Program Notes: Pictures At An Exhibition

Concert Program

Georges Enescu (1881 – 1955)
Romanian Rhapsody in A major, Op. 11, No. 1
Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967)
Dances of Galanta (Galántai táncok)
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Concerto in D major for Piano (Left Hand) & Orchestra
Modest Mussorgsky / Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1839 – 1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Maurice Ravel)
Promenade
1. Gnomus
Promenade
2. The Old Castle
Promenade
3. Tuileries
4. Bydlo
Promenade
5. Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells
6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
7. Limoges
8. Catacombs
Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
9. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs
10. The Great Gate of Kiev

Program Notes

GEORGE ENESCU
Born in Liveni Vîrnav [now George Enescu], nr Dorohoi, Romania, August 19, 1881; died in Paris, France, May 3/4, 1955). 
Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, in A, Op. 11 (1901)

 Composer, conductor, brilliant violinist and teacher, Romanian-born George Enescu (also known by his French name Georges Enesco) travelled the world as a celebrated musician.  Casals, his musical partner, called him ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.’  Menuhin referred to him as ‘the greatest musician I have ever known.’  Enescu’s infectious and exhilarating Romanian Rhapsodies, written when he was just 20, dogged his international career by limiting his reputation as a composer.  Enescu, a highly cultured man who could speak five languages fluently, eventually declared himself ‘fed up’ with them.  Dismissed as a folklorist composer by some, Enescu confused others unable to comprehend his cultural and aesthetic mix of East and West, romanticism, impressionism and modernism – characteristics that, these days, would be viewed as an asset to a composer.  Audiences around the world, however, relished the Romanian Rhapsodies from the start. Like Liszt in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Enescu takes as his point of departure, the folk music of his country.  “Contrary to the general idea, Romania is not a Slavic country, but Latin,” he writes in the notes to his own recording of the Romanian Rhapsodies.  “Settled 2000 years ago, it has maintained its completely Latin character . . . Our music, curiously enough, is influenced not by the neighbouring Slav, but by members of these remote races, now classed as Gypsies, brought to Romania as servants of the Roman conquerors.  The deeply oriental character of our own folk music derives from these sources and possesses a flavour as singular as it is beautiful.”

ZOLTÁN KODÁLY
Born in Kecskemét, Hungary, December 16, 1882; died in Budapest, March 6, 1967
Dances of Galánta (1933)

From the ages of three to ten, Kodály lived in the small Western Hungarian village of Galánta, now part of Slovakia.  He grew up in a musical family and was intrigued by the folksongs that he heard the villagers sing.  The exuberant music of the town’s famous travelling band, led by the fiddler Mihók, was to remain with him for the rest of his life.  As a young man, Kodály began to travel widely collecting and recording folksongs over several decades, painstakingly transcribing thousands of them into notation.  They formed the backbone of his life’s work and musical composition.  Written for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic in 1933, Galántai táncok (Dances of Galánta) draws on Kodály’s folksong heritage and the sounds and music of the gypsy band from the village where he spent “the happiest days of my childhood.”  It also draws on several volumes of Hungarian dances published around the year 1800, one of which included dances ‘from several Gypsies in Galánta.’  The work evolves around the verbunkos recruiting dance, with its slower sections (lassú) and quicker (friss) – five dances woven together and built at an increasingly   frenetic pace into a virtuoso symphonic poem with a recurring theme.

MAURICE RAVEL
Born in Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, France, December 28, 1937
Piano concerto in D, for the left-hand and orchestra (1930-1)

It was the very restrictions of writing a piano concerto for a pianist’s left-hand with orchestra that appealed to Ravel in 1929 when he was approached with the idea.  Wounded fighting with the Imperial Austrian army on the Russian front in the First World War, Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) had contended with the loss of his right-arm by focusing his rehabilitation on boxing and then re-building a pre-war concert career into that of left-hand virtuoso.  The formidable technique he was to develop over a three-decade career enabled Wittgenstein (brother to philosopher Ludwig) to use family wealth to commission left-hand works from leading composers of the day, including Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Britten, Hindemith, Korngold and others.  When Wittgenstein made the proposal, Ravel was already at work on his G major piano concerto – music that glitters and sparkles with a mischievous sense of fun, designed as a sure-fire audience pleaser.  But Wittgenstein’s idea appealed to Ravel’s darker side.  “The fear of difficulty is never as keen as the pleasure of contending with it, and, if possible, of overcoming it,” the French composer was later to say.  The two concertos that he worked on simultaneously are as different as day and night and were to be his last orchestral works.  Both are masterpieces.  But the left-hand Concerto has been celebrated as one of only two or three truly great piano concertos from the last century.

