Thursday 2 April
Symphony No 1
Szymanowski Symphony No 1
Szymanowski Violin Concerto No 1
Brahms Symphony No 1
Valery Gergiev conductor
Janine Jansen violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Symphony No 1 in F minor Op 15
1. Allegro moderato
Sometimes a composer’s early compositions do not become a regular part of the canon. Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat (1905–07), for example, remains a largely neglected work. Szymanowski’s case is more complicated. His first orchestral piece, the Concert Overture (1904–05), written at the end of his studies in Warsaw, has remained one of his most performed, even though it is clearly influenced by the style and swagger of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan. Its confident air and sense of purpose did not, however, carry over into Szymanowski’s first attempt at full symphonic writing.
It is fair to say that Szymanowski’s First Symphony was something of a reverse in his creative fortunes and is best regarded as a flawed if valiant attempt to write on a larger orchestral scale. The pre-eminent writer on Szymanowski’s life and work, Teresa Chylińska, goes so far as to call it a ‘complicated and insincere composition’. This may be slightly harsh, but even Szymanowski realised its shortcomings (‘I don’t like it’), and only the two outer movements were completed. Szymanowski withdrew it after its first performance in 1909.
While he wrestled with it, he predicted that it would be ‘some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster’. The main reason for the work’s problems was Szymanowski’s determination to develop his technical expertise, especially in polyphonic orchestral writing. At this time, he was intrigued by the music of Max Reger, whose dense textures influenced Szymanowski not only in the First Symphony but also the more successful Second Symphony (1909–10).
Despite its shortcomings, which have been exaggerated, the First Symphony provides many insights into Szymanowski’s musical character as well as some of the prevailing trends of the time. First and foremost, there is an emotional intensity that is not only typical of subsequent Szymanowski scores but links across to, say, Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903). This is particularly apparent in the interlinking of full orchestral and chamber-like passages and in the quasi-dramatic shifts between sweeping lines and introspection.
The first movement is succinctly structured and, it might be argued, would have worked even better on a larger scale. In the surviving second movement – intended to be the finale – Szymanowski focuses on high lyricism. During its composition, he’d described it as ‘very light-hearted’, although little trace of this remains in the finished score, which is marked by its increasingly turbulent orchestration.
Note by Adrian Thomas Adrian Thomas is a composer and author specialising in Polish music.
Violin Concerto No 1 Op 35
Janine Jansen violin
The events of the Great War and subsequently the Russian Revolution left Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and his family cut off in their home in Ukraine. Yet, remarkably, Szymanowski produced some of his most enduring masterpieces during 1914–18. His early works, particularly those for orchestra such as the Concert Overture and First and Second Symphonies, had drawn on current Austro-German sound-worlds, but in the years immediately preceding the Great War, he had also travelled to the Mediterranean (Italy and North Africa). There he had soaked up not only its exotic atmosphere but also the many cross-currents of its ancient cultures. Coupled with his new-found love of contemporary French music, this experience sustained him through the dark months of the war and he produced over a dozen luminous compositions in rapid succession.
One of these was his First Violin Concerto. This is no ordinary concerto. It is cast in a single span, lasting some 25 minutes. Rather than following any familiar structural pattern, it weaves a fantasy-like web of associated themes in a way which defies conventional analysis. A strong influence may well have been a poem by his near-contemporary Tadeusz Miciński, whose poetry he had first set a decade earlier. The poem in question is ‘May Night’, a fantastical evocation of faeries, ephemerae and nereids, with ‘Pan playing his pipes in the oak wood’. It opens:
‘Donkeys in crowns settle on the grass
Fireflies kiss the wild rose
While death flickers over the pond
And plays a wanton song'
Szymanowski’s newly developed orchestral skill is evident from the outset, the darting instruments providing a wonderful backdrop for the soaring lyricism of the solo violin. Compared with his previous orchestral works, the orchestral palette is delicate, the musical ideas fleet of foot. This is a concerto not of conflict but of almost conspiratorial companionship, now mischievous and fast moving, now introverted, now impassioned.
