Thursday 21 May
Symphony No 6
We hope that you enjoy this broadcast from our archives, recorded in October 2019.
Britten Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 2
Shostakovich Symphony No 6
Gianandrea Noseda conductor
Denis Matsuev piano
London Symphony Orchestra
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Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
2 Sunday Morning
Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’ Op33b
While staying with friends near Los Angeles during the summer of 1941, Britten and Pears came across an article by E M Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe (1754–1832) in a back issue of The Listener. Britten (himself born in Suffolk) was later to comment: 'I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked,' and even more revealingly, 'that I must write an opera'. Pears discovered a copy of Crabbe's poems, including 'The Borough', in which is related the tragedy of the fisherman Peter Grimes, in a 'Rare Book Shop'. His and Britten's enthusiasm after making this discovery is obvious in a letter sent to their New York friend Elizabeth Mayer on 29 July: 'We've just discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk) and are very excited – maybe an opera one day … !!' The remainder of 1941 and the early part of 1942 were spent working on a draft synopsis and libretto for an opera based on Peter Grimes, but it was not until reaching the UK that a librettist was found – the left-wing writer Montagu Slater, with whom Britten had frequently collaborated in the 1930s – and serious progress made.
From the outset, chief among the opera's distinctive features was the sequence of orchestral interludes (six in all) that introduce or separate scenes, a device in which the influence of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Berg's Wozzeck can be felt. On early typed libretto drafts Britten made important marginal notes throughout, in which he succinctly describes the kinds of music he intended to write. Those concerning the interludes are of special interest and suggest that they were intended to have a programmatic function within the structure, a point made even clearer by the arrangement of four of them into a concert suite in which each was given a descriptive title by the composer: 'Dawn' (Interlude I in the opera); 'Sunday Morning' (Interlude III); 'Moonlight' (Interlude V); and 'Storm' (Interlude II).
FOUR SEA INTERLUDES
'Dawn', described by Britten in his libretto marginalia as an 'Everyday, grey seascape', comprises three ideas operating on three levels: the high-lying unison melody for flutes and violins; the bubbling rising and falling arpeggios on clarinets, harp and violas; and the ominous chorale-like motif from bassoons, brass and low strings.
'Sunday Morning' ('Sunny, Sparkling music') is taken from the beginning of Act II of the opera, where the schoolmistress Ellen Orford sings 'Glitter of waves/And glitter of sunlight/Bid us rejoice/And lift our hearts on high.' Britten superimposes overlapping chords on the horns with (at first) a spiky idea on the woodwind, the quality enhanced by the bright D major tonality, brightened further by the use of a sharpened fourth note (G sharp) of the scale. Ellen's words coincide with the second idea, an expressive melody on violas and cellos.
'Moonlight' ('Summer night, seascape, quiet' in the composer's description) introduces Act III of the opera. Quiet, slow throbbing syncopations are broken by chinks of moonlight (flutes and harp), before reaching a tumultuous climax.
The final interlude of the concert suite, 'Storm', speaks for itself. In the opera, it prefaces Act I Scene 2, set in The Boar, and re-emerges throughout the scene as characters arrive at the pub. A rondo structure in E-flat minor, the interlude not only provides a graphic portrayal of the physical storm but also the psychological storm in Grimes' mind.
The Four Sea Interludes were first performed under the composer’s baton at the Cheltenham Festival in June 1945, only a week after the opera’s premiere at Sadler’s Wells, and were heard again later that summer at the BBC Proms conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, when they were joined by another of the opera’s interludes – the Passacaglia that precedes Act II Scene 2, the scene in Grimes’ hut at the end of which the boy apprentice falls down the cliff to his death.
This Passacaglia is an early example of what was a favourite form in Britten’s output. Its short theme is derived from Grimes’ line in the previous scene, ‘And God have mercy upon us!’, when he strikes Ellen and accepts they have no shared future together. In his libretto drafts Britten’s annotations for this interlude read: ‘‘Boy’s suffering’ fugato’, with ‘fugato’ replaced in a later draft with ‘passacaglia’. Of yet greater interest is Britten’s copy of the first edition (1946) of the miniature score of the Passacaglia, in which he has inscribed a whole series of annotations which correlate descriptive and narrative elements with the music. These begin with ‘The ground bass = the walk from the town to G’s hut’, and above the solo viola theme, ‘The boy himself’; they conclude with ‘G threatens’ and ‘The walk up the hill, the boy’s terror’. It is at this point when a posse from the town hammer on Grimes’ door that the fisherman is momentarily distracted, and the boy apprentice plunges to his death with an ear-piercing scream.
