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Program Notes - Virtuoso Vadim Gluzman

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Arvo Pärt
b. Paide, Estonia / September 11, 1935
 
First performance by the RPO.
 
Up until the mid-1970s, Pärt composed in a chilly, cerebral modern style. Dissatisfied with that approach, and having been deeply impressed by his first exposure to the church music of the Middle Ages, he virtually withdrew from composing. During an eight-year hiatus, he made an intense study of medieval music, emerging with a radically different creative style, one that emphasizes beauty and eloquent simplicity.
                       
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) is one of his most frequently performed creations. He writes, “In the past years we have had many losses in the world of music to mourn. Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballades of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.”

In its oldest, simplest form, dating from medieval times, the word cantus refers simply to a melody. Later it came to mean a lament, or a mystical experience. Pärt’s Cantus opens with the sound of a bell, bringing inevitable associations with churches and funerals. It continues tolling throughout the piece, while the string orchestra plays a dirge, touched with medieval spirit but timeless in its eloquent grief.


Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Jean Sibelius
b. Hämeenlinna, Finland / December 8, 1865
d. Järvenpää, Finland / September 20, 1957
 
First performed by the RPO on December 11, 1952; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor; Millard Taylor, violin. Last performed March 18, 2007, with the RPYO; David Harman, conductor; William Cho, violin.
 
Sibelius’ early desire had been a career as a violin soloist, but his talent as performer proved insufficient. On the other hand, these circumstances ensured that he had no need to consult a professional soloist when he set to a work on this concerto in September 1902. The acclaimed soloist Willy Burmester had made repeated requests for him to do so, and Sibelius now felt prepared to fulfill the commission.
 
For a number of reasons, including a pressing need for cash, the premiere was given at a hastily organized concert in Helsinki on February 8, 1904. Burmester being unavailable on such short notice, the solo part was played by the little-known and relatively inexperienced Viktor Nováček. Sibelius conducted. The concerto failed miserably. Even critics who had praised Sibelius’ earlier works to the skies found both it and Nováček’s performance wanting.
 
Sibelius revised the concerto during the summer of 1905, spurred on by his publisher’s success in placing the piece in the concert series staged in Berlin by Richard Strauss. Strauss directed the Berlin Philharmonic in the second debut on October 19, with the orchestra’s Concertmaster, Carl Halir, playing the solo part. This version achieved everything that the first had not.
Sibelius gave the concerto a superbly atmospheric opening that casts an immediate spell of mystery. The solo violin emerges out of a murmuring bed of strings, with a long, yearning theme of ever-growing intensity. The second subject is highly expressive, almost passionate. A substantial, turbulent cadenza appears at the midway point; the orchestra re-enters quietly, almost before it’s over. The coda is uncompromisingly stern. The first half of the second movement is quite restrained. The emotional temperature rises towards the middle, first through orchestral surges then increasingly so as the soloist joins in, leading to a powerful climax. In its wake, some sense of emotional resolution is at last achieved. Typically for Sibelius, the finale isn’t a jolly, dancing romp, but an exciting, insistently rhythmic rondo. Musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey labeled it “a polonaise for polar bears.” It contains the concerto’s highest share of technical demands, and builds up a vibrant head of steam en route to the dynamic conclusion.

 

Symphony No. 5 in D Major
Ralph Vaughan Williams
b. Down Ampney, England / October 12, 1872
d. London, England / August 26, 1958
 
First performed by the RPO on February 9, 1961; Theodore Bloomfield, conductor. Last performed February 23, 1991; Mark Elder, conductor.
 
Many listeners took Vaughan Williams’s harsh Fourth Symphony (1935) as a forecast of war, although the composer denied that anything so specific had inspired it. By the time he began Symphony No. 5 three years later, he had returned to a more pastoral frame of mind, even though the threat of war had become even greater. The resulting work is to a great degree the opposite of its predecessor, although it is far from untroubled. He conducted the first performance himself, in London on June 24, 1943. He revised the symphony in 1951.
 
For many years, he had been fascinated by John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century book, Pilgrim’s Progress, the story of a man’s journey towards spiritual enlightenment. In 1909, he composed incidental music for a staged presentation of the story. This led him to consider setting it as an opera. By 1938, he had temporarily given up on what had proven a most difficult task. Reluctant to abandon the materials, he incorporated some of them into the Fifth Symphony. They appear in three of the four movements, the scherzo excepted. He did not complete the opera until 1951.
 
He wished Symphony No. 5 to be considered as a separate, purely abstract work, although in overall terms a clear relationship exists between it and the opera. If listeners choose to view it as a spiritual quest, a wish for peace and tranquility in anxious times, or a prediction of the ultimate victory of light over darkness, these seem to be reasonable approaches. His recent first acquaintance with Ursula Lock, the young woman destined to become his second wife, may also have played a role in the symphony’s warm, lyrical character.
 
The first movement, Preludio, opens with horns quietly singing a wistful theme over a bed of strings. A more confident mood is established with the appearance of the second theme, only to see uncertainty return as the tempo quickens. The music drives ahead to a dramatic climax before dissolving back to the troubled atmosphere of the opening bars.
 
The scherzo displays equal parts animation and gruff, almost menacing humor. Towards the close, the volume level falls away to almost nothing, setting up the opening of the gorgeous, heartfelt third movement, Romanza. The manuscript score of this section bears an inscription from Bunyan, quoting the despairing scene in the opera where this music appears: “Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below it a sepulcher. Then he said, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.’” The doubts that well up during the central portion of the movement (referring to Bunyan’s words “Save me Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear”) are resolved in a warm, peaceful coda, eloquently presided over by solo violin.
 
The finale is a passacaglia, a type of theme and variations dating back to the Baroque era. This is music of resolve and joy, exhibiting the strength of character, and ultimately (complete with the reappearance of the symphony’s opening horn call), the serenity which are the end rewards of this moving symphonic journey.
 
© 2009 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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