Concert Notes

Shakespeare in Love

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Guest Artist

Jody Graves, piano

Nicolai

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Overture

Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) on June 9, 1810, and died in Berlin on May 11, 1849. He wrote his opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (“The Merry Wives of Windsor”) to a libretto by Hermann von Mosenthal (based on Shakespeare’s comedy) in late 1848 and early 1849. It was premiered on March 9, 1849, at the Berlin Court Opera. In the United States, the overture to the opera was heard as early as May 28, 1851 (with Leopold Meignen and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia); the entire opera was produced by the Philadelphia German Opera on April 27, 1863. 

Like Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, Otto Nicolai died when only in his thirties. (Incidentally, his dates are identical to Chopin’s.) But unlike those masters, each of whom had been writing important works since childhood or at least adolescence, Nicolai was just beginning to find his voice when he died of a stroke. Just two months earlier, the only work for which he is remembered today, his opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (“The Merry Wives of Windsor”), was produced at the Berlin Court Opera. So, if it was said of Schubert (in Franz Grillparzer’s famous eulogy) that death had destroyed “a rich treasure, but yet much fairer hopes,” the same words apply even more strongly to Nicolai. One must indeed assume that the history of German opera would have been different had Nicolai lived longer: Richard Wagner would have had a serious competitor to contend with. 

Nicolai had spent several years in Rome as the organist at the chapel of the Prussian Embassy. His familiarity with Italian comic opera is evident in The Merry Wives of Windsor (his earlier operas were, in fact, all in Italian). But he was also one of the leading conductors of his time, one of the early champions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which at the time was still widely misunderstood. He was the first to lead the orchestra of the Viennese Court Opera in symphonic concerts, and thus became the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic. It won’t surprise anyone that The Merry Wives of Windsor owes much to the German tradition of Mozart and Weber; it is more noteworthy that it contains a ballad that is strongly reminiscent of the one Senta sings in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (written six years earlier). In fact, Nicolai’s opera, with its mixture of German and Italian elements, has been said to lack stylistic unity, yet on the whole it is certainly one of the funniest works in the opera literature. It had a strong influence on the light operas (operettas) of Johann Strauss, Offenbach, and Sullivan. 

The opera is based on Shakespeare’s comedy and features Sir John Falstaff, the aging knight and incorrigible womanizer, among the members of the cast. But this Falstaff is not the wise fool we know from Verdi’s last opera (written at age 80 in 1893, 44 years after Nicolai). Nicolai’s knight is no philosopher but an entirely comical character who is not the central figure in the opera (the women are, as the title indicates). 

The overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor is based almost entirely on the opera’s last scene, in which Alice Ford, joined by Meg and Anne Page, play their final trick on Sir John. All the children of the town are disguised as elves and fairies, in order to scare, pinch and prickle the fat knight until he confesses all his sins. The introduction (“Andantino moderato”) depicts the rising of the moon: the long-held high note of the first violins and the poetic bass melody create a magical atmosphere, for, temporarily, we are to believe the elves and fairies are “real.” The tempo soon increases to “Allegro vivace,” and we hear a light-footed theme in staccato (short, separated) notes—the dance of the elves. Finally, the orchestra introduces the marchlike melody to which the chorus will sing the moral of the story at the end of the opera: “He who tries to deceive other people oft himself is caught in his net.” The themes are treated according to the laws of sonata form, which allows them to be repeated, varied, and developed until the final climax is reached. 

(Peter Laki)

 

Ravel

Piano Concerto in G
Jody Groves, piano

Ravel's two concertos for piano, this one in G and the one in D for the left hand alone, were composed in the years 1929-31 and, except for the song-cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée , which followed in 1932 (the by-product of a curious assignment for a film score offered to several composers at the same time and eventually awarded to Jacques Ibert), they were his last compositions in any form. The Concerto in G was begun first, but the Left-Hand Concerto was the first to be completed. At about the time he finished the two scores, Ravel spoke of them in an interview with a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London: 

It was an interesting experience to conceive and realize the two concertos at the same time. The first [the G major], which I propose to play myself, is a concerto in the strict sense, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that a concerto can be both gay and brilliant without necessarily being profound or aiming at dramatic effects. It has been said that the concertos of some great classical composers, far from being written for the piano, have been written against it. And I think this criticism is quite justified. 

At the beginning, I meant to call [the G major] a "divertissement, but afterwards I considered that this was unnecessary, as the name Concerto adequately describes the kind of music it contains. In some ways my Concerto is not unlike my Violin Sonata; it uses certain effects borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation. 

According to M.D. Calvocoressi, the musical scholar and friend of Ravel, the G-major Concerto was "the belated materialization of a plan that ever since his youth Ravel had kept at the back of his mind. His intention was to play the solo part himself, and in 1931 he had an extensive tour all mapped out: it was to carry him as far as Japan. The tour never took place. Ravel acknowledged that he was not a virtuoso in the league of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and he gave the Concerto in G to Marguerite Long. She introduced it at the Salle Pleyel, with Ravel conducting, on January 13, 1932, just five days after Paul Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Left-Hand Concerto in Vienna, and then recorded it with Ravel and performed it with him all over Europe. 

