JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881)

i. Allegro non troppo

ii. Allegro appassionato

iii. Andante

iv. Allegretto grazioso

Compared with some of the great masters Brahms as a composer was something of a late-developer. An accomplished pianist from a very early age and well-known in Hamburg, he nevertheless left it until 1853 to compose his first published compositions, the first two Piano Sonatas, when he was at the height of his friendship with Schumann and his secret love for Schumann’s wife Clara ( which was to remain, unrequited, until his death).

Most of his early compositions centred round the piano, written for himself of course, and the piano remained central to him for the whole of his composing life, his canon of works amounting to one of the major contributions in the history of composition.

His natural caution in terms of orchestral works, however, is well-known; conscious that he was regarded as the natural successor to Beethoven, and having flexed his muscles in 1858 with the elemental First Piano Concerto in D minor, he then, famously, took nearly twenty years, until 1876, to complete his First Symphony. The lyrical Second Symphony and Violin Concerto followed fairly rapidly, by which time he had confidently thrown off the Beethovenian yoke and matured into one of the great romantic masters, powerful yet sensitive, serious yet capable of wit and lightheartedness, all characteristics which appear in the Second Piano Concerto.  

The B flat major Piano Concerto appeared some twenty three years after the D minor, and immediately took its place as one of the greatest of all piano concertos. Although there had been concertos with four movements, including those termed Concerti Symphonique by the virtuoso pianist Henri Litolff, and there would later be other even larger works, including that by Busoni lasting over an hour, Brahms’s B flat was itself a concerto of well-and-truly symphonic proportions.

Written over a three-year period from 1878, begun on a break from composing the Violin Concerto and finished in Pressbaum, the work was dedicated affectionately to his teacher Edward Marxsen. Having initially wondered about adding a scherzo to the D minor concerto and then, even more unusually, to the violin concerto, this time he really took the plunge and added a second movement to the usual three, which combines power and mystery. He was desperately proud of the size of the finished work and having in 1877 teased his friends that the gloriously genial Second Symphony was going to be printed on black-edged paper, he now, four years later, wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg about the concerto saying: ‘I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’.

Brahms himself was the soloist at the work’s triumphant premiere in Budapest on 9 November 1881, and it rapidly became a calling-card for its composer/soloist all over Europe, except, sadly, Britain – Brahms couldn’t be persuaded to cross the English Channel. These days it seems to have become customary to say that the B flat is not a virtuoso concerto, perhaps due to the solo piano’s symphonic integration with the orchestra, but in 2006 the great American pianist Emanuel Ax, who would in 2011 give magisterial performances of both concertos on successive evenings at the BBC Proms, wrote: Like all the movements of the concerto the first movement is terrifyingly difficult….certainly none of us could ask for anything harder!’

A solo horn introduces the first theme of the opening movement, quietly suggesting the heroic nature of the movement. Strings answer suavely, then the piano announces its presence, stormily signalling the orchestral exposition of the main themes. A muscular dialogue between piano and orchestra ensues – although not without its moments of delicacy – drawn on a massive canvas lasting nearly twenty minutes and culminating in a dynamic coda. It seems amazing that Brahms could achieve such a massive concept without including trombones or tuba in this or the other three movements..

As if the power of all this were not enough, the piano immediately launches into the scherzo, the lower strings adding still greater force to the proceedings with urgent syncopation. After a short while a second theme arrives, at first mysterious and remote but later just as trenchant as the opening theme. A change of gear introduces a trio section which is full of rhetoric, before the piano calms proceedings down. The scherzo returns, once again leading to a powerful coda.

From here the work begins to reduce in scale, the Andante introducing a heartfelt solo cello to counterbalance the piano, which creates an ambience almost like chamber music. Indeed the extended cello solo begins the movement, its comforting, song-like line accompanied initially by strings and later woodwind and horns in restrained cross-rhythms. As is often the case with Brahms, the time signature, here 6/4, feels very ambiguous. The piano eases in to ruminate on the cello solo, and the movement rises to a height, the cello theme now strident, with stormy trills in the solo part. Soon the cello returns, now heightened in tenor clef, with the piano commenting, and the movement winds its way to a peaceful conclusion. It is thought that Brahms’s cello solo was influenced by a similar passage in the Romanze of the A minor Piano Concerto, Op 7, composed by Clara Schumann herself, a work which one hopes is due for a resurgence.

One now might expect a large-scale finale, but the piano sets us off by itself with the first theme which is playful and light-hearted, joined shortly by the orchestra in similar vein. Yes, the tone becomes a little more stormy, but very shortly the romantic and graceful second theme arrives, to be commented upon by the piano often in filigree textures. The piano introduces a high-spirited third theme and the orchestra joins in with a smile – is this really the Brahms who was jealous of his protégé Dvorak’s profusion of invention? At length the piano subsides into reflection for a moment before launching into the high-spirited coda, which brings the work to a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion.

