|About this Recording
2.110572 - Orchestral Music - RAVEL, M. / STRAUSS, R. / BERLIOZ, H. (Abduraimov, Munich Philharmonic, Gergiev) (BBC Proms, 2016) (NTSC)
Live from the 2016 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Maurice Ravel was born in 1875 in the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France. He spent his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, where his parents moved soon after his birth. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studied the piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. In 1891 he entered Charles de Bériot’s class, but in the following years he failed to win the necessary prizes in harmony. Finally, in 1895, he left the Conservatoire, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré.
Ravel’s career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the body of French song, and ballets. During the First World War he enlisted in 1915 as a motor mechanic which left relatively little time or will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including his choreographic poem La Valse, rejected by the Russian impresario Diaghilev and the cause of a rupture in their relations. He undertook a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works, in France and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.
Boléro, which Ravel himself described as an orchestrated crescendo, was written in 1928, commissioned by Ida Rubinstein for her ballet company. In a Spanish tavern a dancer starts tentatively, trying out her steps on a large table, and as she gathers confidence the drinkers from the surrounding tables gather around her, joining her in their growing enthusiasm. The music relies on a single theme, with two parts, and the constant rhythm of the snare drum, over which, instrument after instrument enters as the texture thickens and the volume increases. Boléro won immediate popularity, which it has retained, and has provided a basis for various choreographers and dancers, from Lifar to Béjart.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father’s improvidence, however, led to a change in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. In 1888 he entered the Moscow Conservatory as a pupil of his cousin Alexander Siloti, a former pupil of Zverev and later of Liszt. Rachmaninov’s other teachers at the Conservatory were Sergey Taneyev, a former pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, with whom he studied counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s former pupil Anton Arensky, Rachmaninov’s teacher for fugue, harmony and free composition. In Moscow, as time went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as a composer, after graduating in the piano class of the Conservatory in 1891 and in composition the following year.
The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad. Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family, at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences. Concert tours in America proved lucrative and he established a publishing enterprise in Paris, where he lived for some time, before having a house built for himself and his family at Hertenstein, near Lucerne. In 1939 he left Europe, finally settling at Beverly Hills, where he died in 1943.
Rachmaninov gave the first performance of his technically demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 in New York on 28 November 1909, having apparently practised the solo part during the sea crossing to America on a dummy keyboard. He had written the work at Ivanovka during the summer and towards the end of his life refused to play the work, which he preferred to entrust to the younger pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Walter Gieseking—surprising diffidence in a player of his distinction. The first performance under Damrosch was followed by a Carnegie Hall performance in January 1910 under Gustav Mahler, to be greeted with critical reservations about its length and excessive difficulties.
The principal theme of the first movement is announced at the beginning by the soloist with great simplicity, over a gentle orchestral accompaniment, a melody which one writer has traced to the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This opening theme is of considerable importance, since much that follows is derived from it, in one way or another. There is an expressive second subject, derived from a rhythmic figure heard in the preceding transition and heard as various instruments join in duet with the soloist. The first subject provides the basis of the central development. There is an extended cadenza, for the first part of which the composer offered a marginally simpler and shorter version. This is interrupted by a woodwind return to the first subject, finally followed by a much-abbreviated recapitulation.
The Intermezzo, marked Adagio, opens in A major with thematic material that bears a strong enough resemblance to an element of the principal theme of the first movement. The soloist makes more of this and at the centre of the movement, in a section in the mood of a scherzo, provides an accompaniment to the first-movement theme with changed note values, now allotted to clarinet and bassoon. There is a cadenza, before the movement moves forward without a break to the virtuoso Finale. Here the overall unity of the work is further ensured by the reference, before the recapitulation, to the two first-movement themes and a later reminiscence of the rhythm with which the concerto had opened, implicit, in any case, in the first theme of the movement. Other thematic material is introduced at the outset, the first of four themes to be introduced rhythmically derived from the principal theme of the first movement and leading to a brusquely ascending figure, to massive syncopated chords and to a Romantic fourth element, the second subject proper. The development of the material offers further opportunities for great virtuosity and, as in the other movements, there is a cadenza, after the return of the four thematic elements in recapitulation, and a final coda that sets the seal on a Romantic virtuoso concerto that takes the form to its peak.
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents a remarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems of his early career. His operas show an equally remarkable use of late Romantic orchestral idiom, often within an almost Mozartian framework. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, Strauss had a sound general education and before he left school in 1882 had already enjoyed some success as a composer. By the age of 21 he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the following year. In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend, to the utmost limit, the extra-musical content of the form. Meanwhile he was establishing his reputation as a conductor, taking appointments in Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, where he later became court composer.
The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, a medium in which he had initially enjoyed no great success. Der Rosenkavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’), a collaboration with the librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, is a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart and was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911. Ten further operas followed, ending with Capriccio, mounted at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942. After 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house at Garmisch only four months before his death in 1949.
