Programme Notes by Philip R Buttall
June 2012 Concerts
Overture, Carnival, Op 92 Dvořák
Three concert-overtures by Dvořák, that is, works not associated with theatrical performances of operas or plays, arise from an impulse to show different aspects of human experience, and all three share a motto-theme. But of these, only the present is frequently played, following its first performance in Prague in 1892, with the composer conducting. Brilliant and aptly joyous-sounding orchestration is a feature of the work, and while the form is clear, it is nevertheless somewhat unusual. A fast movement in sonata-allegro form is not preceded by the usual slow introduction, but has the slow section inserted in the middle. The initial festive section is in A major, moving conventionally to E major. The harp then enters and the music reaches a moment of stillness. The slow section now starts with a dreamy melody on the cor anglais, accompanied by muted violins and violas. The faster tempo is then resumed for a development of the opening material, in the main lightly-scored, with the full and exuberant orchestral sound, now without harp and cor anglais, reserved for the moment when the opening returns, and where the brass then play a prominent part in adding to the exciting ending.
Royal Parade & Tamarside Clive Jenkins
Both pieces were composed in the 1980s for the old City of Plymouth Light Orchestra. The musical theme for Tamarside came to Clive out walking at Halton Quay probably back in the late 60s. He only wrote it down much later in an arrangement for flute trio for broadcasting in a light-music series on BBC Radio London, shortly after the station was started in the 1970s. The orchestration, recorded by the City if Plymouth Light Orchestra, served for several series as the signature tune for ‘Music Sou’west’ on BBC Radio Devon and Cornwall. He used it again as the theme for the third of Five Pieces for Clarinet and Piano commissioned by Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery to mark ten years of lunchtime recitals in the International Concert Series in 2003. Peter Cigleris, the clarinettist who premiered this version, has brought these pieces out on CD. Royal Parade is a musical portrait of Plymouth’s main street. A crash on the whole orchestra suggests the end of post-war demolition. The street builds a bit at a time. A scale up over a scale down (depending which way you are going) suggests the straight carriageway. Episodes between repeats of the theme are intended to suggest trees in blossom and buskers in the former underpass, which was later filled in, back in July 2004. The grand ending recalls the times when royalty came to visit – for example, the opening of the road by King George VI in 1947 or the theatre by Princess Margaret in 1982. [CJ]
Plymouth-born, Clive Jenkins shows his West Country roots in many of his works, from the Heart of Dartmoor overture to The Mayflower Pilgrims cantata. Clive has worked as associate-composer with the former South West Sinfonietta, the Ten Tors Orchestra, and, most recently, the Chamber Ensemble of London. Well-known as a pianist and accompanist, Clive was Director of Music at Plymouth College for almost twenty years, and is currently sponsorship secretary for Plymouth Music Accord, helping raise money for young performers to get their first professional engagement, as well as enabling youngsters to experience live orchestral music for the first time.
Sea Pictures, Op 37 Elgar
Written immediately after the Enigma Variations, Elgar’s Sea Pictures have had a curious performance history. While they were well-accepted by the public from the outset, when the striking contralto, Clara Butt, appeared at the Norwich Festival in October 1899 dressed in a mermaid outfit and not in a corset (‘guiltless of all confinement’ was the contemporary description), the songs have suffered from rather stuffy academic and critical commentary focussing on the apparent lack of profundity of their poems.
‘Sea Slumber-Song’ (Roden Noel), the first song in the cycle, evokes images of a brooding, nocturnal seascape. Its brief introduction depicts the rise and fall of the waves, and out of the gentle undulating accompaniment of the first section of the song (‘Sea-birds are asleep…’) grows the second and more sombre section, scored for unison strings (‘I, the Mother mild…’). The wave theme acts as a kind of ‘idée fixe’ recurring to introduce the third part of the poem (‘Isles in elfin light / Dream…’), and yet is absent at the beginning of the song’s recapitulation (‘Sea-sound, like violins…’) where there is a crash of spray. The home key of E minor at the end of the song appears remote after the singer’s ‘goodbyes’ in C major, as if land has been left far behind. The second song, ‘In Haven (Capri)’ (Caroline Alice Elgar), is a setting of brief verses by the composer’s wife. Its original subtitle, ‘Lute Song’, aptly describes the gentle accompaniment of pizzicato cellos and lilting viola figurations.
