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Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto


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CARLO MONTANARO conductor
SERGEJ KYRLOV violinist

 
 

TCHAIKOVSKY
(1840-1893)

   
 

Capriccio Italien, Op.45

   
 

TCHAIKOVSKY

   
 
 

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35
      Allegro moderato. Moderato assai. Allegro giusto
      Canzonetta: Andante
      Allegro vivacissimo

 

INTERMISSION

  

MENDELSSOHN
(1809–1847)

   

Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21

   

MENDELSSOHN
   

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, Italian
      Allegro vivace
      Andante con moto
      Con moto moderato
      Saltarello: Presto

   

PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

Capriccio Italien, Op. 45

Timing: approx. 16 min.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals a2, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, tambour de basque, harp, strings

CSO SUBSCRIPTION PERFORMANCES

The CSO has performed this work on four previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in December of 1917, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, and the most recent in March of 1970, Max Rudolf conducting. It has appeared many times over the years on Pops, Youth and Tour programs, and on one May Festival Concert in the year 1900 when the Theodore Thomas Orchestra performed the work.

Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He wrote the Capriccio Italien in Rome in January and February, 1880, and revised it in Russia in May of the same year. The work was premiered in Moscow on December 18, 1880 under the direction of Nikolai Rubinstein.

In November of 1879 Tchaikovsky left Russia for a trip that took him to several European countries. After stays in Berlin and Paris, he reached Rome on December 20, where he began work on the Capriccio Italien the following month. He had a distinguished precedent to follow in evoking Mediterranean melodies in a symphonic work: Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), revered as the “father of Russian music,” had written two Spanish overtures in the 1840s, which were well known to every Russian musician. For his own Capriccio, Tchaikovsky collected melodies from printed collections and also used tunes heard in the streets.

The work begins with a quote of the cavalry bugle Tchaikovsky heard every evening while staying at a hotel next to the barracks of the Royal Cuirassiers. The first melody, played by the strings and then by the woodwinds, is slow and meditative. It is followed by what may be called the main melody of the piece, a tune started first by a pair of oboes over an “oom-pah” bass and gradually growing into a tremendous fortissimo in the entire orchestra. Here and throughout the piece, Tchaikovsky shows his extraordinary gifts of orchestration as he mixes instrumental timbres in a way quite unique to him. At the repeat, he entrusts the main tune to the cornet. (The cornet is a relative of the trumpet, but the shape of its stem and mouthpiece are slightly different, and so is its sound color, which produces a singular effect at this point in the Capriccio.)

In the next section, the three flutes, the first horn and the first violin carry the first tune, and the strings, the entire orchestra and then a pair of horns (with the instruction “soft but sensitive”) play the second one. The introductory meditative tune returns, only to give way to a dashing tarantella (a folk dance from Southern Italy). The latter is interrupted momentarily by the main tune played triple-forte, and then returns, getting ever faster and louder to the end.

In a letter sent to his brother Anatoly on February 12, 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote: “I have written a delightful Italian Fantasy for Orchestra!—Delightful! He is boasting, you will say!” Concert audiences around the world for the last 135 years would say that he was not.

—Peter Laki


PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35

Timing: approx. 33 min.
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

CSO SUBSCRIPTION PERFORMANCES

The CSO has performed this work on 38 previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in January of 1899, Frank Van der Stucken conducting and Willy Burmester, violinist, and the most recent in September of 2009, Paavo Järvi conducting and Alina Pogoskina, violinist. The work has also appeared on Riverbend and Tour programs (including in Europe in 2008, Paavo Järvi conducting and Janine Jansen, violinist).

Tchaikovsky composed the Violin Concerto between March 17 and April 11, 1878 at Clarens on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Adolf Brodsky was the soloist when Hans Richter conducted the first performance in Vienna on December 4, 1881.