A substantial reflective section occurs after the first proper orchestral tutti and features not only a part-stepwise, part-triadic melodic figure, which subsequently informs the concerto’s major tuttis, but also an accompanied improvisation for the soloist. Here, as elsewhere, the interplay between solo violin and solo orchestral instruments is intimate and recalls his chamber music of the time, such as 'The Fountain of Arethusa' from Myths for violin and piano. The moments of deepest intimacy come after the central climax, in a second reflective section led off by a repeated-note figure. This culminates in a sweet lullaby motif in solo violin harmonics which also concludes the work.
The cadenza was written by Szymanowski’s friend, the Polish violinist Paweł Kochański, to whom the Concerto is dedicated. Kochański advised him on the violin writing both in this work and in the Second Concerto (1932–33). After the premiere, which did not take place until 1922, Szymanowski wrote to Kochański: ‘It is my greatest triumph’. It is a testament to Szymanowski’s creative imagination that a work of such enchantment could have emerged at a time of such darkness.
Note by Adrian Thomas
Karol Szymanowski was born in Tymoszówka (modern-day Ukraine) in the former kingdom of Poland. He was first taught music by his father, who instilled in the young composer an acute and ardent sense of patriotic duty which would influence his entire life and career.
At 19 he began composition and piano lessons in Warsaw but struggled to find a suitable outlet in a city that was, by all accounts, far from a thriving cultural capital. Until 1911 Szymanowski published his own works under the auspices of the Young Polish Composers’ Publishing Company, a group founded by him and some friends in 1905. He supported Polish music throughout his life and served as Director of the Warsaw Conservatoire from 1927–29.
Szymanowski’s output falls loosely into three periods. Before World War I he followed the style of Strauss and Wagner, with big, densely chromatic symphonies. By 1914 he was moving towards an exotic aesthetic similar to that explored by Debussy and Scriabin, which came of his growing fascination with Arabic cultures. When Poland gained its independence in 1918, this rekindled Szymanowski’s patriotic sentiments and suddenly his works were infused with elements of traditional Polish folklore – the Stabat Mater, Symphony No 4 and Violin Concerto No 2 are prime examples. The enduring characteristic of his works is undoubtedly their intense expressionism, tempered by a deep-seated spirituality.
Composer profile by Fabienne Morris
Symphony No 1 in C minor Op 68
1. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
4. Adagio – Allegro non troppo ma con brio
Few works have taken so long in the making as Brahms’ First Symphony, for its keenly awaited performance on 4 November 1876 marked the end of a process that had begun some 20 years earlier. At the time, though, only Brahms’ closest friends were aware of this. For the majority of his audience, the symphony came as a great and important statement by a composer considered to be the heir of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, and who upheld the traditional values of ‘pure’ music in the face of Liszt and of Wagner, whose Ring cycle had been staged for the first time in its entirety just three months earlier at Bayreuth. But Brahms himself sensibly avoided musical politics as much as he could; and whatever the Symphony meant to his listeners, to the composer himself its significance was rooted in the troubled period when, as an unknown 20-year-old, he had first encountered Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.
The couple were amazed by the music the young composer played to them, and shortly afterwards, Schumann published the famous article that proclaimed Brahms to be the long-awaited Messiah who would bring to fulfilment all the best tendencies in German music. Within months, however, Schumann’s mental health collapsed; he attempted suicide and was confined to an asylum, where he died in 1856.
In the meantime, Brahms became closely attached to Schumann’s wife Clara, and much of the music from these years expresses the turmoil and stress he suffered on account of this impossible and unfulfilled relationship. Schumann’s generous tribute made Brahms’ name widely known, but it also had an intimidating effect, raising expectations that the self-critical young man often doubted he could meet; at the same time, it was a challenge he could hardly ignore. In 1854, he began a sonata for two pianos, which then became the draft of a symphony in D minor before the music was finally absorbed into the First Piano Concerto and the German Requiem.
