The Italian Sun

Johannes Moser, cello
Vadim Gluzman, violin & leader

About the Music

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, ‘Souvenir de Florence’
Instrumentation: Scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos
Composed: 1890
Duration: 40 minutes

The Romantic era was awash with troubled souls, but perhaps none was a more fitting poster child of the era than Tchaikovsky. The composer fought against a variety of personal issues, including depression, low self-confidence, and anxiety. Then there was the matter of his homosexuality, which he was forced to hide from the public. Ultimately Tchaikovsky died of cholera, having drunk unboiled water, and many historians continue to believe that the composer took his own life. Given his struggles and the unrelenting, brutal Russian weather, we can only imagine how Tchaikovsky’s mood must have temporarily lifted when he stepped into the glorious Florence sunshine in the summer of 1890. He had come south to escape distraction and threw himself at once into the composition of a new opera, The Queen of Spades, the score of which was dispatched in the miraculous span of only 43 days. In his off hours, Tchaikovsky took in the sights, although the Uffizi didn’t impress him much. Following a visit to the gallery, he stated “I must confess that painting, especially old painting, is essentially completely beyond my understanding and leaves me cold.”

Tchaikovsky then returned home and in June and July composed his string sextet. Despite its Florentine title, the composer maintained that the work shared no direct connection to the city, though some of the themes certainly seem to breathe the beguiling Italian air. The choice to write for strings was not new, for the man who had made his name as a brilliant composer of ballet and symphonic works also had several string quartets to his credit. Despite the allure of the medium, the inherent limitations of volume and color among four string players may well have been the impetus to increase their number by two, thus allowing for greater orchestral possibilities.

The triple-time Allegro con spirito explodes out of the gate with a weighty, muscular theme, while the driving accompaniment lends a feverish air. This character is allowed momentary respite by the charming, relaxed secondary material with its pizzicato accompaniment. The movement builds to a frenetic atmosphere and concludes with a blistering coda. Following the introductory hymn, the Adagio cantabile e con moto settles into a serenade of sorts, an impassioned melody set atop a strumming accompaniment, Tchaikovsky heart-on-your-sleeve-music-making at its finest. The character is briefly interrupted by an effective passage featuring rapid waves of triplets set into very structured phrasing.

The final two movements are overtly Russian in character. The first, a 2/4 Allegretto moderato, begins dark and robust but gives way to a spirited mid-section characterized by thrown bows that bounce against the string. The finale, marked Allegro con brio e vivace, opens with a rocking accompaniment that determines much of what follows. The theme itself is more rhythm than melody which Tchaikovsky will successively develop. This is followed by a broad theme set atop the previously established rocking accompaniment. Tchaikovsky introduces a full-blown fugue in the midst of this most contrapuntal of movements but eventually throws caution to the wind and concludes this magnificent chamber work with a triumphant burst of raw, romantic Russian energy.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788): Cello Concerto in A Major, H. 439, Wq. 172
Instrumentation: Scored for solo cello, strings, and continuo
Composed: 1753
Duration: 20 minutes

Among the twenty children born to Johann Sebastian Bach (a number of whom didn’t survive infancy), several became successful composers in their own right. Carl Philipp Emanuel was Bach’s fifth child with his first wife, Maria Barbara, and he grew to become one of Europe’s premiere keyboardists. His A major Cello Concerto is a product of the year 1753, written during a period when C.P.E. was comfortably enmeshed as chamber musician, or Kammermusikus, at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. This was certainly among the most sought-after posts in all of Europe, for Frederick was himself a talented flutist who stocked his court with some of the finest musicians on the continent.

C.P.E. came onto the musical scene at a time of transition. His father’s Baroque practices were recognized as a thing of the past but the lighter and more streamlined characters that would define the Classical era had yet to materialize. Composers at the Prussian court tended to write serious, expressive works stressing extremes of mood and C.P.E. was a significant proponent of this Empfindsamer Stil, or sensitive style. This is evident throughout the first movement of the Cello Concerto, where ideas come and go so quickly that they can be difficult to grab ahold of. At court, figuration and embellishment were thought to lend music deep expression, hence the frequent decorative trills and turns.

