Conductor/Violin Maxim Vengerov
Conductor Nicholas Carter*
JS Bach Chaconne (for solo violin)
Sibelius Violin Concerto*
(original 1903/04 version)
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique
Free pre-concert talk at 6.30pm with Brian Catchlove, QSO Clarinet
Vengerov. The name alone promises a live concert experience where drama and innovation, musical adventurism and genre-crossing interpretive insight combine in a compelling display of world-class music-making.
To end a 2015 season of unprecedented artistry, QSO delivers a concert event unique to Brisbane – a Season Finale featuring arguably the finest violinist of his generation in a musical event of international significance.
For only the third time in history, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto will be performed in its original version, with Maxim Vengerov, whose recent performances have been described as ‘titanic’. This modern master of the violin will deliver the unexpurgated concerto considered too difficult for its original soloist.
And, as if that is not enough, this extraordinary event concludes with a rare and thrilling opportunity to hear Vengerov as conductor, in Berlioz’s phantasmagoric Symphonie Fantastique, a Romantic vision of Witches’ Sabbaths and Marches to Scaffolds.
- The Evening Standard
"the stuff of legends”
- The Times
"supernatural command of the violin... technique never less than faultless"
- The Guardian
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin
Maxim Vengerov, violin
Bach composed his six works for solo violin – three sonatas and three partitas – while employed as Kapellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. The years that Bach spent at Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723) were among the happiest in his life, for, as he later commented, he was serving a young prince who ‘loved and understood music’.
The title page of the composer’s autograph fair copy of the complete set of sonatas and partitas is dated 1720, and bears the Italian title Sei Solo à Violino senza Basso accompagnato, Libro primo (Six solos for violin without bass accompaniment, First Book), suggesting that it was to be the first in a series of such works, the ‘Secondo Libro’ being the six works for unaccompanied cello, also dating from around 1720. Bach’s thoughtful planning of these violin solos is evident in their overall symmetry: three sonatas, each consisting of four movements, and three partitas consisting mainly of courtly dances, and containing four, five and six movements respectively.
The Partita No.2 in D minor is regarded as one of the greatest works in the solo violin repertoire. The Chaconne which concludes the Partita has long been regarded as in a class of its own: a movement of unique inspiration, whose technical challenges, in the form of fugal writing, multiple stopping, sheer length and development of musical ideas, explore the full range of the solo violin’s expressive capabilities.
It is also unique in being the only movement in Bach’s chamber music to be composed as a set of variations.
Abridged from a note by Robert Forgács © 2012
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor (original version)
Maxim Vengerov, violin
The young Sibelius had dreamed of a career as a violin virtuoso, but turned more and more to composition. Sibelius was inspired to compose a concerto on meeting the German violinist Willy Burmester, one of the most celebrated soloists of his day, though, for reasons involving Sibelius’ finances and lack of diplomacy, he never played it. In 1902, Sibelius noted in a letter to his wife, Aino, that he had thought up ‘some wonderful themes for the violin concerto’. In fact, though, the first theme was sketched in Italy in 1901, and labelled ‘The Bells of Rapallo’.
The concerto’s premiere was given by Viktor Nováček, by all accounts a good but not brilliant player, and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Sibelius’ baton, and was mildly disastrous. Critics lamented that the musical ideas were drowned in a cacophony and – the unkindest cut of all – that the piece was ‘boring’. Sibelius, referring to it as ‘my hidden sorrow’, undertook major revisions and reissued the score in the form with which we are familiar today.
The revisions consist partly of a lightening of the orchestration where the soloist might tend to be swamped, but mostly of cuts in the outer movements (the original is four or five minutes longer than the authorised version). The original begins, like the later version, with the ‘Rapallo’ theme sounded by the soloist over a soft shimmer. But when the tune reaches its apex the orchestra sounds pairs of marcato chords, a kind of Beethovenian call to attention, which Sibelius subsequently removed. He also removed substantial episodes: a theme on bassoons has, in the original, a tracery of violin passagework and perky new theme, that was later removed, just before the first big climax of the movement. The heroic theme that follows is orchestrated slightly differently and is more extended, before the violin re-enters with its first cadenza. With the return of the Rapallo theme and the Beethovenian chords comes a later-discarded passage dominated by dotted rhythms that introduces the bassoons. After development of familiar material, Sibelius offers a second cadenza, subsequently cut, in which he channels the Bach of the famous Chaconne (BWV 1004) before the final coda of the movement. This was no doubt written with Burmester’s technique in mind, but gives the movement an odd architecture.
