DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)  Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75) Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but the legacy he left was hard-won in the face of hard-faced political sanction which not only nearly ended his composing career but also became a threat to his life.

His early works showed a new and original talent and, as a virtuoso pianist and able conductor too, he developed a three-pronged career. Composing was always his first love, however, and by the time of his death aged 68 in 1975 he had made hugely sign1ficant contributions to a number of genres including orchestral music (fifteen symphonies and six concertos), chamber music (fifteen string quartets), piano music (in particular the 24 Preludes and Fugues), the theatre (operas and ballets) and even film music.

In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was produced in Moscow and attended by Stal.in, who apparently reacted with horror to its uncompromising idiom, and a campaign was set up by Pravda to vilify his work, describing dissonances and lack of recognisable structure, and many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues were pressurised into denouncing him. Shostakovich was ordered to ‘reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that could be understood by the broad masses’. his income from new commissions was cut drastically and he actually feared for his life as he was made to withdraw his Fourth Symphony.

His reply was the Fifth Symphony, which he subtitled A Soviet Artist ‘s reply to just cnt1c1sm; it met with the approval of Ministry of Culture, and, by extension Stalin but it is fair to say that the work is full of sardonic humour, including a delicious nose-thumbing violin solo in the Allegretto second movement and the authorities w re just too blinkered to notice.

Certainly his cycle of fifteen symphonies ranks as one of the finest of the twentieth century; apart from the Fifth, No 7 harrowingly describes the appalling conditions suffered by the people of Leningrad during the Siege of 1941, and the Tenth is a trenchant assertion of his spirit written in the months after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and includes a vitriolic portrait of the dictator in the second movement.

The Festive Overture was written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the Revolution and premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre under Vassili Nebolsin. It was written rapidly at Nebolsin’s request for a work to begin his celebratory concert – the conductor thoughtfully gave Shostakovich a whole three days’ notice! It begins with a fanfare before launching into an energetic Allegro which the composer said was based on Glinka’s scintillating overture Ruslan and Ludmilla. The overture is free from any acerbic comment, demonstrating instead Shostakovich’s infectious high-spirits.

In case you’re wondering why the fanfare sounds familiar, it was used several decades ago as the theme music for the BBC’s occasional five -minute filler slot ‘Great Moments in Sport’.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)  Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

It is fair to say that no Shakespeare play has inspired a greater number of composers than Romeo and Juliet; indeed it is also arguable that, of all musical adaptations from the Bard, few surpass in quality those based on the timeless story of the two ‘star­cross’d’ young lovers, whose youthful passion is destroyed by their families’ hatred of each other.

At least twenty four operas, including those by Gounod, Bellini and Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet, from which comes the wonderful Walk to the Paradise Garden), have been based on the story, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the play, together with numerous orchestral representations, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Dramatique; one of the very finest of all adaptations is Prokofiev’s superb ballet, whilst of many attempts to distil the play’s modern resonances surely the greatest is Bernstein’s West Side Story, with libretto by Stephen Sondheim, arguably the finest of all stage musicals.

Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture joined the list of masterpieces inspired by the play with the premiere of the original version in early 1870; the idea had been suggested to him in 1869 by the composer Balakirev, who knew of Tchaikovsky’s passionate response to a huge range of literary works, the plays of Shakespeare in particular; Tchaikovsky was also to write symphonic poems based on Hamlet and The Tempest. In addition he had a lifelong predilection for stories of Love blighted by Fate – Francesca do Rimini and the Manfred Symphony follow a similar theme – mirroring his own life, which followed a disastrous progress through initial conventional relationships towards his abortive attempt at marriage despite his own undeniable homosexuality. His own inescapable conclusion was that Fate is an even more potent force than Love, which gave him a special affinity with the story of Romeo and Juliet. The premiere of the original version was, however, unsatisfactory, and Tchaikovsky immediately set about a major revision of the work, postponing its publication for a while. His mentor Balakirev remained sceptical about the work following the revision, and Tchaikovsky too was still dissatisfied, so in 1880 the maturer composer, now at ease in the sponsorship of his benefactor Nadezhda van Meck, came back to the work and made a second, smaller revision which at last satisfied him and met with Balakirev’s approval. The final version distils the essence of the play completely; it is only partially chronological in terms of the events of the play but crystallises the main elements into a magnificently taut structure. The work is dedicated to Balakirev, but the premiere of the accepted version did not take place until 1886. Since then it has achieved a vast popularity and has become virtually the epitome of romanticism in music.