It is in the slow movements where the expressive style really comes to the fore. In his Largo maesto, C.P.E. plunges us unapologetically into the dark realms of A minor. There is no mistaking the composer’s intent, given the abundance of “sigh” motives, the pathetic quality of the cello’s first subject and the stress of intense dissonances. The Allegro assai switches gears completely. The high-spirited ritornello, or refrain, establishes the recognizable anchor, around which the soloist bobs and weaves, offering up an abundance of dazzling passagework. The work ends quickly; no triumphant final chords here, just spirited, honest music making.


Nino Rota (1911-1979): Concerto per Archi
Instrumentation: Scored for strings
Composed: 1964-65
Duration: 16 minutes

Whether or not you’re familiar with the name Nino Rota, you’ve likely heard his music. The Italian composer scored over 150 films, among them The Godfather, the theme to which is arguably Rota’s most famous melody. Born in Milan, Rota was composing by the age of eight, and following musical studies in Milan and Rome, came to America to study at the Curtis Institute, upon the advice of Arturo Toscanini. As his mastery of his craft developed, he found himself increasingly drawn to popular song and operetta and came to appreciate music’s psychological potential.

After WWII, Rota threw himself into film music to make a living, despite a perceived lack of dignity within the industry. Rota soon changed all that. After collaborating with a handful of Italian directors, Rota found his way to Frederico Fellini and a musical marriage, not unlike that between Steven Spielberg and John Williams, was born. The two went on to blaze an extraordinary path, whereby the musical score was intrinsically and inextricably bound to the drama playing out on screen. Rota went on to write film scores for Zeffirelli, Visconti, Coppola, and others.

As succinctly stated in the New Groves Dictionary, “Rota’s idiom was exceptionally and uninhibitedly responsive to a wide variety of influences and was supported by a masterly technique, an elegant manner, and a capacity for stylistic assimilation.” In the case of the four-movement Concerto per Archi (Concerto for Strings), Rota’s intent is less about constructing movements according to a preconceived plan than allowing his ideas to develop on their own terms, perhaps something along the lines of literature’s stream of consciousness.

The Preludio, for instance, relies on three distinct ideas: a languid theme initially shared among violins and violas, a dotted rhythm (long-short, long-short) introduced by the first violins five bars in, and an aggressive, 16th note figure that Rota will spin out in perpetual motion. Each gesture comes and goes at will, sometimes alone, sometimes in conversation, and sometimes played in unison by the entire ensemble. So evocative is the writing, one can almost visualize the action. Rota treats the Scherzo as a macabre waltz, which he spices up à la Shostakovich with displaced accents. The ominous Aria (Andante quasi Adagio) twice builds to an intense climax, yet on the whole, the movement is about atmosphere and seems fully adaptable to the screen. Rota’s driving finale, marked Allegrissimo, is a Hitchcockian romp of dizzying intensity.


Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762): La Follia Variations, arranged by Michi Wiancko
Instrumentation: Scored for strings, claves, and tambourine
Composed: 2013
Duration: 13 minutes

Italian violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani is somewhat of a forgotten figure of the Baroque era, but in his day was regarded as the equal of Handel. His best works were his Corelli-inspired concerti grossi, string ensemble pieces that featured various soloists. La Follia is one such work. Over a well-known progression embraced by hundreds of composers over the centuries, Geminiani exploits the various techniques of string writing. Violinist and composer Michi Wiancko has spruced up Geminiani’s score, in the attempt to highlight those elements that “continue to resonate strongly with us today: passion, improvisation, intimacy, and the occasional moment of irreverence.”

© Marc Moskovitz