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JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43 (1901-2)

i. Allegretto – Poco allegro 

ii. Tempo andante, ma rubato – Poco allegro

iii. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave

iv. Finale: Allegro moderato – Moderato assai 

 It’s only just over sixty years since the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.

His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, luckily for us unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Composition rapidly became his chief interest, and in 1892 he achieved success and popularity with one of his very first compositions, the large-scale choral and orchestral work Kullervo, based on legends from a Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, which was to continue to inspire him. A stream of overtly nationalist compositions followed, including the Karelia Suite, Finlandia, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based, once again, on the Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Despite the fact that he resented the hegemony Russia held over Finland at the time, Sibelius’s early compositional influences were the Russian masters; there was more than a whiff of Tchaikovsky and Borodin in the First Symphony, but the plain fact is that within his first decade as a composer Sibelius’s voice had already become uniquely his own. A number of mature tone poems followed, including The Oceanides, an atmospheric seascape, and the Suite: Pelleas and Melisande, of which the first movement has been familiar since the fifties as the theme music of Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. In 1905 he completed the final revision of his Violin Concerto, which has taken its place amongst the half-dozen greatest of all violin concertos. Throughout this time the symphony cycle developed through the popular Second and Fifth, the trenchant Third, and the esoteric Fourth and Sixth towards the wonderfully compact Seventh (1924), which has even been described by more than one commentator as the finest 20th-century symphony. Nothing remains of work on a rumoured Eighth Symphony.

In 1926 perhaps his finest tone poem, Tapiola, arrived, and then – silence. Rather like Rossini before him, for the last thirty years of his life until his death aged 91 in 1957 he wrote virtually nothing, living with his wife Aino on their estate, Ainola, in Finland, watching his reputation ebb and flow and occasionally involving himself in recordings of his works, particularly those made by his finest exponents at the time, Robert Kajanus, Serge Koussevitsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Photographs of the composer range from the dashing good looks and flamboyant moustache of his early career to one taken only days before his death portraying suitably granitic features.

Stimulus for the Second Symphony seems to have begun in the late autumn of 1900 when a friend recommended that Sibelius take his family to Italy for a change of scene, and provided the money too. The friend was one Baron Axel Carpelan, who reminded Sibelius of the inspiration both Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss had found in Italy. The family took a mountain villa in Rapallo and Sibelius found the location a haven of peace; here he sketched some of the material of the symphony, including the main theme of the slow movement, and the Andante’s second theme came to him while he was visiting Florence, suggested by the legend of Don Juan / Don Giovanni. Indeed for a while he considered making what we know as the second movement of the symphony into a tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In the event, he set to work on the symphony in earnest when the family returned to Finland; it was finished in early 1902 and premiered to great acclaim by the Helsinki Philharmonic in March, the composer himself conducting. Where the First Symphony had evoked the wintry landscapes of Finland, the Second was bathed with a touch of Italian warmth; although some saw it as another burst of Finnish nationalism, Sibelius denied this – he felt that he had poured his soul into the symphony. Always given to revising his work, Sibelius tinkered a little with the Second, and the final version was given first in Stockholm in November 1903. The reception was again very enthusiastic.

The work begins memorably, with strings expressively intoning a phrase based on a three-note ascending motif, shortly accompanying a perky oboe tune which turns the three-note motif on its head, horns replying, as they do many times in the work, with noble restraint. The second subject again utilises the descending three-note motif, this time still more romantically. The motif appears in numerous guises, in fact, all through the symphony. The development takes us into dramatic territory, sometimes mysterious, sometimes menacing, sometimes more overtly tempestuous, then the recap and coda bring us full circle, the opening theme disappearing into calm.

Sinister timps introduce basses and then cellos, who begin the Tempo Andante with an extended passage of mysterious pizzicato, from which the bassoons emerge in octaves to take us into more grotesque territory, their material once again beginning with the ascending motif. Events take a more urgent turn, signalling the arrival of the strings, and shortly we are propelled into trenchant, almost tragic territory. The second subject feels on the face of it to be more peaceful – indeed Sibelius here wrote ‘Christus’ in the original score – but there is huge regret there, which quickens into rage, the coda only partly assuaging.

The Scherzo bursts into life like a machine gun, then seethes its way towards climax after climax, the three-note motif still in evidence. A pastoral trio section led by the woodwind with horns and bassoons accompaning calms the mood, but then the scherzo blazes again. As it burns itself out the trio returns, but this time tumultuously makes its way directly into the glorious D major opening theme of the finale – and there is the motif again. Brass, timpani and double basses growl in sinister fashion underneath and horns comment nobly.

