Program notes for June Concert

Schnittke | Shostakovich | Rachmaninoff

Schnittke: (Kein) Summernachstraum

Alfred Schnittke was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1934, the son of Jewish Russian-German parents with a literary background (his father was a journalist and translator; his paternal grandmother a translator and editor of German-language literature). He lived with his family in Vienna from 1946 to 1948, there soaking up the centuries-old musical culture and finding, as he wrote, “every moment there to be a link of the historical chain: all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts, and I was not a barbarian without any connections, but the conscious bearer of the task in my life.” The family moved to Moscow in 1948, and Schnittke attended the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1961 and teaching there from 1962 to 1972. Like composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich before him, Schnittke found it difficult to be accepted by the rigid Soviet bureaucracy; his Symphony No. 1 (1969–74) was effectively banned from performance, and he himself was prevented from traveling outside of the USSR beginning in 1980. After suffering a near-fatal stroke in 1985, he recovered and emigrated from Russia to Hamburg, Germany in 1990. He passed away in August, 1998 and was buried, ironically enough, with Russian state honors at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, with fellow composers such as Shostakovich.

For much of his life, Schnittke’s music reflected his enthusiastic embrace of the past and present as he felt it in Vienna during his youth. He called his method “polystylism,” in which he juxtaposed styles and techniques of various musical periods. “The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so,” he wrote. In later years, however, as his health worsened after his 1985 stroke, his style became more arid and somewhat bleak. His musical output was wide and varied, including chamber music, concerti, and symphonies, as well as operas, songs, and nearly 70 scores for films.

(K)ein Sommernachtstraum is a piece written at the peak of Schnittke’s polystylistic period, and presents this style with all the enthusiasm and sly wit that he could muster. The title itself is a joke, a play on the German title of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummernight’s Dream,” or ein Sommernachtstraum. The best translation of Schnittke’s title is (Not) a Midsummernight’s Dream, as he has changed the word for “a” (ein) to “not a” (kein). And this humorous title is absolutely correct — the piece really has nothing to do with Shakespeare. But it premiered at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 1985, at a concert with the theme “Shakespeare” and featuring Aribert Reimann’s Lear and Egon Wellezs’s Prosperos Beschwörungen (Prospero’s Incantations).

The second joke of the piece, after its title, is the opening. First a single violin and a piano play something that sounds like a Mozart minuet (actually Schnittke’s Gratulationsrondo, 1974, composed for the 50th birthday of violinist Rostislav Dubinsky of the Borodin Quartet). Then a flute and harpsichord pick up the tune, and the two pairs play it as a canon — although harmonically it doesn’t work as a canon, and the tune clashes on itself. As the orchestra joins into the fray, we begin to notice fragments of Schubert-like melodies, as well as strangely-placed parallel fifths, clustered bass lines, broad circus marches, and modulations into multiple keys at the same time. The climax is, as one commentator puts it, “a disgusting smear of cluster chords and sleigh bells, after which the opening melody returns, bearing deep trauma.”

Grant Hiroshima, program annotator for the LA Philharmonic, hears a reflection of Shakespeare’s work despite Schnittke’s title: the stately tune that opens a hint of the court of Theseus and Hippolyta; the wild dissonances the strange transformations of the lovers in the forest; the “big marching band jollity” a peek at Bottom and his band of foolish players; and finally, the closing tune the return to court, with everyone forever altered. As Puck says, “If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear.”

— Barbara Heninger

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony as a graduation exercise in composition at the Leningrad Conservatory. He was just 19 years old. He had entered the then St. Petersburg Conservatory six years earlier, studying both piano and composition after an audition so marvelous that it reportedly caused the Conservatory’s director and a composer of great reputation himself to effuse that the 13-year-old “possessed a gift comparable to Mozart.”
Youthful symphonies seldom reveal their composers’ true voice. For example, Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat, written at age 24, is heavily derivative of Wagner and Glazunov and bears little resemblance to his later works. Wagner’s own first symphony (age 19) is reminiscent of Weber, and Glazunov’s (age 15) sounds like Tchaikovsky.

But Shostakovich’s first symphony speaks in his own distinctive voice, juxtaposing the ironic with the romantic, the intimate with the bombastic, and the chromatic with the diatonic. This is the signature sound that we hear throughout his storied career. Where did it come from?
While at the Conservatory, Shostakovich participated in a number of “composers’ circles” that gathered to play chamber music or piano reductions of orchestral works. One such circle focused on the music of Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss; another on Stravinsky, Hindemith and Schoenberg. Also included were “Les Six” (Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, et al.), and works by the composition students themselves. These circles exposed Shostakovich to an exceptionally broad sample of contemporary music, some of which recognizably turns up in his precocious first symphony.

The Symphony follows the standard four-movement layout: fast, scherzo, slow, fast. The first movement Allegretto opens with a muted trumpet call that evokes Stravinsky’s theme for the incensed puppet Petrushka (1911). When elaborated upon by the clarinet, it also resembles the taunting figure of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (1895). Either way, the stage is set for an impudent, sarcastic, perhaps even angry movement.

