Concert Notes

Vadim Gluzman with the VSO

Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Mikhail Glinka
b. Novospasskoye, Russia / June 1, 1804;
d. Berlin, Germany / February 15, 1857

Sporting melodies patterned on folk music, and scored in lavish orchestral colours, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) founded the Russian national school of opera. The wedding between Lyudmila, daughter of the grand prince of Kiev, and Ruslan, a knight in the prince’s service, is disrupted when the bride is abducted by Chernomor, an evil magician. Ruslan locates the magician’s castle and cuts off Chernomor’s beard, the source of his evil power, then revives Lyudmila with the help of a magic ring. Glinka sets the scene for these fanciful goings-on with the perfect curtain-raiser: brisk, compact and tuneful. 

Violin Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 129
Dmitri Shostakovich
b. St. Petersburg, Russia / September 25, 1906;
d. Moscow, Russia / August 9, 1975

This is the last of Shostakovich’s six concertos (two each for piano, violin and cello). Violin Concerto No. 1 is performed frequently, but its successor is much less well-known. These concerts offer a welcome opportunity to become better acquainted with his final thoughts on the concerto genre. 

As with the cello concertos (1959 and 1966), the violin concertos were dedicated to, and premièred by a specific Russian artist: instead of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, it was violinist David Oistrakh.

Shostakovich composed the first violin concerto in 1947. Sensing that the repressive political climate in the USSR would not welcome such a “personal” work, he kept it under wraps until the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 stimulated a thaw in artistic expression. The concerto received its belated première in 1955. 

Twelve years passed before the appearance of Concerto No. 2. In the interim, Shostakovich had composed numerous major scores, including Symphonies 11, 12 and 13. His health had already been perilous for several years when he suffered a major heart attack in 1966. For the remaining nine years of his life, the dark shadow of death fell across much of his music.

Also, the physical act of composing, which had previously been easy for him, became difficult and draining. He was, as he wrote to a friend, writing a violin concerto, slowly ringing it out of himself, note by note. His physical trials continued when he suffered a broken leg in early September 1967, which kept him from attending the concerto’s début.

Following a run-through and some fine-tuning, the première took place in late September. The concerto was received warmly, both in the USSR and during the tours that Oistrakh made with it, to England and America, shortly thereafter.

Only a year had passed since the appearance of the second cello concerto. In its spare emotions and lean textures, the second violin concerto resembles it more closely than it does the earlier violin concerto. Shostakovich characterized the new violin piece as less “symphonic” than the first. “In the new concerto,” he wrote, “virtually everything is set out by the solo violin, everything is concentrated in its part and the orchestra accompanies…”

The sorrowful lament that launches the opening movement grows in intensity to heights of passion. Wind instruments decorate the almost-whimsical second theme. Shostakovich gradually rekindled the aggressive tension of the movement’s early pages, before a brief cadenza for the soloist ushers in the delicately orchestrated pages of relative calm (if not peacefulness) that close the movement. The second movement continues the grieving mood, gently softened by passages where solo wind instruments support the soloist. Without pause, the unaccompanied violin leads the way into the lively but caustic rondo-finale.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 129
1. Moderato
2. Adagio…
3. Adagio – Allegro  

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39
Jean Sibelius          
b. Hämeenlinna, Finland / December 8, 1865;
d. Järvenpää, Finland / September 20, 1957

By 1898, Sibelius felt sufficiently confident and experienced to write a symphony, a genre considered at the time the highest form of musical expression. He conducted the première of Symphony No. 1 himself, in Helsinki on April 26, 1899. It won an exceptionally warm reception. Soon afterwards it won success abroad, too, laying the foundation for what became his towering international stature. To his great satisfaction, his reputation was founded upon his abilities as a composer, not just the novelty of being Finnish. 

Symphony No. 1 presents many turns of phrase and touches of harmony and orchestration which would become increasingly familiar in later works. With its rich colours (including inventive use of the harp) and overt emotional expressiveness, however it is the least economical, the most Romantic Sibelius symphony.

It opens quietly, mysteriously, with the solo clarinet giving out a melancholy theme. This introduction paves the way for the first movement proper, an epic creation build on an array of sharply characterized ideas. After a grand build-up in tension, it concludes with strong pizzicato chords. The slow movement begins with a heartfelt string theme. A series of contrasting episodes follows, some fanciful, some lyrical, leading to a harsh and agitated climax. Finally, the opening subject returns to restore calm.

Timpani set the pace for the following scherzo, a dynamic piece fuelled by a tremendous sense of forward drive. Horns introduce the contrasting trio section, an oasis of repose amidst the fireworks. The finale opens with a passionate restatement of the theme which began the first movement. The main body contrasts drama with yearning, the latter expressed in another big, passionate tune. The conclusion is emotionally enigmatic, and once again pizzicato.

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39
1. Andante, ma non troppo – Allegro energico
2. Andante (ma non troppo lento)
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Finale (Quasi una Fantasia): Andante – Allegro molto


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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