Shortly the second theme opens out the textures and lets us nurse a degree of optimism, but then violas and cellos set out on a bleak F sharp minor ostinato, softly accompanying a world-weary woodwind figure above them; the change to major will be majestic next time. We gradually return to the opening grandiosity, but back comes the viola/cello figure which rumbles away for many bars, now in D minor, this time gradually adding woodwind and basses, with desolate strings and later trumpets above. Horns intone an insistent syncopation and timpani a different one, while trombones gradually add a dotted, fanfare-like figure, the whole building through a huge crescendo towards the final conclusive change to D major. At long last the sun bathes the closing bars, with the entire orchestra at full tilt in a blaze of glory. As Robert Kajanus wrote: The last movement develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future – at present a much-needed sentiment!

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828) Symphony No 5 in Bb, D485 (1816)

i Allegro
ii Andante con moto
iii Menuetto; allegro molto
iV Allegro vivace

Schubert was born in a suburb of Vienna a matter of months before Napoleon the Treaty of Campo Formio transferring several Austrian territories to France. Musically the 27-year-old Beethoven was beginning to carry all Vienna before him, writing the C major Piano Concerto that very year. By the time Napoleon had met his Waterloo and the Treaty of Vienna had brought European peace in 1815 Schubert was already a prolific composer over halfway through his tragically short life, and in that annus mirabilis alone, although still ostensibly a part-time composer, he completed no less than 200 of his eventual 900-plus works (including 140 songs) and served notice to an albeit rather indifferent public that the Romantic era was well-established.

1816 began with Schubert actually as a full-time schoolteacher, having taken the post aged 15 when he was forced by the sad death of his mother to leave his choral scholarship in order to earn for the family, but during the year he was prevailed upon to become a full-time composer,  completing his  Fifth Symphony later in the year; although it still proclaims his veneration for Mozart the melodic and harmonic gifts which so distinguish his work in lieder and piano music, to mention just two genres which he graced, are very much in evidence.

Like Mozart, but very much unlike Beethoven, Schubert was a rapid worker, and the Fifth Symphony was written within a month in September / October 1816. Mozart was .indeed very much his idol, and on 13 June, shortly before he started the symphony, he wrote in his diary: 0 Mozart! Immortal Mozart! What countless impressions of a brighter, better life have you stamped upon our souls! The scoring is similar to that of Mozart’s Symphony No 40, and the work is the only one of Schubert’s  symphonies which doesn’t  employ clarinets, trumpets or timpani; it is also his first to date which doesn’t start with a slow introduction. Indeed its complete freshness – the antithesis of the tragic Mozart 40 – and the natural ease of its melodies have made it one of Schubert’s most popular symphonies.

Since he was not able to enjoy the same patronage and comfort that Haydn, example, had received from the Esterhazys, Schubert could only expect to have these works performed by local amateur groups with which he was associated. Indeed it is thought that he himself and his brother Ferdinand played viola and violin respectively in the first performance of Schubert was born in a suburb of Vienna a matter of months before Napoleon Bonaparte brought an end to the first phase of the French Revolutionary Wars, the B flat symphony shortly after its completion together with a collection of music officials, merchants and men from various professions, led by a professional leader/concertmaster, Otto Hatwig, who  played at the Vienna  Burgtheater.

Schubert was very poor all his life at promoting himself and making money from his talent, and so the Fifth Symphony, like many other of his compositions, remained a relatively parochial affair until well after his death – indeed the London premiere would not take place till 1873.

The first movement opens in fact with a sunny four-bar introductory phrase in woodwind and strings which leads into the first main theme, a cheeky rising-arpeggio figure which will also colour the developm nt. The second subject proceeds elegantly, also with a touch of dottedness. Unusually the recap begins not in the home key but in the subdominant, E flat.

The second movement shows Schubert completely at ease with himself. The main theme is a heartfelt song, and the only cloud on the horizon is a characteristic sideslip into a slightly darker key, C flat, as the development starts.

The Menuetto is not of the genteel species but full of energy in minor mode, beginning in G minor and surprisingly chromatic. The Trio section is gentler, sunny and completely in major mode, beginning in G major.

The final Allegro molto is busy and full of tingling energy, with a more elegant second subject . Each half ends with a cadence figure in scampering triplets, bringing to a close a completely delightful work guaranteed to usher in the joys of Spring!

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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Siegfried Idyll (1870)

Picture the scene: it is Christmas morning, 1870, at the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne, and amidst much secret whispering and movement of chairs and music-stands a small orchestra of thirteen players is quietly arranging itself on the stairs leading up to the bedroom of Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, former wife of the conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow, and mother of Siegfried, the year-old son of Richard Wagner . Richard opens the door to  the  bedroom, where his wife is nursing the baby, and the gentle strains of a violin begin arguably the most sublime musical gift ever composed.