One of the most difficult periods in Tchaikovsky’s stormy life was the time of his marriage to Antonina Milyukova. The 37-year-old composer was in love with the idea of marriage but certainly not with the persistent if not obsessive woman whose only goal in life was to wed her famous teacher. Tchaikovsky, who longed for the intimacy of a home life and who wanted to convince the world (and possibly himself) that he was heterosexual, found himself ensnared in the trap Antonina had cunningly laid. Always kindhearted and generous, the naïve Piotr Ilyich found it easier to succumb to a marriage he dreaded than to break off the engagement. The advice of his friends and siblings went unheeded as Tchaikovsky entered into a travesty of marriage. He was able to stand living with Antonina only nine weeks. He left her, his spirit crushed and his creativity damaged.

His only salvation was his mysterious patroness Nadezhda von Meck, who was to remain his confidante, support and friend for many years, although the two were never to meet. Von Meck did not chide Tchaikovsky for seeking love in a loveless marriage. She had been hurt both by the composer’s having kept silent about the marriage until the last moment and by the thought that he would even consider sharing his innermost soul with another woman. But she hid her pain and came to Tchaikovsky’s rescue. She sent him money for his much-needed escape. He accepted her generous gift and fled the Moscow apartment Antonina had set up as a love nest. He remained out of Russia for several months, and he buried himself in work. This activity proved therapeutic. As he composed, he regained his sanity, his humanity and his self-respect. And, in the process, he became a mature composer. He completed three important works—the Fourth Symphony, the opera Eugene Onegin and the Violin Concerto—before returning to Moscow.

The concerto was intended for the great virtuoso Leopold Auer. It was another violinist, however, who helped Tchaikovsky with the technicalities of writing for the violin. Yosif Yosifovich Kotek, a former student of the composer, was employed by Nadezhda von Meck. He had played an important part in establishing the friendship between Tchaikovsky and the wealthy patron. Auer looked at the concerto once it was finished. He promptly declared it unplayable. He not only refused to perform it himself, but he actively campaigned against other Russian violinists’ attempting it. Thus Kotek refused to play it, as did Emile Sauret. The work sat idle for almost four years before Adolph Brodsky cautiously decided to play the premiere, not in Moscow but in Vienna.

Viennese audiences were notoriously conservative and critics in that city could be venomous. The orchestra was poorly prepared and, furthermore, the concerto was unusual in many ways. The result was a riot. Half the audience hated the work’s audacious novelties and the other half was excited by its gypsy rhythms. Critic Eduard Hanslick wrote one of his more vitriolic reviews:

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a while it moves soberly, musically and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and asserts itself to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed. The adagio is again on its best behavior, to pacify and to win us. But it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transfers us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.

Violinist Brodsky was challenged, not discouraged, by such a reaction. He pledged to perform the concerto forever. He had somewhat better success in London, and he won open admiration for the work in Moscow. Leopold Auer finally admitted his error and became, in his old age, a champion of the concerto he had vehemently opposed. But by then he had retired from playing and he never performed Tchaikovsky’s concerto. He did teach it to his students, who included such giants of the violin as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman.

KEYNOTE. Why was a concerto that is today readily mastered by virtually every serious violinist at first considered so difficult and so unusual? It is true that the composer’s incorporation of the type of gypsy violin playing he had heard in the Cossack camps around Moscow into a work for the concert stage was unusual. It is also true that the form is not standard—the lyrical opening melody, which sounds like the statement of a principal theme, is never heard again in the concerto (interestingly, Tchaikovsky used the same procedure with the famous opening of his First Piano Concerto). But these strokes of originality should hardly turn leading violinists away from the piece. Rather, the problem lay in the concept of idiomatic violin music.