It’s a single-movement work cast as a tense meeting (Lento) of piano and large orchestra, each presenting its own ideas as to how things might develop.  The opening movement is followed by a danse macabre or scherzo (Allegro).  Then there’s a reprise of the opening, leading to a piano cadenza in which the musical ideas contend with one another until, in Ravel’s words, “they are brusquely interrupted by a brutal conclusion.”  Wittgenstein proved himself a difficult man to deal with and made changes to Ravel’s scoring at a private première he himself funded, attempting to push the soloist more into the limelight.  Ravel protested.  A few years later, Wittgenstein admitted he was wrong, and that Ravel’s left-hand concerto was, indeed, a great work.

MODEST MUSSORGSKY, orch. Maurice Ravel
Born in Karevo, Pskov district, Russia, March 9/21, 1839; died in St Petersburg, Russia, March 16/28, 1881
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922)

As a piece of Russian realism, alive with vivid colours, varied textures, vibrant scenes and telling everyday situations, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition ranks with the best.  Its original piano version is craggy and asymmetric and does not fall easily under the fingers.  Yet Mussorgsky himself was a fine pianist and knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the music.  Pictures lies many steppes away from the bland salon miniatures and flashy showpieces that formed the diet of 19th century Russian pianists.  In it, he uses a keen sense of dramatic realism to bring to life ten pictures by his recently deceased friend, the Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann.  A memorial exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s drawings, watercolours and set designs, mounted in St. Petersburg, gave Mussorgsky an incentive to write his own memorial to a prematurely dead friend who had given him advice about his newly revised opera Boris Godunov.

Mussorgsky was just 35 at the time he wrote the piece.  He was born to an aristocratic land-owning family, but dispossessed of his wealth in 1861, when the Czar freed the Russian masses from serfdom.  Forced to work the tedious nine-to-five shift of a civil servant and possessing an incomplete musical education, Mussorgsky had only his raw talent to fall back on.  He wrote this personal tribute to his 39-year-old friend at white heat, in less than three weeks, saying he “could hardly manage to scribble it all down on paper” because the musical ideas were coming so fast.  The pictorial strength of Mussorgsky’s miniature tone poems far outweighs the provincialism of Hartmann’s work.  In the opening Promenade, the composer portrays himself wandering from picture to picture.  As he goes deeper into the memorial exhibition, the Promenade melody gradually becomes integrated into the music of the pictures themselves, increasingly colouring the spectator’s mood.  Ravel’s orchestration, commissioned by the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, was made in 1922, a half century after Mussorgsky wrote the original piano suite in 1874.  It was by no means the first such orchestration, nor the last, but it is the most enduring of three dozen or more known orchestrations.

©2019 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca

Biographies

Teo Gheorghiu, piano

Born near Zurich, Switzerland in 1992, Canadian pianist Teo Gheorghiu made his concert debut in his hometown at the Tonhalle in 2004. Since then, he has been performing internationally at some of the world’s most important venues, working with leading orchestras, collaborating with highly esteemed conductors, winning several competitions and recording CDs with decorated labels.

Teo has studied and spent most of his life in London and it is there that he spent 5 years finding his voice under the guidance of his inspirational teacher and mentor Hamish Milne. Since then he has made his own way in exploring varied repertoires and new ways to reflect life into music. While in previous seasons this has manifested itself in contrasting, mainly romantic programmes, Teo’s current focus lies in the national musical styles of Romania, Spain and France. As a musician with a multi-cultural background, spending time with Enescu’s oeuvre has been his way to get closer to the country of his parents – Romania – while the fascination with Albeniz, Granados, Ravel and Debussy was heavily influenced by his experience of cycling through France and Spain not long ago.

More recently, Teo has particularly enjoyed his residency as Artiste Etoile at Schlosskonzerte Thun, his first collaboration with conductor Kristian Järvi and his return to Musikkollegium Winterthur to play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with his respected colleague Roberto Gonzalez conducting. The 18/19 season sees him being re-invited for a recital at Piano aux Jacobins in Toulouse, sharing the stage with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra Quartet, performing the two Ravel piano concertos for the first time in Germany and Canada, and going back on tour in Taiwan.

As well as being an avid cyclist, Teo’s other passions lie in playing football, travelling, and making new discoveries in the world of music with African roots.