The second movement had no substantial changes made to it other than details of ornamentation and orchestration. The third, by contrast, was, like the first, subject to a filing-back of bravura passagework that often involves chains of whistling harmonics or sequences of rapid figurations – one such section early on is accompanied by pizzicato violins, and a melody passed from winds to strings of which no trace remains in the revision. Another is a drawn-out prolongation just before the final surging statement of the movement’s main theme, which obliges the soloist to play a dazzling series of scale-based passages.
Burmester missed out on the premiere of the revised version, too: that was given in Berlin by Karel Halíř with Richard Strauss conducting.
© Gordon Kerry 2015
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
In the Fields
March to the Scaffold
Sabbath Night Dream
The premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, on 5 December 1830, was greeted with shouts and stamping feet from the enthusiastic audience. But from Berlioz’s point of view, the best comment came from Madame Moke, who on the strength of it finally granted him permission to marry her daughter Camille. The irony was that it was Camille who had passed on to Berlioz the gossip about his earlier idol, Irish actress Harriet Smithson, which had provoked the fit of jealous rage which inspired the whole symphony – and it was Harriet whom Berlioz married two years later.
Berlioz’s entirely one-sided passion for Smithson had been consuming him for three years. When Berlioz heard the rumours about Smithson and her manager, he was overwhelmed, and composed the Symphonie fantastique or ‘Episode in the Life of an Artist’ to exorcise his feelings of betrayal.
Berlioz’s original program tells of a young Musician who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who is everything he has ever dreamed of. He is obsessed by her image and by a melody which invariably accompanies any thoughts of her – a double idée fixe constantly intruding on his peace of mind. Convinced that his love is unappreciated, he poisons himself with opium. The dose is not strong enough to kill him but in his drugged sleep he has nightmarish visions: he has killed his beloved and is led to the scaffold and beheaded; he sees himself at his own funeral, which becomes a grotesque devilish orgy.
How important is this program? Clearly, it is linked to Berlioz’s own experience – yet none of the events it describes had actually occurred in his life. Berlioz was quite adamant that his art was intended to express ‘passions and feelings’, not paint pictures. The program is not a documentary to be judged on its accuracy, but a journey that Berlioz wanted his audience to take with him.
The symphony begins with the sighing of melancholy Daydreams alternating with flurries of ‘groundless joy’, until a sudden Beethoven-like outburst ushers in the Passions and the idée fixe melody which will recur throughout the work.
The second movement takes us to a ball, where the Musician catches sight of his beloved. The idée fixe appears twice – as a central episode in the movement’s rondo structure, and towards the end before the brilliant, swirling coda.
In the Fields begins with a duet between cor anglais and off-stage oboe: ‘two shepherds in the distance piping a shepherd’s song’. The idée fixe appears in the midst of passionate surges: ‘thoughts of happiness disturbed by dark forebodings’. The Musician’s loneliness is symbolised musically when the cor anglais finally takes up the shepherd’s song again and the oboe does not answer; ‘distant thunder’ from two sets of timpani brings the music to an uneasy close.
In the March to the Scaffold, sinister mutterings from the timpani finally erupt in a savage theme first beaten out by the cellos and double basses. Bassoons and then low strings weave a mocking counterpoint around it until the grotesque march theme bursts out over blaring pedal tones from the trombones. The idée fixe appears ‘like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal stroke’.
Berlioz did not invent the idea of a Satanic orgy but he added another layer of meaning by giving the place of honour to the ghost of the young Musician’s beloved, whose idée fixe theme here appears encrusted with grace notes and trills of mocking laughter. Church bells sound and the Dies irae chant from the requiem mass is caught up in the demonic revelry. The dance theme becomes the subject of a fugue: combined with the Dies irae theme, the impression of sacrilegious revelry is complete.
Natalie Shea Symphony Australia © 2002