Thursday 7 May
Symphony No 5
Note by Colin Matthews
In my 1988 programme note I described the theory of ‘hidden variables’ – a theory largely rejected in the world of particle physics – as (to simplify it radically) ‘an attempt to remove from quantum mechanics its inherent, and – to the layman – disturbing, uncertainty’. I recognised that to try to mirror this in music would be not only pretentious but impossible, and wrote that ‘various styles, some more fashionable than others (including my own) collide and give rise to unexpected juxtapositions, and the title implies little more than that there is something going on beneath the surface’. The easiest way into the piece is to think of it as a 13-minute scherzo which consists of a set of interlocking variations, with an unvarying time signature (6/4) and the same very fast tempo throughout.
I didn’t reveal at the time that the ‘fashionable’ styles included minimalism – although that is fairly self-evident. This reflected my ambivalence about this musical language, with sometimes a friendly nod in its direction, at other times a more aggressive stance. Revisiting the work more than 25 years later it doesn’t seem to stand or fall by whether or not the different styles of music are recognisable – my intention was to write a piece whose abrupt and frequent changes of direction might prove appealing, but that would at the same time have a musical logic that made sense, irrespective of any variables hidden within.
Hidden Variables was originally commissioned in 1988 by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for an ensemble of 15 players. The orchestral version was commissioned jointly by the LSO and the New World Symphony Orchestra in 1991. The first performance was given by the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas in Gstaad, Switzerland, and recorded by them in 1996.
Image: Space Force Construction by Liubov Popova, 1921
Colin Matthews was born in London in 1946. He studied with Arnold Whittall and Nicholas Maw; in the 1970s he was assistant to Benjamin Britten, and worked for many years with Imogen Holst. His collaboration with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony lasted from 1963 until its publication in 1975.
Over four decades his music has ranged from solo piano music through five string quartets and many ensemble and orchestral works. From 1992 to 1999 he was Associate Composer with the LSO, writing amongst other works a Cello Concerto for Rostropovich. In 1997 his choral/orchestral Renewal, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of BBC Radio 3, was given a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.
Orchestral works since 2000 include Reflected Images for the San Francisco Symphony, Berceuse for Dresden for the New York Philharmonic, Turning Point for the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Traces Remain for the BBC SO.
Matthews was Composer-in-Association with the Hallé – for whom he completed his orchestrations of Debussy’s 24 Preludes in 2007 – from 2001 to 2010. He is now the orchestra’s Composer Emeritus. He is Founder and Executive Producer of NMC Recordings, Executive Administrator of the Holst Foundation and Music Director of the Britten-Pears Foundation. Together with Oliver Knussen he founded the Aldeburgh Composition Course in 1992, and has been Composition Director of the LSO’s Panufnik Scheme since 2005. He holds honorary posts with several universities and is Prince Consort Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music. Colin Matthews’ music is published by Faber Music.
Piano Concerto in F major
2. Adagio – Andante con moto
3. Allegro agitato
Yuja Wang piano
It was immediately after the success of his Rhapsody in Blue, written for the jazz-band leader Paul Whitehouse in 1924, that George Gershwin was asked by conductor Walter Damrosch to write a piano concerto for the New York Symphony. Despite the runaway success of the Rhapsody, the pressure was on. Apart from the fact that expectations were high – violinists Jascha Heifetz and Joseph Joachim as well as Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky had all been at the Rhapsody premiere – the new commission would draw Gershwin yet further into the classical firmament. And, while he was able to leave the scoring of the earlier work to Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé (a common practice for Broadway composers), this time Gershwin would have to produce his own.
As a 26-year-old about to take on his first symphonic score, the young composer was uncertain of his classical credentials, but he boned up on form and orchestration and, once he had scored the concerto, hired New York’s Globe Theatre and a 60-piece band for a run-through. Writing in 1933, though, it was as if Gershwin’s confidence had never been in question:
'Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident … I went out to show them that there was plenty more where that came from.'
For sure, the Concerto opens with a bold statement: a chest-thumping percussion fanfare that quickly leads to a snappy Charleston rhythm and then to a skipping rising–falling tune on solo bassoon (followed by bass clarinet). All these motifs will return, as will the slow bluesy theme with which the solo piano first enters. As these ideas rotate, and sometimes ingeniously collide, there’s a wealth of new ideas, styles and moods, plus another unforgettable tune: a warm, sweeping melody first heard on violins and cor anglais. Likewise, the solo pianist negotiates a breathless array of textures, from racing filigree passage-work to crashing accompanying chords right out of the warhorse concertos of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff.
