Dvořák's Slavonic DancesArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
- Pas seul
- Andante sostenuto
- Allegro scherzando
- Inon Barnatan, piano
- No. 1 in C major: Presto
- No. 2 in E minor: Allegretto scherzando
- No. 3 in A-flat major: Poco allegro
- No. 4 in F major: Tempo di menuetto
- No. 5 in A major: Allegro vivace
- No. 6 in D major: Allegretto scherzando
- No. 7 in C minor: Allegro assai
- No. 8 in G minor: Presto
THE CONCERT CONVERSATION, conducted one hour before each performance, will be presented by Jonathan Greeney, Timpanist for the Oregon Symphony, and Christa Wessel, host for the stations of All Classical FM. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit the web site allclassical.org to watch the video on demand.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Ballet Music from Idomeneo, K. 367
Composer: Born Salzburg, January 27, 1756; died, Vienna, December 5, 1791.
Work composed: Munich, December 1780 - January 1781
World premiere: Munich, January 29, 1781
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.
Estimated duration: 21 minutes
"Till now I've been busy with those cursed dances – Laus Deo – I have survived it all." So wrote Mozart to his father in 1780, shortly before the Munich premiere of his opera, Idomeneo. Then as now, the sheer logistics of opera production guaranteed all sorts of esthetic nightmares, personnel conflicts and frantic last minute revisions. Idomeneo was composed for the Carnival season in Munich to be performed three times, utilizing musicians from the legendary Manheim Orchestra, which was sponsored by the Elector of Munich. This was the orchestra whose virtuosity in crescendi and diminuendi set the standard of the day in classical style. Mozart evidently had no trouble in pleasing the Elector, who was delighted with the music.
But it turns out that the ballet numbers reveal a confusing story. The choreographer and Munich ballet master, a Mr. Jean-Pierre Le Grand ("Mr. Big", as it translates), was also the principal dancer and inclined to keep the most dramatic numbers for himself. In the score one can see indications as to which dancer was to dance which part. But it is unfortunately impossible to tell at this distance which dances actually were performed. The assumption is that M. Le-Grand's dramatic Pas Seul (solo dance) in D concluded the ballet. The score is a blur of revisions at this point, and nothing short of the discovery of Google emails from 1780 would probably bring any definitive sense of closure to the question.
So it remains possible that the four dances in the K.367 Suite are not in the order Mozart expected, but the way they are arranged today makes sense for a modern listener. The Chaconne has touches of the drama that we find in the Haffner Symphony, plus in its quieter sections some of the gentler string charm of the Symphony No. 29. With its Larghetto and subsequent Allegro, the Chaconne almost amounts to a mini symphony. M. Le Grand's dramatic solo dance comes next in order, with its "Manheim" crescendi suggestive of Mozart's overture to the opera.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op.22
Composer: Born Paris, October 9, 1835; died, Algiers, Algeria, December 16, 1921.
Work composed: April-May,1868
World premiere: May 13, 1868, in Paris
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: December, 1994; Yoel Levi, conducting; André Watts, piano.
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, crash cymbals, strings.
Estimated duration: 23 minutes
The Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto, the saying goes, "Begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach." In between lie some riddles wrapped in enigmas. The great puzzle of Saint-Saëns' career, which lasted until 1921, is that the emotional reserve which attracted him to the lucidity of Bach and Mozart in the first place never seemed fully to blossom with the romantic era. So we find in Saint-Saëns over the years an increasing interest in new structures, powerful instruments, beautiful effects (think of the "Organ Symphony"), but, unlike Mozart, no perceived flowering of the romantic heart and few adventures in harmony. The composer was aware of this criticism and rather defensively suggested that to be concerned with anything beyond a pretty arrangement of notes and chords was to misunderstand music. That probably didn't sound terribly convincing even in 1868, when this concerto was written, and certainly doesn't today. But Saint-Saëns seemed to mean it. Nothing he wrote is much harder to listen to than Mendelssohn, whom he outlived by 75 years.
But Saint-Saëns, himself, was an important piano virtuoso and knew how to keep an audience interested, even if he didn't often move them spiritually. The 19th century is littered with the remains of predictable-sounding display concertos. This piece is anything but.