Note by Philip Reed
Philip Reed's publications include a six-volume edition of Britten's letters (co-edited with Donald Mitchell, and then with Mervyn Cooke), a Cambridge Opera Handbook on Billy Budd (with Mervyn Cooke), contributions to studies to Peter Grimes, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, War Requiem and Death in Venice. He is also the editor of On Mahler and Britten and The Travel Diaries of Peter Pears.
Britten received his first piano lessons from his mother, a prominent member of the Lowestoft Choral Society who also encouraged her son’s earliest efforts at composition. In 1924 he heard Frank Bridge’s tone poem The Sea and began to study composition with him three years later. After leaving Gresham’s School, Holt, in 1930 he gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Here he studied composition with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin.
Britten attracted wide attention when he conducted the premiere of his Simple Symphony in 1934. He worked for the GPO Film Unit and various theatre companies, collaborating with such writers as WH Auden and Christopher lsherwood, and his lifelong relationship and working partnership with Peter Pears developed in the late 1930s. At the beginning of World War II, Britten and Pears remained in the US; on their return, they registered as conscientious objectors and were exempted from military service.
The first performance of the opera Peter Grimes in 1945 opened the way for a series of magnificent stage works mainly conceived for the English Opera Group. In June 1948 Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, for which he subsequently wrote many new works. By the mid-1950s he was generally regarded as the leading British composer, helped by the success of operas such as Albert Herring, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. One of his greatest masterpieces, the War Requiem, was first performed on 30 May 1962 for the festival of consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry, its anti-war message reflecting the composer’s pacifist beliefs.
A remarkably prolific composer, Britten completed works in almost every genre and for a wide range of musical abilities, from those of schoolchildren and amateur singers to such artists as Mstislav Rostropovich, Julian Bream and Peter Pears.
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.
Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor Op 16
1912–13, rev 1924
1 Andantino – Allegretto
2 Scherzo: Vivace
3 Intermezzo: Allegro Moderato
4 Finale: Allegro Tempestoso
Prokofiev was a formidable pianist, and his piano concertos (apart from the Fourth, for the left hand) were designed to display his own wonderful technique: sharp, accurate, with a steely brilliance and great sense of rhythmic excitement. The concerto form also suited his dramatic sense, with striking images of contrast and confrontation, strange juxtapositions of mood, powerful rhetoric followed by shy or tender reflection. The First Concerto, which he introduced in 1912, caused something of a scandal and, with the Second, composed the following year, he clearly intended to expand on its style, dimensions and emotional range.
In the summer of 1913 he went on a European holiday with his mother, practising the new concerto whenever possible, and confessing that it ‘has turned out to be incredibly difficult and mercilessly tiring’. Prokofiev gave the first performance on 23 August 1913 at a concert in the grounds of the 18th-century palace of Pavlovsk near St Petersburg. The audience, no doubt expecting soothing entertainment for a summer evening, was thoroughly shaken by what it heard. Prokofiev himself suggested that the Second Concerto was ‘more interesting for the soloist, less for the orchestra’ than the First. By ‘interesting’ he perhaps meant difficult, for its length alone requires great stamina and the piano writing is as demanding as anything in the repertory.
The sequence of movements is unusual. The first, containing some of the most massive writing for keyboard in Prokofiev’s output, is only moderately paced. It is followed by the short Scherzo, a very fast moto perpetuo where the soloist’s left and right hands scamper away in semiquavers in octaves throughout, without a single moment’s rest.
