Chofu Series No.19

Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla

Mikhail Glinka: Born in Novospasskoye, Russia, June 1, 1804; Died in Berlin, February 15, 1857

Glinka holds a special place in the history of Russia as its first important composer of classical music and as the first to write operas with distinctly Russian subject matter and flavor. Until the premiere of his first opera, A Life for the Czar in 1836, opera in Russia tended to be cheap imitations of Italian models. But A Life for the Czar changed that. After its successful premiere, Glinka was encouraged to write a second opera, Russlan and Ludmilla , based on an early Pushkin poem complete with a disappearing princess, a wizard, a magic sword, a gigantic talking head, a magic ring, a wicked fairy who lives in an enchanted palace, and evil spells cast by a dwarf. One can only shake one’ s head in astonishment that, with such a story, the opera was still a failure. To this day, performances of the complete opera are as rare outside of Russia as the Overture alone is popular. Russlan and Ludmilla received its premiere in St. Petersburg on December 9, 1842. A few years later it was given at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where it has by now been seen in over 700 performances in eleven different productions.

This curtain raiser makes its effect with speed, brilliance and the intoxication of strings whirling in virtuosic clouds of notes. The lyrical second theme, introduced by the cellos, belongs to the hero Russlan, who sings it in an aria in Act II.

Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (arranged for harp)

Ⅰ Allegro con spirito
Ⅱ Adagio
Ⅲ Allegro gentile

Joaquin Rodrigo: Born in Sagunto (near Valencia), November 22, 1901; Died in Madrid, July 6, 1999

It is all too appropriate that Joaquin Rodrigo was born on St. Cecilia’ s Day (November 22), the name day of the patron saint of music, for he was one of the most respected, famous and important forces in the musical history of Spain for the past several hundred years. When he died at the age of 97, he was the oldest living composer of his stature in Spain or anywhere else. Although blind from the age of three, following complications from diphtheria, Rodrigo pursued musical studies with a passion. In 1939, following studies in other European cities (notably Paris), he returned permanently to his homeland. That same year he wrote his first major composition, the one that was to become his most famous as well, the Concierto de Aranjuez.

The Concierto de Aranjuez was first performed in Barcelona on November 9, 1940 with soloist Regino Sainz de la Maza, its dedicatee. It has become the most popular concerto ever written for the instrument, and has joined that select handful of twentieth-century compositions that are universally loved. It has been choreographed, arranged for jazz and popular ensembles, used in commercials, and recorded nearly two hundred times. The concerto’ s title derives from a beautiful, ancient palace of Renaissance kings (notably Philip II) in the town of Aranjuez, located in the Tagus Valley between Madrid and Toledo.

At the time of the concerto’s premiere, Rodrigo wrote that “in composing, [he] dreams of a phantasmagorical instrument with a guitar for a soul, a piano for a tail and a harp for wings.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, Rodrigo followed up on this remark when the famous Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta asked the composer to arrange the concerto for his instrument. When Zabaleta recorded the concerto in 1973, Rodrigo further remarked that even though the guitar and the harp “have widely differing techniques …, “they are both plucked instruments, thus sharing the same origin in point of timbre.” He noted also that the sound of the guitar “is rooted in the very soul of Spanish music …,[but] the harp flies weightlessly ,and in doing so fills the air with crystalline sparks reminiscent of faraway suggestions.”

The first movement follows traditional sonata form procedures, though the expected orchestral opening tutti is replaced with the solo harp in rasguedo-like (strumming) chords. Throughout the movement, the timbres of other solo instruments drawn from the orchestra (flute, oboe, clarinet, cello) allow for a rich variety of contrasting effects with the harp as a focus.

The Adagio movement is infused with haunting beauty. The poignant, melancholic tones of the English horn heighten this effect, sometimes considered to be suggestive of Moorish improvisation.

The final movement is built from a single, folk-like theme first heard in the harp and features a rhythmic pattern combining groups of two and three beats. In a work that gives the soloist ample opportunities for virtuosic display, Rodrigo concludes with a most tasteful and exquisite touch of restraint: the harp cascades down two octaves, very softly, in a gesture that seems more to dissolve than to end the concerto.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36

Ⅰ Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima
Ⅱ Andantino in modo di canzona
Ⅲ Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato. Allegro
Ⅳ Finale: Allegro con fuoco

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Born in Votkinsk, May 7, 1840; Died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893

Love, grief, crisis and destiny were favorite themes of the nineteenth-century Romantic composers, and nowhere in Tchaikovsky’ s life do they occur more dramatically than in the year 1877. This was the year in which he became involved with a neurotic young music student named Antonina Milyukova, made the disastrous mistake of marrying her, separated just ten days later, attempted suicide shortly thereafter and concurrently with all this, entered into that extraordinary relationship with Mme Nadezhka von Meck, the wealthy patroness whom Tchaikovsky was never to meet but with whom he exchanged what is perhaps the most famous body of correspondence in the history of music. In 1877 he also wrote his Fourth Symphony. Unavoidably bound up in its creation were the external events of that fateful year.

Tchaikovsky admitted to Mme von Meck that the whole affair with Antonina had been a farce, and that she was “a woman with whom I am not the least in love.” Fate was to blame for bringing them together, he firmly believed. The first performance took place in Moscow on February 22, 1878, with Nicolai Rubinstein conducting.

An imperious, strident fanfare opens the symphony. This motif has often been linked to “Fate,” and reasserts itself at significant structural points throughout the movement. Following the fanfare introduction, violins and cellos present a sad, languid line, in movimento di valse, full of pathos, gloom, and rhythmic irregularities, rocking restlessly back and forth, sliding downward in bleak despair, then upward in renewed hope. Woodwinds then repeat the long theme. Tchaikovsky’ s love of contrasts can be observed in the second theme, introduced by the clarinet and continued by the cellos. Here the rhythm is more secure, the melody more tuneful, the mood lilting and comforting. The harsh reality of fate has been replaced by tender visions and dreams.

To offset the harrowing dramas and intense turbulence of the long first movement, Tchaikovsky follows it with music of lonely melancholy and nostalgia. His choice of the plaintive sound of the oboe to present the principal theme represents still another example of his sure mastery of tone color.

The Scherzo brings a completely new sonority ? the entire string section playing pizzicato (plucked) in an effect reminiscent of a balalaika orchestra. This moto perpetuo is suddenly interrupted by an oboe playing a tune that suggested to the composer the ditty of a drunken sailor. Then comes still a third timbral block, the brass, softly intoning military music as if from the distance (Tchaikovsky’ s description).

Anyone who has dozed off during the Scherzo is going to be rudely awakened by the finale’ s explosive, brashly sensational opening. The second idea is presented almost immediately by the woodwinds ? a variant of a popular Russian folksong. The festive mood returns for the third theme, a quick, march-like affair hammered out by the full orchestra accompanied by plenty of drums and cymbals. Tchaikovsky repeats, develops and combines these three ideas in multifarious ways. The movement’ s irresistible momentum pauses only long enough for an intrusion of the “Fate” motif. But this is quickly dispelled, and the symphony roars to a deliriously joyful conclusion.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Unauthorized copying and replication of the contents of this site, text and images are strictly prohibited. All Rights Reserved.