The first movement begins as though to set out with a dignified Bach Partita. Moments later, however, we find the pianist thundering forth in octaves, as if prefiguring Busoni. The orchestra kicks in with short marcato bursts, which remind one of Lalo. Then comes a Chopinesque lyrical section, which serves as the only slow music in the piece. And gradually, as with Rachmaninoff, one notices that the piano leads the orchestra into what it does, so that there is none of the tedious imitation between piano and orchestra, which tends to bore the listener with two of everything in a traditional concerto. Indeed, most of the orchestral utterances in this concerto represent the last half of a phrase stated by the piano. On its own, the orchestra sets out very little. But Saint-Saëns' passagework has a way of rolling forward kinetically. At times the sheer energy up and down the keyboard seems to sweep in and strafe the listener. Rachmaninoff doubtless learned a lot from it. This is a concerto with no static moments.
The Allegro scherzando, which follows the opening Andante, encounters Saint-Saëns in a simple but bumptious "Carnival of the Animals" mood. It opens with rollicking kettledrums. The piano soon finds itself in a deft sylph-like interplay with the winds and strings, foreshadowing Litolff. As ever, the piano proposes, and the orchestra disposes, in this case with a dotted-rhythm circusy oompah which might suggest to listeners a lumbering animal capable of skipping down the street.
In the finale, Saint-Saëns becomes a whirling dervish in a Presto of unforgettable energy. The main theme has the odd feature to it of sounding like music being played backwards at high speed. Indeed, there is a sort of polite frenzy to the entire movement. The piano and the orchestra both seem to chase their tails revving up for this Rondo, which eventually concludes in a satisfying blur – with chords so choppy from the orchestra that they might be mistaken for the sound of dogs sneezing!
ANTONÍN LEOPOLD DVOŘÁK
Slavonic Dances, Op.46
Composer: Born September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, near Prague; died May 1, 1904, Prague.
Work composed: March,1878
World premiere: Prague, May 1878; November 1878. Boston, 1879. (Individual Dances)
First Oregon Symphony complete performance
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, two trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, strings.
Estimated duration: 40 minutes
Experiencing in concert the complete set of Dvořák Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, is one of the great and simple joys of symphonic music. Nowhere else before the turn-of-the century marches of Sir Edward Elgar do we encounter this much sheer lift, zest, and syncopated percussive power – and, you might say – the sophisticated permission to enjoy it. The Brahms Hungarian Dances come close in spirit, but are based on actual folk melodies and are more conservatively orchestrated. Taking them as his model, Dvořák unleashes quite literally a Slavonic "fury" with completely original themes so steeped in his national tradition that they might as well be of folk origin.
The work began as a set of piano pieces, four-hands, but quickly made its mark in full orchestration, bringing fame to Dvořák and wealth to Simrock, his publisher, from the four-hand royalties. Dvořák had reason to be grateful to his friend Brahms for the entree, but it would not be hard to argue that the music itself equals or even surpasses Brahms' in quality.
The dances bear the inviting names of Furiant, Dumka and Polka, as well as the rather less manageable ones (to Anglo-Saxon ears) of Sousedska and Skocna. The bookends of the set, Dances No. 1 and 8, are the most aggressive and exciting – the ones you will run into most often as encores. The opening C major blast from No. 1 is one of the few moments in music that can add excitement to a concert which has supposedly just come to a blazing close. It features a heavy syncopated bass-drum pulse of such vitality as nearly to revive the dead. Number 8 is a close second, with its barking g-minor timpani.
Not all is aggression. No. 2 is all about charm. No. 3 has a lovely promenade quality. No. 4 conveys a waltz-like feeling of melancholy, and if you are fortunate to hear a Czech brass section play it, a bit of small town funeral-band whine. No. 5 is what might be called "zippy," not overwhelmingly loud but almost a cymbal concerto. No. 6 begins as the most urban, genteel and proper of the batch, a bit of the Prague boulevardier to it. But even it works itself up to a real trombone whine and punches its way home. No. 7 is all about speeding up and slowing down, setting the stage for the relentless final push of No. 8 in G minor.
Sometimes, as modern design teaches us, a simple curve is the most complex experience of all. The genius of the Dvořák Slavonic Dances is that their simplicity belies their staying power. 135 years after their composition, they are as fresh as they day they were composed.
© 2012 Steven Kruger
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
Mozart-Ballet Music from Idomeneo
Rinaldo Alessandrini-Norwegian National Opera Orchestra
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto # 2
Charles Dutoit-Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Decca 443865 OR
Sakari Oramo-City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
George Szell-Cleveland Orchestra
Sony Classical 89845 OR
Charles Mackerras-Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
These selected recordings are available at Classical Millennium, located at 3144 E. Burnside in Portland.