Christmas Day also happened to be Cosima’s birthday, hence the full title of the work : Triebschen Idyll, with Fidi’s birdsong and orange sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosimo by her Richard; ‘Fidi’ was their pet name for Siegfried. However Wagner’s gift to her was not just to celebrate the two coinciding festive days; the birth of their son had, virtually for the first time in the composer’s life, bestowed on him the happiness and domestic security which he felt he deserved, although even now, engaged upon one of the greatest musical projects in the history of music, the four-opera, fourteen­ hour Ring Cycle, he was still struggling financially. Cosima’s marriage had finally been dissolved amidst some scandal in August 1870 and her new marriage to Richard solemnised almost at once; her former husband nevertheless was to remain a champion of Wagner’s music despite his wife’s defection.

Amongst the players on that historic morning was Hans Richter (1843-1916), who, it is said, used to row out to the middle of the lake to practise his thirteen­ bar trumpet part out of Cosima’s earshot. Within a few years he was Wagner’s preferred conductor for the early Ring Cycles at Bayreuth, but he also became a prime exponent not only of the music of Wagner’s bete noir Brahms, but also that of Edward Elgar during his time as principal conductor of the Halle Orchestra from 1899 until 1911. Wagner’s son Siegfried was to become a fiercely protective Director of the Bayreuth Festival for many years.

The music of the Siegfried Idyll is closely related to the love duet between Siegfried and Brunnhilde in the third act of Siegfried, the penultimate opera in the Ring cycle, which Wagner was writing at the time of the birth of his son, although the ‘sleep’ motif introduced by the flute during the first section of the Idyll is also at the core of the final scene of the second opera, Die Walkure; to the beautiful strains of the Magic Fire Music Wotan puts his errant daughter to sleep surrounded by fire, from which she can only be rescued by a true hero, Siegfried. It is thought that the two main themes of the Idyll, the violin theme at the start and the woodwind ensemble which introduces the more urgent middle section, were sketched at the time Wagner met Cosima in 1863. Because of the deeply personal nature of the work Wagner refused to have it published until penury forced his hand. Today it is performed either in the original thirteen-instrument scoring with one player to a part, or using fuller strings without overpowering the small numbers of woodwind (flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon) and brass (two horns, trumpet), as in tonight’s performance.

The work begins quietly and intimately with strings alone but rises soon to lyrical heights, initiated by material related to the ‘sleep motif’ and including several musical sighs of love, punctuated by a triplet figure perhaps representing a fluttering, lovelorn heart. The music dissolves into a semplice (‘simple’) section, the oboe introducing a lullaby, the only theme not from the opera. This leads into the woodwind choir, strings and brass eventually helping to propel the most passionate climax, which dissolves into a heroic horn solo. Gradually the music becomes urgent again leading to a much more strident version of the opening string theme,  but now the passion is spent and this absolute masterpiece finally retreats into the intimacy of the opening.

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Franz-Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Cello Concerto No 1 in C, Hob VIIb/1 (1761-5)

i Moderato (Cadenza by Joe Pritchard)
ii Adagio
iii Allegro Molto

Haydn’s role in developing both the symphony and the string quartet to a level of perfection which would be superseded in this era only by the still greater genius of Mozart (whom he mentored) and Beethoven (whom he tutored), is well-known and universally acknowledged.

His contribution to the concerto form, however, is, except for a small handful of works, somewhat underrated, even neglected. There are concertos for keyboards even as early as the mid-1750s, then for violin, horn, flute, oboe, and even double bass, to complement those which are in more regular use to this day, notably the trumpet concerto of 1796 and the cello concertos in C and D. Development of the concerto form over the second half of the eighteenth century, when Haydn was writing, largely fell to Mozart and the new breed of virtuoso-composers such as Clementi (piano) and Vietti (violin), and by the end of the century the form had evolved into a larger scale, usually with a sonata­ form first movement with perhaps an opportunity for virtuoso display within a free cadenza, and possibly a Rondo final movement. Haydn contributed to this evolution, but his major gift to the genre was his trumpet concerto, the first using the keyed trumpet invented by Anton Weidinger and therefore a huge step forward in virtuosity, and his cello concertos, which transcended Vivaldi’s model andintroduced the cello as an agile instrument just as capable of virtuoso display as the violin.

It is interesting to turn to the classic book Concerto, detailing the history and development of the genre by Percy M Young, written in 1957, and to find him, when writing about Haydn, referring only to the D major cello concerto. At this stage there was evidence of a C major concerto since Haydn had included its main theme in his own personal catalogue of works, but the work itself was missing. Then to the delight and gratitude of all cellists, the musicologist Oldrich Puckert, while delving in the Prague National Museum in 1961, discovered the score of what became identified as the missing concerto,almost exactly 200 years after its composition between the years 1761 and 1765.

