Vadim Gluzman, violin & creative partner
David Danzmayr, conductor
Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937): HYMNE – 2001
Instrumentation: Scored for string orchestra
Duration: 6 minutes
Earlier this season we noted the neo-classical tendencies of Prokofiev and some contemporary composers as well. Tonight, we turn to the Hymn of Ukrainian-born Valentin Vasylyovych Silvestrov, whose six-minute Hymn might best be described as post-romantic. Lush and melodically driven, the Hymn is elegiac in character, perhaps most reminiscent of Mahler. Composed in 2001, Silvestrov described the work as follows:
My hymn is enveloped in silence although it appears like a customary string setting on the outside. The paradox of Cage’s 4’ 39” is also present in latent form, but this is the silence of new music. All melodic content from my other compositions can also be found here. A rest does not only constitute a lack of sound but is also a state of retardation and paralysis or a suspension of time. In early music, there was an occasional need for silence, but here it is a fundamental feature.
John Cage, who Silvestrov references above, was a mid-20th century musical maverick whose works often called into question music’s purpose, including the role of silence. In the case of the Silvestrov, dramatic silence follows the last notes of the work, which seem to pose more questions than answers, and perhaps also gives a clue to the composer’s larger, extra-musical philosophies. He has not only rejected his own, previously practiced, modernist tendencies but, on a more global scale, those of Russia. In 1974 he walked out of a composer’s meeting in Kyiv, his home, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and, more recently, abandoned his home on account of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He now makes his home in Berlin, Germany.
Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Instrumentation: Scored for solo violin, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, timpani, and strings
Duration: 33 minutes
The ease by which Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto initially took shape belied what proved to be a frustrated and somewhat tortured history. Tchaikovsky dispatched the score in only a month’s time, working closely with his composition pupil, a violinist named Itself Kotek, who aided with the technical intricacies of violin writing. It is believed the two were romantically involved and Tchaikovsky initially planned to dedicate the work to the younger man. However, Kotek eventually developed cold feet with respect to the score and Tchaikovsky, who took great pains to hide his homosexuality, decided his concerto needed another violinist.
Enter Leopold Auer, the famed Hungarian violinist and teacher. Tchaikovsky not only hoped Auer would deliver the work’s premiere but went so far as to have the score published with a dedication to the violinist even before consulting him. Auer, however, was reluctant to commit to the premiere, which then had to be tabled. To his credit, Auer did set about making significant revisions to the violin part, all with the intent of making it better suited to the instrument. Even so, the choice not to premiere the work hurt Tchaikovsky deeply and was a decision Auer came to regret. Tchaikovsky granted Auer absolution prior to his premature death of cholera, but in the end, it was the Russian virtuoso Adolph Brodsky who finally premiered the work in 1881, three years after its completion.
The concerto opens with a sonata-form Allegro, complete with a full-fledged orchestral introduction, and incorporating a dazzling cadenza toward its close. This is followed by a lovingly crafted Andante, which Tchaikovsky entitled “Canzonetta”, or little song. This was actually the composer’s second attempt at a slow movement, having found his original attempt less than adequate. Tchaikovsky launches into the third movement without pause, creating tremendous thrust (the movement has been equated with an SST airliner taking off from the tarmac). The finale is one of the greatest of Russian juggernauts and is topped by a breathless, exhilarating coda.
The noted music critic Eduard Hanslick, a staunch advocate of Brahms, was on hand at the premiere and found Tchaikovsky’s score “odorously Russian” and was of the opinion that “the violin was…beaten black and blue.” Of course, the effect of the concerto is about as far from Brahms as is possible, but time has had the final say with respect to Tchaikovsky’s score. The work has been embraced by major soloists around the world and has become an audience favorite. A tour de force, the concerto contains some of the composer’s most memorable melodies and, while making tremendous demands on the violin, creates an undeniable air of electricity and triumph.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
Duration: 40 minutes
It took Johannes Brahms over twenty years of tinkering before he trusted his First Symphony to be published. A work of this nature, he believed, had to be worthy of Beethoven. Now, in 1877, with the First behind him, Brahms worked with far greater confidence and efficiency, dispatching his Second Symphony over the course of a summer spent in the lakeside town of Wörthersee. The longer he stayed the more Brahms loved the picturesque little town and the surrounding countryside, environs which may well have provided the pastoral inspiration behind his D major score. The work was unveiled nearly as quickly, when it was premiered that December, in Vienna by the Philharmonic.
Brahms was now among Europe’s foremost composers, but the path had been anything but easy. At the age of ten, he made his debut as a pianist, performing Beethoven and Mozart, at a private concert in his hometown of Hamburg, but already he was hankering to compose. His parents dissuaded him, believing a more secure living was to be made as a pianist. He began touring but retained hope of one day being appointed conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic. It came as a severe blow when the post was denied to him in 1862, so he traveled to Vienna, eventually deciding to remain. A year later he was appointed director of the Vienna Singakademie, while continuing to compose in a variety of genres. But the real turning point in Brahms’ career came only about a decade later, when he was named director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna’s most prestigious music society. Now Brahms’ star began to rise in earnest.
One by one, Brahms had been sending his compositions into the world: his First Piano Concerto, piano and choral works, among them Ein Deutsches Requiem, written upon the death of his mother, and chamber music. He entered the symphonic world with far greater reluctance, commencing first with a pair of orchestral serenades, eventually to be followed by his Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The latter score was warmly embraced and soon became among his most popular works. And finally, after a protracted gestation, came the First Symphony, then, more quickly, the Second. By the time his famous Violin Concerto premiered in 1878, Brahms’ reputation as “the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today” was secure.
Brahms was, above all, a confirmed believer in the classical forms and structures of the previous generation, and thus his Second is, like all of the master’s symphonies, constructed according to well-established principles—sonata forms, themes and variations, minuets, and the like. Beyond the sheer beauty of his ideas, what set Brahms apart from his contemporaries was his craftsmanship, his sense of pacing, and the organic development of his material. Take note of what he does with the opening theme of the tranquil, sonata-form Allegro non troppo, which he introduces with lower strings and then horn. Likewise, the Adagio non troppo (slow but not too slow) opens in the lower strings, now with a brooding theme that Brahms will get around to transforming into one of the most glorious melodies he ever produced.
The sections of the Allegretto grazioso are more clearly defined. The first, an idyllic oboe melody accompanied by pizzicato strings in 3/4 time, is interrupted by a 2/3 Presto ma non assai, with animated strings soon yielding to the larger ensemble. Brahms will bank back and forth between the two ideas before closing with a vintage, melancholy coda. The Allegro con spirito finale opens with a meandering theme in the strings, a clouded reference to the first movement and confirming Brahms’ predilection for organic unity across the larger work. The gentle mood, however, is soon displaced by more heroic strains, evolving into “the blazing sunrise of the most athletic and ebulliently festive movement Brahms ever wrote,” as described by one of Brahms’ biographers. This sonata-form movement eventually settles down to impressive development, with Brahms displaying a love of winds before the earlier energy returns. The composer crowns his summer symphony with a triumphant coda, a fitting conclusion to this most glorious of works.
© Marc Moskovitz