement is curiously designated ‘Introduction and Overture’ (Modéré), and No 3 is the only one of Magnard’s symphonies to permit this degree of preamble. After a series of portentous string replies to woodwind and brass chords the main part of the movement launches itself with great energy. Here, paradoxically, we encounter Magnard at his most austerely conservative: the development section is founded largely upon fugato technique and there is a consistent sense that the more unbridled passions of the second symphony are here under the iron control of formal academicism (despite another splendid second-subject expansion). The paradox in this, of course, is that it is precisely these latter qualities that have been continually cited by commentators attempting to explain Magnard’s lack of mass appeal—and yet the third symphony is not only his most successful work to date, it is also his most approachable, indeed amiable symphony, and thus likely to consolidate its position among new listeners.

The first movement ends quietly in a passage of restrained intensity. Strauss, Bruckner, Glazunov, arguably Novák have been evoked en passant, and in the final pages one may even glimpse a startling harmonic suggestion of Nielsen. The second movement, like its counterpart in the previous symphony, is entitled Danses (this time Très vif), and is Magnard’s lightest, truest scherzo achievement. Here mock-medievalry comes hand in hand with some evocative soloing of instruments, sometimes over rustic ‘drone’ bass notes. The compound duple time signature changes without disruption to a 5/4 measure for the secondary theme, which scores one of those pleasurably maddening ‘surely-I’ve-heard-this-somewhere-else?’ successes. It is impossible to see this music as anything but good natured, in much the same way as Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances with their evocation of village music-making. (One music encyclopaedia entry on Magnard claims that after his father’s death in 1894 he ‘… purged himself of all desire to charm his audience’. Listening to this movement with those words in mind will surely prove the injustice of its composer’s fate hitherto.)

The slow third movement (Pastorale: Modéré) is a string-dominated, harmonically intense outpouring which begins in F sharp minor with a melancholy cor anglais solo and whose would-be idyll is continually undermined by menacing hints of the first movement’s turbulence. These are progressively agitated and eventually precipitate a stormy climax before the principal theme returns in the tonic major key. Even at the last there remain some notably rough-edged interjections to cast shadows over the music’s otherwise placid surface. A hint of Lydian modal harmony (featuring the sharpened fourth of the scale) is apparent, as it has been also at other moments in the symphonies so far.

The Final (Vif) takes us to B flat major, and balances the general character of the first movement, following precedent from the first and second symphonies by pressing the main subject into further service as a flute ostinato background to further ideas. Most notable here is the very evident cyclic principle in operation, whereby the first movement’s opening chords (instantly recognizable, thanks to their strongly delineated contrast with all other material) begin to reassert themselves as a sort of incipient chorale during the central passage of the last. This, interspersed by scurrying strings, ultimately migrates upwards from low brass to form a peroration of austere brilliance, offset by the movement’s hectic primary subject. If any further proof were needed of Magnard’s often prophetic eclecticism, listeners might be startled to compare this theme with the climax of the scherzo in William Alwyn’s Symphony No 4, also in B flat major, written in 1959.from notes by Francis Pott © 1998

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Details for CDD22068 disc 2 track 1
Introduction et Ouverture: Modéré – Vif
Recording date
11 September 1997
Recording venue
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Recording producer
Oliver Rivers
Recording engineer
Mike Clements
Hyperion usage
  1. Magnard: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 (CDA67040)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: September 1998
    Deletion date: July 2007
    Superseded by CDD22068
  2. Magnard: The Four Symphonies (CDD22068)
    Disc 2 Track 1
    Release date: January 2009
    2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
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