The concerto is indeed an invaluable addition to the genre, and, having been written some 20 years before the D major,turns out to be a real trailblazer, its very size and the complexity of the solo part raising it to a completely new level. Its authenticity  is now acknowledged  thanks to Haydn’s conscientiousness  in making a record of each new work, although its disappearance for two centuries remains a mystery.

At the time of its composition Haydn was in the early stages of his long tenure as Court Composer for Count Nikolaus Esterhazy in Hungary, a hugely enlightened patron, and the concerto will have been written for the Court cellist Joseph Franz Weigl. Following its rediscovery the work was premiered by the Czech cellist Milos Sadlo and the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, on 19 May 1962, and caused a sensation. Since then it has been recorded by the greatest cellists of the later 201h century from Rostropovich downwards.

The first movement begins with a substantial orchestral exposition, which contrasts military dotted rhythms and fanfares with a more lyrical second subject. The cello enters flamboyantly with the opening theme but then sails elegantly over the orchestra for the second . The development is based largely on that second theme, with occasional dynamic passagework from the soloist . All through the movement the cello rises aristocratically above the orchestra, and a cadenza (tonight’s composed by Joe Pritchard himself) towards the end of the movement confirms the instrument’s coming-of-age as a large-scale solo instrument.

The Adagio is hugely expressive, with a romantic tenor which seems ahead of its time – bearing in mind that when the work was completed Mozart was not yet ten years old, and it would be another ten years or so before he would tread similar ground in the lyrical slow movements of his violin concertos.

The Allegro molto  positively fizzesalong  – once again it begins with an orchestral introduction to a sonata-form movement, and the scintillating perpetuum mobile virtuosity of the solo part is a complete revelation.

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Peter WARLOCK (1894 – 1930) Capriol Suite (1926)

i. Basse Danse iv. bransles
ii. Pavane v. Pieds-en-l’air
iii. Tourdion vi. Mattachins

Born in London of Anglo-Welsh parents the composer of the Capriol Suite left his home in Wales to study at Eton College and, for a short while, at Christ Church Oxford before becoming a music critic under his real name, Philip Heseltine. He was largely self-taught as a musician, his studies inspiring him with a particular admiration for the music of Delius, whom he visited at his home in Grez-sur-Loing near Paris, and of whom he became the first biographer. Indeed he co-organised the inaugural Delius festival in 1929 with the greatest champion of Delius, Thomas Beecham.

His life was somewhat dissolute, but his magnetism was such that he became the model for a number of such characters in literary works by luminaries of the time such as Aldous Huxley, Osbert Sitwell and, notoriously, D.H.Lawrence, who used him as the model for Julius Halliday in Women in Love, few which the author was successfully sued.  Always unstable, Heseltine died of gas poisoning in December 1930, probably by his own hand – he made sure that his cat was put first,

When Heseltine came to submit his own compositions for publication he met universal rejection, presumably because of his tough reputation as a music critic, only achieving acceptance under the pseudonym of Peter Warlock. His initial published works, submitted in 1919, comprised a group of songs, which were taken up at once by eminent singers of the day, upon which he admitted the deception. Apart from Delius, his compositional style was also influenced by Bartok, most notably in perhaps his finest work of all, the song cycle The Curlew. He also composed a number of carols which are still popular today, including Adam Lay Ybounden and Bethlehem Down.

Undoubtedly his most  well-known work, however, is the Capriol Suite, one ‘particular fruit of his deep interest in 16th century music, others being a myriad of transcriptions of Tudor and Stuart lute songs. The suite itself has been transcribed for almost every imaginable instrumental combination but is most popular in this version for string orchestra. Based upon a French treatise on dance, Orchesographie (1589), compiled by Thoinot Arbeau (yet another pseudonym!}, the Capriol Suite comprises six short movements, the relatively simple melodic lines given a stimulating early-twentieth-century harmonic astringency in all except the well-known Pavone, which still has its 16th century complexion.  As for the title of the suite, it arises from the fact that Arbeau’s treatise was written in the form of a fictional dialogue between himself and a lawyer, capriol, who wishes to learn to dance.

Basse Danse is appareently a dance for older folk, in which the dancers’ feet for the most part slide along the floor. Pavone is the familiar stately dance. Tordion is a brief, delicate movement in 6/4 time, dying away to nothing at the end. Bransles (pronounced ‘brawl’) is the most substantial movement. Originally this was a fast country dance – not a fight! – in duple time pressing on at ever­ increasing speed, and still danced in the 1660s at the court of Charles II. Pieds­ en-l’air is an exquisitely serene dance in 9/4 time, the dancers’ feet moving so gently that they barely touch the floor, hence the title. Mattachins is a sword dance,   danced   by   four   men   in   pretend   combat   and   climaxing   in violent dissonance .

