Top 12 great symphonies you probably haven't heard

Our critics unearth 12 symphonic masterworks overlooked by history.

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Johann Baptist Vanhal

Symphony in G minor (1771)

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) lived in Vienna at the same time as Mozart and had a similarly varied career, composing for thechurch, court and the stage. Andlike most composers of the period, he wrote many symphonies, but this one in G minor stands out.

It reminds me of the dark side of Haydn’s character which we hear in his Symphony No 39,  also in G minor, and only written a few years before. Vanhal’s symphony (known as g2 in the Bryan catalogue) has twitchy and energetic first and last movements, a serious-sounding minuet, and a delicious slow movement featuring oboe and pizzicato strings. GA

Essential recording

London Mozart Players/
Matthias Bamert
Chandos CHAN9607

This recording comes from the London Mozart Players’ marvellous Contemporaries of Mozart series on Chandos. Over some 23 CDs, Matthias Bamert brings to these neglected works his usual polish and care. 

Michael Haydn

Symphony No 29 in D minor (1784)

No, that’s no typo. Michael Haydn was the younger brother of the more prolific and acclaimed Joseph, and, like him a composer of true merit. His work was admired by Mozart; he was the teacher of Weber and Diabelli; even Joseph regarded his brother’s religious works as superior to his own.

The Symphony No 29 was once attributed to Joseph, perhaps because it’s such a gem. The opening Allegro Brilliante is full of drama – the rhythmic play is instantly recognisable as at least one if the Haydn brothers. The stately Andante transfixes the attention through a compelling dialogue between first and second violins – before the Rondeau’s mad, jerky race to the finish. A work of pure fun from the composer once regarded as the more talented of the Haydns. FM

Essential recording

Eight Symphonies
Bournemouth Sinfonietta/
Harold Farberman
Voxbox CDX5020

The no-holds barred playing of the Bournemouth Symphony recommends itself on first listen. Farberman adds timpanis to bring real punch to No 29. 

Charles Gounod 

Symphony No 1 in D (1855)

It’s a little-known factoid that Bizet modelled his oft-performed First Symphony on that of his teacher Gounod (1818-1893). The latter’s Symphony No 1 was rediscovered in the 1950s and is still unaccountably neglected.

If you’re familiar with Bizet’s Symphony you’ll recognise the similarities: two wistful slow movements surrounded by outer movements of sunlit playfulness. It’s a glorious French take on the Viennese symphony, full of air, lightness and elegance… interrupted only by the grave third movement Scherzo, which has the mysterious, gnomish quality of Gounod’s more famous Funeral March of a Marionette. FM

Essential recording 

Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
Sinfonia Finlandia/Patrick Gallois
Naxos 8557463 

The pared-back forces of Sinfonia Finlandia bring out the chamber feeling in this symphony, with clear delineation of instruments and confident ensemble playing. This disc also allows comparison with Gounod’s Second Symphony, a more ambitious but altogether less felicitous effort.

Hans Rott

Symphony in E major (1878)

Hans Rott (1858-84) was a tragic figure. He was a gifted composer whose life was interrupted by mental illness (he imagined he was being persecuted by Brahms) and ended by tuberculosis. Only 25 when he died, he left very few works as he regularly destroyed his music soon after writing it, but the Symphony in E major is amazing. It gives a glimpse of a career which may have rivalled Mahler’s. Indeed, Mahler praised Rott as “the founder of the New Symphony… he and I seem like two fruits from the same tree”. Both Mahler and Bruckner supported Rott’s aspirations, but Brahms said he had no talent whatsoever. The symphony, though, says otherwise. GA

Essential recording

Symphony in E major
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/
Leif Segerstam
 BIS CD-563

This is a wonderful combination of
a great Swedish orchestra and
a great Finnish conductor. A crystal-clear reading of this huge score which makes Rott’s talent and posterity’s loss abundantly clear as well. 

Vasily Kalinnikov 

Symphony No 2 in A major (1897)

The early death from tuberculosis of Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1900) was one of music’s unsung tragedies. Composed in rapid succession in the mid-1890s, the two symphonies greatly impressed Tchaikovsky, and are now virtually all Kalinnikov is remembered for. The Second Symphony is wonderfully fresh. Gorgeous, expressive orchestral colouring pervades the work, especially the first movement, whose main theme is almost airborne in lightness and charm. (Imagine fur-clad Romanov aristocrats driven through snowflakes in a troika). The Scherzo continues the magic, and the slow movement has that unique sense of Russian yearning, but without broodiness. The finale is triumphant, keeping the rhetoric from the brass in check. All the more amazing is that this joyful symphony was composed under
the shadow of death. GK

Essential recording

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kees Bakels

Kees Barkels and his Malaysian players are in great form, their playing spirited and committed.

Albert Roussel 

Symphony No 3 in G minor (1930)

Koussevitzky commissioned Roussel’s (1869-1937) Third for the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary in 1930, along with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The work’s propulsive rhythmic figures recall Beethoven, yet there is also a French playfulness combined with 20th-century acidity in the harmonies. A strong recurring motto holds the structure together, appearing in the opening movement, then as the thematic basis of the slow movement, and finally as a punchy coda to the work as a whole. The symphony’s strength is its tremendous drive and energy. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, it sweeps the listener along in its wake. PS

Essential recording 

Symphony No 3; Bacchus et Ariane
Royal Scottish NO/
Stephane Denève 

NAXOS 8.570245

While this symphony has had excellent recordings from Munch, Cluytens, Bernstein, Boulez and Eschenbach, the Naxos version with Denève holds its own. It is well recorded, played with plenty of vigour, and coupled with Roussel’s equally representative ballet score Bacchus et Arian