The third movement is a march, now brutal, now sinister, oddly titled ‘Intermezzo’, though it has nothing restful or in-between about it. This foreshadowing of Prokofiev’s mechanistic music of the 1920s was probably the movement that caused most offence at the Concerto’s premiere. The finale, after a whirling piano-and-orchestra flourish, launches into a percussive, leaping texture for the piano. But in the centre of the movement there appears a theme which is very Russian in its initially simple texture, limited compass and repeated phrases, an acknowledgement of the tradition that is the backbone of Prokofiev’s art.
When Prokofiev abandoned Russia early in 1918 the orchestral score of the concerto was left behind, and in 1923 he learned that it had been destroyed: apparently the new tenants in his apartment had ‘burned it to cook an omelette’. This was no thoughtless vandalism but evidence of the terrible conditions in Petrograd during the Civil War when people were dying of cold and hunger. Prokofiev reconstructed the orchestral score from memory, and took the opportunity to revise the whole concerto. In this new form, he introduced it in Paris on 8 May 1924.
Note by Andrew HuthAndrew Huth is a musician, writer and translator who writes extensively on French, Russian and Eastern European music
Prokofiev was born in Ukraine and was encouraged to study music from an early age by his mother, a keen amateur pianist. The young Sergei showed prodigious ability as both composer and pianist, gaining a place at the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13 and shortly thereafter acquiring a reputation for the uncompromising nature of his music. According to one critic, the audience at the 1913 premiere of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto was left ‘frozen with fright, hair standing on end’. He left Russia after the 1917 Revolution, but decided to return to Moscow with his wife and family 19 years later, apparently unaware of Stalin’s repressive regime.
Before he left for exile, Prokofiev completed his ‘Classical’ Symphony, a bold and appealing work that revived aspects of 18th-century musical form, clarity and elegance. He received commissions from arts organisations in the United States and France, composing his sparkling opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera Company in 1919–20.
His engagements as a recitalist and concerto soloist brought Prokofiev to a wide audience in Europe and the US, and he was in great demand to perform his own Piano Concerto No 3. The ballet Romeo and Juliet and the score for Feinzimmer’s film Lieutenant Kijé were among Prokofiev’s first Soviet commissions, dating from the early 1930s. Both scores were subsequently cast as concert suites, which have become cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire.
‘The Fifth Symphony was intended as a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.’
Prokofiev’s comments, written in 1944 as the Russian army began to march towards Berlin, reflected his sense of hope in the future. Sadly, his later years were overshadowed by illness and the denunciation of his works as ‘formalist’ by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1948.
Profile by Andrew Stewart
Symphony No 6 in B minor Op 54
Following the triumphant premiere of the Fifth Symphony in the autumn of 1937, Shostakovich found himself once again on the crest of a wave of success. But the young composer must have been well aware that a great number of other people in the artistic and intellectual world were continuing to suffer the same terror and persecution that he had endured, and many were confronting worse fates than he; often ending up in prison or – in some cases – dead. Shostakovich now retreated into the safer and more mechanical world of commercial music; almost the only serious music that occupied him at this time was the First String Quartet.
On 15 April 1939 he finally sat down to write his next big, serious work: the Sixth Symphony. On 28 August, he announced that he had finished the first two movements and that…
‘The Sixth Symphony will be different in mood and emotional tone from the Fifth, which was characterised by elements of tragedy and tension. In this one, music of a contemplative and lyrical kind predominates.’
Then, quickly covering his tracks, he added, ‘In my new work I wanted to communicate feelings of spring, happiness and youth’. This last remark is a characteristically Shostakovichian diversion; while it might just be true of the, as yet unwritten, last movement, it is simply absurd as a description of the two movements whose completion he was announcing.
The Symphony was finally finished just three weeks before the first performance, at a concert by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky, on 5 November 1939 in honour of the 22nd anniversary of the October Revolution. The reaction of the audience was so enthusiastic that the orchestra immediately played the last movement again.
The critics, on the other hand, were not so keen. Their message was clear: the composer is sailing dangerously close to the wind by not writing a symphony that sits passively within a framework that has already been agreed. In particular, one critic’s use of the word ‘unexpected’ is evidently intended to carry the implication ‘impertinently individualistic’. The irony of this criticism is that the Sixth, underneath its strange three-movement form – a slow movement followed by two fast movements – is actually, along with the Ninth, one of Shostakovich’s most ‘Classical’ and even ‘Classicising’ symphonies.
