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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Mozart (1756 – 1791) Horn Concerto No 3 in E flat, K447 (1783)

Mozart (1756 – 1791) Horn Concerto No 3 in E flat, K447 (1783)

i.  Allegro   ii.  Romanze (Larghetto)  iii.  Rondo (Allegro)

We are fortunate that the tradition of composers being inspired by and writing for soloists continues to this day; twentieth century examples include violin concertos written for David Oistrakh by a vast range of composers including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a similar collection of cello concertos for Mstislav Rostropovich. The late former conductor of the MSO John Wilbraham had a number of trumpet concertos dedicated to him, including that of Malcolm Arnold, and Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings for possibly the finest-ever exponent of the Mozart horn concertos, Dennis Brain, whose cadenzas will be played tonight.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

One of the greatest artistic partnerships in musical history reached the last of its great trio of operas with the composition of Cosi fan Tutte (‘Thus do all Women’) in 1790. Mozart had met Lorenzo da Ponte at the home of Baron von Wetzlar in Vienna in 1783 and the two were immediately intrigued by each other’s genius. Da Ponte was Court Poet to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna and his duties included writing operatic plays (libretti) for Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had introduced him to the Emperor; we have become familiar with a version of the rivalry between Salieri, a workaday composer who nevertheless retained the Emperor’s favour, and Mozart, the maverick genius, through Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which of course became an Oscar-winning film in 1984.

Following the huge, overtly subversive success firstly of Figaro (1786) then Don Giovanni (1787) da Ponte wrote a third Italian Opera Buffa (comic opera) libretto, probably on his own initiative rather than having been commissioned, and, it is thought, nevertheless showed it first to Court Composer Salieri, who made an attempt but gave up. Mozart took on the project in1789 and the opera was premiered on 26 January 1790 in the Burgtheater in Vienna. Unfortunately, its initial run was curtailed after only five performances by the death of the Emperor. A handful of further performances followed that summer after the period of national mourning, but after that the opera was not performed again before Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791.

Figaro and Giovanni had covered controversial subjects, and Cosi was no exception; its action concerns a scurrilous, and nowadays unacceptable, wager between Don Alfonso and two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that within a day he can prove that no woman can stay faithful to her lover. Ferrando and Guglielmo confidently challenge the bet, agreeing that they will feign being called up to war but reappear almost immediately in what they hope will be impenetrable disguise and woo their own lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They duly return disguised as full-bearded Albanians and begin the wooing; the ladies’ maid Despina is bribed into helping with the plot by Don Alfonso, and, sadly, the ladies within a short while agree to marry, unwittingly, each other’s original lover. Finally, Ferrando and Guglielmo engineer their return in part-disguise and the ladies realise how they have allowed themselves to be tricked. All is put right, with each sadder and wiser in realising that they have, in the end, at least coped with life’s vagaries.

The opera contains many musical gems, perhaps the most sublime being Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle), a vocal quintet, including Alfonso, sung as the officers leave their lovers for the ‘war’. Before the resolution of the opera the three men bitterly reiterate the Cosi fan tutte motto, which appears twice in the overture, first as the forte chords at the end of the introduction, and again just before the coda. The body of the overture comprises busy, conspiratorial material in the strings – in similar style to the opening of Coriolan – which is complemented in the woodwind and punctuated by military fanfares in the full orchestra.

One interesting sidelight: Mozart was constrained to write the role of Fiordiligi for da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, whom he disliked; apparently, according to the 20th century critic William Mann, it was her habit to drop her chin on low notes and throw back her head on high ones, so Mozart filled her showpiece aria Come scoglio (Like a rock) with constant leaps from low to high to low with the result that in singing the aria her head bobbed up and down like a chicken!                                                           

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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Beethoven  (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.

Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.

Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.

Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.

The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.                                     

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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Joseph Haydn  (1732-1809) Symphony No 99 in E flat (1793-4)

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Symphony No 99 in E flat (1793-4)

i   Adagio - Vivace assai             ii Adagio

iii Menuetto – Allegretto and Trio    iv Finale – Vivace

In 1790 Haydn’s tenure as Kapellmeister at the Court of Esterhazy became looser with the succession of a new Count, and at long last he was able to capitalise on his fame and visit the remainder of Europe. In particular his music had become well-loved in London, and when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon called upon him at his home in Vienna to invite him to visit London personally to compose six special symphonies, he leapt at the chance, despite his trepidation at the thought of a fortnight’s journey through Europe culminating in a perilous channel-crossing. Before he left he and Mozart met to bid each other farewell; the younger composer expressed his fear that he would not see his mentor again, but by the saddest irony it would be Mozart rather than the relatively aged Haydn who would be dead within two years.

