Concert Notes

Lang Lang! with the VSO

Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky          
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840;
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

The plays and poems of William Shakespeare have inspired more music than any other body of literature. Author Bryan Gooch’s A Shakespeare Music Catalogue runs to five hefty volumes and it doesn’t include the last 25 years!

Tchaikovsky responded to the compelling call of Shakespeare in three melodious, strongly atmospheric fantasy-overtures: Romeo and Juliet (1869, final revision 1880); The Tempest (1873); and Hamlet (1888, followed by a full incidental score for the play in 1891). It was composer Mili Balakirev who suggested Romeo and Juliet to him for musical treatment. Tchaikovsky created the first version in a fever of inspiration, but Balakirev’s sharp criticisms led him to revise it twice. 

It opens with a solemn chorale theme characterizing the lovers’ friend, Friar Laurence. The Fantasy‑Overture proper contrasts two themes. The first is a nervous, often violent subject depicting the conflict between the rival families. The second is the passionate, soaring love theme for Romeo and Juliet, truly one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspired lyrical creations. The stark final climax is followed first by a sombre funeral march, then by a radiant, nostalgic apotheosis of the love theme. This coda has no equivalent in Shakespeare, but it does give the music a satisfying sense of transfiguration.  

Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47
Sir Edward Elgar
b. Broadheath, England / June 2, 1857;
d. Worcester, England / February 23, 1934 

Numerous front-rank British composers, including Vaughan Williams, Britten and Holst, have found writing for the rich, expressive and flexible medium of the string orchestra a highly congenial practice. Elgar’s contributions were small in number but substantial in every other sense.

The newly founded London Symphony Orchestra was eager to have Elgar conduct a concert of his music, hopefully to include a new work. The concert, which included the first performance of the Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, took place on March 8, 1905. It drew a cool reception. So technically demanding a piece needed time to be mastered by the players. This kept it from widespread popularity until the general upgrade in playing standards that came in the wake of the Second World War. The introduction is a bustling, rhythmic tour‑de‑force. What Elgar called “a very devil of a fugue…with all sorts of japes and counterpoints” follows. After much masterfully constructed elaboration, the work concludes with a triumphant return of the introduction. 

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770;
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

There are longer concertos than Beethoven’s No. 5 – the two by Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s Second and Busoni’s, for example – but none quite so grand. Other composers have tried to create a work of matching scope, power and brilliance, but he alone has possessed the necessary combination of heart, head and mind.

He composed the ‘Emperor’ Concerto (the source of the nickname is unknown) between 1808 and 1809, against the backdrop of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to the zenith of his power. Beethoven had once admired the ‘Little Corporal’ for his early devotion to the humanitarian ideals of the French Revolution. Once Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven’s attitude changed instantly to scorn. He struck Napoleon’s name from the title page of his Third Symphony, a work he had planned to dedicate to him.

In May 1809, French troops besieged and captured Vienna. During the period when Beethoven was at work on this concerto, their regular artillery bombardments were chipping away at the last shreds of his hearing. He fled to his brother’s house and covered his ears with pillows to reduce the noise. Rather than reflecting his distress, the concerto is proud and defiant. Perhaps he intended it as a hopeful vision of Bonaparte’s ultimate defeat, or a manifesto praising the virtues of the common man over those of a dictator.

The premiere, delayed by the continuing Napoleonic wars, took place in Leipzig on November 28, 1811. For the first time, the increasingly deaf Beethoven was not the soloist in the first performance of one of his piano concertos. Friedrich Schneider did the honours instead. Just like the Fourth Concerto, it won only modest success. The Vienna debut, with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny at the keyboard, was an even greater fiasco. Exasperated with the uniformly hostile press, Beethoven countered, “And now, criticize as long as you choose; even if sometimes it irritates me slightly, like a gnat-bite, it ends up turning into a great joke; cri-cri-ti-ti-ci-c-ze-ze – but not to all eternity, for that you cannot do!”

The ‘Emperor’ marked a major shift in character from its immediate predecessor. No. 4 begins quietly, almost modestly. In the ‘Emperor,’ Beethoven wheeled out the big guns right off the top. After the commanding opening flourish, the first movement proper unfolds with unhurried majesty. There are no substantial solo cadenzas anywhere in the concerto, Beethoven having lost patience with the liberties soloists had taken with those he had provided for his previous concertos. In its own, serene way, the slow movement is every bit as assured as the first. A simple bridge passage, its magic undimmed no matter how many times you hear it, leads to the exuberant finale.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
1. Allegro
2. Adagio un poco mosso…
3. Rondo: Allegro


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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