The time has come to take Leopold Stokowski’s Bach arrangements seriously again. During the 1980s and 1990s we saw developments in the performance of baroque music that were healthy and much needed, and the trend towards more authentic performance practice resulted in unorthodox arrangements – like Stokowski’s which race along at FedEx speed – almost disappearing completely from the concert scene. But these arrangements, such as the Prelude we are hearing tonight, are brilliant, honest, touching and fun! It is worth reintroducing them nowadays.
Alban Berg was directly schooled by Arnold Schönberg and his Violin Concerto is, in my opinion, the most beautiful work ever written by any composer who grounded their work in Schönberg’s dodecaphonism (12-tone technique). To perform it with my dear friend Christian Tetzlaff is a dream job.
Schubert’s last (completed) symphony was not only “heavenly long” for its time, but also communicates in the most fantastic way for all times.
Bach’s three sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin remained mis-understood, unappreciated and on the far periphery of the repertoire until Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, published them in 1843, nearly a century after Bach’s death. Since that time, however, they have been embraced and cherished as have few other works in the violinist's repertoire. These sonatas and partitas culminate a long and well-defined tradition of German Baroque violin playing whose emphasis lay in polyphony and full, widely-spaced chords.
The Third Partita is the only one to open with a Praeludium, and a brilliant one it is! Further distinguishing the E-major Partita is the independent popularity of several of its movements, used in numerous arrangements and transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles. Leopold Stokowski, best remembered as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941, transcribed dozens of works into vibrantly coloured display pieces for either string orchestra or full orchestra, especially those of Bach. Among these is the opening number of the Third Partita (the title slightly altered in Stokowski’s arrangement), which Stokowski turns into a virtuoso showpiece for the entire violin section. Stokowski, incidentally, wasn’t the first to arrange this movement for other forces – Bach himself refashioned the violin piece into the Sinfonia introducing his Cantata BWV 29 (“Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir”), where he adds trumpets and timpani to the orchestra to enhance the splendour of the music.
By Robert Markow
This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Stokowski’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Prelude from his Partita No. 3.
In early 1935, Berg was approached by the Russian-born American violinist Louis Krasner with a commission to write a concerto, specifically one to help further the cause of twelve-tone music. Berg resisted, claiming he was not familiar enough with the violin medium. But a few weeks later came catastrophic news that stirred Berg to action. Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (the famous architect), died from polio. Berg had loved Manon as if she were his own. He admired her, as did everyone else, for her intelligence, beauty, gentleness and talent. She had been chosen to play the role of an angel in Max Reinhardt’s upcoming production of Everyman in Salzburg. “She never did play the angel,” Berg lamented, “though she became one.” Hence the Violin Concerto’s subtitle, Dem Andenken eines Engels (“To the Memory of an Angel”).
The concerto is laid out in two large parts, each further subdivided into two sections played without pause. The opening of the first movement is presumably meant to depict Manon in all her tenderness, sensitivity and elegance. The twelve-tone row upon which the concerto is based appears first in the solo violin in bar 15. The first nine pitches are arranged as a series of interconnected thirds, which lends the concerto much of its inherent lyricism within a twelve-tone environment. The second section (Allegretto) is marked to be played wienerisch (in a Viennese manner). Here is the lively and capricious Manon.
Tragedy strikes in the second movement. Ragged, highly dissonant writing portrays the girl’s struggle with death. The climax arrives with shattering power. The concerto’s final section is the heart-rending Adagio, built from Johann Rudolf Ahle’s chorale tune “Es ist genug!” (It is enough) as harmonized by Bach in his Cantata BWV 60 (O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort – “O Eternity, thou thunderous word”).
An air of religious meditation settles over the music. Solo violin and a quartet of clarinets (an almost organ-like sonority) alternate in presenting phrases of the chorale tune. This material is developed, with the orchestration becoming ever denser as another great climax is approached. The tension dissipates, the solo violin ascends to ethereal heights, and the concerto “to the memory of an angel” ends in a mood of profound contemplation that simultaneously gazes directly at grief, backward to Bach, and upward to heaven.