Once the idea of a symphony had taken root in his mind (and in Clara’s mind, too) there was no turning back. Brahms was good at covering his tracks, and so we cannot be sure when he actually began the composition of what was to become the First Symphony. It has been suggested that it was as early as the mid-1850s, although nothing definite is known of it until 1862, when he sent Clara the first movement. But 14 years passed before the work was finally completed, and even after the first performance, Brahms made a number of changes to the two middle movements.
Brahms was the sort of man who found outright hostility easier to cope with than praise. He laughed when Hugo Wolf described his symphonies as ‘nauseatingly stale, profoundly mendacious’; but he felt real annoyance and embarrassment when Hans von Bülow extolled the First Symphony as ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. As late as 1870, when much of the symphony had been composed, he was still protesting to the conductor Hermann Levi:
‘I shall never write a symphony. You can’t imagine what it is like to have that giant [Beethoven] marching along behind one.’
Brahms was cautious because he was so painfully aware of his mighty predecessor, and because he knew that any symphony of his, when it appeared, would be judged by the very highest standards. He determined not only to produce a work containing the very best of himself, but also a work deliberately and consciously unlike anything that Beethoven might ever have composed. In fact, the two composers were profoundly different in character. Beethoven was consciously creating the future; Brahms’ often radical innovations came from resolving the tensions between past and present. In contrast to Beethoven’s dynamic striving outwards, the music of Brahms usually shows a spontaneous and passionate nature turned in on itself. Brahms has a richer sound, owing to his denser orchestral texture, more complex harmony and tighter integration of musical motives – but this same richness demanded from him a rigid control of his material.
All this, and indeed the passionate strength of the symphony as a whole, is summed up in the introduction to the first movement, which was added at a late stage of composition. Many of the work’s most vital ideas are heard here, briefly and in embryonic form, and it casts its dark shadow over the main body of the movement. The two central movements are both lighter and shorter than their equivalents in Beethoven, reflecting the lyrical side of Brahms’ nature that came from Schubert and Schumann. As a result of this relative lightness, a far greater weight of expectation is thrown onto the finale. This was the movement that gave Brahms the greatest trouble and delayed the work’s completion for so long, for it was a formidable task to balance the power of the opening movement and to resolve the overall tensions of the symphony.
A year before finishing the symphony, Brahms completed another work begun in the 1850s, a turbulent Piano Quartet in the same key of C minor. It suggests that in his early forties he had finally determined once and for all to come to terms with the emotional drama of his twenties. We might well wonder whether the change in his personal appearance at this time – 1876 was also the year that he grew the heavy grizzled beard that dominates all his later photographs – was merely coincidental.
Note by Andrew Huth
Andrew Huth is a musician, writer and translator who writes extensively on French, Russian and Eastern European music.
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, the son of an impecunious musician; his mother later opened a haberdashery business to help lift the family out of poverty. Showing early musical promise, he became a pupil of the distinguished local pianist and composer Eduard Marxsen and supplemented his parents’ meagre income by playing in the bars and brothels of Hamburg’s infamous red-light district.
In 1853, Brahms presented himself to Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf, winning unqualified approval from the older composer. Brahms fell in love with Schumann’s wife, Clara, supporting her after her husband’s illness and death. The relationship did not develop as Brahms wished, and he returned to Hamburg; their close friendship, however, survived.
In 1862, Brahms moved to Vienna where he found fame as a conductor, pianist and composer. The Leipzig premiere of his German Requiem in 1869 was a triumph, with subsequent performances establishing Brahms as one of the emerging German nation’s foremost composers. Following the long-delayed completion of his First Symphony in 1876, he composed in quick succession the Violin Concerto; the two piano Rhapsodies, Op 79; the First Violin Sonata and the Second Symphony. His subsequent association with the much-admired court orchestra in Meiningen allowed him freedom to experiment and develop new ideas, the relationship crowned by the Fourth Symphony of 1884.
In his final years, Brahms composed a series of profound works for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, and explored matters of life and death in his Four Serious Songs. He died at his modest lodgings in Vienna in 1897, receiving a hero’s funeral at the city’s central cemetery three days later.
