Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, Belá Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Khatia Buniatishvili.
The Late Romantic character of Richard Strauss’ writing is perfect for depicting the legendary seducer Don Juan. Our Principal Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, conducts Strauss’ glowing tone poem, and brilliant Georgian virtuoso Khatia Buniatishvili performs Tchaikovsky’s equally radiant first piano concerto. In addition, the whole orchestra gets the opportunity to shine in Bartók’s inventive and brilliant Concerto for Orchestra, where colours glitter, harmonies glow, and pairs of instruments dance and play with one another.
At the end of the 19th century, Richard Strauss (1864−1949) perfected the tone poem. Using the most modern and intricate orchestration of his time, he lent evocative musical expression to narratives, fantasies and ideas. At the same time, Strauss created space for a more complex and ambigious character portrait than one might at first expect. The composer’s starting point was not the old stories about Don Juan from the Renaissance, but Nikolaus Lenaus’ unfinished Don Juan’s End from 1844, where the seducer falls into a depression over never finding the ideal woman, and ends up lonely, melancholy and suicidal. In Don Juan, Strauss uses the orchestra with a richly melodic and harmonic palate. Here, we can hear the sounds of his powers of seduction and insatiable pursuit of women, but also his doubt and dissatisfaction, and in the end, his desperation and depression. Don Juan was first performed in Weimar in 1899.
When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840−1893) showed his first piano concerto to Nikolai Rubenstein in 1874, the famous pianist wasn’t particularly impressed. He scolded Tchaikovsky and issued him a list of great and small changes which were to be carried out within a certain date in order for Rubenstein to perform the work at all. Tchaikovsky was insulted and replied “I will not change a single note”. Still, he did change a few small details, but kept most of the material from the first version. When the concerto was first performed in Boston in 1875, with Hans von Bülow as the soloist, it was received with wild applause, its place in the concert repertoire well assured.
The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the most recognisable and effective in music, with three powerful horn motives and orchestral explosions before the pianist thunders off some colossal chords, which accompany the gorgeous melody of the strings. Although a lot of explosive material is fired off in the first bars of the concerto, the master ballet composer still has some timeless melodies up his sleeve, both in the first and the second movements, the latter featuring the delicate flute theme. After the restrained second movement, Tchaikovsky again pulls out all the stops, firing up an allegro con fuoco as a finale, with a folklore-inspired, galloping motive drawing it all together, accompanied by a broad, deeply Romantic theme.
There are folklore elements also in Belá Bartók’s (1881−1945) Concerto for Orchestra. The Hungarian folk soul is never far away in Bartók’s music, and he constantly combines the classical tradition and innovative new writing with elements from folk music, often peppered with unusual scale types and chord structures, coloured with the most varied and sophisticated orchestration you can imagine. His Concerto for Orchestra was one of the very last works Bartók completed before his death in 1945. The work was first performed in Boston in 1944.
His Concerto for Orchestra consists of five movements, and many have pointed out that its form is like a palindrome. On each side of the slow and slightly sinister third movement there is a cheerful scherzo, and these two are again flanked by two weighty outer movements with a high intensity and tempo. The concerto is so rich in content that it is difficult to pick out individual highlights or typical characteristics. The composer’s characteristic “night music” in the third movement, introduced right at the beginning of the first movement, is possibly one of them, however. Here he creates a mood with many chromatic half steps in combination with open fourths, damped strings, slow tempi, glissando effects and a dark character.
The second movement is even more famous. In the silence following the drama of the first movement, a snare drum kicks off a provocative rhythm which invites us to join the “Game of Pairs”. The first pair consists of the bassoons. In fixed sixth intervals they coil through the composer’s humourous, melodic phrasing. Then the oboes take over, and the sixths are exchanged with thirds, before the clarinets, flutes and trumpets follow in turn. The melodies are led in parallel in new intervals for each pair. They are constantly followed by a delicate accompaniment, where Bartók demonstrates his rich repertoire of effects, playing techniques and nuances.
Both Strauss’ Don Juan and Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto have been significant works in the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s repertoire through a hundred years. Both works were performed in the orchestra’s first season in 1919/20 and therafter more than a dozen times in the course of the first decade. Together with Wagner, Svendsen and Grieg, as well as classical composers Beethoven and Mozart, Tchaikovsky was one of the composers whose music was most often performed in the first opening season; as many as fourteen different works by Tchaikovsky were played, some of them multiple times. The Oslo Philharmonic achieved international recognition through its recordings of Tchaikovsky’s music in the 1980’s.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)Read more
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