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

  1. Poco sostenuto Vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto
  4. Allegro con brio

In 1811, some three years on from his 1807-8 triumphs  with the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies Beethoven was feeling weighed down by his usual ill­ health and decided to visit the spa town of Teplitz, in what is now the Czech Republic, for a boost. It was obviously extremely effective, since he began work on what was to be one of his most dynamic works, the A major Symphony, which Wagner was famously to describe as ‘the Apotheosis of the Dance’. Its galvanizing and unremitting energy leaves no room for a slow movement, the Allegretto scarcely allowing any relaxation.

Another factor in the creative process for the work may well have been the fact that at this point Beethoven, often infatuated.with unattainable females, was even more sorely afflicted than usual by a lady who has become known as the ‘Immortal Beloved’. Indeed while he was in Teplitz Beethoven wrote the mystery woman a long, heartfelt love-letter, although he seems not to have posted it – it is conjectured that the two had a passionate but short­ lived affair in Prague immediately before the composer set off for Teplitz, but also that there were barriers to their permanent relationship in terms of relative social standing.

Completed in late 1812, the work was premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813 (some seven months after the first performance of The Italian Girl) at a charity concert – promoted by Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome – for soldiers wounded in the victorious Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven himself conducting, despite his deafness; suitably, the evening also included Beethoven’s Battle Symphony: Wellington’s Victory. The concert coincided with the turning of the tide in the war against Napoleon; the Emperor’s flight from Moscow in 1812 had been followed by further defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In  June, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, hence the Battle Symphony; in short, there was celebration in the air in anticipation of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, and the Seventh Symphony certainly taps into this.

The orchestra for the premiere included some of the finest musicians of the day – violinist Louis Spohr, composers Johann Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Antonio Salieri, and the Italian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven himself described as playing “with great fire and expressive power”. The piece was very well received, and the Allegretto had to be encored. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum: ‘As a sforzando occurred’, Spohr wrote, ‘he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air.’ Beethoven himself described the work as ‘one of the happiest products of my poor  talents.’

The opening Poco sostenuto is on a huge scale – in fact it was the largest symphonic introduction to  date. Both grand and portentous, its ideas are arresting, but scarcely related to what follows. A tentative dialogue between woodwind and strings signals the transition into the buoyant, almost rustic first subject of the Vivace. The angular dotted rhythmic and melodic shapes are all-pervading – the only moments of repose come, unusually, in the development section. The coda is extraordinarily exciting, horns blazing.

The  Allegretto,  instantly  popular  in  December  1813,  is  based  round  its opening, purposeful rhythm, over which a rather bleak, melancholic melody is sung, first by the viols and half of the cellos. More lyrical woodwind and horns lighten the mood, accompanied by filigree strings, the biggest climax reached towards the end.

The Presto scherzo is a mercurial, swirling tour-de-force, like the first movement irrepressible in its dancing energy. The Trio section presents an Austrian Pilgrims’ hymn, initially presented by woodwind over tranquil strings. Shortly the full orchestra makes it a triumphant paean. The movement overrides the conventional form of Scherzo -Trio Scherzo, the Trio returning for a second outing later in the structure.

As if enough energy has not yet been expended, the Allegro con brio bursts into life with Bacchanalian fervour, insistent semiquavers and off-beat accents giving a relentless but exhilarating progress through sonata-form – exposition of two main themes (the second returning to obsessive dotted rhythms), development, recap and a viscerally exciting coda, once again with heroic brass.

The work is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with two trumpets, unusually only two horns, and timpani, plus strings.

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GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; 2018 sees the 150th anniversary of his death, but the same century-and-a-half anniversary of his last major work took place in 1979! A leap-year birthday, he became famous in his early 20s after only five actual 29 February birthdays, and retired from composing – bar a few smaller-scale works – in 1829 aged officially 9, but actually 37, by which time he had written no less than 38 operas. Subsequently he became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos.

 His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6) and in 1817 he completed no’ less than  three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain . geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and  honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.

Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write one which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.

Rossini’s operas tend to fall into two categories – Opera Serio or ‘serious’ operas (such as Semiramide, whose overture MSO performed last November) and Opera Buffa or ‘comic’ operas. Some, a mixture of seria and buffa, are known as dramma giocoso (from which we get our word ‘jocose’ – ‘given to jocularity’) and L’ltaliana in Algeri falls into this category .

