Peter Reit, French Horn
|Shostakovich||Symphony No. 9|
|Strauss||Horn Concerto No. 1|
|Dvořák||Symphony No. 6|
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Greenwich High School Performing Arts Center
Pre-Concert Lectures with Assistant Conductor Joshua Bavaro Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
Symphony No. 9 in E flat, Op. 70
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Young Dmitry Shostakovich exhibited an unusual interest and talent in music, and this was nurtured as much as possible by his parents, both amateur musicians. The family did have financial hardships, but they saw that the boy attended a local music school and was surrounded by serious music performed by them and their friends. Well prepared, he was admitted to the Music Conservatory of St. Petersburg at age thirteen. Gifted in piano as well as composition, he studied both. At age 19 his graduation recital included the challenging, monumental Hammerklavier Piano Sonata of Ludwig van Beethoven.
As well, his composition graduation exercise was his Symphony No. 1, and this became a critical event in his professional life, for one year later, in 1927, the great conductor Bruno Walter, much impressed by the arrival of the immensely talented new composer, conducted the work in Berlin. The following year Leopold Stokowski performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra, followed by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1931. The young composer had achieved international recognition.
Very early influences on the young man were said to be Liszt, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mahler. Their brilliant use of the symphony orchestra’s power and the vast instrumental color and beauty that it offers can be heard in Shostakovich’s music as well. In addition, there is at times a quirky humor in his selection of instruments playing in extremely high or low registers that recalls his Russian compatriot Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).
As described by musicologist Edward Downes in his Guide to Symphonic Music, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 was originally intended to be the last in a group of three symphonies intended to portray the heroic Russian experiences fighting the Nazi invaders during WWII. His Symphony No. 7, Leningrad (1941), the first of the three, concerns the 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. The second, the Symphony No. 8 (1943), “described the suffering and destruction of the war, the turn of the tide after the German debacle at Stalingrad and the westward sweep of Soviet armies as they drove the Germans from their soil. The last was to be a celebration of victory. But the merry Ninth was no such epic affair.”
Indeed, following the powerful, triumphant statements of the No. 7 and No. 8 wartime symphonies, the Symphony No. 9 strikes one as a merry romp, totally different from what Shostakovich had previously announced. The first movement establishes the mood with rhythmic, strongly punctuated themes colored by high piccolo solos and strong trombone statements. However, a contrasting, quiet lyricism in woodwinds and strings in the second movement offers a peaceful change. Brightness returns in the third movement, and this links directly with a pensive slow section, which also serves as a direct link to the finale, introduced by a jaunty, playful solo for bassoon. A breathless race to the conclusion adds even more pleasure to this surprising symphony.
Concerto No.1 in E-flat major for Horn and Orchestra, Opus 11
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Among other significant attributes, Richard Strauss, the German-born composer, conductor and pianist was particularly noted for instrumental music composition of the highest order. His understanding of the technical capabilities and remarkable sonic possibilities of all of the orchestra’s instruments gave him the wherewithal to compose some of our most brilliantly orchestrated, colorful instrumental pieces, in exceptional settings of striking tonal harmony and soaring, charming melody. His father, Franz Joseph Strauss (1822-1905), was principal horn of the Munich Court Opera Orchestra for 42 years. He saw to it that his gifted son Richard, having inherited his father’s instincts, was to be a musician. The fact that Richard was raised in a home filled with the sound of one of the world’s finest horn players frequently practicing was a definite advantage and certainly accounts for the magnificent, soaring passages for horns that we hear in so much of his orchestral writing.
Programmatic tone poems such as Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel, and the operas Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos, illustrate Richard Strauss’s mastery and the influences of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, the original masters of orchestration.
These instrumental insights brought with them unique demands on players, not only in the sense of musicality, but also in purely physical terms. Performers of Strauss’s music must not only possess the innate musical insights to bring forth the beauty and dramatic qualities in the pieces, but must also have the stamina and breath control to see the works through to their conclusion.
Strauss was eighteen when he composed the Horn Concerto No. 1, and its first performance took place in 1885 in Munich with Gustav Leinhos as soloist and Hans von Bülow conducting the Meiningen Orchestra. The work consists of the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast.