The third song, ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ (Elizabeth Barrett Browning), is in the more continuous manner of the first, but the music is freer – Elgar marks the singer’s entry ‘Quasi Recit’. The mood of the poem is set by a pompous ‘largamente’ theme in the orchestral introduction that seems to betoken religious aspiration, rather than sea imagery. It appears again between the sombre first verse and its faster sequel (‘The new sight, the new wondrous sight!’), the music of both verses owing something to the example of the first song. At the climax (‘He shall assist me to look higher’), a quicker version of the religious theme appears, rising up spontaneously out of the accompaniment, but it is heard again in its original form at the end, combined with a broad ‘nobilmente’ tune. The latter also heralds the beginning of the third verse (‘Love me, sweet friends…’), and in the final part of the song it is interrupted by a reprise of the wave theme from the first song (‘And on that sea…’). The restlessness of Elgar’s accompaniment, with its Wagnerian surges and repeated triplet-chords, complements perfectly the wide emotional spectrum of the song.
The fourth song, ‘Where Corals Lie’ (Richard Garnett), is much simpler. The poem’s evocation of underwater beauty is captured in the music by a pared-down accompaniment of strings and harp chords, to which a woodwind obbligato is added before the second verse, and which grows lyrical in the third. The final song, ‘The Swimmer’, (Adam Lindsay Gordon), with its swaggering main theme and dramatic cross-references to previous songs, is analogous to the finale of the Enigma Variations. The vocal line seems to be the personification of the swimmer, at times being swept along by the orchestral current, but at significant moments, such as ‘Love! When we wandered…’ in the second verse, here pursuing a more independent course. Climax builds upon climax until finally, after the soloist’s descent from top A, the orchestra bursts out with the main theme again, in all its glory.
Eclipse Judy Whitlock
Eclipse consists of a series of musical episodes, each based on the celestial events visible during a Total Eclipse of the Sun. The work opens with ‘Dawn’: soft string chords support the solo flute in a ‘rubato’ passage, echoed by solo violin and glockenspiel. Then the brass enter, to crescendo into ‘Sunrise’, which is followed by the confident ‘Sun Theme’ in D flat major. A graceful passage alternating triple and quadruple time depicts the Moon, and though the Sun Theme returns briefly, the Moon is now an unstoppable presence and the clarinets’ dissonant held-notes herald the onslaught of the ‘Shadow’. Here the music slowly builds in intensity while various instruments play the ‘Sunlight’ Motif – based on the opening flute melody and its counter-melody. An upward shift to B flat increases the tension, but after a portentous tuba solo there is a sudden unexpected respite with ‘Baily’s Beads’ – the beautiful Eclipse phenomenon created by the sun’s last rays shining through the mountain peaks of the moon. Here the flute soars above the strings again, joined by the shimmering glockenspiel. The full orchestra then enters for the brief wonder of the ‘Diamond Ring’ and suddenly all is dark! ‘Totality’ is a savage passage in eleven-eight time (a musical reference to the time and date of the 1999 Total eclipse – 11.11 am on August 11th) culminating in a ‘scream’ from the full orchestra. Suddenly ‘Baily’s Beads’ and the ‘Diamond Ring’ reappear, and the ‘Shadow Retreats’. Here the music is reminiscent of the Shadow’s onslaught, but the major key throws everything into a different light and the Sunlight Motif is everywhere.
Finally the sun is restored to full glory and the D flat Sun Theme returns. The brass soon jubilantly interrupt, however, and three unexpected string chords lead to the final triumphant tutti. [JW]
Judy was born and grew up in Hinckley, Leicestershire, beginning music lessons at the age of six. With a music Degree from Durham University and a PGCE from Cambridge she moved to the South West (and also joined the PSO!) in 1983. After gaining an MA in Music for Film and Television at Bournemouth University in the mid-1990s she has built a reputation locally as a composer. Judy is well-known in the region as a jazz singer, double-bassist, pianist, flautist and Secondary School Head of Music, as well as leading a range of school projects across the entire age range for Plymouth Youth Music Service. The tone poem, Eclipse was commissioned and premiered by the PSO in 1999, followed by Dartmoor Letterboxes in 2002, and Star-gazing in 2007. CDs of the PSO performing all three works will be on sale this evening.