Written, it is said, in a mere eighteen days by the 21-year-old Rossini, the opera is unusual in that the composer made the decisi’n to ask a colleague to write all the recitatives, which no doubt accelerated the composition process. Its premiere took place in Venice on 22 May 1813, the very day upon which one

Richard Wagner was born in ·Leipzig, and a fortnight after the birth of Johannes Brahms in Hamburg. The Italian Girl was an instant success, although Rossini still continued to revise it as it made its way round Europe, finally reaching London in 1819. The plot concerns the Bey Mustafa who, bored with his harem, instructs his Italian servant Haly (Ali) to find him an Italian girl, but Ali’s find, a shipwreck victim called Isabella, is more than a match for him, and she succeeds not only in humiliating him but also in reconciling him with his favourite consort, Elvira.

As with The Thieving Magpie overture above, Rossini wrote an original overture rather than recycling other material, and The Italian Girl has become one of his most popular. The slow introduction begins with deadpan pizzicato upper-strings but a note of humour arrives soon with several nods in the direction of the shock tactics employed by Haydn in his Surprise Symphony (No 94). The surprise chords continue into the start of the Allegro, where the woodwind begin to distinguish themselves with rapid tonguing in a characteristically perky opening theme, shortly taken up by the strings. A short example of Rossini’s trademark crescendi leads us to the first crisis involving scything scale-passages and trumpet fanfares . Soon a neat little bridge passage in the cellos leads us to the crisply elegant second subject, introduced by the oboe and answered by the flute, then a conversation between first and second violins and woodwind heralds a fully-fledged crescendo lasting eighteen bars and culminating in a dramatic climax. A short recitative for the firsts takes us into the recap of the main themes and finally a triumphant Coda.

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Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)  Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847}

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844}

  1. Allegro molto appassionato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro mo/to vivace

One of the greatest prodigies in composing history, Mendelssohn at the age of only 16 had penned his Op 20 Octet for strings, one of the very greatest chamber works in the entire canon, and followed this up with Op 21, the truly magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, aged 17. It has always been fashionable to say that, following this precocity, Mendelssohn never quite made the most of his potential, but the masterworks written within a few years of his early death aged 38, including the wonderful Italian Symphony {1842) and Violin Concerto (1844), completely belie this.

Visits to Scotland and to Italy  whilst on his European Grand Tour had produced memorably characteristic works, but it was his friendship with the violinist Ferdinand David which inspired his finest concerto, one of the greatest and best-loved of all violin concertos, which combines in its three movements the elegant virility  of the Italian Symphony, the tenderness of many of his Songs Without Words and the elfin delicacy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. 

As a teenager Mendelssohn had written a violin concerto in D minor which is now seldom heard, but when, as Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (still today one of the world’s leading orchestras), he appointed David Konzertmeister (Leader) in 1838 he was so impressed that he promised the violinist a concerto. Since he did not have practical experience as a violinist himself he sought David’s advice many times during the composition of the work which, despite the finished product’s apparently effortless flow and elegance, actually took him some six years; in promising David the concerto he wrote ‘I have one in E minor running through my head….and the beginning does not leave me in peace.’ Eventually the work was premiered by David on 13 March 1845 in the Gewandhaus, although it was conducted not by the composer but by the Danish composer I conductor Niels Gade, and Mendelssohn continued tweaking it almost until the moment the first rehearsal began. Far from being the product of a faded genius who had forgotten how to be original, the E minor reaches into the heart of the instrument, putting it in the same class as the concerto of Beethoven and subsequently those of Max Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms amongst 19th century works for the instrument. No self-respecting soloist can afford to be without it in his or her repertoire, and it remains one of the most-recorded concertos of all.

It also embodies what at the time was a unique structure. 19th century accepted concerto form involved a substantial orchestral introduction to the first movement, usually exposing the themes which the solo part subsequently develops, but in the Mendelssohn the opening theme is announced immediately by the soloist following only a moment of restless atmosphere-setting. The positioning of the cadenza is also unique for its time; this was usually an opportunity for the soloist to extemporise on the themes of the first movement just before the final coda, but here the cadenza arrives midway through the movement at the end of the development and leads into the recap. It is written out completely by the composer and no alternative has ever  successfully  been  substituted;  Tchaikovsky’s  violin  concerto  would  use this model later in the century, while the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms would place the cadenza later in the movement and offer more freedom to the soloist. Later, at the first movement’s conclusion, Mendelssohn asks the bassoon to hold a long B, which leads seamlessly into the Andante. This too is ground-breaking, and possibly shows Mendelssohn mischievously putting paid to audiences’ propensity to applaud between movements (a habit which has returned more recently!). Finally, there is a brief Allegretto which offers a bridge between the second and third movements; once again this retains the rapt continuity of the work for the listener.

  1. The themes of the sonata-form first  movement  will  no  doubt  be  familiar, from the burnished passion  of the  soloist’s  opening  E-string melody, through the beautiful interplay between solo and woodwind within the second subject and the quicksilver passagework of the development and the cadenza, to the scintillating coda. The Andante’ s outer sections sing  with  heartfelt  lyricism while the soloist’s shimmering  double-stops in the central section take us into more uneasy mood. Finally, following the Allegretto bridge, the finale dances with the same light-footed brilliance as Mendelssohn had found  in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the E major key exploiting  the  brightest resonances within the  solo  instrument  and the  orchestral  counter-melody  to the soloist’s effervescence  a matter of sheer joy.

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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) A Night on the Bare Mountain (1874)

arr. N Rimsky­ Korsakov (1886)

Mussorgsky’s life and career, which ended at the early age of 42, were in many respects a tragic case of ‘what might have been’. Unlike some composers and musicians he received a good deal of support from his parents when a youngster , the family temporarily moving the 250 miles from their home to St Petersburg  partly in order to maintain the quality of his lessons; unfortunately there was an ulterior motive in the family’s move, in that they also wished to make sure that Modest  and  his brother maintained the family tradition of military service. Modest  was  enrolled  in Cadet School aged 13, and, alongside his piano lessons, was subjected to a brutal disciplinary regime which drove many students to drink; although he was to graduate from the school and take up a commission in the National Guard, his life was already blighted with the early stages of alcoholism, which would bring his life to a sadly premature  end.

Music, particularly the piano, had remained important to him, however, and  a chance meeting with the medical chemist and amateur  composer Alexander  Borodin at the military hospital in St Petersburg in 1856 drew him into musical soirees run by the composer Dargomyzhsky, at which he met several major figures  in  Russian music, including Mily Balakirev. Balakirev was assembling around himself a school of composers to develop  a truly Russian voice in music, and Mussorgsky rapidly joined the group, which included not only Borodin but also Cesar Cui and eventually Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and became known as The Five’ or ‘The Mighty  Handful’. In 1858 Mussorgsky resigned his commission and turned to music full-time.

He began to interest himself in Russian history and folklore, and finished a few composing projects based on this sort of material, but life was never easy, particularly since, as a result of the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, a good deal of the Mussorgsky family estate, which had supported him, had been lost, and he had to take a job as a civil servant to support himself. In 1867 he completed the original version of a symphonic poem he called A Night on Bald Mountain, but Balakirev refused to conduct it, and Mussorgsky was never to hear it performed. In 1871 he managed to complete his magnum opus, the opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin’s historical play, but it was initially rejected and it wasn’t until 1874 that he managed to get it produced. Critics damned it, but during its short run of only a dozen performances it did at least achieve public acclaim, a source of fleeting happiness for him; nevertheless , although he was shortly also to complete the great piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), later orchestrated by many composers, most notably Ravel, he descended into alcoholism and left many works unfinished including his major opera projects, Khovanschina and Sorochinsky Fair. Finally his alcoholic/depressive behaviour saw him sacked from his job in 1880, and he died a week after his 42nd birthday, the famous red-nosed painting of him being completed only a few days before his death.

A Night on Bald Mountain was originally known as St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, based on a play by Gogol and telling the story of Chernobog, the Russian Satan, and his appearance on the eve of Witches’ Sabbath – in Russia this is in June, but of course parallel with our Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day. Mussorgsky was proud of it, and crushed when Balakirev condemned it. The composer wrote:

‘At. the head of my score I’ve put its content: Subterranean noises of supernatural voices Apparition o the spirits of darkness and, after them, of Chemobog (The Black God) Celebration of the Black God and the Black Service Sabbath At the p.eak of the Sabbath there resounds from afar the bell of a little village church; its nngmg disperses the spirits of darkness Daybreak. The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away 1n full score , I wrote 1t 1n about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St.

John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day,,it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening w1th1n me …

Mussorgsky also inserted a choral version into Sorochinsky  Fair  but this  of course also was never performed in his lifetime; the orchestral original was lost and only rediscovered 1n the 1960s, to be published in 1968, a century after its original compos1t1on .. It fell to his friend Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (whom some suspect of hiding the original) .to publish his version of the work in 1886, which he called A Night on a Barn Mo.untam; at the head of his version he wrote of Mussorgsky’s work: ‘In each of its various forms this work remained unpolished ,’ going on to say that he had extracted the ‘best and most appropriate’  elements  ‘to  give  coherence  and wholeness to this work.’ In this he succeeds, but, intriguingly, although one  of the great orchestrators , on the evidence of the original he  strips  out  some  of Mussorgsky’s  more groundbreaking  orchestrational features.

The popularity of the Rimsky. version was of course ensured when Walt Disney featured a frightening  animation to Leopold Stokowski’s conducting in  his  1940 classic  Fantasia.

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