Working with a small selection from this month’s new releases, I’ve forged a theme of the orchestra as a scene-setter, story-teller, support artist, symphonic duettist, and stand-alone protagonist.
Many orchestral concerts begin with a warm-up act, a few minutes of attention-grabbing music in which the orchestra flexes its facility for colour and impact. Such concert overtures impress only if they nail the expectant audience into their seats and, although its original purpose wasn’t explicitly as an overture, Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Adventure fits the bill perfectly. It was commissioned in 1938 by Alexander Richter, music director at the High School of Music and Art in New York. Richter asked Copland to create an ‘optimistic’ work which would appeal to American youth, and the result is a bright and open triumph of Americana. James Judd and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic capture its joyful nature; we join them half way through the piece.
An Outdoor Adventure (9.70290)
Most stories told through music take the form of a tone poem or symphonic poem. These single-movement pieces have programme notes that supply the unspoken narrative, and the composer applies his skills to leaving you in no doubt as to which picture-frame has been reached as the musical tale proceeds.
But Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra’s release of music by Jon Deak, titled Symphonic Tales, takes things a step further by using the performers as narrators and contributors of graphic vocal effects. Two of the works on the programme were written for Marin Alsop, who premiered them in 1991. One of them is The Snow Queen Finale: The Ice Palace, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s celebrated tale, and which the composer describes as “… a sort of ‘symphonic narrative’ that covers the last part of the seventh tale. Up to this point, Gerda, the story’s protagonist, has lost her dear playmate Kai because of a trick played on him by an evil troll: namely that fragments of twisted glass have pierced his eyes and heart, causing him to see beauty and love as ugliness and loathsomeness.
“Gerda encounters many harrowing adventures in her efforts to find Kai and recover his feelings. As the seventh story opens, she is about to enter the forbiddingly frozen world of Lapland. She has learned that Kai has come under the spell of the Snow Queen and is being held prisoner in her ice palace. Before she can reach the castle, however, Gerda must combat the Snow Queen’s army of monstrous snowflakes, which take the form of porcupines, snakes and wind-driven spears. Gerda’s only weapon is the very breath within her, whose clouds form themselves into protective angels, causing the army to temporarily retreat.”
We can hear the tale unfold up to the point of Gerda’s entry into the palace; Marin Alsop narrates; members of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra extend the work’s vocal palette.
The Snow Queen Finale: The Ice Palace (8.559785)
In Beethoven’s only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the orchestra’s role is more of a support for the singers’ text than a graphic portrayal of narrative descriptions. The oratorio portrays Jesus’ emotional struggles in the garden of Gethsemane before being seized by soldiers and taken for crucifixion. The work has an Italianate form with recitatives, arias and choruses, and its operatic attributes show Christ as a very human figure, a dramatic precursor to the sufferings of Florestan in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio.
Born in Germany, Beethoven had been sent to the Austrian capital of Vienna in 1787 (to study with Mozart) and again in 1792 (to study with Haydn). Talk of Beethoven’s new oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, which took him only a few weeks to complete, aroused great interest in Vienna in 1803. Beethoven had been appointed to Schikaneder’s Theater an der Wien and, taking advantage of this, was able to present a (very long) concert of his own compositions.
The final rehearsal for the concert began at eight o’clock on the morning of the concert, on Tuesday 5 April. Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries had been summoned by Beethoven early in the morning and found him, in bed, writing trombone parts for the oratorio, perhaps as an afterthought. The rehearsal was exhausting and the musicians dissatisfied, until they were pacified by the provision of refreshments by Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who also requested another run-through of the oratorio, to make sure all would go well at the concert.
Our recording is an all–Finnish affair, with soloists, choir and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Leif Segerstam. We can hear O Heil euch, ihr Erlösten for chorus and soprano solo that reveals both the work’s operatic character and a few of those trombone parts that tumbled off Beethoven’s bed.
O Heil euch, ihr Erlösten (8.573852)
While it’s true that in many concertos the lion’s share of the limelight goes to the soloist, there are some in which there’s a more equal distribution of the prominence between soloist and orchestra. One such example is the Romantic Piano Concerto by the Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964). He certainly faced some early headwinds. Having displayed all the hallmarks of a child prodigy on the piano, his father forbade any further involvement with the instrument, which Joseph countered by practising in secret, while at the same time becoming a very accomplished violinist and cellist.
When his teenage years were behind him, Marx increasingly developed into a ‘pianist composer’, similar to Rachmaninov. He could quite conceivably have made a living as a concert pianist with the requisite training, but Marx prioritised composition and teaching from the outset in his work. His Romantic Piano Concerto was first performed in 1921. The ‘Romantic’ qualifier in the title tells us that Marx was seeking to distance himself as clearly as possible from the burgeoning modernism of the Second Viennese School.
The piano is only occasionally deployed as a separate instrument, instead being woven into the overall symphonic structure and the resources of the orchestra, with the result that only an experienced listener will realise what a phenomenal physical effort the soloist has to put into this piece. This is doubtless one of the reasons that hardly anyone seems to dare to take on this gloriously unbridled, wild and Romantic virtuosic piece, an exception being our recording featuring solo pianist David Lively. Here’s the closing stretch of the first movement of the concerto, which has been described as a ‘symphonic duet’ between piano and orchestra. See if you agree.
Romantic Piano Concerto (8.573834)
As a sample of the orchestra’s merely supportive role in a concerto, here’s the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto, Il Gran Mogol, written some 160 years earlier and sounding worlds apart. Soloist Barthold Kuijken is accompanied by the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra.
Flute concerto, Il Gran Mogol (8.573899)
Finally, an example of the symphony orchestra standing firmly on its own two feet, with no narrative, descriptive or other such roles acting as a crutch – what might be termed essentially abstract music.
I’ve chosen the finale of the Second Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987). The 3-movement work was premiered in Moscow on Christmas Day 1934, with the Russian-born Albert Coates directing the Moscow Philharmonic. It was later championed in the West by conductors such as Arturo Toscanini (who gave the American premiere in New York on 8 November 1942) and the British conductor Malcolm Sargent. Its sure sense of drama and lyricism echo the qualities Prokofiev was making central to his music when he resettled in the Soviet Union at much the same time. Darrell Ang and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra brilliantly capture the spirit of the work on our new recording.
Second Symphony (8.573859)