Reverent clarinets and bassoons begin the work with a portrait of Friar Laurence; his role in the play is pivotal – he secretly marries the young lovers, believing in the maturity of their love, and then vainly attempts to make good after Romeo has killed

Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio.

The strings enter ominously, their harmonic tensions the first stirrings of the tragic conflict, which soon breaks into open battle between the Montagues and Capulets. The initial skirmish subsides into the first flowering of the love-at-first-sight between Romeo and Juliet which crosses the divide between the families, the famous theme introduced by cor anglais and violas. This in turn leads to a rocking, lullaby-like motif in muted strings which suggests the extreme youth of Juliet – in the play she is a mere fourteen years old. The love theme returns, but the conflict bubbles again with still greater venom; at its height the trumpets sear through the conflict with Friar Laurence’s theme, now in anguish that the marriage of the lovers is being destroyed by the feud. A final burst of passion – perhaps as they celebrate their wedding night against the backdrop of Romeo’s inevitable exile – is rudely shattered by the bitter culmination of the feud.

After an eloquent pause the epilogue begins with the timpani quietly articulating a funeral march, above which the cellos’ and first violins’ sadly contorted fragments of the love theme express the torment of the families as they realise the devastating consequences of their actions. Friar Laurence, having finally proved powerless to prevent the tragedy, offers a benediction, before upper strings sing a melancholy version of Romeo and Juliet’s theme, ascending harp chords counteracting the bassoons’ dark descent. Crashing, unpredictable chords bring to a cataclysmic end one of the greatest of all compositions inspired by the universal genius of Shakespeare.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849)  Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849) Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

Otto Nicolai was an almost exact contemporary of Frederic Chopin, and their dates ar almost identical. Both died far too young, destroying immense potential for future development, Nicolai from a stroke only two months after the first performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lustigen Weiber van Windsor) at the age of only thirty eight .

Nicolai had been a child prodigy, who, having run away from home aged sixteen when his divorced parents’ estrangement began to affect him deeply, found greater support with his adopted family, who sent him to Berlin for his musical training with Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. By twenty-one he had had the first of his two symphonies performed, and begun working in the Prussian embassy in Rome. He began to have opera librettos offered him and vied with Verdi in popularity; indeed, he turned down the libretto which became Verdi’s first major success, Nabucco. He wrote a number of operas in Italian, including Rosmonda d’Jnghiltera (‘Rosamond of England’) and JI Proscritti (The Banished or The Exiled), which Verdi turned down. Many of his operas were melodramas or tragedies, and The Merry Wives, his only opera in German, was also his first and last comedy, based, of course, on Shakespeare ‘s play of the same name.

By 1841 he had become Court Composer in Vienna and a major figure on the Viennese musical scene. In 1842 Nicolai and some musical friends who met regularly at the local hostelry discussed the prospect of beginning a professional symphony orchestra in Vienna and the result was the Vienna Philharmonic, today known as Die Wiener Philharmoniker, which was to be, and remains, based in the Golden Salle of the Musikverein in Vienna. Reluctantly Nicolai accepted the post of conductor, and so today is known as the founder of one of the great orchestras of the world. Its annual New Year’s Day Concert, offering unequalled performances of music by the Strauss Family, is broadcast from the Musikverein live round the world . Incidentally, it has one of the most rigorous of all orchestral recruitment procedures; each new member serves an apprenticeship of three years in the orchestra, and only when that has been passed can an application for a permanent place be submitted! The 150th Anniversary of the orchestra in 1992 saw a wonderful performance on New Year’s Day of the Merry Wives overture conducted by the great Carlos Kleiber, and in 2017 the 175th included magical choruses from the opera. Apart from Nicolai’s masterpiece, however, many of his works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano and voice have disappeared virtually without trace.

