Monday, 7 May 2018

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto:
Themes and variations

15 May 2018: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
23 May 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham
25 May 2018: Town Hall, Cheltenham

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Overture, ‘Coriolan’, op62
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C major, op56
  • Felix Mendelssohn – Symphony no4 ‘Italian’ in A major, op90

When we are immersed in a great novel, we may wonder just how much of the author, or the author’s life, can be read within it. Likewise with poetry – although this does have an innate tendency to be autobiographical. But with music – unless we have documentary evidence; or the composer has also penned its lyrics – it is much harder to fathom. Many though have seen (or heard) tonight’s overture as a self-portrait: despite its front-and-centre reference to the Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or ‘Coriolan’, in German). With its occasional thematic reminders of the Fifth Symphony, written in the same year, 1807, there is no doubt that the work musically encompasses some form of desperate mental struggle. Whether that fight involves Beethoven facing his deafness; or the semi-legendary patrician as he matures from brute to peace-monger (under the onslaught of his mother’s and wife’s entreaties), is, though, solely for the listener to determine.

Notwithstanding, Mendelssohn’s marvellous symphony is definitely autobiographical: as we know, not only from the many letters he wrote to family and friends, but from the fact that it follows his well-recorded ‘grand tour’ around Europe – which included a lengthy period in Italy (as well as Scotland, of course)! Although it eventually closes in a minor key, there is little doubt of the happiness this journey brought its composer. The joyful music he wrote in response is (hopefully) truly infectious!

It is doubtful whether anything other than Beethoven’s innate genius attaches to the Triple Concerto, however; although the short central movement is extremely moving. Following the examples of Haydn’s and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertantes – for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon; and oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn; respectively – both performed by OOTS, last season – it contains some of its composer’s most awe-inspiring and enjoyable music. (It is a shame, therefore, that all three of these great composers’ concertos share another trait – that of underperformance – especially when placed side-by-side with this concert’s celebrated overture and symphony.)

Indubitably, though, it is music’s effect on the individual that is most meaningful. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with being cheered by Coriolanus’ fate (killed by his erstwhile allies, according to Shakespeare; nobly dying on his own sword, according to Heinrich Joseph von Collin – who supposedly influenced Beethoven); or with sobbing at the Saltarello which concludes the concert.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Italian Sunshine:
Themes and variations

9 May 2018: Forum Theatre, Malvern Theatres

  • Gioachino Rossini – Overture, ‘Italian Girl in Algiers’
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto no21 in C major, K467
  • Felix Mendelssohn – Symphony no4 ‘Italian’ in A major, op90

Sitting down to write this on the first steadfastly sunny day of Spring, just over a month ago, the blue sky seen through my window – punctuated with only the occasional faint ellipsis of cloud – proved too much of a temptation: and I ventured outside, leaving my labour behind. There, I soon discovered that Winter was still making itself all too present: with its icy winds nibbling at my face and fingers, and the sodden turf beneath my feet oozing with the evidence of March’s heavy downpours. The sap was rising, though (even if the mercury wasn’t): the hellebores, daffodils and hyacinths were in full flower; our oak tree laden with buds; the jackdaws cautiously collecting its discarded twigs to reinforce their distant nests; the blackbirds, robins and finches singing heartily. The only music which came to my mind, though, was Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica.

Back at my desk, I heard the central heating – the thermostat having been tickled by those brumal breezes – clear its lungs, and creak into action (like myself) once more. What was needed, of course – to truly fulfil the new season’s potential (and to thaw out my nose) – was such warmth. Not artificially generated though; but that which naturally coexists with the azure above and below the Mediterranean horizon; that which is embedded in that region’s winds – the zephyr, sirocco, and fittingly-styled maestro – that which bursts forth from tonight’s balmy programme!

Thus we have a concert not only of “sunshine” (Italian, certainly; but with a gentle touch of the Viennese, by way of Sweden) – but also wit (combined with subtle feminism); beauty (paired with virtuosity); and radiant joy (contrasted with brief stateliness). Oh, and youth! (Although how many concerts have you been to where Mozart is the senior composer – at the grand old age of twenty-nine?!)

As Mendelssohn (twenty-four, when tonight’s symphony was first performed) once wrote:

This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little….