The piece opens with the full orchestra playing a fortissimo tonic chord and the horn soloist immediately following with a brief, strong “hunting” fanfare. After an orchestral statement that establishes the work’s character, the soloist takes the leading role, playing a melodious, pleasing melody, rich with the warmth of the French horn’s tone. A bit of virtuosity is also heard, and the movement transitions directly into the slow, lovely middle movement, without a pause.
There is a brief break before the finale, which is characterized by a theme in 6/8 “hunting tempo,” the basis of which is the fanfare taken from the opening of this concerto and transformed here in many ways. A rousing, fast section provides an exciting ending to the concerto.
Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was an “up and coming” composer in 1879. He had achieved local fame in Bohemia in 1873 with a patriotic cantata, but the watershed moment of international recognition occurred in 1878 when Johannes Brahms, after hearing Dvořák’s first set of Slavonic Dances, recommended him to his prestigious publisher Simrock. Brahms was also instrumental in obtaining government grants for the struggling composer.
In 1879, another momentous event took place. Hans Richter, conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, performed Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 with that orchestra, and this resulted in the composer’s being called to the stage in response to a grand ovation. Given Richter’s and the Vienna Philharmonic’s eminent status in the European musical scene, and the successful reception of his piece, Dvořák’s public esteem reached new levels. The next day, Richter asked him to compose a symphony for the Philharmonic’s next season, and Dvořák presented him with the score of the Symphony No. 6 one year later. Richter was delighted with the work, which was dedicated to him, and promised a performance of it in the near future.
That performance was not to be. Following one postponement after another, Dvořák, in 1881, finally gave the first performance, a triumph, with the Prague Philharmonic with his old friend, Adolf Čech, conducting. As the story goes, influential Austrian members of the Vienna Philharmonic were not happy with the amount of exposure the “new” Bohemian composer was getting, and they saw to it that the work was not programmed. The ties between Richter and Dvořák remained strong, however, and he continued to perform the Czech’s pieces in concerts. Richter’s eventual performance of the symphony in London in 1882 resulted in a commission from the Royal Philharmonic for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.
Given the critical acclaim the Symphony No. 6 has received over the years, it is surprising that the work is not heard more frequently. A pity, for this is a work whose rewards grow richer with each hearing; it is an important contribution by the remarkable Bohemian. Sir Donald Tovey, the highly regarded writer and conductor at the turn of the century, referring to the opening theme of the symphony, said, “No man of the world would take this theme so seriously as to make a symphony of it . . . But Dvořák knows what he is talking about, and the world has not yet made him self-conscious. All depends on the singleness, the fullness, and the purity of the emotion; and in works of art, also on the skill to convey it truly. In this symphony Dvořák moves with great mastery and freedom; the scale and proportions are throughout noble . . . and in this case remarkably successful.”
This symphony has the traditional four movements and is basically in a sunny frame of mind, interspersed with occasional strong outbreaks. The first movement, a highly organized sonata form, presents the main subject after a few measures of syncopated accompaniment in violas and horns. A transition, which has its own theme, leads to the second subject, consisting of two themes. The exposition is repeated, happily, for in hearing the themes again, we can more easily identify their reappearances, even when transformed, in the development, recapitulation and coda.
The second movement drew more comment from Tovey. “The Adagio is not difficult to follow, but I know few pieces that improve more upon acquaintance.” The only theme, very nocturnal, is first played by violins, and the movement is taken up with its contrasting improvisations. Writer Michael Steinberg termed this movement “a feast of delicate orchestral invention.”
The Scherzo is a furiant, a whirling Bohemian folk dance juxtaposing 2/4 time against the basic 3/4 time. An idyllic middle section, featuring solo piccolo passages, offers pleasant contrast.
Much has been made of the apparent connection of the final movement to the finale of the Brahms Symphony No. 2 (1877), and indeed, Dvořák’s sound here seems to be influenced by his mentor. This quickly paced music provides a perfect balance for the entire piece, and the presto, with plenty of brass support, provides a rousing conclusion.
– Richard Wolter