The premiere was given at a festival of The International Society of Contemporary Music in Barcelona on March 19, 1936. Hermann Scherchen conducted the Orquestra Pau Casals, and the soloist was, of course, Louis Krasner. Krasner went on to perform the work all over Europe and the United States, securing its status as one of the staples of the repertoire.
By Robert Markow
This is the second time the NAC Orchestra has played Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Their first performance of this work took place in 2005 with Oliver Knussen on the podium and Pinchas Zukerman as soloist.
Of all the great composers, Schubert’s life was the shortest. His death at the tragically early age of 31 leaves us with the sobering thought that everything he wrote is actually an “early” work. His crowning achievement in the symphonic medium, the Symphony No. 9 in C major, was written in the final years of his short life. Its nickname, The Great, refers not to a value judgment, much deserved though it may be, but to a need to distinguish it from an earlier Schubert symphony in C, now called The Little C Major (No. 6).
This symphony belongs to that category of masterworks that lay quietly on the shelf for years until accidentally “discovered.” At least that is the account generally handed down in countless record annotations, program notes and popular biographies. Recent research has provided a slightly different story. Robert Winter, a professor at UCLA and co-editor of the scholarly journal 19th-Century Music, has noted that “at some point between the summer of 1827 and Schubert’s death in November 1828, the work received at least a reading at a rehearsal of the orchestra of the Vienna Society of Friends of Music. Otto Biba, former archivist of the Society writes that ‘paper and scribal evidence make it clear that sometime in the early 1830s, and for an undetermined occasion, several duplicate orchestral parts were prepared. Moreover, the finale of the symphony was performed at a public concert in Vienna in 1836.’”
For bringing the symphony to light again, we have Robert Schumann to thank. He was in Vienna in January 1839 to pay his respects to the city’s musical heritage. In the course of a meeting with Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, Schumann was shown a pile of manuscripts, among which was the C Major Symphony. Schumann wrote about the experience: “The riches that lay piled up there made me tremble with pleasure. Where to begin, where to stop? Who knows how long it would have lain there in dust and darkness, had I not immediately arranged with Ferdinand Schubert to send it to the management of the Gewandhaus Concerts in Leipzig?” The conductor of this orchestra, Felix Mendelssohn, took it immediately to heart and performed it three times, though in drastically reduced form. Mendelssohn reported that “it is, without doubt, one of the best works we have lately heard. Bright, fascinating, and original throughout, it stands at the head of his instrumental works.” Berlioz summed up his own reaction by saying that “This symphony is, to my thinking, worthy of a place among the loftiest productions of our art.”
The numerous cuts Mendelssohn introduced into the symphony are easily understood in historical perspective. Except for Beethoven’s Ninth, this was the longest symphony written to date. It also seemed, to many, to be unnecessarily repetitive. Schumann thought differently, dubbing it the symphony “of heavenly length,” an opinion shared by most listeners today. Another point of historical interest is the prominent use of trombones in all four movements. The symphony was deemed extremely difficult to play right from the beginning, and the years have not considerably lessened demands made on the orchestra. The final movement in particular is one of the most taxing in the repertoire for the string players, who must repeat the same rhythmic pattern (a quick triplet) hundreds of times.
The symphony is so rich in wonderful moments, memorable themes and imaginative orchestration that only a few can be mentioned here: those magical opening bars – a soft call played by two horns in unison; the enormous buildup of tension that is finally released when the slow introduction passes into the Allegro section; the plaintive oboe theme of the second movement; that haunting passage in the same movement where the horns repeat the note G nine times, ever more softly, ushering in a return of the oboe’s principal theme; the Viennese grace of the third movement’s central Trio section; and the sheer length and majestic breadth of the Finale – some 1,155 measures, culminating in a coda of colossal power and blazing glory.
By Robert Markow
In 1975, Raffi Armenian led the NAC Orchestra in their first performance of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, and in 2013, Ainars Rubikis was conductor for their most recent interpretation of this symphony.