The libretto follows Shakespeare’s comedy in chronicling Sir John Falstaff’s shameless mistreatment of the ladies in his life, and their subsequent revenge.

The overture begins with an atmospheric introduction, which leads into a scherzo-like Allegro not dissimilar to the magic conjured by Mendelssohn in his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including, as that work does also, a theme which for a short while brings everything down to earth, although the donkey-braying is not quite so overt!

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Ravel’s Bolero – three examples of works whose popularity became a source of some regret to their composers, who became tired of being asked to repeat the work over and over again . Indeed Ravel, whose Bolero itself repeats its material many times in perhaps the longest crescendo in music, said of it: ‘I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.’

Whilst Bolero is indeed something of a ‘Marmite piece’, Ravel’s modesty in terms of masterpieces is unequivocally misplaced – few, if any, twentieth century composers created more magic than Ravel, who, with Debussy, led the cause of musical Impressionism in the same way that artists such as Monet and Renoir inspired Impressionism with the paintbrush.

Ravel was born in the Basque region of southern France, which accounts for his affinity with Spain and the Spanish flavour of a number of his works. He began learning the piano aged seven and showed a natural but not outstanding ability, giving his first recital aged fourteen alongside another young pianist destined for a glittering career, Alfred Cortot. Ravel’s competent piano-playing enabled him to begin composing for the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire but although he won a prize or two he was merely an average student, and was even expelled in 1895. During this time, however, he was collecting influences, amongst which was the music of Wagner, and he was also much taken with the virtuoso orchestrating skills of Rimsky­ Korsakov. In 1897 he was readmitted to the Conservatoire and began composition lessons with the great Gabriel Faure.

His first guarded success as a composer came in 1899 with the composition Pavane for a Dead Infanta for piano, which he would orchestrate in 1910, but generally his initial compositions were not well received . He gravitated towards other composers who were also struggling for understanding, including Debussy (twelve years his elder), Stravinsky and Erik Satie, each full of admiration for the others. Although he worked painstakingly slowly, his list of compositions grew, including a superb string quartet and more piano works, a number of which he began orchestrating; these included Mother Goose (Ma Mere l’Oye, 1908-10, orchestrated 1911) and, in Spanish style, Rapsodie espagnole, based on Habanera (two pianos, 1895 and orchestrated in 1907-8) and Albarado def Gracioso (1905, orchestrated 1918).

He began gaining international respect as an orchestrator, and although he didn’t teach a great deal he did enjoy working with Ralph Vaughan Williams, who visited him in 1907-8 for ‘a bit of French polish’. He was also to be asked for lessons in the 1920s by George Gershwin, but Ravel refused, saying: ‘Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’ Ravel would, however, begin to infuse his music with jazz influences.

Among his great masterpieces were the magical ballet Daphnis and Chloe (1912), La Valse, a ‘choreographic poem’ (1920), his bitter evocation of fin-de-siecle, which gradually disintegrates from a ghostly memory of the Waltz Age into the chaos brought by War, and two piano concertos, the G major jazz-influenced and the other for the Left Hand alone – written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost an arm during the War. His work as an orchestrator is also known in the most-played of the many orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Le Tombeau de Couperin – in other words, a work written as a memorial in the style of the composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733) – began life as a suite of six piano pieces written between 1914 and 1917, each also dedicated to a friend who had fallen in World War 1. In 1919 he chose four, each with Couperin-style titles, to orchestrate in his own unique style, which magically find a contemporary slant on Couperin’s baroque figurations. Despite its apparent simplicity, the suite presents each section of the orchestra with extreme technical challenges, with a virtuosic role for first oboe, noticeable right from the start in the Prelude. The work was premiered in February 1920.