Der Rosenkavalier is a miraculous blend of comedy and gentle melancholy, with its story of the love of the Marschallin and the young Octavian, whom she renounces to allow him to marry Sophie, daughter of a newly ennobled merchant. Coupled with this is the intrigue that leads to the deception practised on the boorish Baron Ochs, induced to make an assignation with Octavian, who has met Ochs when disguised as a maidservant of the Marschallin to avoid detection. The third act is set in an inn, where the disguised Octavian plans to turn the tables on Baron Ochs, who has planned to make a financially advantageous marriage with Sophie. The duping of the Baron is accompanied by a series of waltzes, culminating in the appearance of ghostly figures with one claiming to be his wife, accompanied by four young children, who greet him as their father. The discomfiture of the Baron leads to a happy ending, at least for Octavian and Sophie.
The Suite, attributed to the conductor Artur Rodzinski, begins with the horn call that starts the opera, a scene set in the Marschallin’s bedroom. There follows the scene in which Octavian presents the Rose to Sophie, followed by Baron Ochs’s clumsy attempt at wooing and the final scene of love and renunciation, as the Marschallin accepts the young love of Sophie and Octavian.
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère, the son of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child, he was taught principally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including an overwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, an instrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music teacher’s son, a horn player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took the opportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, he embarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification at Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered in Paris by the Opéra and by the library of the Conservatoire, of which he was later to serve as librarian. In earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Lesueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826.
In 1829 Berlioz saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming and during the season he had the opportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love, at first to be rejected, leading to his autobiographical Symphonie fantastique. It was only after his return from Rome, where final victory in the Prix de Rome had allowed him to spend two years, and when her popularity began to wane, that she agreed to be his wife, a match that brought neither of them much happiness.
In the following years Berlioz remained an outsider to the French musical establishment. He earned a living as a critic, while as a composer and conductor he won more distinction abroad. Both then and in later years he was seen as the very type of an individual genius, the Romantic artist, driven to excess by enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticism or opposition, as his Mémoires show. After the death of his wife in 1854 he was able to marry the singer Marie Recio, with whom he had enjoyed a relationship already of some twelve years. Her sudden death in 1862 and that of his son Louis, a naval officer, in 1867, saddened his final years. He died in 1869.
The Rákóczy March, according to Berlioz, was written with a direct regard to the national fervour of the Hungarians, duly aroused when the march, based on a well-known patriotic theme, was played in Pesth during the course of a concert tour in 1846. The same year brought a re-working of his earlier Huit scènes de Faust of 1829, La Damnation de Faust, a form of concert opera based on Goethe. Faust, in the first part of the work, is transported arbitrarily to Hungary, where he proves unmoved by the march that had excited so much Hungarian enthusiasm.
Galina Ustvolskaya (1919–2006)
Galina Ustvolskaya was born on 17 June 1919 in Petrograd (St Petersburg). From 1926 to 1936 she studied composition and cello at the Leningrad Capella. In 1939, she entered Dmitri Shostakovich’s composition class at the Leningrad Conservatoire. On graduating in 1947, she was admitted to the Composers’ Union—then, later that year, started teaching composition at the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music in Leningrad, where she remained until January 1977.
Ustvolskaya’s early compositions were a notable success and played by leading musicians at major concert halls in Leningrad. In the 1950s, however, her name steadily disappeared from programmes; performances were increasingly rare, with most of her works published decades after composition. Ustvolskaya did not participate in Soviet cultural life, her music being, in any case, far removed from Soviet ideals, and while she wrote ‘official’ works and scores for documentaries, they were largely excluded from her authorised catalogue (which extends to 25 pieces). From 1961, her life was devoted wholly to the music she felt compelled to write.
Genuine recognition came only in the late 1980s, when a concert of her music in Leningrad was attended by Jürgen Köchel, director of the music publishing house Sikorski, and Dutch musicologist Elmer Schönberger. He brought her music to Western Europe, with numerous festivals occurring here and in the United States over the next decade, and Köchel acquired publishing rights in the West. Ustvolskaya, however, rarely granted interviews or attended performances of her music outside St Petersburg, where she died on 22 December 2006.
The Third Symphony ‘Jesus Messiah, Save Us!’ (1983) belongs to a sequence of three such pieces which Ustvolskaya wrote from 1979 to 1987. All three feature selections (recited in Russian) from the Marian poem De sanctissima Trinitate (‘Most Holy Trinity’) by the 11th-century scholar Hermanus Contractus (better known as Hermann of Reichenau, whose most famous text is the hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater). Scored for speaker and an ‘orchestra’ consisting of five oboes, five trumpets, trombone, three tubas, five double-basses, two bass drums, tenor drum and piano, the present work had its premiere in Leningrad on 1 October 1987; Oleg Popkov and members of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by Vladimir Altschuler. Valery Gergiev first performed it at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on 18 January 1995.
Playing continuously for 16 minutes, the Third Symphony is characteristic of Ustvolskaya’s final creative decade in its acute intensity, with a tendency to exploit extremes of register or dynamic. This piece commences with the text recited by the speaker; after which a (relatively) lengthy section where timbral contrasts between woodwind and brass are established. After several lines of text, the music gains intensity as drums and piano underpin an ominous culmination (around two-thirds of the way through); then, after an extended silence, this regains something of its opening restraint. The speaker returns, though can utter only a few textual fragments as the music heads towards its close; the phrase ‘save us’ being reiterated as it dies away in a mood of barely supressed anguish.
Close the window