Serenade for Strings, Op 20 Elgar
The Serenade was written in 1892, shortly after Elgar’s marriage, when he had decided to give up his attempt to gain a foothold in the musical world of London, and return to the provinces. Its probable origin lies in an earlier work, Three Pieces for Strings, written in 1888 and first played at the Worcestershire Musical Union. The later Serenade, presumably a revised version of the Three Pieces, was probably first played in Worcester by amateurs, and had its first successful professional performance in New Brighton in 1899 under the composer’s direction, after which it became an established and popular element in English string repertoire.. A work of characteristically sweet melancholy, the Serenade, in the key of E minor, opens with the pulsating rhythm of the viola. The expressive second movement leads to a final Allegretto that explores again the rich possibilities of divided string-sections, and the briefly contrasted sound of the solo violin.
Dances of Galánta Kodály
The development of national consciousness in the second half of the nineteenth century led to some curious misunderstandings, not the least of which were Liszt’s use of Hungarian gypsy-music in his popular Hungarian Rhapsodies, music that was essentially composed for the entertainment of audiences, rather than genuine folk-song or folk-dance. It was left to Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály to put matters to rights, with their better-informed investigations of the true folk-music of the different regions of Hungary and neighbouring countries.
The Galánta Dances were written in 1933 and first performed in Budapest in the same year at a concert by the Budapest Philharmonic Society, which had commissioned the work in celebration of its eightieth anniversary. The work had a deep personal meaning for the composer, for the Galánta (in Northern Hungary, now Slovakia) was where he had grown up, having moved there as a toddler with his family.
Based on an earlier collection of folk-dance melodies, the Galánta Dances are essentially in the Hungarian ‘verbunkos’ tradition, in origin a recruiting dance, lacking the brutality of the press-gang or the subterfuge of the King’s shilling adopted by other nations. The ‘verbunkos’ made use of existing folk-material, giving rise, however, to its own peculiar musical idiom. Kodály presents the dances in the form of a rondo.
Crown Imperial Walton
(1902 – 1983)
Walton composed this splendid march, the very embodiment of British royalty and ceremonial pomp, for the coronation of King George VI on May 12, 1937. Walton had been commissioned by the BBC to compose a Coronation March for the anticipated coronation of Edward VIII in November 1936 but as it happened, of course, that event never took place, so the new work, Crown Imperial, was played at the coronation of George VI in Westminster Abbey, as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, made her way down the aisle. Sir Adrian Boult conducted its first live public performance on that occasion, although it had already been recorded and broadcast.
The Elgar influence can be most readily seen in the structure which exudes both characteristic Waltonian ‘joie de vivre’ and exuberance. Walton casts his march in the regular form of two contrasting sections repeated, with the outer one finally bringing on the glorious, sweeping ‘big tune’, as superbly orchestrated as in any of his later wartime film scores. Crown Imperial takes its title from a line at the head of the score drawn from ‘In honour of the city’ by the sixteenth-century Scots poet, William Dunbar. The line reads: ‘In beautie beryng the crone imperiall’.
March 2012 Concert
Overture, The Flying Dutchman – Wagner (1813-1883)
Wagner was himself the conductor when The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Hollnder) was produced at Dresden in 1843. Its story is that of the accursed sailor who can be redeemed only by love. The opening strings tremolo is a classic summoning of agitation, under which the heavy bass theme represents the Dutchman himself, and which is heard again in the opera, when his ship approaches. The storm rages, and then subsides to a moment of stillness. A slow, earnest theme in the relative major represents the heroine, Senta, and her role in redeeming the Dutchman. The mood changes: woodwind and brass deliver a light tune which is the dance of the sailors not from the Dutchmans ship. More use of the Dutchmans and Sentas themes leads to a climax, a dramatic pause, and a joyful change to the tonic major, which now embraces both themes. This section either proceeds shortly and with uninterrupted lively pace to its end, or (a revision on the composers part, and usually adopted in concert performances) has a drawn-out cadence suggesting the operas final moments Sentas self-sacrifice, the redemption of the Dutchman, and the unity of the lovers in death.
