Zukerman, Mozart, Elgar

Mozart‘s sinfonia concertante was the first work for which I was fortunate enough to share the stage with Pinchas Zukerman. It was back in 1999, when I had just finished my first year of studies at Manhattan School of Music’s Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program. It was also the very first concert I played on the Stradivarius violin “Sasserno”, which I had received on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. All of those made that performance a particularly memorable experience for me. I couldn‘t be happier to come back to Ottawa now, almost 20 years later, to perform what I find to be one of the most beautiful and touching works in the violin/viola repertoire with my mentor and an orchestra he shaped for so many years.


Poème for Violin and Orchestra

Born in Paris, January 20, 1855
Died at Limay, near Nantes, June 10, 1899

When Ernest Chausson’s name comes up in musical circles, it is often in the context of composers who died under unusual circumstances. In his case, it was from a bicycle accident at age 44, when he rode headlong into a brick wall and was instantly killed. Peculiar as the incident may be, Chausson was nevertheless a man of the utmost seriousness, a composer who blended romanticism, sensuousness, mysticism and classical discipline into a personal style. He was one of the brightest stars in the orbit that surrounded César Franck, yet he also openly professed great admiration for Wagner, a stance that amounted to something approaching musical heresy. All these qualities are represented in his most famous work, the Poème for violin and orchestra.

Chausson wrote the Poème for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave the first public performance on December 27, 1896 in Nancy. The work’s original title was Le Chant de l’amour triomphant (The Song of Love Triumphant), which Chausson took over from a short story by Ivan Turgenev, one of his favourite authors. The Poème’s introduction is dark and mysterious. Out of the melancholic gloom emerges a long, sinuous theme on the solo violin, which then passes to the orchestral violins. Several subsidiary ideas are also presented, but it is the initial theme that receives the most extended treatment, and is the one Chausson reserves for the emotional climax, played by the full orchestra with Wagnerian pathos.

Program notes by Robert Markow


Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra in E-flat major, K. 364

Born in Salzburg, January 27, 1756
Died in Vienna, December 5, 1791

The sinfonia concertante is essentially a classical concerto for multiple soloists (usually two to four). Its distinction from the Baroque concerto grosso lies in its form and its use of the orchestra more as accompanist than as an equal and opposing force to the soloists. Paris in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries could claim the richest musical life of any city in Europe. Hundreds of fine instrumentalists clamoured for concertos to display their talent. To satisfy this demand, and the demand of the paying public as well to hear these soloists in tuneful music, composers turned out concertos that featured several, often diverse instruments at a clip. This music was overtly fashionable, and was written solely to please an adoring public. Consequently, most of it is of little value, and very few of the 600 or so sinfonias concertantes survive today.

The sinfonia concertante was essentially a Parisian phenomenon; hence, the French spelling symphonie concertante is really more appropriate than the Italian sinfonia concertante. Common usage dictates the Italian for the work on tonight’s program, and French for Mozart’s Symphonie concertante for winds. By the early 19th century, many soloists had embraced the star mentality, and were unwilling to share the stage with colleagues. The symphonie concertante had run its course. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Brahms’s Double Concerto are sinfonies concertantes in all but name, poignant reminders of a vanished breed.

Standing head and shoulders above all others in the entire genre is Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, K. 364, a masterpiece worthy to rank with his greatest piano concertos. It is a work of unusual depth of expression, eloquence, and breadth of scope. It was composed, oddly enough, after (not during) Mozart’s extended sojourn in Paris in the late 1770s. Also odd is the lack of information regarding its composition and premiere. We do not know for whom it might have been written, only that it dates from the latter half of 1779 in Salzburg.

The Sinfonia concertante opens with a maestoso call to attention for full orchestra, a sound that strikes us immediately as being unusually full, rich and indicative of the breadth that will characterize the entire movement. Part of this richness is due to the use of a divided viola section, giving more weight and colour to this warm‑hued instrument. A world of contrasts is presented in the long orchestral introduction: full orchestra vs. selected elements, loud vs. soft, chordal texture vs. arpeggiated figuration, string sonorities vs. winds, stern military bearing vs. ardent lyricism. The soloists enter in octaves on a sustained E-flat, followed by a descending scale – a passage often described as one of “piercing sweetness.”  

A profusion of thematic ideas is found in this movement. The soloists retain most of these for themselves; in fact, the movement is notable for this very lack of sharing of ideas between soloists and orchestra. (The orchestra, too, has its quota of unshared material.) But the soloists certainly share with each other, displaying absolute artistic parity throughout. Each in turn takes the lead, each expresses himself fully, gives his partner a say, then joins in simultaneous dialogue. The course and variety of these dialogues provides a source of endless fascination.

The Andante is one of Mozart’s most poignantly expressive movements, darkly scored, and spiritually related to the great arias of tragic bearing in the operas. The key is C minor, rarely used in Mozart’s day except for music of extreme pathos and intensity of emotional outpouring. The first principal idea is stated at the outset, then developed by the soloists; the second, also introduced by the orchestral strings, is one of Mozart’s most ravishingly beautiful and elegiac themes.

The third movement is a rondo, as are nearly all classical concerto finales. Though joyous and often exuberant, it is still coloured by the nobility and dignity of the former movements. Pairs of oboes, sometimes with horns, offer periodic commentaries. Unusually for a rondo movement, there is no episode in a minor key for contrast, but such has been the wealth of other kinds of contrasts in this remarkable work that the episode is scarcely missed. The Sinfonia concertante closes with the same self-assurance and grandly maestoso character with which it began half an hour before.