In his authoritative little book on Ravel, Alexis Roland-Manuel (1891-1966), who was his pupil, friend and confidant for some 26 years, and whose judgments are candid as well as affectionate, expanded upon Ravel's own remarks on this work: 

The Concerto in G major follows out the composer's intentions very closely. It is a virtuoso divertissement - brilliant, clear and light, with sharp contrasts which navigate with Mozartean ease the classic difficulties presented to free recapitulation by the formal sonata. 

The initial Allegramente, with its astounding vigor, imposes a hard and energetic harmonic climate upon melodic lines which, in their delicacy and capacity for easy adjustment, are related not so much to the Sonata for Violin and Piano as to Ma Mère l'Oye and Ondine. 

Some critics have professed to find the contrast of the Adagio assai and the two movements which bound it incongruous. In a work free of cyclic writing, it is as legitimate a contrast as the precisely similar example in the Larghetto of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, which Ravel took as his model. The Adagio is really a Lied whose calm contemplation brings it unusually close to Fauré's musings. The composer confessed to Mme Long, when she praised the free development of the leisurely melody, which she felt came on naturally, that he had written it "two bars at a time, with frequent recourse to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet.” But, once again, the original had become absorbed into the pastiche and entirely disappeared. 

The conclusion is heralded by a terse Presto at once brilliant, brief and scintillating – a chase goaded by galloping fanfares and not to be halted by the nasal tattoo of jazz. It is a violent struggle between meter and rhythm – the apotheosis of tonality. 

(Richard Freed)

 

Vaughn Williams

Serenade to Music

Vaughan Williams composed this exquisite piece at the request of the esteemed conductor, Sir Henry Wood (1869-1934), whose enduring legacy is the celebrated and ongoing Promenade (Proms) Concerts in London. Wood founded them in 1895 and served as principal conductor until shortly before his death. His commission to Vaughan Williams was for a piece to be premiered at a concert marking Wood’s 50th anniversary on the podium. Vaughan Williams dedicated the Serenade to Music to Sir Henry, “in grateful recognition of his services to music.” This concert will present this exquisitely beautiful music in its original form – for solo singers and orchestra, as Wood requested – rather than its alternative (and more easily staged) versions for chorus and orchestra, or for orchestra alone. Wood conducted the premiere at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 5, 1938. The text comes from Act Five, Scene One of Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The scene is a starlit garden. 

(Don Anderson) 

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! 
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music 
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night 
Become the touches IB of sweet harmony. 
HN Look how the floor of heaven 
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: 
FT There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st 
But in his motion like an angel sings, 
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins; 
Such harmony is in immortal souls; 
PJ But whilst this muddy vesture of decay 
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. 
SA Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn! 
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear, 
And draw her home with music. 
ES I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
RE The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
HW The man that hath no music in himself, 
RH Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds, 
RE Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; 
NA The motions of his spirit are dull as night 
And his affections dark as Erebus: 
Let no such man be trusted. MBr Music! hark! 
It is your music of the house. 
AD Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day. 
MJ Silence bestows that virtue on it  
ET How many things by season season'd are 
To their right praise and true perfection! 
MBa Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion 
And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night 
Become the touches IB of sweet harmony.  

 

SHOSTAKOVICH 

Hamlet: Film Suite

Along with his score to Kozintsev's King Lear (1970), Shostakovich's score to Kozintsev's Hamlet (1963-1964) is commonly said to be the best of his film scores. The intensity of mood, the concentration of its effect, and the originality of the themes elevate the score far beyond the music for the many propaganda films Shostakovich scored in the late 1930s and again in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But it is the overall integrity and sincerity of the music that elevate the Hamlet music to the highest levels of Shostakovich's art.  

These qualities are all audible in the suite from the score compiled by Shostakovich's friend Lev Atovmian in 1964. The suite is in eight movements: Introduction, "Ball at the Palace," "The Ghost," "In the Garden," "The Poisoning," "The Arrival of the Players," "Ophelia," and "The Duel and Death of Hamlet." The Introduction is a massive dirge punctuated by monstrous hammer blows from the brass and winds. The "Ball at the Palace" seems modeled on the scherzo of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony: it offers a ferocious moto perpetuo melody in the strings, underlaid with contrasting clipped and brutal chords for the winds and brass. "The Ghost" is a terrifying combination of two ostinatos: one for slow-paced bass under trilling high woodwinds, the other for plucked strings, piano, and harp. "In the Garden" provides some relief with its light string writing. The music for the cue "The Poisoning" is some of the most devious and deceitful music Shostakovich ever wrote: a set of variations on a sinuously skulking theme that twists and winds its way through a gargantuan percussion and brass orchestra. "The Arrival of the Players" begins with a fanfare for stopped trumpets and timpani, and then, oddly, takes off in energetic music that recalls Prokofiev -- this is perhaps the only music in all of Shostakovich to recall the music of his rival. The music for "Ophelia" sounds like a folk song played on the fiddle but fades into ghostly music for celesta and bells. The finale, "The Duel and Death of Hamlet," perfectly describes both events with exhilarating and frightening music. At the close, Shostakovich brings back the dirge from the Introduction.