Ritual Fire Dance – Falla (1876-1946)
The exotic Danza ritual del fuego (Ritual Fire Dance) from Manuel de Fallas well-known Suite for Orchestra and Mezzo-soprano, El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician), crosses the divide between life and death. Heavily imbued with folk-like melodies and Spanish flavour, the suite tells the story of the widowed gypsy, Candela, who is hectored by the ghost of her jealous late husband. Anxious to move on to a new lover, Candela arranges for her friend, Lucia, to distract the haunting spirit by flirting with it. At long last, Candela must resort to sorcery to free herself. After a brief interlude called Midnight Witchcraft comes the Ritual Fire Dance, in which Candela has to dance around open flames to ward off the evil spirits plaguing her.
De Falla was Spains most important composer since the Renaissance, perhaps in part because of his travels to Paris, where Debussy and Ravel befriended him and influenced his compositional techniques. Although contemporary critics often complained of the Frenchness (in other words Impressionism) of de Fallas works, his popularity in Spain was owed rather to the nationalistic colour in his music. He studied and adored Spanish folk music, and began his career as a theatrical musician where flamenco was wildly popular. Impeccably Spanish in colour and texture, de Falla boasted that his compositions were entirely original. In any case, the Ritual Fire Dance is a favourite in the concert hall, capturing the exotic sight of a middle-aged gypsy dancing furiously around a campfire in the dead of night, as she conjures and shuns disquieted spirits that should have been dancing in triumph on the other side.
Concierto de Aranjuez – Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Allegro con spirit
Joaqun Rodrigo was born near Valencia and showed early promise as a musician. He was accepted at the Sorbonne and later at the cole Normale de Musique where he befriended and worked with Paul Dukas, of Sorcerers Apprentice fame. He settled in Madrid and produced a prolific variety of compositions, writing for the violin, cello, harp and piano. His works blend mainstream European classicism with Moorish Iberian harmony, and he was always expressively melodic with a delicate musical refinement. This work is said to evoke memories of the lovely gardens of Aranjuez, with their fountains, trees and birdsong. Composed in Paris in 1939, and first performed in Barcelona the following year, it was an instant success and has achieved worldwide acclaim. The concerto is, in fact, a remarkable feat of musical composition, as Rodrigo was blind from the age of three, a pianist, and did not even play the guitar! Pitting a solo guitar against the full force of an orchestra is also fairly unique instrumentation, when compared with the full might of a nine-foot concert grand in the far more frequent piano-concerto format.
The vigorous first movement opens with quiet strummed chords in the guitar, establishing the rhythms and cross-rhythms that give the music its distinctively Spanish, flamenco-like character. The rhythmic momentum sweeps the music along it is there even behind the two expansive melodies that form the basis for the musical development.
The long, melancholy second movement has been likened to a saeta a devotional song associated with the all-night religious processions traditionally held in the streets of Seville during Holy Week. But according to Rodrigos wife, it was an evocation of the happy days of our honeymoon, when we walked in the park at Aranjuez, and at the same time, it was a love song. The composer himself is quoted as saying: The Concierto de Aranjuezevokes a vast array of colourful imagery and feelings. Being a history-lover, especially Spanish history, when I created this concerto, I had in mind the courts of Charles IV, a Bourbon king of eighteenth-century Spain, whose summer holiday residence was the palace of Aranjuez. Everything about it is awe-inspiring its lordly palace, gardens, fountains, and majestic views. This movement, too, opens with strummed chords in the guitar, now establishing the relative minor key of B, a deep, mournful sonority and at a funereal pace. The famous principal melody is given out first by the cor anglais, then taken up by the guitar. In much of the movement, in fact, the guitar is set in dialogue with other solo instruments cor anglais, bassoon, oboe, and trumpet. A long guitar cadenza spurs the orchestra to a fortissimo climax, but the movement ultimately ends quietly, with a sweet, last-minute turn to the major mode.
The finale, again according to the composers wife, evokes a courtly dance. The persistent shifts between 2/4 and 3/4 metres cross-rhythms even more jarring than those of the first movement seem witty, even parody-like in this context. The rhythmic momentum, and the brilliant scoring for both guitar and orchestra, make for a finale of unrestrained high spirits, though like the first movement it finishes with a quiet, charming throw-away ending.
Rodrigo was catapulted to instant international notoriety with this concerto, though setting somewhat unreasonable expectations for further great works which he was never able to fulfil. He was, however, bestowed with innumerable prizes and honorary degrees, and King Juan Carlos raised him to nobility in 1991.
