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The usual expectation is that a concert be split into two 'halves', each of no more than around fifty minutes. A common exception to this is when one work is longer than this and the other 'half' shorter, as often occurs when a piece occupying twenty minutes or less goes before an interval and, say, a Mahler or Bruckner symphony follows it. There is also the interval-less concert, often presented at lunchtime, where duration expectation is around half of a conventional 'two-half' performance, but this need not concern us here. Another is when one work is well in excess of an hour's duration and it is presented alone, with no interval. It is perhaps interesting to note, en passant, that Mahler originally prescribed an interval of no less than five minutes between the first and second movements of his Second Symphony and, some thirty years later, Sorabji specified that the first of his three symphonies for organ solo 'is to be played with pauses of not more than five or ten minutes between each movement', adding that the piece as a whole 'is intended to be the sole work of [recte on] any programme'. We no longer expect or need the interval in the Mahler and no one has missed them in the Sorabji either; these 'intervals' are in any case different to those on which Mr Standford writes, for their intended purpose was to allow breathing spaces as aids to concentration on and absorption of the whole, as distinct from the conventional periods in which listeners may (and usually do) leave the auditorium to let certain liquids in and/or out.
When a programme consists of one work only, the total duration in most cases rarely exceeds that of a conventional concert plus interval; examples such as Bruckner's Eighth Symphony (and his Ninth if one of the attempted finale completions is played), Mahler's Third and Sixth Symphonies, Schönberg's Gurrelieder, Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie and Brian's Gothic Symphony are rarely presented other than as 'single-programme' works. All, however, are scored for large orchestral forces with ample instrumental variety to stimulate listener concentration, but what about large works for smaller forces where this 'luxury' is in far shorter supply? -- or those whose duration is considerably greater than that of the conventional concert? These factors would not be unknown to certain Eastern listeners but they are quite a different matter when applying to works written within Western musical disciplines.
Sorabji has arguably provided more examples of both phenomena than anyone else, including seven symphonies and a few other pieces for piano solo, three symphonies for organ solo and a piano quintet (his second); although many of his large-scale works have yet to be performed, the problem remains to be addressed by those presenting them. Performances of his four-and-a-half-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum used to include conventional concert length intervals between each of its three parts as expected by the composer, although Jonathan Powell's performances of it (five to date) dropped the first interval, resulting in a work of two 'halves', the first larger than the second. Those of his Fourth Piano Sonata (about two and a quarter hours) and First Organ Symphony (about two hours), each cast in three movements, have included intervals of a few minutes between movements where the audience remained seated. His Fourth Symphony for piano has so far been performed with conventional length intervals between each movement; this seems like rather too many interruptions although, as the music alone occupies some four and three quarter hours, one would certainly expect no less than two.
Copyright © 1 May 2007
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK