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Program Notes - April 26, 1997 Concert

Max Derrickson

Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C Major, Op.56

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) finished composing the Triple Concerto in 1804. By opus number, which are reasonably chronological, the work falls between two acclaimed masterpieces also written in 1804, opus 55, Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), and opus 57, the Piano Sonata in F minor ("Appassionata"). It also appeared in the midst of Beethoven's work on the opera Fidelio, and closely before the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Violin Concerto.

Held up in comparison to the light of such mighty pieces from Beethoven's hand, the Triple Concerto has often been considered as lightly pale and a little less brilliant. And against the ground breaking 3rd Symphony, the Concerto has also been thought to be a reversion to an earlier compositional period.

The subjection of the Triple Concerto to such judgement is a musing solely reserved for a composer of such genius as Beethoven. Had the Concerto been written by anyone else, or had Beethoven never climbed such ethereal heights in his other works, the Triple Concerto would be anyone's masterpiece.

The Concerto is a marvelous work of distinctive inventiveness. Technically, the problem of a concerto for three instruments is a difficult one. Beethoven handled this challenge by treating the three soloists as a trio solo, with very light piano playing, and with exceptionally beautiful interplay among the three soloists as well as between the trio and the orchestra. One can find in this work all of the hallmarks attributed to Beethoven's later concertos.

The first movement Allegro opens with a pianissimo theme in the basses that is as memorable as any Beethoven has written. This sonata form exposition will develop into one of the most massive structures in any concerto, and paves ground for the entrance of the soloists in the distinctive Beethoven device of the pianissimo climax. In other words, the emotional apex of the movement is not pounded at with full forces, but whispered as a great actor might, drawing in the audience. This particular device will be found later and exploited heavily in his Violin Concerto, and brilliantly conveys breadth and subtlety.

The second movement Largo is a beautiful cantabile which foreshadows the heavenly slow movement of the Emperor Piano Concerto, a melody of reserve and simplicity, yet speaking volumes with its muted violins. The movement is developed into an intense pianissimo that would seem to prepare us for a grand central section of the main theme, but cleverly leads into the finale.

The Rondo: all Polacca is based on the Polonaise form, made most famous by Chopin, which was not an uncommon structure of the day. It is one of only three examples of Beethoven's use of it, and unlike the fiery polaccas brillantes of Weber and the flourish-full polonaises of Chopin, this finale is eminently aristocratic and somewhat understated. The concluding coda takes a marvelous journey through a stampede of accessory themes and transitions heard earlier in the movement, and closes with regal Beethoven brilliance.

Scheherazade, Op. 35

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's famous symphonic suite occupied an entire summer of my life when I was 13. I had just become interested in classical music, and my father gave me a scratchy LP with a lush cover of waves and storms behind a beautiful and exotic woman named Scheherazade. It was my habit nearly every day during that summer to burrow myself in my room with a gigantic book, kick back, and read while listening to the extraordinary colors of the piece almost all day. I had an old metal fan for those hot days, and even now, when I think of Scheherazade, I can still hear the scraping and whirling of the blades as they turned. By the end of the summer and the book, I must have heard the suite over three hundred times.

There wasn't anything about the piece that wouldn't capture the imagination of a thirteen year old boy: the fantastic tale of the beautiful maiden, held captive, and sparing her own life with a thousand marvelous tales of her hero Sinbad; the exquisite color and scoring of the orchestral instruments; the hugely accessible melodies; the bombastic percussion; the blaring brass. I was enraptured by its every note. It is the same reason that Scheherazade still captures the hearts of audiences today, and remains a great favorite in the concert hall.

Perhaps the two most famous pieces attributed to the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov are Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol, pieces in the same genre of orchestration and the same period of his life. Added to those pieces would be the Easter Overture based on Russian Orthodox themes. He also was known to be a master orchestrator, and saved several of his friend Modest Moussorgsky's pieces from obscurity by his excellent orchestral settings, most notably Night on Bald Mountain. But his best works, in fact, are considered to be his operas which are numerous, including Sadko and The Snow Maiden. After a culmination of his orchestral scoring talents had peaked in Capriccio Espagnol and Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov devoted most of the remainder of his years to composing operas.

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born into a family of distinguished Naval service in 1844 and died in 1908. He proved his musical talent early, and gradually began his musical education through private tutelage when he became enthralled with Glinka's operas, which would stay with him as an influence throughout his life. When he was 17, he met the Russian composer Balakirev, who from all accounts was a man of formidable charisma. Balakirev founded the famous "Mighty Handful", Russian Composers dedicated to the rising interest in Nationalistic Russian themes. Balakirev recognized the youthful talent of Rimsky-Korsakov, and persuaded him to complete a symphony in E-flat which he had begun earlier. Completely taken with the magnanimous personality of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov finished the work, which thus bears claim to being the first symphony composed by a Russian.

Interestingly enough in this extraordinary atmosphere, the composer left music to follow his family heritage in the Navy. For several years, Rimsky-Korsakov abandoned music almost entirely. But as his naval duties subsided, and the persuasive Balakirev directed, Rimsky-Korsakov began a life long pursuit of music and composition as one of Russia's most eminent composers, teaching and influencing a later generation of masters including Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Scheherazade was written in 1888, and even in the composer's words, was a piece based nearly as much on the themes as on the extremely colorful orchestration. The piece is based in the form of a suite, and was completely intended to explore every emotional nuance. Scheherazade is very dramatic, piquant, overwhelming, sentimental, bombastic, subtle. It is everything emotional, and most exquisitely dressed in Rimsky-Korsakov's magnificent orchestral colors.

I have often thought of Scheherazade as a Russian Lacquer box transformed into music, and its magic still unhinges the lid to those moods, that imagination of my youth.