Symphony No 5 in C minor – Beethoven (1770-1827)
Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
Few symphonies have exerted such compulsion over audiences. The opening theme has been called (not by Beethoven) a Fate theme, and an unmistakable quality of urgency and assertiveness pervades the first, third and fourth movements. Even the second movement cannot escape from it. The extra-large (for its time) orchestra adds to this, for, as well as the regular classical resources of the first, second and fourth symphonies, Beethoven imports the piccolo, double-bassoon and three trombones instruments which had their occasional place in opera and other music, but had remained outside the symphonys domain. To make the maximum effect, Beethoven strategically reserves their entry until the last movement, but even then does not go beyond the conventional use of two timpani, saying: The music is not for three drums, but it will make more noise and better noise than if there were six! The work was unveiled in Vienna on December 22, 1808, alongside the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Pastoral Symphony, and other new works. At the rehearsal, the irascible composer appears to have insulted the orchestra, and accounts of the concert itself leave doubts whether he actually conducted the two symphonies or not.
The first movement conveys an extraordinary power, partly from being so concise in the way it sets out the themes, but also in the coiled-spring tension of the initial theme itself, today so well known that its originality can go unremarked. During World War II the letter V stood, of course, for victory among the Allies and even during the darkest days, every time Churchill was seen in public, he would make his famous V sign, to symbolize the eventual Allied victory. In Morse Code, an important means of communication at the time, V is represented by three dots and a dash by a fortunate coincidence the rhythm sounded by the symphonys first four notes. The irony that Beethoven was German, however, was not overlooked but the choice was sweetened by the fact that the composer had himself been a champion of individual liberty (as witness his Ninth Symphony), and had also stood against Napoleon and dictatorship everywhere (the Eroica Symphony). The four-note summons to attention with a pause on the final note is repeated one step lower. Soon a fortissimo horn-call retains the rhythm but dramatically widens the gap between the notes. The smooth second subject is given out by the strings, joined by solo clarinet and flute. The exposition is repeated a development and recapitulation, where the returning horn-call is memorable, preserve the tension, while a coda brings a deceptive hush, but in a moment the former force breaks out again.
As the second movement in A flat, begins, one of Beethovens serenely-flowing slow melodies is heard from the lower strings, followed shortly, without a break, by another theme on clarinets and bassoons, which becomes assertive with the entry of trumpets and drums. The movement gives variations on both these, the first theme flowering expressively but finally borrowing the assertive vein of its companion.
The third movement is a scherzo in the home key, starting mysteriously, then erupting in a fortissimo horn-call which suggests a rhythmical reminder of the opening theme of the first movement. In a contrasting Trio, a whirling figure rises from the cellos and basses. The mysterious scherzo-theme restarts, but never reaches the horn-call. Instead a drum solo begins to tap out three-in-a-bar in a crescendo in which the other instruments join leading to the symphonys most dramatic moment
With piccolo, double-bassoon and three trombones joining in, the Finale begins like a march of triumph. Horns and woodwind add a second theme in similar vein. A third theme moves to the dominant key (G) and ends the exposition, which is again marked to be repeated. The development maintains the reminiscence of the scherzo, but not for long. With a crescendo, it disappears, and the march of the Finale is triumphantly recapitulated. Bassoons alone then lead off the coda, which uses a measured increase of speed to create even further excitement, as the symphony rushes headlong to its close.
Programme Notes by Philip R Buttall
Classical Music Writer |The Herald (Plymouth)
November 2011 Concert
Toccata and Fugue in D minor BACH (arr L Stokowski)
Leopold Stokowski was born in London in 1882 of Polish and Irish parents, and learnt to play the violin and piano initially, before discovering the organ when he was eleven. After studying at the Royal College of Music and Royal College of Organists, he became organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s, Charing Cross, moving to the more prestigious St James’s, Piccadilly two years later, while a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. In 1905, on the recommendation of Sir Hubert Parry, he was appointed organist and choirmaster at St Bartholomew’s Church, New York, where he inaugurated a series of organ recitals, often including in the programmes his own transcriptions of works by composers such as Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. During 1906 Stokowski studied conducting with Nikisch in Leipzig, before leaving his New York post in 1908, determined to develop a career as a conductor. With the help of his future wife, pianist Olga Samaroff, he secured the position of conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1909. He made considerable developments with the Orchestra, but resigned in April 1912, two months before the announcement of his new appointment as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. During the twenty-four years in which Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra he established it as one of the finest in the world, its reputation significantly enhanced by the numerous recordings which conductor and orchestra made together. Between 1936 and 1941 he gradually withdrew from his involvement with the orchestra, while pursuing interests in other fields, such as film. One of his lasting achievements in this field was his collaboration with Walt Disney in the creation of the animated film Fantasia, the soundtrack of which he conducted and which included his transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. For the remainder of his career Stokowski led a varied existence, divided between guest-conducting and various short stints as a chief conductor, all of which were underpinned by a constant programme of recordings, finally settling back in England, where he died in 1977, at the age of ninety-five.