Haydn was to stay in London on this first visit for a year and a half, directing the successive premieres of his symphonies Nos 93 to 98 from the fortepiano (forerunner, of course, of the pianoforte), with Salomon playing in the orchestra. Having returned home for Esterhazy commitments in 1792 he found himself commissioned by Salomon to write six more symphonies for a further extended visit to London. No 99 in E flat was completed in Vienna in late 1793, together with the Minuets of Nos 100 and 101, but the remainder of the six were written following Haydn’s return to London in early 1794. Since it was complete already No 99 was premiered on 10 February 1794 at a Salomon concert in Hanover Square Rooms, and the first movement was encored. Haydn was to remain in London until mid-1795, the last of the new symphonies, No 104, given in early May.

Four of the final six London Symphonies have subsequently been given nicknames, the Military (No 100), the Clock (No 101), the Drum Roll, (No 103), and the London (No 104),  but Nos 99 and 102 escaped that slightly doubtful honour. Despite the fact that Haydn was to continue composing until shortly before his death fourteen years later, No 104 was his very last symphony; safely settled back in Austria he was to move towards oratorio, producing, amongst others, the groundbreaking Creation in 1798, The Seasons in 1801 and the Harmoniemesse in 1802.

The twelve Salomon or London symphonies continue the development of the form, progressing, for example, towards making the clarinet an ever-present member of the symphony orchestra where Mozart had used it sparingly – No 99 is Haydn’s first to use clarinets – and introducing trumpets and timpani in some slow movements. In the final six symphonies his wit and invention reach new heights, each symphony a total joy, cementing his acknowledged status as ‘Father of the Symphony’.

As regards style, present performance practice in Haydn and Mozart tends towards leanness, with smallish string sections, but Salomon’s orchestra, it appears, consisted of at least sixty players. London’s love-affair with Haydn remained undiminished, and reviews both of the composer and the orchestra were consistently in the ‘rave’ category; of No 103 the Morning Chronicle wrote:  Another new symphony by the fertile and enchanting Haydn was performed, which, as usual, had continual strokes of genius, both in air and harmony, and following the premiere of No 104 the same paper had: This wonderful man never fails; and the various powers of his inventive and impassioned mind have seldom been conceived with more accuracy by the Band, or listened to with greater rapture by the hearers, than they were on this evening.  At this point Haydn was sixty three years old.

As was his habit in these London Symphonies Haydn begins No 99 with a slow introduction, but whereas in some, such as in the vibrant Clock symphony, he leads the listener into expecting seriousness which then turns into music which makes the listener smile, here there is elegance with only a moment or two of minor-key unrest in the introduction; the first subject of the Vivace is both dramatic and celebratory, then the second theme, first violins and clarinet, brings the expected injection of charm. The development draws heavily on the second theme with injections of drama before the recap leads to a triumphant coda.

The Adagio, slightly surprisingly in G major, begins delectably, its two related themes becoming a little more decorated as the movement proceeds, trumpet and timpani reinforcing the climaxes. As is often the case, the slow movement is the heart of the symphony.

The E flat Minuet initially thrives on contrast between piano and forte question-and-answer, then in its second half briefly explores canonical development in which sections chase each other. The Trio, in C major, again sets aside drama for charm.

Finally, the finale sweeps along in a sonata form which marries genial energy, sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’, which featured in many of Haydn’s middle period symphonies) and exhilaration, the development including parts moving in canon, contrary motion and inversion  in a typically modest show of complete virtuosity.

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

i.   Allegro non troppo

ii.  Adagio non troppo

iii. Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) — Presto ma non assai —Tempo 1

iv.  Allegro con spirito

There is unquestionably a feeling of release in Brahms’s D major Symphony. After having laboured with the First Symphony for some fifteen years encumbered by the burden of being perceived as Beethoven’s successor, he completed the Second only a year later, almost as if floodgates had been opened. The D major is consequently a wonderful complement to the First in C minor; where that great work ends having achieved a blaze of light after its dark striving, rather in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth, the Second opens in a glow of autumnal sunshine. Indeed the work was begun on his summer holiday in 1877 at Portschach on Lake Worth, one of his favourite and most inspirational locations — the Violin Concerto Op 77 and the G major Violin Sonata Op 78 were to emerge from there in 1878, both in similar vein to Op 73 — and, excepting the more tormented moments of the slow movement, it sounds like the work of one at ease with himself at long last. In fact the journey from conception to first performance took only some four months, the first performance taking place at the Musikverein in Vienna on 30 December under Hans Richter, one of the composer’s most dedicated advocates. Not one normally much given to having fun, Brahms was so consumed with euphoria at having completed such a good-humoured work so easily that he teased his friends; his publisher Simrock was told that the symphony was ‘so melancholy you won’t be able to listen to it’, and after its first performance he told a friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, who had not been able to attend: ‘The musicians play my music with black armbands because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.’

