Concert Notes

Angela Cheng Plays Ravel

Rumanian Rhapsody in A Major, Op. 11 No. 1
George Enescu
b. Liveni Virnav, Romania / August 19, 1881;
d. Paris, France / May 4, 1955

Enescu was the most important musician his country has produced, as well as one of the most active and versatile musical figures of his era. He won renown as composer, conductor, violinist and teacher. His modesty in regard to his own music and his dislike of self-promotion led to an under-evaluation of his compositions. They include chamber works, piano pieces and choral music. The orchestral creations include three each of symphonies and suites.

Only a pair of early works, the Romanian Rhapsodies, keeps his name alive in the concert halls of the world. He composed them between 1900 and 1901. The model was the folksy, free-wheeling Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt. Nostalgic longing for Enescu’s homeland may also have played a role in their creation. Addressing the nature of the musical materials he used in them, he wrote, “Contrary to the general idea, Romania is not a Slavic country, but Latin. Settled 2000 years ago, it has maintained its completely Latin character...Our music, curiously enough, is influenced not by the neighbouring Slav, but by members of these remote races, now classed as Gypsies, brought to Romania as servants of the Roman conquerors. The deeply oriental character of our own folk music derives from these sources and possesses a flavour as singular as it is beautiful.” The first rhapsody is a straightforward medley of traditional rustic dance themes. It builds in intensity to a final round dance of delirious, almost savage abandon. 

Piano Concerto in G Major
Maurice Ravel
b. Ciboure, France / March 7, 1875;
d. Paris, France / December 28, 1937

Ravel’s two piano concertos are his final major works. Even though he composed them during the same period, 1929-1931, they are quite different from each other. The Concerto in G Major for two hands is bright and breezy; the Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major is a more sombre affair. One thing they share is the influence of jazz, which Ravel first heard during a concert tour of North America in 1928.

This is how he described the G Major: “It is a concerto in the truest sense of the word, written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint‑Saëns. The music of a concerto, in my opinion, should be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. Too many classical concertos were composed not so much ‘for’ as ‘against’ the piano. I had thought of entitling mine divertissement but the title ‘concerto’ is specific enough.” The first performance took place in Paris on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra and Marguerite Long as soloist.

The opening movement balances the playful and the dreamy. Ravel deployed his orchestra with a maximum of colourful ingenuity. Complete and utterly bewitching contrast comes in the slow movement. Marguerite Long called its principal theme, introduced unaccompanied by the soloist, as “one of the most touching melodies which has come from the human heart.” After a climax of restrained melancholy, the music gradually and nostalgically winds down to a peaceful reprise of its beginning. The finale is a headlong chase led by the soloist. Ravel dots its breakneck course with mischievous tunes, pizzicato strings and playfully jingling percussion.

Piano Concerto in G Major
1. Allegramente
2. Adagio assai
3. Presto

Symphony No. 5 in F Major, Op. 76
Antonín Dvořák
b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841;
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

News that Dvořák had won an Austrian government grant for impoverished young composers arrived in February 1875. It coincided with his discovering his own creative voice, by turning away from Austro-German models and pouring into his compositions the life-loving warmth and exuberant rhythms of his country’s folk music. The joy brought on by these developments was reflected in the astonishingly rapid creation of two enchanting, folk-flavoured works: the Serenade for Strings, Op. 22 and Symphony No. 5, originally (and more accurately) designated Op. 24.

He composed the symphony in a concentrated period of just five weeks, between June and July. It had to wait four years for its first performance, which Adolf Čech conducted in Prague during March 1879. When it came into print in 1888, the publisher attached the misleadingly high opus number 76, in hopes of passing it off as a more recent work. 

Its principal quality is sunny, pastoral warmth. The open-air first movement contrasts a genial initial theme spotlighting wind instruments, with a lilting second subject introduced by strings. The second movement radiates a melancholy glow. Dvořák offsets this tone with an attractive woodwind theme underpinned by pizzicato strings. After a brief linking passage which continues the mood of the second movement, an exuberant scherzo propelled by Czech dance rhythms kicks joyfully in. The central trio section virtually overflows with attractive themes. 

It comes as something of a shock when the finale opens in a mood of urgency and high drama, in strong contrast to all the preceding movements. This dark tone wages a substantial, at times heated see-saw conflict with positive elements. It is only at the close, with trumpets pealing heroically, that the clouds part for good and the sun once again shines upon the landscape. 

Symphony No. 5 in F Major, Op. 76
1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante con moto…
3. Scherzo: Allegro scherzando
4. Finale: Allegro molto


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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