Havergal Brian 

Symphony No 3 (1932)

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was  a maverick, working-class English composer notorious for his Gothic Symphony (the largest ever written). By the end of his life he had completed 32 symphonies, seven of them written in his 90s! Influenced by Elgar, Bruckner and Mahler, Brian’s music is brassy, sometimes pastoral and occasionally reminiscent of
Arnold Bax. The Third Symphony of 1932 is an imaginative rollercoaster with parts for two concertante pianos. Highly percussive, it is full to bursting with memorable rhythmic and melodic ideas: a habanera here, a shepherd’s piping there, a barn-dance of a scherzo. A sprawling and enthralling 55 minutes. CP

Essential recording

Symphony No 3
BBC Symphony Orchestra/
Lionel Friend

There is only one recording of this neglected masterpiece. Fortunately, it is an outstanding one with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Lionel Friend, now available on Hyperion’s budget label Helios. 

Kurt Weill

Symphony No 2 (1934)

Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) thorny First Symphony was a product of his studies with Schoenberg, but soon after finishing it he began to collaborate with the playwright Bertholt Brecht. In the theatre, Weill brought a mordant jazz influence to his music, notably in The Threepenny Opera (1928). His Symphony No 2 was his final purely instrumental work. Written in Berlin and Paris as the Jewish composer fled the Nazis, it too reflects the world of the Berlin kabarett. The symphony’s three movements are infused with an almost sleazy melancholy, particularly the central Largo. Mahler lurks in its shadows, but he has been urbanised.  PS

Essential recording 

Weill: Symphony No 2; works
Goldschmidt & Gerhard
Kammersymphonie Berlin/
Jürgen Bruns

Some still prefer the rough-and-ready pit-band sound of Garry Bertini’s 1960 recording to the plush orchestras later led by De Waart, Jansons and Nézet-Séguin. Bruns’ chamber orchestra gives us the best of both worlds. 

William Schuman  

Symphony No 3 (1941)

Conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who commissioned so many remarkable compositions, premiered William Schuman’s (1910-1992) Symphony in 1941 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was an instant success, being performed many times in the following years. However, outside of America at least, it now appears to be neglected. Which is curious, as it is a tour-de-force for any orchestra and always gets an enthusiastic response from audiences. Set in two movements (though with four distinct sections), the symphony places enormous demands on the upper strings. There should be a warning on the label: Don’t play unless you have a fabulous string section! JM

Essential recording

Symphonies Nos 3, 5, 8
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/
Sony Classics SMK 63163

Bernstein gets a searing performance out of the orchestra. In the exhilarating first movement he virtually throws the violins around in the sky while essaying dramatic brass passages underneath. 

Arthur Benjamin

Symphony (1945) 

Sydney-born Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), best known for his popular Jamaican Rumba, spent most of his composing life in England and Canada. His substantial and superbly crafted wartime Symphony was given its British premiere in 1948 by Barbirolli and the Hallé, but then fell into years of shameful neglect. A dark work, shot through with moments of quicksilver brilliance, it is reminiscent at times of Walton or Prokofiev. The brooding opening movement gives way to a mercurial Scherzo followed by a gloomy Adagio and a bravura guns-blazing finale. Here is an Australian composer most ripe for reappraisal. CP

Essential recording
Symphony, Overture to an Italian Comedy; Cotillon; A Suite of Dance Tunes; North American Square Dance Suite
London Philharmonic/Wordsworth Lyrita SRCD318

There is only one recording extant by the London Philharmonic and Barry Wordsworth on a terrific Lyrita CD that includes Benjamin’s wonderful Overture to an Italian Comedy and more besides. 


Erich Korngold 

Symphony in F-sharp major (1952)

Erich Korngold’s (1897-1957) Symphony in F-sharp minor was his attempt to reinvent himself as a serious composer after WWII. The attempt failed: Dimitri Mitropoulos was to conduct the premiere, but died, and the work waited until 1972, long after Korngold’s own death, for its premiere. Korngold had certainly found a new voice. The work is of epic proportions and completely tonal, with a wonderfully muscular first movement of jagged syncopations. Only in the Scherzo do we hear an echo of the Warner Bros “swashbuckling” idiom. The Adagio is very dark – in the Bruckner/Mahler tradition. The final movement is the only slightly weak link, with rather playful references to the popular US WWI song Over There. Still, this symphony is infinitely superior to s ome of Shostakovich’s rambling efforts. GK
Essential recording

Symphony; Much Ado About Nothing Suite

London Symphony/André Previn
Deutsche Grammophon 453436

All the available recordings of this symphony have their merits, but this lush 1997 disc wins first prize. 

Andrzej Panufnik 

Sinfonia Sacra (1964)

This is one of the 20th-century’s masterpieces. Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) wrote this, his third symphony, in two movements: Three Visions and Hymn. The first “vision” is a quadraphonic trumpet fanfare, followed by a soft episode for strings, interrupted by an arresting, timpani-led allegro. The hymn begins with high violin harmonics and unfolds over 11 minutes to an overwhelming climax. It quotes the oldest known Polish hymn tune, Bogurodzica (a hymn to the Virgin), which makes a full appearance at the close as multiple brass fanfares from the opening movement return in glorious counterpoint. As in many of Panufnik’s works, the orchestra is laid out spatially. PS     

Essential recording

Sinfonia Sacra; Sinfonia Rustica; Sinfonia Concertante
Monte Carlo Opera Orch/

EMI 3 52289 2

The essential recording is the one the composer made shortly after the work’s premiere. It gives us a provincial orchestra extending themselves, playing at white heat. The couplings are two of Panufnik’s most appealing pieces.

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Top 12 great symphonies you probably haven't heard
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