Archive pour la catégorie ‘Getting to know a work’

Marriage of Figaro’s premiere

1 May 2015

It was on this exact day, in 1786,  that Mozart’s popular opera The Marriage of Figaro was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The opera’s libretto is based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro. Although it was at first banned in Vienna because of its licentiousness, Mozart’s librettist Da Ponte (who also acted as librettist for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte) managed to get official approval.

Mozart himself directed the first two performances, conducting seated at the keyboard, the custom of the day. The audience reacted very positevely to the opera. On the first night five numbers got encored, seven a week later. Joseph Haydn loved the work so much that he wrote a friend he heard it in his dreams.

Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote a preface to the first published version of the libretto, in which he boldly claimed that he and Mozart had created a new form of music drama:

“In spite … of every effort … to be brief, the opera will not be one of the shortest to have appeared on our stage, for which we hope sufficient excuse will be found in the variety of threads from which the action of this play [i.e. Beaumarchais’s] is woven, the vastness and grandeur of the same, the multiplicity of the musical numbers that had to be made in order not to leave the actors too long unemployed, to diminish the vexation and monotony of long recitatives, and to express with varied colours the various emotions that occur, but above all in our desire to offer as it were a new kind of spectacle to a public of so refined a taste and understanding.”

Johannes Brahms said, “In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”

The famous overture to the opera was written two days before the premiere and, contrary to most, doesn’t include any reference to the arias to be sung. It now stands on its own and is often performed by orchestras. From the get go, it gives the listener the impression that he is about to encounter multiple unforeseen developments. Excerpts from it were used in the films Trading Places in 1983 and Last Action Hero in 1993.

You can listen to several arias of the opera, sung by Lyne Fortin, here…

The Brandenburgh Concertos

24 March 2015

It was Bach’s birthday just a couple of days ago (he was born on March 21, 1685) and it is apparently on this day that in 1721, he completed his famous dédicace (in French, no less) of what was going to become the Brandenburgh Concertos.

In 1719, Christian Ludwig,  Margrave of Brandenburg, stopped in Cöthen and met Johann Sebastian Bach. He was completely taken with what he heard and commissioned a set of pieces, a request he apparently forgot just as quickly as he thought about it. Nevertheless, Bach will complete a couple years after his Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments (“Six Concertos With several Instruments”). Bach left a brief but telling account of their origin in his dedication, handwritten in somewhat obsequious French, that could be translated as such:

“Since I had a few years ago, the good luck of being heard by Your Royal Highness, by virtue of his command, & that I observed then, that He took some pleasure in the small talents that Heaven gave me for Music, & that in taking leave of Your Royal Highness, He wished to make me the honor of ordering to send Him some pieces of my Composition: I therefore according to his very gracious orders, took the liberty of giving my very-humble respects to Your Royal Highness, by the present Concertos, which I have arranged for several Instruments; praying Him very-humbly to not want to judge their imperfection, according to the severity of fine and delicate taste, that everyone knows that He has for musical pieces …”

It seems that the Margrave never bothered to perform these fabulous works, and perhaps never even examined the score, if one is to believe the mint condition of the original. Maybe they were just too difficult for the musicians the Margrave would have on had, as explains Joshua Rifkin: “As would happen so often in his life, Bach’s genius shot so far above the capabilities of ordinary musicians that his greatness was veiled in silence.” Indeed, the Brandenburgs remained unknown for a half-dozen generations until they were finally published in 1850 in commemoration of the centenary of Bach’s death. Their popularity would have to wait nearly another century when the music was first performed on disc. Since then, the Brandenburgs may have become Bach’s most famous works,

You can listen to them, as performed by Ensemble Caprice, here…


Für Elise

13 January 2015

Even if you have never taken one piano lesson in your life, you most probably know Beethoven’s famous – sometimes infamous – Für Elise.

This short piano piece, one of Beethoven’s bagatelles, was written in 181o. It is not certain who “Elise” was, but it has been suggested that the original work may have been named “Für Therese,” for one of the two Thereses in his life—Therese von Brunswick, the woman he fell in love with, and Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, who refused his marriage proposal in 1810—and that title was simply incorrectly transcribed when the work was published in 1865.