The main theme is a march stated initially by the clarinet and then by the violins, which is similar to the march from Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges (1919) in its character, tempo, and ambiguous major/minor tonality. The movement’s second theme returns to Petrushka for inspiration through a waltz played by the flute and later trumpet, recalling the ballerina puppet’s dance.

The Allegro scherzo starts with a slapstick race between the lower strings, won by the cellos when the basses fail to finish on time. The word “scherzo” literally means “joke,” and Shostakovich proves a skillful prankster. The clarinet takes the lead once again, whipping headlong into a frantic tear that features the unexpected appearance of a piano, first in a long run, then with the melody. The main influence here may be the Gypsy music Shostakovich heard his parents play when he was a boy. The folk-like trio theme, in turn for pairs of flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, is reminiscent of the folk tunes used by Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring (1913). To enhance its rustic character, Shostakovich instructs the second violins to play on open strings.

After the scherzo’s main theme returns, it is soon joined by the trio theme in a raucous frolic until the proceedings are brought to an abrupt halt by three jarring A-minor chords on the piano. At this point, the mood suddenly shifts from carefree to serious, as if a prank has gone awry with unintended, grave consequences. The orchestra gingerly backs away from the disaster, and the movement closes softly under a cloud.

The Lento begins with a long, heart-wrenching, chromatic lament in the oboe. A solo cello responds, somewhat reminiscent of Schoenberg’s deeply romantic Verklärte Nacht (1899). The full orchestra in turn restates the oboe melody, with a lush countermelody and a throbbing, triplet accompaniment. Layered atop this massive outcry is a six-note descending trumpet-and-snare drum fanfare that foreshadows the finale. The second theme of this movement has dotted rhythms similar to the funeral movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (1804), and is also played by an oboe. The movement closes with a series of resolutions from the harshest of chromatic dissonances into the sweetest of major triads.

The Allegro molto interrupts the peace with a pianissimo snare drum roll that becomes more and more insistent, until it reaches alarming loudness that abruptly stops with a shot, leaving a wake of disturbed confusion. The woodwinds sing a wordless recitative, followed by the celli, as momentum builds toward the finale proper. Here the clarinet takes the lead in a frenetic gallop. The movement’s second theme is initially barely discernible over the cacophony but subsequently is restated softly, as a lullaby. After a truncated development and recapitulation, the music comes to another sudden halt with dead silence. The six-note fanfare from the slow movement is now played by the timpani, ascending instead of descending. In transforming the motif, Shostakovich may have been attempting to “turn that frown upside-down,” to recast it from tragic to hopeful. A solo cello offers an extended meditation on the topic, and the full orchestra restates the second subject with a romantic triplet accompaniment reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. The rest of the orchestra expands on the inverted fanfare, which becomes the basis for an up-tempo, martial coda, which ends with a resounding, tonal boom.

— Peter Stahl

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30 was composed specially for his first concert tour of America in 1909. It was premiered on November 28, 1909 by the New York Symphony with Rachmaninoff at the piano and Walter Damrosch conducting, followed shortly thereafter by a performance with the New York Philharmonic and no less than Gustav Mahler on the podium. If the composer’s intention was to impress the “New World” audiences, critics and fellow musicians with his skills both as composer and performer, he abundantly succeeded.

This work is his most formidably demanding, as well as impressively complex, for piano and orchestra. All five of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra begin with an arresting opening gesture. In the case of the First and Fourth Concertos, the piano bursts onto the scene immediately and grabs the audience’s attention from the first note. The Second Concerto draws the audience in by presenting a series of sorrowful and personal chords in the solo piano, followed by a low tolling “F” in the bass, which gradually builds in volume and intensity before the orchestra arrives to announce the first thematic idea. The Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini features piano and orchestra together in short punctuated gestures with great rhythmic drive and excitement.

However, the Third Concerto is unique in that the piano enters “singing” the opening melody in a most simple and straightforward way, reminiscent of a Schubert piano duet, or vocal work. Rachmaninoff once said “the theme simply wrote itself.” It is rarely noticed that the violins are already anticipating this theme in their accompanying figure, which sets up the piano entrance. This foreshadowing of the theme is representative of Rachmaninoff’s ingenious compositional approach throughout the lengthy work.

Once the piano has had its statement of the theme it is free to unleash Rachmaninoff’s typical fistfuls of notes, or what has been sometimes disparagingly referred to as “note spinning.” The orchestra now sings the theme and piano and orchestra together build to a solo piano cadenza. The transition to the second thematic idea, in B-flat major, again shows great skill at manipulating the materials. The second theme is presented in fragmented form with the piano and orchestra interacting with each other before the piano states the theme in its entirety. This second thematic idea builds to a great romantic climax before the piano is sent scurrying around the keyboard in preparation for the development section. It comes as something of a surprise that the opening of the movement returns almost exactly as it did the first time. But Rachmaninoff quickly diverts by moving down a whole step to C major, then C minor.