Violin technique is always changing. Today’s students routinely master yesterday’s most fiendish difficulties. It is not only violinists who are responsible for this constant expansion of technical prowess, however. When a composer writes a difficult new piece, he or she may be asking the soloist to do new, possibly unheard of, virtuosic feats. Since such technical feats will not have existed in previous music, soloists may not know how to perform them. And the music will therefore be pronounced impossible, or at least not characteristic of the instrument. But if the work in question has real musical merit, as the Tchaikovsky concerto certainly does, then some courageous and adventurous violinist will eventually find a way of achieving what the composer wants. Then other violinists will see that what they had thought impossible can actually be done, and they too will want to perform the piece. Thus, before long, the work will have entered the repertory of several soloists, and its technical demands will no longer seem unidiomatic. The concept of what is characteristic for the violin will have changed a bit, as the impossible becomes “merely” the virtuosic. History has repeatedly demonstrated this fact, as major concertos by several composers have forced performers to expand their technique and with it their concept of what constitutes good violin music. The Tchaikovsky concerto was neither the first nor the last to extend the practical limits of violin playing.

 

—Jonathan D. Kramer


FELIX MENDELSSOHN

Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21

Timing: approx. 12 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, strings

CSO SUBSCRIPTION PERFORMANCES

The CSO has performed this work on 14 previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in December of 1896, Frank Van der Stucken conducting, and the most recent in February of 2009, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting. It has also appeared many times over the years on Riverbend, Pops, Youth and Tour programs, as well as on May Festival concerts.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809 and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He wrote the Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826 at the age of 17. It was first performed publicly in February 1827. Fifteen years later, in 1842, Mendelssohn was asked by Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, to compose incidental music to the play to complement his earlier overture. He wrote the Incidental Music in 1843. It was first performed on October 14, 1843 in the Royal Theatre of the New Palace in Potsdam as part of a new production of the play.

The Romantic generation felt Shakespeare to be one of its own. How could it not? The Bard’s works were filled with all the things the Romantics held dear: passionate love, fairytales, times long ago and places far away.... It was at the beginning of the 19th century that Shakespeare’s plays began to exert a profound influence on composers. Beethoven based the slow movement of his String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1 on the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet. Berlioz wrote a monumental dramatic symphony on the same subject, in addition to smaller works after Hamlet and King Lear and an opera after Much Ado About Nothing.

Felix Mendelssohn started reading Shakespeare as a child during the 1820s. His family spent long hours reading through or acting out entire plays in the German translations by August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, two important Romantic literary figures. The Mendelssohn family had a strong personal connection to these translations: Felix’s aunt Dorothea was married to A.W. Schlegel’s brother Friedrich, one of the leading German philosophers of the time.

None of the plays captured the young Mendelssohn’s imagination more than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Ein Sommernachtstraum in the version he first encountered. In a letter written in mid-summer of 1826, the 17-year-old composer told his sister Fanny: “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden; there I’ve completed two piano pieces in A major and E minor. Today or tomorrow I am going to dream there the Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, however, an enormous audacity....” The overture was completed less than a month later.

KEYNOTE. Mendelssohn moved in the world of Oberon and Titania, the fairy rulers of the enchanted woods near Shakespeare’s Athens, with the grace and ease of an elf. The four opening chords of the overture, played by the woodwind and horns, made history with their delicate orchestration. In each chord, some new instruments are added, gradually expanding the range. The chords are all major with the exception of the third one, which is minor; a subtle interplay between the modes is thus introduced that will continue throughout the overture.

After this exceptional opening, we hear music that will forever be associated with Puck and the other elves and spirits in the forest. The fairy music is complemented by a more majestic, “earthly” melody, which turns out to be a quote from Carl Maria von Weber, whose own Oberon—not based on Shakespeare—was premiered the same year (1826) just two months before Weber’s death at age 40.