The Prelude is dedicated to First Lt Jacques Charlot, and begins with delicate tracery first for solo oboe, then for upper strings in partnership with each other, which continues with only hints of a more strident nature.

The For/one, based on a somewhat quirky Italian dance, is in memory of Second Lt Jean Cruppi, and begins and ends with quietly angular dotted figures with slanting harmonies. The middle section is more lyrical.

The Menuet, fifth in the original piano suite, is in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a close friend of Ravel. Its atmosphere is wistful but suave, once again the oboe leading the way.

Finally the Rigaudon (somewhat similar in style to a sailors’ hornpipe), and originally fourth in the piano suite, although outwardly light-hearted in its outer sections, is dedicated to two brothers, Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were childhood friends of Ravel, but tragically both killed in November 1914 by the same shell. The middle section is pastoral and reflective.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

  1. Allegro moderato Andante on moto         iii . Rondo (vivace)

 Theatr an der Wien, Vienna, 22 December 1808 – one of the most momentous evenings in the entire history of music. The weather was freezing, but Beethoven, increasingly and cataclysmically deaf, seized the opportunity to premiere no less than three of the greatest works ever committed to paper before or since, an, not satisfied with that, introduced several other works which were scarcely less eminent. During the four hours’ duration of the concert the shivering audience was privileged to witness the world premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano concerto, together with those of the Choral Fantasia and a number of songs. The concert was also hugely important as the very last occasion on which Beethoven, scarcely able to hear anything, performed as a concerto soloist, also presenting the solo piano part in the Choral Fantasia, although given the conditions, it was a wonder that any of the musicians could play at all.

The first two of Beethoven’s piano concertos had appeared some years before whillst he was still in possession of his full aural capacity, the Second in B flat, written first but published second, and the First in C major carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory. The Third Concerto, in C minor, had appeared in 1803 during the gestation period for that titan of symphonies, the Eroica when Beethoven had scarcely recovered from the desperation he had experienced when he realised his hearing was beginning to fail, and that concerto explored a degree of angst common to many of his works 1 C minor, notably the Pathetique Piano Sonata, the Eroica‘s funeral march, the Cariolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The G Major Concerto however, is still more miraculous. The opening, intoned quietly and seriously by the piano alone, to be answered just as seriously by the strings of the orchestra as they set off the opening exposition, remains virtually unique in the piano concerto canon, and presages a concerto in which there is just as much serenity .as there is torment. Compared with the grandiosity of the Emperor Concerto which would appear in 1811 the Fourth is inward-looking and cerebral, but completely engaging.

The first movement exposition proceeds with a restrained romanticism, which the solo then begins gilding with glittering passage work. The second subject once aga1.n sees the piano decorating the melodic line. Shortly the development sees dyna 1c arpeggios in the solo set against swirling orchestration carrying us through a myriad of keys before the recap again takes into the slightly more remote territory of the opening exposition. After the massive, improvisatory cadenza (Beethoven’s own), the coda when it comes muses for a moment, then rounds off the movement with almost military precision, a pre-echo of the Emperor concerto.

The brief Andante con moto explores unique ground again; the strings offer a terse challenge to the soloist in angular dotted rhythms, whereupon the piano, completely alone, responds quietly and thoughtfully as if seeking to calm the orchestra. Further cycles of this dialogue follow, until the piano finally succeeds and the strings’ mood changes to one of anticipation, which leads straight into the quietly military but also light-hearted beginning of the final Rondo. The piano gives its own gloss on the rondo theme, then the orchestra bursts with a much louder version. The episodes explore many moods with the piano and orchestra often in equal partnership. Eventually the final solo cadenza leads to the coda, at first reflective, then impish, then finally triumphant.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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