During his lifetime, in fact, Stokowski transcribed over a hundred of Bach’s works, harking back to his own early career as an organist, and recreating that instrument’s sound by thickening the orchestration, in particular by doubling the bass lines. His version of what is usually referred to as ‘Bach’s’ very popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor has become his best-known arrangement but, ironically, this, arguably the most celebrated piece of organ music may not be by Bach at all. No extant copy of the work has come down to us older than from Mozart’s day. So many questions arise: who composed it, in what key was it written, was it originally for organ, and, if not, who made the transcription long before Stokowski got his hands on it? It contains many features untypical of J S Bach, and of his period, and raises such questions as what other organ piece begins in octaves and where else can we find a solo pedal entry for a fugue? There are many other technical characteristics which do not sit easily with Bach. Those who cling to the conclusion that it is by Bach, place it in his Arnstadt-Mühlhausen period, probably before 1708. In the Toccata Stokowski accentuates the contrasts and makes it even more a display piece than in its organ original, while the following Fugue, in comparison, brings almost a classical serenity.
In reality Stokowski’s transcriptions had little to do with Bach – they are rather complete re-compositions in the manner of Wagner or Tchaikovsky for the late-romantic symphony orchestra. However, in defence of his transcriptions against critical attack that they weren’t authentic, Stokowski made the following response: ‘The important thing is not the instrument but the feeling expressed. You may not agree. Everyone has a right to his own opinion and so do I’.
Jazz Suite No 2 SHOSTAKOVICH
(Suite for Variety Orchestra) (1906-1975)
March – Lyric Waltz – Dance 1 – Waltz 1 – Little Polka – Waltz 2 – Dance 2 – Finale
In 1934 Shostakovich agreed to participate in a jazz-commission whose declared aim was to raise the level of the former Soviet jazz from popular ‘café’ music to music with a professional status. A competition was organised in former Leningrad, and to encourage others, Shostakovich wrote his three-movement Jazz Suite No 1. The original Suite for Jazz Orchestra No 2 was written in 1938 for the newly-founded State Jazz Orchestra of Victor Knushevitsky, but the score was lost during World War II. A piano score of the work was rediscovered in 1999 by Manashir Yakubov, Director of the DSCH publishing house and president of Russia’s Dmitri Shostakovich Society, and three movements (Scherzo, Lullaby, and Serenade) were reconstructed and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney, and premiered at a London Prom Concert in 2000.
Until recently, another eight-movement Suite by Shostakovich had been misidentified and recorded as the Second Jazz Suite. This present work is now more correctly known as the Suite for Variety Orchestra, from which the Waltz No. 2 was made famous by the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). It is thought that the Suite for Variety Orchestra must have been assembled by Shostakovich at least post-1956, because of the use of material from that year’s music to the film The First Echelon. In fact, the greater part of the Suite for Variety Orchestra is recycled material.
Both ‘Jazz’ suites reveal Shostakovich’s brilliance and wit in orchestration, but the music hardly corresponds to the accepted understanding of jazz. Rather, the composer utilises a light-music idiom which he used extensively in his film and theatre music. While the First Suite reflects the exuberance and decadence of the 1920s, the so-called Second Suite is rooted in the Vienna of Johann Strauss, and has a forward eye to the former Red Army.
Suite from The Nutcracker, Op 71a Tchaikovsky
Miniature Overture – March – Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy – Trepak – Arabian Dance – Chinese Dance – Dance of the Reeds – Waltz of the Flowers
Produced in former Leningrad in 1892, the two-act ballet with choreography by Petipa has surely yielded some of the best known of Tchaikovsky’s music. Yet the composer took on the work with some reluctance and considered the result ‘far weaker than The Sleeping Beauty’. The ballet is founded on a children’s tale by E T A Hoffmann, with the heroine a little girl, and the nutcracker turning into a handsome prince. The concert suite represents only a selection from it, mostly from the second act in the Kingdom of Sweets. Here, the Nutcracker Prince welcomes Clara to a banquet and a danced divertissement.
