François Leleux conducts music by Johannes Brahms and Claude Debussy.
France and Germany have often been on opposite sides in both world- and cultural history. In his Haydn Variations, Brahms demonstrates an impressive use of counterpoint and “German” form, while in Nocturnes, Debussy evokes his finest colours, conjuring up nocturnal images. At the same time, both parts were capable of surprising. In Academic Festival Overture, the usually serious Brahms takes a humorous view of university life. And you might be surprised to hear Debussy's unknown Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra, here play-directed by François Leleux, playing the cor anglais.
A sense of humour was not the German composer Johannes Brahms' (1833−1897) most well-known trait, but when the University of Breslau wished to bestow an honorary doctorate on him, demanding that Brahms compose a symphony for them in return, he responded by writing a work which he himself described as “a noisy potpourri of students' drinking songs”. Brahms' academic jest was well received when the work saw its world premiere at the university in 1881, and since then the ironic juxtaposition of laddish drinking songs and serious symphonic art has been appreciated by many.
Despite this, Brahms was more known for his mastery of complex counterpoint and symphonic form than for his witticisms. Variations on a Theme by Haydndemonstrates his ability to twist and turn a simple melodic premise, transforming it into the richest and most fascinating of musical structures. Although his sense of humour might be said to be somewhat absent here, it is a comical paradox that the theme was possibly not actually written by Haydn. In fact, no one is completely sure who has composed the melody, which is often referred to as St. Anthony's Chorale, even though it might have been used by Ignaz Pleyel early in the 1800s. In any case, Brahms' set of variations has made the melody famous, and the work has been often performed since its first premiere in Vienna in 1873.
While Brahms would develop a melodic motif in every possible direction, French composer Claude Debussy (1862−1918) was more concerned with how the sound was capable of “changing colour”, thereby evoking a completely different mood in the orchestra. In the same way that the Impressionists would paint the same subject in many different lights, Debussy “painted” using the same melodic elements while altering the environment of sound. In Nocturnes, inspired by James Whistler's paintings of the same name, three of his most colourful impressions come to light: Nuages (Clouds), Fȇtes (Celebrations), and Sirènes (Sirens). In the final movement one can hear the feather-light temptresses singing their lethal song of seduction in the form of a wordless female choir which blends with the orchestra. Nocturnes was first performed in Paris in 1900 and was yet another example of Debussy's role in spearheading the French art of composition into a new century.
Far less known than Debussy's Nocturnes is his Rhapsodie, originally written for bass saxophone and orchestra, but here performed in a version for cor anglais and orchestra. The work is composed in the same “impressionistic” spirit as Nocturnes, but with an unfamiliar Spanish or even “Oriental” flair. The version for cor anglais might well be as fitting as the original, for Debussy is believed not to have liked or even known much about the saxophone as an instrument. It is believed that, for this reason, it took him eleven years to complete the work. It finally received its world premiere in 1919, and is considered to be a rare pearl among the composer's compositions.
(In photo: Francois Leleux, Photo: Uwe Arens, Sony Classical; Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)