Rachmaninoff Nordheim Shostakovich Mäkelä
Norwegian Melancholy and Russian Gunpowder
Norwegian Melancholy and Russian Gunpowder
Klaus Mäkelä conducts Norwegian and Russian music.
Klaus Mäkelä, our Principal Conductor designate, conducts Shostakovich’s explosive Symphony No. 5, written with a knife against the composer’s throat and Stalin at his heels. More gunpowder is contained in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where Paganini’s virtuosity is transposed from strings to piano keys, here in Kirill Gerstein’s hands. We also present Ole Bull − Norway’s very own Paganini − and his beautiful La Mélancolie, in Halvorsen’s tasteful arrangement, as well as Arne Nordheim’s Epitaffio − two works which, although they are vastly different, both turn our gaze towards the past and all things transient.
Arne Nordheim is often described as a misunderstood composer of esoteric music, which neither musicians nor conductors, critics nor the general public have ever grasped, but in reality the reception of his music has been far more nuanced and multi-faceted than that. Epitaffio was Nordheim’s definitive breakthrough work. It was first performed in Stockholm and Copenhagen in 1964 − the concerts being described as great successes in the Nordic media. In January 1965, then Principal Conductor Herbert Blomstedt brought the work to Oslo. Blomstedt and the Oslo Philharmonic performed the work as many as six times in the course of the 1960’s, and rather than reacting negatively, audiences and critics were interested and curious about Nordheim’s new forms of expression. In addition to Epitaffio, his Aftonland and Canzona per orchestra were performed by the Oslo Philharmonic in the 1960’s. Since then, Nordheim has become a significant composer for the orchestra, which has performed the world premieres of many of his works.
Ole Bull (1810−1880) was first and foremost known during his time as a world-renowned violin virtuoso and a trailblazer for Norwegian National Romanticism. Bull was also a great influence on the young Edvard Grieg. Next to his performing career, Bull was also a composer, but although he wrote a number of compositions, only two have stood the test of time − the memorable tones of The Herdgirl’s Sunday and In Lonely Hours. Bull made notes of the melody to In Lonely Hours for the first time around 1850. Since then, he and others have made several arrangements of the beautiful melody − the best known arguably being Johan Halvorsen’s version for string orchestra from 1914, where the melody was rebaptised to the more international La Mélancolie.
Another violin virtuoso of the 19th century − and perhaps the greatest one of all time − was Niccolo Paganini (1782−1840). Paganini never made his name as a composer, but some of his works are still often performed. The most famous of these is probably the iconic and devilishly difficult collection of 24 caprices for solo violin, where especially the final one has inspired many composers to write new works on the same theme. One of these was Sergei Rachmaninov (1873−1943), who composed the variation work Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, with as many as 24 variations over the composer’s theme. The rhapsody is reminiscent of a fully formed piano concerto in its scope and expression, and puts the piano soloist to the test on the same level of difficulty which Paganini posed to violinists. The work was first performed in 1934 in Baltimore, Maryland, and has since counted among the composer’s most often performed compositions.
While Rachmaninov fled Russia after the revolution and settled in the United States, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906−1975) chose to stay in his homeland. His ambivalent relationship with the regime was to colour everything he produced as a composer, especially following Stalin’s rise to power. Shostakovich received death threats and his music was criticised in the party newspaper Pravda (Truth) in 1936 for being formalistic, chaotic and irreconcilable with party political ideals. Out of fear for his own life − many of Shostakovich’s artist friends had simply “disappeared” − he withdrew his modern and challenging Symphony No. 4 before its world premiere. Instead he composed a new symphony − his fifth − to which he added the caption “a Soviet artist’s answer to a well-deserved critique”. The work would prove to be Shostakovich’s salvation − a masterpiece where he achieved the perfect balance between artistic creation and respect for the Stalinists’ unreasonable demands for the form, content and purpose of art.
The work opens with a violently energetic movement, which, after an intense battle, ends in an odd, monstrous march − possibly a satirical stab at the party leader. Satire, irony and humour can also be found in the distorted waltz of the mocking second movement. The real emotional core of the symphony is nevertheless to be found in the third movement. Trumpets, marches, machine gun percussion and satire are gone, and what remains is a rich tapestry of strings, divided into nine groups, and solistic woodwinds who play long, elegiac melodies − as beautiful as Tchaikovsky’s, but devoid of Romantic beautification. This is realism at its most bitterly beautiful. There is little reason to doubt the stories from the world premiere in Leningrad in 1937, where an oppressed and hungry Russian audience cried itself through the movement. The work ends with yet another Stalinistic march, but the triumph here is assumed, and much is written between the lines. It is said that after the premiere in Leningrad, the audience applauded for 40 minutes − for Stalin, but arguably mostly for the composer.
When Arne Nordheim (1931−2010) entered Norwegian cultural life officially, in the 1950s and 60s, he sparked a huge debate, and soon became the foremost representative for Norwegian Modernism. Nordheim experimented with electronic music already in the 1950s, but it was particularly during the 1960s that he became a pioneer of electro acoustic music, both in his own country and internationally. Nordheim’s great breakthrough was Epitaffio for orchestra and tape, composed in 1963. The title means epitaph and has its starting point in the poem Ed è sùbito sera (And suddenly, it’s evening) by Salvatore Quasimodo.
Existential themes of life, death and impermanence reoccur constantly throughout Nordheim’s body of work, and the contrast between being and non-being, between light and darkness, are central themes also in Epitaffio. Here, Nordheim creates large sound textures − using a technique where the music is not principally driven by melodic ideas or harmonic turns, but where great plains of contrasting sounds are juxtaposed with one another. The same technique was used by Polish composers such as Penderecki and Lutoslawski. The connection to Poland was a significant one for Nordheim − the composer spent long periods of the 1960s and 70s in a studio in Warsaw, where the best equipment for investigating electro acoustical sound was to be found.
Epitaffio was first performed in Stockholm in 1964, and is one of Nordheim’s best-known works.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Klaus Mäkelä: Photo: Charlotte Wiig)
What is played
- Ole Bull/Johan Halvorsen
- Sergej Rachmaninoff
- Arne Nordheim
- Dmitri Shostakovich