If this first movement, for Gershwin, represented ‘the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life’, the slow central movement is a more intimate nocturne, at least in the languorous solo muted trumpet (then oboe) of its introduction. The piano then enters to brighten the mood; after the distant trumpet sounds again, the piano returns for a moonlit, improvisational cadenza, out of which emerges the movement’s big melody, espressivo con moto, on strings.
Gershwin described the finale as ‘an orgy of rhythms’ and it launches in with ferocious, motoric movement. There’s almost no let up over its entire span, except at the end, for a grandiose, technicoloured revival of the first movement’s sweeping theme.
Note by Edward Bhesania Edward Bhesania is a writer and editor who contributes to The Stage and The Strad; he has also written for The Observer, Country Life, International Piano and The Tablet.
Image: El pianista by Maria Blanchard, 1919
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. He first started playing the family upright-piano of his own accord at the age of eleven, trying to imitate the sounds of the pop music he had heard on the radio. He amazed his family with his natural musicality and rapid technical progress. Soon he commenced formal lessons with the renowned concert pianist Charles Hambitzer, who taught Gershwin the fundamentals of technique and introduced him to a wide range of classical music.
At the age of 15 Gershwin dropped out of school and found his first job as a so called ‘song-plugger’ for a publishing house on New York’s Tin Pan Alley. He penned his first great success in 1919 when his song Swanee was picked by popular Broadway actor Al Johnson for inclusion in his hit play Sinbad. Swanee would become Gershwin’s greatest hit, selling an estimated two million records and over a million copies of sheet music. The generous royalties he made from Swanee allowed him to focus his creative energy on concert, theatre and film work.
In 1924 Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue, a ground-breaking concert work for solo piano and jazz orchestra that succeeded in combining the disparate worlds of classical and jazz. Following the success of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin travelled to Paris where he applied to study with several prominent tutors including Nadia Boulanger and Ravel, who famously rejected him saying: ‘Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’.
Gershwin’s compositional output was prolific, encompassing a broad range of styles and genres, including a number of orchestral works, a folk-opera Porgy and Bess (1935), four concertante works for piano and orchestra, and a vast collection of solo piano and chamber music. He also penned 16 Broadway musicals, five film scores and hundreds of pop singles and jazz standards.
Symphony No 5 in D minor Op 47
4. Allegro non troppo
Political and artistic pressures coincided many times in the course of Shostakovich’s career, but never more intensely than in the year 1937, when the Fifth Symphony was composed. Early in 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the ballet The Limpid Stream had been officially condemned, and in consequence he felt obliged to withdraw his Fourth Symphony before its scheduled premiere. These works, which are full of a wayward, dissonant genius, made no concession to the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, and the bleak endings of both opera and symphony directly contradicted the optimism then expected from Soviet artists.
The crisis he faced was far more than a question of musical style: it was quite literally a matter of life or death. By 1936 the mechanism of Stalin’s Great Terror was lurching into motion, with show trials, denunciations and disappearances. Few Russians remained untouched, particularly in the composer’s own city of Leningrad. Shostakovich himself lost relatives, friends and colleagues. A particularly serious blow was the arrest and execution in June 1937 of his highly-placed protector Marshal Tukhachevsky; association with such an ‘enemy of the people’ put Shostakovich in a highly dangerous position.
COMPOSING THE FIFTH SYMPHONY
It was in this nightmare atmosphere that Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony, between April and July 1937. A conscious attempt at rehabilitation, intended to re-establish his credentials as a Soviet composer, it represents a well-calculated combination of true expression with the demands of the State. The premiere, given by the Leningrad Philharmonic under the relatively unknown Yevgeny Mravinsky on 21 November 1937, was an unqualified triumph, with scenes of wild enthusiasm which were repeated at the Moscow premiere the following January. The first performance outside Russia took place in Paris that June, and before long the Symphony had been performed all over the world and was being held up as a model of what Soviet music could and should be.
