We meet spring with some of the most passionate music ever written.
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Can one die of love? This is precisely what happens to Isolde at the end of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. We meet spring with some of the most passionate music ever written, including Stravinsky’s brutal masterpiece The Rite of Spring, where raw power is unleashed. Between Wagner and Stravinsky, Scriabin made his mark on music history. Denis Kozhukhin comes to Oslo to perform Scriabin’s unknown pearl of a piano concerto.
In the midst of the highly diverse musical Modernism in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, Alexander Scriabin (1872−1915) was one of the the most eccentric and mysterious figures. With an innovative sound and utopian ideas, the Russian composer, philosopher and mysticist challenged not only contemporary performers and listeners, but also the framework of the thinking of the time, the categories of history and the limitations of art. His master plan was that his musical production and activity would culminate with a work named Mysterium, a work which was to be performed at the foot of the Himalayas, where all art forms were to melt together, time and space would disintegrate and everyone present would participate in a spectacular transcendence. Long before he got that far − and he never arrived at his goal − he composed his only often underrated Piano Concerto (1896).
The work has strong ties the the great European piano concertos of the 19th century, and is often reminiscent of Chopin, sometimes Liszt and Schumann, and at other times, Rachmaninov, but possessing a flow, a rhythmical freedom and a sense of unpredictability of expression which sets it aside from most other models. The first movement is an intense and emotional affair, with strong contrasts in mood, expression and character − as well as some real virtuosic whirlwinds. The second movement, by contrast, is lyrical, beautiful, and is sweetly sentimental in expression before Scriabin overflows with passsionate expressivity and untamed pathos in the final movement, which at the end reaches an ecstatic climax. Scriabin’s Piano Concerto was first performed in Odessa in 1897 with the composer himself at the keys and Vasily Safonov conducting. It is said that Scriabin had unusually small hands for a concert pianist, and that the concerto reveals this in some of its details, but that did not stop Rachmaninov from generously naming Scriabin’s concerto as one of his favourite concertos to perform as a pianist.
One of Scriabin’s most important early sources of inspiration in his development towards his unique and modern musical language was Richard Wagner (1813−1883). With his extreme chromatism, endless lines, rich harmonies and colourful orchestration, Wagner challenged many of the norms for how music could and should sound. The most critical was Wagner’s testing of the boundaries of tonality. Wagner pushed the boundaries as far as he possibly could without destroying the most important bedrock of 19th century music − namely tonality.
No opera excerpt demonstrates Wagner’s modern musical language better than the prelude to Tristan and Isolde. His main idea was to prolong the tension and increase the expressivity by delaying the disintegration of the disonnances and the tension in the chords. Tristan and Isolde is, after all, about unfulfilled love, and Wagner emphasises the narrative by ensuring that also the harmonies remain unresolved throughout the long opera − until Isolde discovers Tristan dead, and dies of love herself just as the final tension chord in the opera finally resolves itself in a brilliant B Major chord. Only in death is Isolde fulfilled in her endless love for Tristan.
The type of Modernism Wagner paved the way for had just started to get a hold on European music life when Igor Stravinsky (1882−1971) abruptly entered the international scene at the beginning of the 20th century. He made a particular impression with the scandalous ballet The Rite of Spring, and riots were close to breaking out during its world premiere in Paris in 1913. A heathen plot, disturbingly attired dancers and sensational modern music were enough to incense stiff Parisians. The scandal has with time turned to sensation − and sensation to deep respect and recognition.Most would agree today that the collaboration between Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev’s company the Ballet Russes, led by Vaslav Nijinsky, resulted in one of the 20th century’s most spectacular compositions as well as its greatest masterpieces.
The Rite of Spring opens with a melancholy melody played by the solo bassoon, pressed up into such a high register that the instrument is almost unrecognisable. Countering voices and new sounds arise, and the earth is adored with an incomparably complex and colourful choir of melodic lines and hues. But the raw powers are still waiting to be unleashed. The brutal dance of the young girls preparing the human sacrifice is characterised by a hammering of tight, bitonal chords in the strings and violent jolts from the woodwinds. Stravinsky’s music, with its multiple melodic lines, rhythmical layers and simultaneous multiple keys, represents at the same time the complexity of man and his primal power. Folkloristic elements are present, but these are completely transformed in the powerful, suggestive, smouldering expression.
When the Oslo Philharmonic was established in 1919, Wagner was hugely popular in Oslo. Excerpts from his operas occurred often on the orchestra’s programmes every season in the 1920’s, and the prelude to Tristan and Isolde was one of the most popular. The prelude was performed twice in the orchestra’s first season and twenty times in the orchestra’s first decade. A far more surprising fact is that Scriabin’s Piano Concerto was also performed in the opening season. Dagny Knutsen, one of the foremost Norwegian pianists of the time, was the soloist, and Ignaz Neumark the conductor of a concert which took place in the University Aula on 26 November, 1919. Knutsen received positive reviews for her playing, but critics were less than impressed by Scriabin’s work.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Igor Stravinsky; Photo: Richard Avedon)Read more
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