November 21-22, 2018: The NAC Orchestra performed Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for the first time in 1971, with Mario Bernardi on the podium, Walter Prystawski on violin and Lazaro Sternic on viola. The Orchestra played the sinfonia most recently in 2016, with Matthias Pinscher as conductor, Yosuke Kawasaki as solo violinist and Jethro Marks as solo violist. Pinchas Zukerman has been conductor and violist for this work several times over the years – among the violinists who have played this work with him are Itzhak Perlman, Nikolaj Znaider and, as tonight, Viviane Hagner.

Program notes by Robert Markow


Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, “Enigma Variations”

Born at Broadheath, Worcestershire, England, June 2, 1857
Died in Worcester, February 23, 1934

The premiere of the Enigma Variations on June 19, 1899 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Elgar’s life. Already in his early forties, and with no reputation to speak of outside of his native England, Elgar was still regarded as “a man who hasn’t appeared yet” (his own words). The Enigma Variations changed that dramatically. Following the June premiere, Elgar slightly revised the score, extended the Finale, and saw the work played again and again to enthusiastic audiences not only in England but on the continent and in America as well. So quickly did Elgar’s fame spread now that he was knighted just five years after its premiere. He dedicated the score “to my friends pictured within.”

The identities of those “friends pictured within” constitute one aspect of the title’s enigma. Following the stately theme are 14 variations, the first and last of which depict Elgar’s wife and his own musical self-portrait, respectively. In between are found idiosyncratic orchestral descriptions of twelve men and women who played important roles in Elgar’s musical and/or social life. Each variation was prefaced with the character’s initials or nickname. Initially Elgar refused to disclose their identities, but later he published a detailed written explanation giving clues.

There is another enigma to the Variations. Elgar never revealed “its ‘dark saying’… through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played.” This unplayed theme, a theme that “never appears,” has mystified the musical world for more than a century. Presumably Elgar’s wife and his friend August Jaeger knew the secret, but they carried it to their graves. Speculation has run to absurd proportions. Late in life the composer gave a clue: the theme was “so well known that it was strange no one had discovered it.” Musicologists tried mapping all kinds of songs and popular melodies onto the Variations, with varying degrees of failure. They tried programmatic and philosophical themes (“another and larger theme”) like intimacy, friendship and sincerity. They suggested maybe it was all a practical joke – that there was no theme at all of any kind. The enigma remains.

THEME (Enigma) – The theme appears immediately and consists of two phrases: the first, plaintive and sorrowful in G minor stated by violins in a gently climbing and falling line; the second, in G major, shared by strings and woodwinds.

VARIATION I – Without change of tempo, we are introduced to Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife, “one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration” in Elgar’s words.

VARIATION II – Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar (as violinist) played chamber music, is humorously travestied as warming up.

VARIATION III – Elgar presents a caricature of actor Richard Baxter Townshend playing an old man in an amateur theatrical.

VARIATION IV – For the first time the full orchestral sonority is heard. William Meath Baker was described by an acquaintance as a “Gloucestershire squire of the old-fashioned type; scholar… a man of abundant energy.”

VARIATION V – Richard Penrose Arnold, son of Matthew Arnold, is portrayed as a man of depth and seriousness of purpose.

VARIATION VI – Miss Isobel Fitton, a violist, was another enthusiastic amateur who played chamber music with Elgar. Appropriately, her instrument is featured here, depicting a woman of romantic charm.

VARIATION VII – This variation shows architect Arthur Troyte Griffith’s clumsy attempts to play the piano and Elgar’s efforts to help him. The final slam suggests the frustration of it all.

VARIATION VIII – Here is depicted the tranquil lifestyle of a gracious lady, Miss Winifred Norbury of Worcester in her eighteenth-century home.

VARIATION IX – In the best-known of the variations, Elgar creates a moving tribute to August Jaeger. The nickname “Nimrod” refers to the biblical hunter, son of Cush (“Jaeger” is German for “hunter”). The soft glow that infuses this music grew out of a “record of a long summer evening talk,” reported Elgar, “when my friend Jaeger grew nobly eloquent – as only he could – on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially of his slow movements.”

VARIATION X – Dorabella (later Mrs. Richard Powell) was a lady of hesitant conversation and fluttering manner. Elgar spoke of this music as “a dance of fairy-like lightness.”

VARIATION XI – It is traditional to hear in this music the capering of Sinclair’s bulldog Dan as he stumbles down the banks of the River Wye, paddles upstream to find a landing place and finally scrambles out barking.

VARIATION XII – Another amateur musician in Elgar’s circle was Basil G. Nevinson. His instrument, the cello, predictably has a featured role in this variation.

VARIATION XIII – This variation depicts Lady Mary Lygon, who was on a sea voyage to Australia at the time of composition. This gentle seascape includes quotations on the clarinet from Mendelssohn’s Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

VARIATION XIV – Here is Elgar himself. The composer’s assertive, self-assured side is seen here (not his more typical reserved side), and the Variations end in exultant tones. 

Pinchas Zukerman has long championed Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the NAC Orchestra, from their first performance in 2005, to the Orchestra’s most recent in 2013. Guest orchestras have frequently interpreted the work in Southam Hall, including the Orchestra of the BBC Wales, in 1983, and the Orchestre Métropolitain with Yannick Nézét-Seguin in 2015.

Program notes by Robert Markow