The primary goal of the development section seems to be to build up a tremendous climax, both in volume of sound and rhythmic excitement. Rachmaninoff wisely avoided presenting a literal recapitulation, and instead opted to segue directly into an impressive piano cadenza. He wrote two versions of this cadenza; the first version consisted of massive chordal writing, and the second version is more lightweight and has a scherzo quality. Rachmaninoff preferred the second version, but consensus seems evenly divided among pianists as to which is more effective. I have performed both versions, but have chosen the second version for this performance. Vladimir Horowitz, who literally put this piece “on the map,” always said he preferred the second version as it didn’t overwhelm the rest of the movement. He felt that the original cadenza was too big too soon and upstaged the excitement that comes later. At one climatic point the two cadenzas converge and they end the same way, with the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn each stating the opening theme accompanied by the solo piano in sweeping arpeggios.

The recapitulation proper could be said to begin at this moment where the solo instruments of the orchestra usher in the main theme. However, another surprise is in hand, because the opening measures once again enter exactly as they were in the beginning once the piano has completed its improvising on the second theme at the end of the cadenza. The coda is yet again a stroke of genius, as the composer breaks the second theme into fragments as the movement vanishes into thin air. This is the only concerto by Rachmaninoff in which the first movement ends so abruptly and quietly.

One wonders what Rachmaninoff was thinking when he used the title “Intermezzo” for the second movement (Adagio). This movement is so fully developed that it could be a stand-alone composition. The orchestra presents a heart wrenching theme of deep Slavic melancholy. When the piano enters it disrupts with an almost violent chromatic rumination, which functions mostly as a modulatory passage to take us from F-sharp minor to D-flat major. The piano gives three statements of this theme, growing in intensity each time, and in between Rachmaninoff reminds us of the opening theme of the first movement in a very clever disguise. After the third, and most emotionally gripping, statement of the second movement theme Rachmaninoff presents the opening theme of the first movement in a waltz tempo while the piano decorates with dazzling piano writing. It almost appears to be a scherzo movement inserted in the middle of the slow movement, reminiscent of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.

It must be said that the piano writing in this concerto is far more highly developed, if not also more demanding, than it is in the previous two concerti. Indeed, this concerto has the reputation of being the most difficult piano concerto in the entire standard repertoire. However, Rachmaninoff always insisted that he preferred playing the Third over the Second, because he felt it was “more pianistic.” The Third Concerto was dedicated to Joseph Hofmann, who never played the piece. Many have speculated that this was due to the fact that his hands were small. However, Hofmann also made the comment that the piece consisted of short melodies that were always interrupted by difficult passages, and that the piece was more of a fantasy than a concerto and lacked form. Ironically, it is the form of the piece, as well as Rachmaninoff’s ability to integrate themes between all three movements, which is most admired today. This sets the piece apart from his other works for piano and orchestra, for he never attempted to integrate themes between movements in any other work in the genre. After the brief scherzo-waltz episode Rachmaninoff once again reminds us of the melancholy opening theme of the second movement before the piano violently interjects a transition to the finale.

Not content with the structural ingenuity that he already introduced into the form of the first two movements, Rachmaninoff saved his most brilliant and original ideas for the expansive Finale. Rachmaninoff was known to be very sensitive to criticism and when it was pointed out that his works could sometimes “ramble,” he often cut them, sometimes drastically. This finale didn’t escape the same fate as his Second Symphony and Second Piano Sonata, which were extensively revised and coincidentally composed around the same period. Fortunately, he left the score of the Third Concerto itself intact, but took several cuts when he performed (and recorded) the work himself. Therefore, there was no “revised” version put into print. It is the fashion today to play the work as originally composed, without cuts.

The Finale opens with an exciting trumpet call in the piano. The piano writing is at its most complex and demanding in this movement. It requires great speed, endurance, power, delicacy and accuracy. As in the first movement, the second theme is first foreshadowed by a thundering chordal passage in the piano, which ­Rachmaninoff said was “written for elephants!” The theme eventually emerges in a lyrical and expressive manner, which seems hardly related to the disguised version that came first. The central section of the finale is striking. A series of variations on the second theme of the first movement is presented in the distant key of E-flat major. Along with this are not-so-veiled references to the finale’s opening theme as well as the opening theme of the first movement. Thus we see that Rachmaninoff transformed his themes throughout the entire composition as he had never done before. At first glance, or first listen, this finale can seem to wander aimlessly, but on closer inspection we see that it is highly integrated and well organized. The piano writing becomes increasingly daring in this set of variations, and presents a daunting challenge to the soloist. But, it is always pianistic and fits the hands well, assuming one has the stretch needed for certain passages. A short solo piano transitional passage, which reminds us of a benediction, was supposedly inserted when Rachmaninoff got news that his mother had passed away.

The orchestra’s transition back to the main body of the finale is quite symphonic and equally as demanding as the piano writing. Rachmaninoff is not finished with his compositional tricks, and before the final grand statement of the theme, which reminds us of the finale of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, he recycles material from the cadenza in the first movement to whip up a frenzy of excitement. The percussive use of the solo instrument in this section would be cultivated further in the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, and is perhaps the most “modern” Rachmaninoff got in his use of the piano. The final pages of the concerto are predictably effective, and recall the closing of the Second Concerto, replete with the rhythmic gesture that virtually pronounces his name: Rach- man-i-NOFF!

— Daniel Glover