The Symphony certainly represents a break with Shostakovich’s unruly musical past, for here the language is simplified, with few of the eccentricities that had made him such a great satirist in the first decade of his career. The level of dissonance is lower and the music is contained within a clear formal plan. There is not, however, any radical change of style. Shostakovich’s unmistakable fingerprints – unexpected twists in melody and harmony, strange scoring, sometimes eccentric or shrill, with writing in the extremely high or low registers – are all present, but now absorbed into a traditional four-movement symphonic structure of great clarity and power.
FIRST AND SECOND MOVEMENTS
As he would later in the first movements of his Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, Shostakovich immediately creates a sense of enormous space, both brooding and desolate, with a masterly control of slow pacing and pared-down orchestral textures. The first movement’s climax, reached after a remorseless build-up of tension (from the moment the piano enters), bursts out into a grotesque march, followed by a sense of numb exhaustion.
The second movement, a type of sardonic scherzo, preserves some of the qualities of the earlier Shostakovich in its shrill scoring, use of wry parody and vulgar march and dance elements, an important part of his inheritance from Mahler.
The brooding Largo is the expressive heart of the symphony. Listeners who had until then known only the witty or irreverent side of Shostakovich would have been surprised by the depth of feeling here: many at the premiere were reduced to tears by its controlled anguish. Much of the emotional power is due to the long, sustained melodic lines and restrained instrumentation. The brass instruments are all silent, even the quietly sustaining horns.
Most of the controversy surrounding the symphony is concerned with the real significance of the finale and particularly of its last few minutes, blatant with D major brass fanfares and battering drums. There is no doubt about the overwhelming sense of musical resolution here, but most verbal commentary has done little but confuse the issue. A constant problem with Shostakovich is that his own remarks should never be taken too seriously, for he notoriously said what people wanted to hear. The façade he presented was that of a cool professional, an efficient servant of the Soviet State, and on the occasion of the Moscow premiere he quoted an unnamed Soviet critic to the effect that his Fifth Symphony was ‘the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism’, a phrase that was for many years accepted in the West as the composer’s own subtitle.
The main outline of the post-Beethoven Romantic symphony, opening in conflict and arriving at a triumphant apotheosis, certainly allows an orthodox interpretation of the Symphony as a description of the creation of Soviet Man, and it was in these terms that Shostakovich spoke of it at the time:
'I saw man with all his experiences in the centre of the composition … In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and joy of living.'
But in Testimony, the reminiscences attributed by Solomon Volkov to the sick and embittered composer towards the end of his life, this is all turned upside-down. ‘I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth … it’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing’.’
Note by Andrew HuthAndrew Huth is a musician, writer and translator who writes extensively on French, Russian and Eastern European music.
Image: Girls in the Fields by Kazimir Malevich, 1932
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After early piano lessons with his mother, Shostakovich enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1919. 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 which Shostakovich’s initially successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was condemned for its ‘leftist bedlam’ and modernism. With the Fifth Symphony came acclaim not only from the Russian audience, but also from musicians and critics overseas.
Shostakovich lived through the first months of the German siege of Leningrad serving as a member of 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 Tehran 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 Andrey 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.
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.
Michael Tilson Thomas
LSO Conductor Laureate
Michael Tilson Thomas is Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to conducting the world’s leading orchestras, MTT is also noted for his work as a composer and a producer of multimedia projects that are dedicated to music education and the reimagination of the concert experience. He has won eleven Grammys for his recordings, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.
Image: Art Streiber
Critical superlatives and audience ovations have continuously followed Yuja Wang’s dazzling career. The Beijing-born pianist, celebrated for her charismatic artistry and captivating stage presence, is set to achieve new heights during the 2019/20 season, which features recitals, concert series, as well as season residencies, and extensive tours with some of the world’s most venerated ensembles and conductors.
Yuja received advanced training in Canada and at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music under Gary Graffman. Her international breakthrough came in 2007 when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She later signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon and has since established her place among the world’s leading artists, with a succession of critically acclaimed performances and recordings.
Image: Julia Wesely
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 10 May 7pm BST
Romeo and Juliet
Berlioz Romeo and Juliet
Valery Gergiev conductor
Olga Borodina mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Tarver tenor
Evgeny Nikitin bass-baritone
London Symphony Chorus
Guildhall School Chorus
Simon Halsey chorus director