During Brahms’s lifetime the size of orchestral string sections increased considerably, gradually developing the tradition of large-size Brahms performances, whilst woodwind and brass sections retained one player to a part; many magnificent performances on this scale have been given, even with double woodwind, sometimes occasioning criticism of Brahms’s ‘thick’ scoring, but the composer’s own instinct was for smaller forces. Although he himself was constrained to conduct the Second Symphony in 1878 with no less than twenty five first violins, given the choice he opted for much smaller sections, his favourite orchestra, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, having a string section of only 9, 9, 4, 4, 4 (firsts to basses). The M50 is pleased therefore to be giving its performance tonight in relatively authentic scale. Indeed the luminosity of much of the scoring in the Second Symphony is enhanced by the use of smaller sections.

The first movement opens serenely with a three-note figure (D, C#, D) in the cellos and basses which will pervade the work in various guises, and is explored in depth in the first movement development section; at the very opening it is answered by poised horns then the flute, then upper strings, before the first violins introduce a beautiful cantabile (singing) melody based on the initial motif. This leads into more strident, angular material with ascending leaps and Brahms’s characteristically muscular syncopation, sometimes as part of the melody, sometimes driving underneath. As always in Brahms the middle parts, violin II, viola, clarinet, horns and others, are often given great importance as the propulsive force. The second subject, sung by cellos and violas, is one of Brahms’s most serene inspirations. The crisis in the development sets the three notes of the motif in insistent syncopation within the ¾ time signature, and there is also a fugal passage based on the flute’s answering phrase from earlier. There is strident work for trombones, much more fully used in this work than in the First. The recap, when it comes, leads to a genial coda with playful staccato (strings pizzicato) answered by the horns recalling their very first entry earlier.

The darker Adagio is in the key of B major, and fails to fall into an accepted structure; its complexity makes it much harder work than the first movement. The opening echoes to a degree the First Symphony’s tortured Introduction, but reversed; the top line begins with cellos striving downwards, whilst the two bassoons’ counter—subject underneath aspires upwards to meet them. This section continues lyrically, but there is always an undercurrent of tension. Moving imperceptibly into 12/8 instead of 4/4 Brahms fosters a more gently lilting and somewhat wistful atmosphere with the woodwind, but each time the 4/4 returns the mood blackens, the first episode descending into true sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’ — a concept explored by composers such as Haydn in the late eighteenth century). As the movement progresses subject and counter—subject are used with the utmost skill. Eventually after its difficult journey the movement ends in peace.

The third movement, in G, lightens both the mood and the scoring. The pastoral opening theme, again with the initial semitones seminal, is introduced by oboe above plucked cellos, but once again there is a change of metre, one beat of the opening 3/4 ingeniously changing into a whole bar of 2/4, and the oboe’s melody transformed into a chattering motif for strings, then woodwind as a variant. Back in 3 the pastoral oboe theme becomes more luscious, but this is swept away by the final variant, Presto in 3/8, in which the theme represented in the backwards, quaver/crotchet rhythm actually inverts the shape of the oboe’s original phrase. The movement ends in pastoral stillness.

The finale, beginning with the D, C#, D motif again, proceeds in a tingling pianissimo for many bars until it springs to joyous life, eventually leading to a suavely noble theme not unlike that of the last movement of the First Symphony. Muscularity increases and a complete surprise ensues — Brahms turns into a Scotsman, introducing a passage of Scotch Snaps almost as if he were writing a Strathspey. During the development the initial motif is transformed into a triplet figure in a mood of temporary languor; this returns later, gradually transmuting into syncopations which propel us into the triumphant coda, with thrilling brass, bringing the work to a conclusion as joyful as Brahms was ever to write.

Notes by HDJ

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Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; world—famous as a composer after just five birthdays, he retired from composing before his tenth birthday and subsequently became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos Rossini. You will have guessed, of course, that he was born on 29 February, and that his fame actually arrived when he was in his early twenties. By the age of 38 he had written thirty-eight operas, but in 1829 he put down his pen and wrote little thereafter except the odd private chamber work until his death nearly forty years later.

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 a piece which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately, as his story shows, 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.

Semiramide (Sem—i—ram—i—day) is one of Rossini’s finest operas. Based, like Tancredi, on a tragedy by Voltaire and set in Babylon, the work is one of a series of more serious operas (Opera Seria) inspired by the dramatic sbprano Isabella Colbran, following his line of comic operas (Opera Buffa), which had included The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerento/a). Colbran became his mistress and then his wife, and she created the principal female roles in many of his Opera Seria.

The plot concerns Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, who wishes to marry Arsace and make him King, only to discover that he is her son. Eventually Arsace does succeed to the throne reluctantly when he kills Semiramide, “mistaking her in the dark for his rival Assur.