Composer profile by Andrew Stewart
Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.
Valery Gergiev is a vivid representative of the St Petersburg conducting school. His debut at the Mariinsky (then Kirov) Theatre came in 1978 with Prokofiev's War and Peace. In 1988, Valery Gergiev was appointed Music Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, and in 1996, he became its Artistic and General Director.
With his arrival at the helm, it became a tradition to hold major festivals, marking various anniversaries of composers. The Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev has scaled new heights, assimilating not just opera and ballet scores, but also an expansive symphony music repertoire.
Under Gergiev's direction the Mariinsky Theatre has become a major theatre and concert complex. The Concert Hall was opened in 2006, followed in 2013 by the theatre's second stage (the Mariinsky-II), while since January 2016, the Mariinsky Theatre has had a branch in Vladivostok – the Primorsky Stage. 2009 saw the launch of the Mariinsky label, which to date has released more than 30 discs that have received great acclaim from critics and the public throughout the world.
Valery Gergiev successfully collaborates with the world's great opera houses and has led world renowned orchestras, such as World Orchestra for Peace (which he has directed since 1997), the Philharmonic Orchestras of Berlin, Paris, Vienna, New York and Los Angeles, the Symphony Orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and San Francisco, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam) and many other ensembles. From 1995 to 2008, Valery Gergiev was Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (of which he remains an honorary conductor to this day), and from 2007 to 2015 of the London Symphony Orchestra. Since autumn 2015, the maestro has headed the Munich Philharmonic.
Valery Gergiev is the founder and director of prestigious international festivals including the Stars of the White Nights (since 1993) and the Moscow Easter Festival (since 2002), among many others. Since 2011, he has directed the organisational committee of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Valery Gergiev's musical and public activities have brought him acclaimed awards such as the Hero of Labour (2013), the Order of Alexander Nevsky (2016), the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence Arts and Culture Award (2017) and prestigious State awards of Armenia, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, France and Japan.
Image: Alberto Venzago
Violinist Janine Jansen works regularly with the world’s most eminent orchestras and conductors and has been described by the New York Times as being as ‘riveting in silence as in sound’
Janine was chosen as Portrait Artist 2019 at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival where she presented a range of chamber music programmes from Bach sonatas to large chamber music formations such as Mendelssohn’s Octet. Her involvement in the festival included the opening concerts together with NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbański and culminated in performances with the LSO under Sir Simon Rattle.
Janine records exclusively for Decca Classics, and since recording Vivaldi’s Four Seasons back in 2003 she has been extremely successful in the digital music charts. Her discography includes performances of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the LSO and Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. Other highlights include a recording of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski, Beethoven and Britten with Paavo Järvi, Mendelssohn and Bruch with Riccardo Chailly, Tchaikovsky with Daniel Harding, as well as an album of Bach Concertos with her own ensemble. Janine has also released a number of chamber music discs, including Schubert’s String Quintet and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and sonatas by Debussy, Ravel and Prokofiev with pianist Itamar Golan.
Janine has won numerous prizes, including the Vermeer Prize 2018 awarded by the Dutch government, four Edison Klassiek Awards, Der Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, NDR Musikpreis for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and the Concertgebouw Prize. She has been given the VSCD Klassieke Muziekprijs for individual achievement and the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award for performances in the UK. In September 2015 she was awarded the Bremen MusikFest Award. Janine studied with Coosje Wijzenbeek, Philipp Hirshhorn and Boris Belkin.
Janine plays the 1707 ‘Rivaz – Baron Gutmann’ Stradivarius violin, kindly on loan from Dextra Musica.
Image: DECCA, Marco Borggreve
The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.
The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.
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Image: Ranald Mackechnie
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Sunday 5 April 7pm BST
Gianandrea Noseda conductor
Erika Grimaldi soprano
Daniela Barcellona mezzo-soprano
Francesco Meli tenor
Michele Pertusi baritone
London Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey chorus director