The piece is in rondo form, based on a refrain, the “A” section, that alternates with a “B” section and a “C” section, resulting in an A-B-A-C-A structure. The “A” section is the one that is well known, while the “B” section is technically more difficult. Listen carefully in this section to hear the right hand playing a figure of repeated thirty-second notes (so named because thirty-two of these equal one whole note!). The “C” section is built around repeated notes in the left hand. Near the end of this section, you will also hear several arpeggios (when the notes of a chord are played in sequence over several octaves) and a chromatic descending scale (when all the keys on the piano, whether black or white, are played in sequence). 

The “Archduke” Trio

29 July 2014

The Trio opus 97 was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria (hence its nickname), the youngest son of emperor Leopold II of Austria. Rudolph had studied with Beethoven and remained his friend and a loyal protector. The trio may have been composed in 1811, but was premiered on April 11, 1814, 200 years ago. Violonist Ignaz Shuppanzigh, cellist Joseph Linke and Beethoven himself at the piano (in one of his last public appearances, his deafness being almost complete at that time) were the performers. 

The “Archduke” trio is not only an indisputable masterwork of the piano trio literature, but one of Beethoven’s finest lyrical achievements. The composer opted for a string texture that is very rich (which includes sustained double-stops in the violin and exquisite pizzicato passages) and achieved an extraordinary balance between piano and strings, the latter often serving as inner voices. The result is so superbly blended sonority wise that you often have the impression of dealing with a string quartet.

You can learn more about the work and listen to it (or download it) here, as performed by the Gryphon Trio… 


Beethoven and Nature

22 July 2014

Summer is here and we may be more sensitive to the beauties of Nature. Beethoven was certainly a fan. More than anything, he loved to walk in the country, soaking up nature’s beauty. His valet, Michael Krenn, recalled that he could roam through the fields from sunup to sundown, notebook in hand, waving his arms, completely carried away by inspiration. It was almost inevitable that Beethoven would choose to integrate nature into one of his symphonies. “I love a tree more than a man; woods, trees and rocks give man the response he needs,” he wrote. Influenced by both social movements and historical events, Beethoven protested against the gradual disappearance of Vienna’s forests, which were helpless against the attacks of urbanization.

Rather than a realistic portrait of country scenes, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was, rather, a depiction of the essence of nature. Even though we hear birdsong and shepherds’ song, and even if we believe we are hearing a gurgling stream, we must be guided by what he famously noted on the score: “The Pastoral Symphony, Recollections of Country Life, more the expression of feeling than painting.”

Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s first biographers, recounts how, during a walk with Beethoven in the grassy valley in Heiligenstadt, the composer asked Schindler if he could hear a yellowhammer singing among the birds. The composer then said: “It was here that I composed the ‘Scene at the Brook’ (the symphony’s second movement), and the yellowhammers up there, the quails, the nightingales, and the cuckoos composed along with me.”

You can listen to the Sixth Symphony as performed by the OSM under Kent Nagano here…

If you like to compare versions, you can also listen to the Orchestre de la Francophonie under Jean-Philippe Tremblay

Tristan und Isolde

25 July 2013

Wagner’ s Tristan und Isolde (premiered in Munich in 1865) is one of the most revolutionary musical scores ever created. To convince oneself, one needs only to think about its highly advanced chromatic harmony, its almost exclusive portrayal of psychological states rather than external events, and the sheer intensity of the emotions depicted in the music. The love Tristan and Isolde feel for each other is so painfully intense, so all-consuming, boundless and unbearable, that release can be found only in death. The Prelude and Liebestod (Love-death) constitute the opening and closing pages of the opera. As it happens, they also embrace the psychological synthesis of the four-hour work, and Wagner himself sanctioned their linkage for use as a concert number.

In a program note for the Prelude, Wagner explained its meaning as follows: “In one long succession of linked phrases, [the composer has] let that insatiable longing swell forth from the first, timid avowal to … the most powerful effort to find the breach that will open out the path into the sea of love’s endless delight.” The fulfillment of this agonizing, aching love is achieved in the Liebestod. Isolde, lost to reality, imagines a glow emanating from the lifeless body of her beloved Tristan, whom she holds in her arms while singing her great paean of love.