The overture to Semiramide too is, fittingly, one of Rossini’s finest, again using material from the opera, making it un-recyclable. It begins with solo timpani followed by quietly obsessive lower strings and crescendi, then there is a beautiful horn serenade with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The Presto begins with first violins in a theme which is at once softly energetic and elegant and shortly punctuated by brilliant woodwind comments, which leads to a strident climax with flashing upward scales. The second subject, marching strings accompanying virtuosic woodwind solos, leads then to scampering first violins in Rossini’s signature crescendo towards a further climax with military brass and woodwind — not for nothing was Rossini known as ‘Il Signor Crescendo’. All this repeats in the home key before a tragic ending.

Notes by HDJ

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Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

i.  Maestoso

ii.  Larghetto

iii. Allegro Vivace

Although Chopin was born near Warsaw his father was actually French, hence the French configuration and pronunciation of the family’s surname, which they never sought to adapt. Fryderyk did however adapt his Christian names for his new location, having been christened Frederic Francois Chopin, which in Polish became Fryderyk Franciszek. His mother and father were both accomplished musicians, and his early talent was nurtured carefully; he gave his first concerts aged seven, and also began composing at this time, although his earliest surviving manuscript is a polonaise written aged eleven.

During his period of study, first for three years from the age of 13 at the Warsaw Lyceum and then at Warsaw Conservatoire from 1826 until 1829, he composed and gave recitals, including playing for the Russian Tsar Alexander I in Warsaw in 1825. He began writing for piano and orchestra as soon as he felt able and his second published work, Variations on ‘La Ci darem la mano’ (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), Op 2 (1827, published 1830), inspired one of the most famous musical tributes ever; when Schumann, an exact contemporary of Chopin and also already a major pianist and composer, first heard the work in 1831 he exclaimed: ‘Hats off gentleman — a genius!’ The two piano concertos were written in 1829—30, but the majority of his work was for solo piano, although there was one piece for cello and piano inspired by a friend, which would be followed in 1846 by a wonderful Cello Sonata.

His piano works developed a uniquely lyrical and florid style, influenced greatly by Polish national dances such as the polonaise and the mazurka, and achieved a wonderful balance between simplicity and virtuosity — he was particularly inspired by hearing the flamboyant and impossibly virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini in Warsaw in 1829, writing a set of piano variations entitled Souvenir de Paganini in tribute, and the two have much in common in terms of their exploration of the heart of their respective instruments and their melodic gift, if not in terms of performing personality.

Chopin was to write peerless sets of Etudes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Nocturnes (the latter following the model of the Irish pianist John Field), and from 1835 until 1839 he wrote a series of twenty four Preludes, Op 28, one in each key, which in turn provided models for composers such as Rachmaninov, Debussy and Shostakovich. In 1838—9 while staying in Majorca with the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known as Georges Sand, in the early days of their ten—year relationship he wrote the famous ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, Op 28 No 15, which expresses the desperation of days of rain on an isle which they had hoped would be a sunny tonic for his always-delicate health. He was to die aged 39 in 1849, probably of tuberculosis; one of the earliest—ever photographs was taken of him, looking very ill and within weeks of his death.

As with Beethoven, the Second Piano Concerto was actually the first to be written, in 1829, and, like its companion, No 1 in E minor, Op 11, (1830), it has occasioned all sorts of patronising comment about its orchestration, and, as Mahler did with Schumann’s symphonies, some have seen fit even to reorchestrate the concertos; the great musical commentator Donald Francis Tovey, writing in 1936, neatly sums up an attempt on No 2 by one Carl Klindworth, whose richer reorchestration also needed the piano part to be revised. Tovey writes: Chopin’s orchestration….is an unpretentious and correct accompaniment to his piano writing. We may be grateful to Klindworth for taking so much trouble to demonstrate this. Even today cuts are often made in some of the purely orchestral passages, but tonight we shall play the work uncut

The orchestral introduction draws us neatly into the two main themes, the first in the strings, and the second in the woodwind. The piano enters in forthright fashion, and takes charge of proceedings, its role beautifully described by Tovey as ‘the perfection of ornament’. The movement follows sonata form in a satisfying exposition – development – recap – coda structure.

The Larghetto, greatly admired by both Schumann and Liszt, bathes us in heart-easing warmth in the orchestra and filigree in the solo part, but midway a dramatic recitative over extended string tremolando takes us into a shadowy world of disquiet, before the initial material returns.

The final Allegro Vivace begins as a conversational waltz and develops into a rondo, one of the episodes drawing on Chopin’s love of mazurka, the accompaniment including strings playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). Eventually a horn call signals the scintillating coda, which brings to an end a graceful and beautiful concerto.

Notes by HDJ

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