The Overture is ‘miniature’ only in the sense of its restricted, almost toy-like scoring – the product of a master-orchestrator. The full orchestra bursts forth in the March, but still there are surprises to come: the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy introduces the tinkling of the celesta – newly invented in Tchaikovsky’s time – and the bass clarinet. Timpani enter at last in the vigorous Russian Dance, the Trepak, and so do cor anglais and tambourine. In marked contrast, comes the veiled sound of the Arabian Dance, where again the tambourine has a special role. The glockenspiel adds its tones to the Chinese Dance, where the pattering of the bassoon underpins the exclamations of flute and piccolo. The flutes have a different, but equally striking part to play in the Dance of the Reeds. Finally, one of the most famous waltzes in the world of ballet takes a long preliminary curtsey by way of the harp, before the horns lead off the irresistible sequence of dance-melodies.
Symphony No 2 in B minor Borodin
Andante, leading to
Suddenly learning that the Russian Music Society in former Leningrad wished to perform the symphony on which he had worked for several years, Borodin was unable to find all his material and, though ill in bed, had to write out again the orchestration of the first and last movements. Under the baton of Eduard Napravnik in 1877, the work was not counted much of a success, and, two years later, Borodin lightened the scoring for a performance under Rimsky-Korsakov, and the work eventually took its place among the most admired of Russian symphonies.
The actual publication was delayed till after the composer’s death, so Rimsky-Korsakov helped his friend’s score through the press, though without meddling with the work itself. Powerful in expression, with touches of harmony and melody which still seem exotically appealing, it uses a large orchestra with that flair for orchestration which characterizes the Russian nineteenth-century masters.
The forceful ‘elemental’ component which forms such an attraction in this, as in other Russian works, is encapsulated in the opening phrase, like some fierce slogan several times declaimed. Not only is this utterance short, loud and incisive, it also makes use of an ‘irregular’ musical scale, and becomes the movement’s main theme, gaining a more flowing counter-theme from high woodwind. Later, at a slightly slower tempo, cellos deliver a tranquil melody in the relative major, reminiscent of a Russian folk song. There is no cut-off end to this exposition, and no repetition as with the equivalent classical model. Instead, a vigorous new section in D minor begins, built from an unaccompanied rhythmic figure on the timpani. A full recapitulation starts out in the home key and the ‘elemental’ theme, with its time-values slowed down to a majestic unison delivery, brings the movement to a close.
A scherzo comes next, a long, diminishing brass chord serving as transition from the previous movement’s B minor to the new F major. Unusually, this is a scherzo in 4/4, rather than 3/4 time. The first theme rises in detached notes on lower strings, followed by a smoother, but also more impassioned theme in D flat from violins, violas and cellos together. A contrasting trio in D major is slightly slower (Allegretto), where a languid oboe melody sways to an accompaniment of triangle and harp. The scherzo proper is then repeated, but with a changed ending.
The third movement, by turns both dreamy and again impassioned, is once more in the key of D flat. After the briefest introduction on clarinet and harp, the horn delivers a rising-and-falling theme against a warm background of strings and harp, to which the oboe later adds a ‘drooping’ theme. The music grows to be more urgent and, after the fullest of orchestral sonorities, the texture is finally reduced to clarinet and harp as at the opening, leading directly to…
…the finale, which is vigorous throughout, and in the tonic major (B major). After some introductory hints, the boisterous main theme, from the full orchestra, mixes bars of 3/4 and 2/4. A new, smoother tune in D major, on solo clarinet, leads to a fading-out, after which ensues a dramatic interjection as trombones and tuba issue a reminder of the main theme. A development forces the music into the key of C major, assisted by the full force of the percussion, and then an instantaneous shift of harmony produces B major at the moment when the opening material is recapitulated. The ‘smoother’ tune, more richly accompanied, returns in B major. The course is then set for an ending which speeds to a final flourish with trilling strings and woodwind, and the jingle of triangle and tambourine.
Programme Notes by Philip R Buttall
Classical Music Writer |The Herald (Plymouth)