Even if the weather outside is frightful, I guarantee you will leave the theatre fully prepared for its onslaught: with a smile on your face; a tune (or two) on your lips; and warm sunlight in your heart.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Debussy and Rodrigo:
Themes and variations

17 April 2018: Stratford ArtsHouse
18 April 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham

  • Claude Debussy – Children’s Corner, L.113
  • Joaquín Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Claude Debussy – Petite Suite, L.65
  • Georges Bizet – Symphony in C

Today’s concert features two orchestral arrangements, that, on hearing – like Grieg’s Holberg Suite, played earlier in the season – readily draw a very effective instrumental veil over their pianistic origins. As I wrote last November: “the effects [Grieg] conjures make it difficult to believe that this was originally composed for piano…! So reliant is the suite on the startling textures only strings can produce, that it feels utterly original.”

The difference, here, is that Debussy’s works were arranged by other musicians: each of whom, though, knew the composer, and his music, exceeding well. They therefore both succeed in exploring and exploiting the instrumental inferences the original compositions contain, whilst remaining sensitive to their quintessence: bringing further life and force to the stories held within. For instance, the mystical pipes and horns of the Petite Suite’s ‘Menuet’ are given wistful flesh by Henri Büsser, with his inspired utilization of the cor anglais; whilst ‘The little shepherd’ of Children’s Corner is blessed, by André Caplet, with his own sonorous flute (in the shape of an oboe…).

Büsser, by the way, was a quite remarkable man: living to the age of 101. In an interview given on his 100th birthday, in 1972, he recounted how he had approached his friend for permission to transcribe Petite Suite – “already having the orchestration in my head”. “Oh!” replied the composer, “you can’t know the joy you bring me; with my whole heart I authorize you to do this!” Indeed, Debussy conducted today’s arrangement many times: it being such a perfect example of the arranger’s skilful art.

Coincidentally, Petite Suite – like Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, which precedes it today – has also been arranged for brass band: in fact for the very same ensemble (the astounding Grimethorpe Colliery Band) that appears in the film Brassed Off – and that so helped contribute to its well-deserved fame. No less valid, the result is proof that fresh truth and beauty can frequently be found when music is dressed in such different, but befitting, clothes.

In writing my programme notes for Debussy’s ravishing music, I have therefore listened to (and sometimes played through passages from) the original pieces, before absorbing myself in the orchestral arrangements: hoping to discover and describe (if not always explain) some of the magic that has been worked upon them.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Peter Donohoe plays Shostakovich:
Themes and variations

13 March 2018: Stratford ArtsHouse
14 March 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham

  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony no1 ‘Classical’ in D major, op25
  • Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto no2 in F major, op102
  • Franz Schubert – Symphony no3 in D major, D200

In the visual arts, according to the Tate, “Neoclassicism was a particularly pure form of classicism that emerged from about 1750”; whilst the original ‘classicism’ was that which “made reference to ancient Greek or Roman style”. Confusingly, though, ‘classical’ music (see The Oxford Dictionary of Music, for example) is generally labelled as materializing around the same time (1750) – following the Baroque, and preceding the Romantic; “covering the development of the symphony and concerto” – with ‘neoclassical’ music then being produced between 1920 and 1950.

Settling on such precise dates is, of course, prone to spark dispute; and I, for one, would claim that Grieg’s spectacular Holberg Suite – from 1884; and performed by OOTS in November’s concert – is definitely neoclassical: although not yet, as such an outlier, part of any definite trend. Today’s first work – formally christened by its composer as ‘Classical’ – was also produced outside those dates (during 1916-1917): and yet surely sets the standard for all that followed. (Unlike Stravinsky, though, who would return to earlier melodies and musical models frequently throughout his life, Prokofiev described this symphony’s composition as merely a “passing phase”!)

Whilst we all know, albeit vaguely, what classical music sounds like (and therefore, by extrapolation, its neoclassical offspring, as well); and recognize it when we hear it; it is harder to say exactly what it is. As with last month’s programme, I shall resort to quoting Michael Kennedy – as his pithy summary is surely as good as it gets!

Music of an orderly nature, with qualities of clarity and balance, and emphasizing formal beauty rather than emotional expression (which is not to say that emotion is lacking); music generally regarded as having permanent rather than ephemeral value.

Fortunately for us, ending as it does with Schubert’s Third Symphony, this concert provides us with the opportunity to compare structurally similar works from both the classical and neoclassical eras, and therefore draw our own conclusions. That these astonishing compositions are both in the same brilliant key of D major may also be to our advantage (although neither one remains in that key for very long). How we categorize Shostakovich’s exuberant concerto, which separates them, I do not know. It is so startlingly original – and so unlike most of his previous, Stalin-shadowed output – that it probably belongs in a class all of its own!