You can listen to those pages on the Betrayals album, with the Orchestre de la Francophonie under Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s direction.

4’33” “performed” this weekend in Montreal

12 November 2012

John Cage would have been 100 years old this year, had it possessed the same boundless energy Elliot Carter seemingly had. He was a true iconoclast, featuring music that would change every time it was performed, works for prepared piano (pins, rubbers, metal pieces being inserted in the instrument), but also, the famous – or shall we say infamous – 4’33”, performed on Saturday night by another experimentalist, former McGill composer-conductor Alcides Lanza

Written in 1952 for any instrument or combination of instruments, 4’33” is habitually performed on the piano. For 4 minutes and 33 seconds, as the title suggests, the pianist sits at the piano intently and does not play. The music here doesn’t come from the piano itself but from the audience: squeaks, coughs, the sound from the heating/cooling system, whispers (or contained laughter) from audience members. Quite obviously, a different story unfolds everytime the piece is “performed.”

There is even a score to this “controled silence” and, yes, the piece is written in three movements, like a lot of old-fashioned sonatas. Most performers will close the lid of the piano at the end of each movement, to mark time, so to speak.

Quite obviously, other works were performed that evening, which also included the presentation of the film 19 Questions, which included photos of Cage, his scores, his mushrooms (the composer was an amateur mycologist), while you heard Cage in a 1971 interview withLanza.

Saint-Saëns and the cello

9 October 2012

He would have been 177 years old on this day. Saint-Saëns held the cello in high regard and composed generously for it: two sonatas, two concertos, several short pieces with organ accompaniment, and of course, “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals.

In keeping with this composer’s reputation for upholding the traditional Gallic qualities of balance and proportion, his Cello Concerto No. 1 overcomes the age-old problem of how to keep the low-pitched, darkly sonorous sound of the cello audible against the strength of a full orchestra behind it. So successful was Saint-Saëns in this regard that there is scarcely a passage in the entire concerto where the soloist cannot easily be heard. Furthermore, the concerto is highly gratifying for cellists. It is idiomatically written, exploits the full range of the instrument, and provides passages of both soaring lyricism and exuberant virtuosity. Its large number of stirring, memorable themes also helps keep it in the forefront of the cellist’s solo repertory.

This concerto is part of young cellist Stéphane Tétreault’s debut album with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, already saluted by critics. Here is the young master of the instrument, in “The Swan,” accompanied  by harpist Valérie Milot, at the recent season launch.


Alain Lefèvre with the OSL on Wednesday

24 September 2012

Under music director Alain Trudel’s direction, the Orchestre symphonique de Laval opens its 28th season on Wednesday with a European folklore program, featuring pianist Alain Lefèvre in Ravel’s Concerto in G. “For me, the music of a concerto, should be light and brilliant, and not aim for depth or dramatic effects,” explained the composer.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra invited several important composers to write compositions for its fiftieth anniversary season of 1930-31, among them Stravinsky, Roussel, Honegger and Prokofiev. Ravel too was asked for a work, and he suggested a piano concerto. Nevertheless, the dedication did not go to the Boston Symphony after all, but to the composer’s favourite pianist, Marguerite Long. The first performance was given in Paris by the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 14, 1932. Ravel had originally intended to play the piano part himself, but because of declining health, he granted the solo role to Marguerite Long, while he conducted.

The concerto is infused with music from the Basque Country and Spain, as well as several jazz idioms, reminiscent of Gershwin’s Concerto in F. This comes as no surprise since both composers had established a relationship around that time.

Program also includes : Zoltán Kodaly Dances of Galanta and Antonin Dvořák’s Eight SymphonyFor more information…

Liszt with the score

26 May 2012

Of course, listening to a musical work is fine enough, but when you can read the composer’s intents on the score and thus better understand the choices the performer made when addressing them, it is even better. Here is an incursion into the wonderful world of Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage, “Switzerland,” with pianiste André Laplante  (you can download the album here after), score in hand, so to speak.