Here, beneath a surface that is indeed sometimes unexpected, we can hear Shostakovich, almost for the first time in his life, engaging seriously and deeply with some of the most hallowed formal concerns of the symphonic tradition. And beyond those formal concerns, he is also engaging with something else: counterpoint. For the young Shostakovich, the combining of melodies was something hardly more important than a kind of cheeky decoration. But here in the Sixth Symphony he finally confronts the problem of articulating an entire movement in contrapuntal terms. In a way, this work represents not only a leap forward in Shostakovich’s mastery of symphonic scale, but also the beginning of a fascinating contrapuntal journey – one that was to lead to much of his finest music for string quartet, as well as to the great cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues of 1950–51.
Several commentators have pointed to the Bach-like feel of the first few bars of the opening Largo. The texture of this first section unfolds in a grandly elaborate multivoiced web where every passing motif and note derives from ideas heard in the very opening bars. The middle section of the movement seems to begin far away, with the cor anglais playing a new melody that opens by rocking backwards and forwards between a major and a minor third. The newness of the musical landscape at this point is reinforced by the constant presence of a B-flat in the harmony (the fundamental key of the movement is B minor). Gradually, however, we begin to recognise that the apparent newness of this music is an illusion. What we are listening to is actually a development section in a mono-thematic sonata form. This becomes even clearer as we feel ourselves being led back towards a recapitulation of the opening. When we get there, however, the recapitulation itself turns out to be an illusion. The material of the first section reappears only in a fragmentary form, compressed, and twisted to suggest doubt and lack of resolution.
The second movement has the character of a terrifyingly speeded-up chase. This is a direct descendant of those panic-stricken galops that are typical of so many of Shostakovich’s earlier works. But the difference here is that the style is no longer literally that of a galop; the metre is a breathtaking triple-time, and instead of the galop’s usual tune and vamped accompaniment, the whole movement is dominated by a vertiginously contrapuntal race between the soprano and bass registers of the orchestra. The form too, despite the fear that seems to drive the music forward, is an elegant rondo.
The composer himself judged the presto last movement to be ‘the most successful finale’ he had yet written, and its success partly depends on a fantastical evocation of the Classical past not unlike that of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. This finale also brings together the ‘Classical’ formal concerns of the two previous movements into a sonata-rondo. Perhaps it was this in particular that made one commentator think that it might have given pleasure to Mozart or even Rossini. Yet, as so often with Shostakovich, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Especially towards the end, we begin to hear darker shadows of the first and second movements twisting among the dancers and disturbing the apparent gaiety of the neo-Classical popping of 1930s champagne corks.
Note by Gerard McBurneyGerard McBurney divides his time between composing and arranging, and teaching, writing and broadcasting, especially on the subject of contemporary Russian and Soviet music.
After early piano lessons with his mother, Shostakovich enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919. He supplemented his family’s meagre income from his earnings as a cinema pianist, but progressed to become a composer and concert pianist following the critical success of his First Symphony in 1926 and an ‘honourable mention’ in the 1927 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. Over the next decade he embraced the ideal of composing for Soviet society and his Second Symphony was dedicated to the October Revolution of 1917.
Shostakovich announced his Fifth Symphony of 1937 as ‘a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism’. A year before its premiere he had drawn a stinging attack from the official Soviet mouthpiece Pravda, in an article headed ‘Muddle instead of music’, in which Shostakovich’s initially successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned for its extreme modernism. ‘It is leftist bedlam instead of human music’, the article claimed. When the Fifth Symphony was premiered in Leningrad, the composer’s reputation and career were rescued. Acclaim came not only from the Russian audience, who gave the work a reported 40-minute ovation, but also from musicians and critics overseas.
With the outbreak of war against Nazi Germany in June 1941, Shostakovich began to compose and arrange pieces to boost public morale. He lived through the first months of the German siege of Leningrad, serving in the auxiliary fire service.