A third theme invokes the “hee-haw” of Bottom, the artisan-actor who, by magic, suddenly grew a donkey’s head and then proceeded to sweep fairy queen Titania off her beautiful feet. The three themes act out their own little comedy, evolving, interacting with and enchanting the listener. If we are to single out one detail, it must be the ending, where the “earthly” theme becomes absolutely celestial, played very softly and slowly by the violins as an exceptionally touching farewell gesture.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


 

FELIX MENDELSSOHN

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, Italian

Timing: approx. 27 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

CSO SUBSCRIPTION PERFORMANCES

The CSO has performed this work on 21 previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in February of 1899, Frank Van der Stucken conducting, and the most recent in February of 2013, Pinchas Zukerman conducting. It has also appeared many times over the years on Riverbend, Pops, Youth and Tour programs.

Mendelssohn began the Italian Symphony in Italy in 1831 and completed it in Berlin in 1833. He conducted the first performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra May 13, 1833.

For several centuries Italy was a mecca for composers from northern Europe. Particularly during the romantic era, a trip to the sunny south was all but required of any self-respecting artist. Composers flocked to Italy to find inspiration. Some of the more obvious results are Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony.

Mendelssohn first visited Italy in 1830, when he was 22 years old. He was overcome by the beauty of the ancient Roman ruins, the Alban Hills, Venice, the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Monte Pincio. His letters home speak rhapsodically of these sights, but he rarely mentions the Italian people. In fact, he spent most of his time in the company of Germans. He was untouched by the politics, society or culture of Italy. Thus, although the inspiration behind the Italian Symphony was genuine, the Italy conjured up is a country as seen by a tourist. Only the finale, a folk dance called a saltarello, captures an authentically Italian flavor.

Although the composer had hoped to finish the symphony while in the south, the work took rather longer than expected. The incentive to finish came in the form of a commission from the London Philharmonic Society. Mendelssohn finally completed the symphony in Berlin two months before its 1833 London premiere.

Mendelssohn was never quite satisfied with the piece. In a letter written in 1834, he expressed displeasure with the middle movements, and he stated that he would have to alter virtually the entire first movement. In the revised score dated 1837, the changes are slight. Later there were more revisions, but the final score has apparently been lost. The version published in 1851, four years after the composer’s death, follows the original score.

KEYNOTE. The first movement presents the conductor with an interesting dilemma. Mendelssohn indicated the customary repeat of the exposition section. Performers today generally feel free to observe or ignore exposition repeats. Choice is made on the basis of the performer’s understanding of the pacing and proportions of the piece, the length of the concert, and even the nature of the concert. Scholars have long debated whether indications of such repeats are mere formalities left over from earlier baroque practices or whether composers really intended them to be observed. There are some pieces that seem too long if the repeat is taken, others that are unbalanced when it is omitted. For most works, however, the internal evidence is inconclusive. The choice of whether to repeat becomes one of artistic interpretation.

In the Italian Symphony there is a “first ending” of the exposition that is completely omitted from the performance if the repeat is not taken. The presence of a first ending is not without precedent and does not therefore definitively require that the repeat be observed. In this symphony, however, the first ending contains some music heard nowhere else in the movement until the final few measures. This material is related to but distinct from the principal melodies of the movement. If the repeat is taken, the end of the coda is a reminiscence. Every other theme has already returned, and, when the one from the first ending finally does also, the movement is complete and can end. If, on the other hand, the repeat is omitted, the end of the coda is a fresh, new twist related to the main materials—quite a difference!

The elegiac character of the second movement is established by the opening’s stark two-voice counterpoint, which is somewhat unusual in music for full orchestra. For his third movement, Mendelssohn reverted to the classical period’s minuet rather than using the romantic era’s preferred scherzo. This refined minuet is the epitome of classical restraint and elegance. The finale is really the symphony’s scherzo. It is one of Mendelssohn’s typically sprightly dance movements.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony is a work of considerable subtlety and originality. It adheres to formal procedures that are classical in spirit although sometimes in violation of strict classical forms. Its surface sound, with its brilliant orchestration, lovely harmonies and charming tunes, is thoroughly romantic. Its unique blend of classicism and romanticism make it one of the jewels of the 19th-century symphonic literature.

—Jonathan D. Kramer