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Golden Palace from The Sun Warrior
Eleanor Alberga (1949-)
A British composer, Eleanor Alberga has received commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera Covent Garden among others. With a substantial output ranging from solo instrumental pieces to full-scale symphonic works and operas, her music is performed around the world. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Alberga decided at the age of five to become a concert pianist. Five years later, she was composing works for the piano. Since then, interest in her music across all genres – orchestral, chamber, vocal, as well as works for stage and screen – has accelerated, while her output has continued to grow.
Sun Warrior was commissioned by the Chard Festival of Women in Music and premiered in 1990 by the Chard Festival Women’s Orchestra conducted by Odaline de la Martinez.
Sun Warrior represents the soul seeking enlightenment. In three movements, the piece reflects the journey of the warrior soul. “Golden Palace,” the third movement, portrays the joy of attaining wisdom and enlightenment.
Alberga was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021 for services to British Music.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rachmaninoff was of the first generation of composers, which included Elgar, Strauss, and Stravinsky, to benefit from the introduction of the phonograph and the development of sound recordings. In 1919 Rachmaninoff signed with Edison Records to produce ten sides. Despite the success of the records, Edison, who was deaf as well as opinionated, was dismissive of Rachmaninoff, and considered him a “pounder.” In 1920, Rachmaninoff signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, which proudly advertised Rachmaninoff as one of their prominent recording artists. He continued to record for RCA Victor as it came to be known, for twenty-two years. Rachmaninoff’s discography with RCA was large, comprehensive, and included collaborations with Fritz Kreisler on violin sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert, as well as numerous solo works by Chopin and other composers, and notably performances of his piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. An accomplished conductor, he was invited by Stokowski to direct the recordings of his tone poem Isle of the Dead, Symphony No. 3, and his orchestration of Vocalise.
Rachmaninoff had composed his First Piano Concerto at age 18 while studying at Moscow Conservatory. Modeled on the formal layout and style of the Grieg Concerto, it has found a place in the concert repertoire, but not nearly to the extent as his Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s best known works and those most often programmed by soloists and orchestras.
In 1897, Rachmaninoff experienced a career as well as a personal setback when his First Symphony was given an inadequately rehearsed premiere and received scathing reviews. Given to a maudlin disposition, he fell into a clinical depression and a writer’s block which took him three years to recover. In 1900, he began work on his Second Piano Concerto. It would be apparent from the opening bars that he had found a distinctive voice, one based on the Russian Romantic style and conventional approaches that eschewed any attempt to forge new kinds of tonality or mixed rhythmic devices. Thus, he became a public favorite among contemporary composers of his time, which had difficulty assimilating the complexities of Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky, but none whatsoever with the melodious expressiveness of Rachmaninoff. The work is set in the usual concerto form of three movements featuring solo cadenzas in the second and third movements.
The Second Piano Concerto has found a home in popular culture as well the concert hall. A songlike theme from the third movement would be given a wide audience in the Frank Sinatra hit Full Moon and Empty Arms, and Sinatra would turn to the concerto again for his recordings of I Think of You and Ever and Forever. The concerto has also turned up in films, as early as 1932 in Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo, David Lean’s Brief Encounter from 1945, and William Dieterle’s September Affair of 1950. Had he chosen to do so, Rachmaninoff might have been a hugely successful film composer.
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Prior to the success of this work, Elgar was known regionally as a minor composer, church organist, music dealer, and teacher. The work, which has come to be known best as the Enigma Variations, was his breakthrough piece at the age of 41, given its first performance in 1899 in London under Hans Richter, one of the leading conductors of the time. Subsequent performances throughout Europe and the U.S. served to give Elgar an international reputation.
A great deal has been made over the speculation involving the enigma of the subtitle Enigma Variations. The implication of a theme hidden within the theme, ghosting unheard as such throughout the work, has driven musical observers mad for generations, coming up with wild concoctions such as a recently heard performance of Mozart’s Prague Symphony, Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, a Bach chorale, a British patriotic air – you name it. The “enigma” remains unsolved. The plain fact is that when Elgar returned home from teaching on a fall evening in 1898, having finished his supper, he sat down at the piano and began to improvise. His wife Alice at one point exclaimed, “I rather like that.”
“No, the other one.”
“No, before that.”
“Well,” said Elgar, “I suppose something might be done with it.” The something he did with it was the theme and variations that are used to portray various personality traits of twelve of his friends, each of which are framed by the opening variation, his wife and inspirational guide Alice, and concluding with one of himself – fourteen in all.
Some notable features in this parade of tendencies, a parody in the violins of an awkward flourish from the amateur pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell (Var. II) which seems to anticipate the 12-tone rows of Schoenberg. Ysobel (Var. VI) makes use of a viola maneuver considered difficult for beginners. Ysobel was a pupil of Elgar. Arthur Troyte Griffith (Var. VII) and the composer are caught in a raging thunderstorm. Considered the heart of the piece, Nimrod (Var. IX) is named for Augustus J. Jaeger, music editor for Elgar’s publisher Novello and close personal friend and professional confidant. Nimrod is so noble and hymnlike that it has assumed a life of its own and is often performed at memorials and commemorations. Dora Penny – Dorabella (Var. X). Portrayed with gentle kindness with a mild stutter. George Robertson Sinclair – (Var. XI). Organist of Hereford Cathedral is portrayed through his rambunctious bulldog Dan’s uninhibited splashing in the river that ran along the Elgar property. Basil George Nevison – (Var. XII) a frequent chamber music collaborator on the cello. A genuine enigma is the identity of the female to whom (Var. XIII) *** is dedicated. Three possibilities, a current friend who is away on a sea voyage, or a former fiancé who sailed away to settle in New Zealand in 1884 and yet another early female friend who also sailed away to a far-off land. A distant tremolo on the timpani suggests the ship’s engines heard from afar, and a theme from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is given by the clarinet. The Finale (Var. XIV) EDU is Elgar himself, using the orchestra at full cry. Elgar’s original Finale was 96 bars shorter than the lengthened version heard after the premiere. In addition to the expansion, Elgar added a supporting organ part to the coda for a truly grand effect. Unfortunately, it is rarely used.
In 1968, a ballet Enigma Variations by Frederick Ashton was produced by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, London. For this, the original shorter Finale was restored by conductor John Lanchbery and is the only instance in which the shorter version has been heard since the premiere. The ballet portrays a gathering of Elgar’s friends waiting to learn whether or not Richter will lead the premiere. The Finale, an ensemble number for the full cast celebrates the news that Richter has agreed. At the final bar a group picture is taken of the assemblage lit by flash powder as used by photographers during the period.
And it must surely be Elgar who is having the last laugh from beyond the grave on the musical know-it-alls endlessly pondering the “enigma” of the Enigma Variations.
– Richard Schneider