In July he began work on the first three movements of his Seventh Symphony, completing the defiant finale after his evacuation in October and dedicating the score to the city. A micro-filmed copy was despatched by way of Teheran and an American warship to the US, where it was broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Toscanini. In 1943 Shostakovich completed his Eighth Symphony, its emotionally shattering music compared by one critic to Picasso’s Guernica.
In 1948 Shostakovich and other leading composers, Prokofiev among them, were forced by the Soviet cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, to concede that their work represented ‘most strikingly the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music’, a crippling blow to Shostakovich’s artistic freedom that was healed only after the death of Stalin in 1953. Shostakovich answered his critics later that year with the powerful Tenth Symphony, in which he portrays ‘human emotions and passions’, rather than the collective dogma of Communism.
A few years before the completion of his final and bleak Fifteenth String Quartet, Shostakovich suffered his second heart attack and the onset of severe arthritis. Many of his final works – in particular the penultimate symphony (No 14) – are preoccupied with the subject of death.
Profile by Andrew Stewart
LSO Principal Guest Conductor
Gianandrea Noseda is one of the world’s most sought-after conductors, equally recognised for his artistry in the concert hall and opera house. He was named the National Symphony Orchestra’s seventh Music Director in January 2016, beginning his four-year term in the 2017/18 season. In September 2018, his contract was extended for four more years through to the 2024/25 season. In May 2019, Noseda and the NSO earned rave reviews for their first concert together at Carnegie Hall in New York. The 2019/20 season sees their partnership continue to flourish with 12 weeks of concerts at the Kennedy Center – including performances of Beethoven’s nine symphonies – their first appearance together at Lincoln Center in November 2019, and their first overseas tour together to Japan and China in March 2020.
Noseda also serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the Orquestra de Cadaqués, and Artistic Director of the Stresa Festival in Italy. In the 2021/22 season, Noseda will become General Music Director of the Zurich Opera House, where he will lead his first Ring Cycle. From 2007 to 2018, Noseda served as Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino, where his leadership and his initiatives propelled the company’s global reputation.
Noseda has an extensive discography of over 60 recordings for Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon, among others. He is closely involved with the next generation of musicians through his work as Music Director of the Tsinandali Festival and Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra, which just concluded its inaugural season, as well as with other youth orchestras, including the European Union Youth Orchestra.
A native of Milan, Noseda is Commendatore al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, marking his contribution to the artistic life of Italy. In 2015, he was Musical America’s Conductor of the Year, and was named the 2016 International Opera Awards Conductor of the Year.
Image: Mark Allan
Since his triumph at the eleventh International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998, Denis Matsuev has become a virtuoso of the grandest Russian piano music and is one of the most prominent pianists performing today.
Matsuev regularly performs with the Berlin, Vienna, New York, Munich and Israel Philharmonics, Chicago, London and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Filharmonica della Scala, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. As Capell-Virtuos of the Staatskapelle Dresden during the 2017/18 season, Matsuev performed in numerous concerts in Dresden and on tour with Music Director Christian Thielemann, and he is continually re-engaged with the legendary Russian orchestras such as the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Mariinsky Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra. In the 2019/20 season he is Artist-in-Residence at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
As a recitalist Matsuev can be heard in the world’s greatest halls, including a yearly appearance at Carnegie Hall. His extensive discography includes highly acclaimed recital discs as well as concerto recordings with the LSO, New York Philharmonic and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and cyclical recordings of the great Russian concertos with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev.
As one of Russia’s pre-eminent musicians and a distinguished public figure, Denis Matsuev is a member of The Presidential Council for Culture and Arts and was the official ambassador for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which he opened with a globally broadcast performance in Moscow’s Red Square. Matsuev is also Artistic Director of the Rachmaninoff Foundation in Switzerland, and curates and directs his own prestigious concert series, Denis Matsuev Invites, at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. He chaired the piano jury at the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition.
Since 2008, Denis Matsuev has presided over New Names, a charitable foundation that selects and supports talented young Russian musicians, artists and poets toward achieving their professional goals. More than 10,000 children have received monetary grants and/or the opportunity to perform on the professional stage. For his work with New Names, Denis Matsuev has been named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.
London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie
London Symphony Orchestra © Ranald Mackechnie
The London Symphony Orchestra 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.
Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.
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