Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto

Concert Program

Witold Lutoslawski (1913 – 1994)
Overture for Strings
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor for Piano & Orchestra, op.23 *
I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso
II. Andantino semplice
III. Allegro con fuoco
Leos Janácek (1854 – 1928)
Taras Bulba; Rhapsody after Gogol
I. Death of Andril (Smrt Andrijova)
II. Death of Ostap (Smrt Ostapova)
III. Death and Prophesy of Taras Bulba (Proroctví a smrt Bulby)
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, op.56a
Chorale St. Antoni: Andante
Variation I: Poco più animato
Variation II: Più vivace
Variation III: Con moto
Variation IV: Andante con moto
Variation V: Vivace
Variation VI: Vivace
Variation VII: Grazioso
Variation VIII: Presto non troppo
Finale: Andante

Program Notes

WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Overture for Strings (1949)

This short overture is one of an outstanding series of more than 200 commissions from major 20th century composers devised by Swiss conductor and musical patron Paul Sacher for the Basle Chamber Orchestra. It’s a transitional work in which its Polish composer searches for “a sound language which could better serve my purposes.” Lutoslawski’s solution, at the time, was to work with two eight-note scales with a miniature, traditional sonata-form structure, with two contrasting themes. The resulting sound-world is not unlike that of Bartók at the time, with an occasional modal feeling to the harmony and even suggestions of a folk-music source underlying its carefully worked-out score. The forward-driven music builds towards a convincing conclusion.

PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1, in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874–5, rev. 1879)

As a pianist, Tchaikovsky’s accomplishments were modest and well outside the mighty line of Russian pianist-composers from Anton Rubinstein through Balakirev, Taneyev, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin to more recent times. This may well have been his downfall at the first read-through of the B-flat Concerto for Nikolay Rubinstein, Director of the Moscow Conservatoire, where the young Tchaikovsky taught harmony. “It appeared that my concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved. The whole piece was bad, trivial, and vulgar,” the highly sensitive composer later complained. But, with his Second Symphony, the Little Russian, having recently demonstrated Tchaikovsky’s lyrical and symphonic skills to an admiring Russian audience, the 35-year-old composer stuck to his guns. He kept the ‘awkward’ notes – among them, the concerto’s big, bold opening. A more confident opener cannot be imagined as all four horns majestically initiate a series of chords which become the backbone of the soloist’s crashing accompaniment to a gloriously stirring string melody. Twice repeated, it leads to an early cadenza and no uncertainty as to who is to be in charge of what’s to come. It is repeated once more fff for good luck and then, surprisingly, given the conventions of the sonata-form that underpins most concertos of the day, the big tune is destined not to appear again.

It is, however, balanced by another broad melody in the finale, also in D-flat major and equally memorable. In between the orchestral sweep of these bookends lies a cogently structured concerto that quickly began to win audiences after its première in Boston, October 25, 1875. The first movement weaves a coherent symphonic argument from three main elements. First comes a scampering, kittenish theme from the piano, full of nervous energy, in the home key of B-flat minor. This derives from a Ukrainian folk melody, the first of two that Tchaikovsky transforms into something quite personal and distinctive in the concerto. It is followed by a tender, winsome woodwind melody and an even more tender reply from muted strings. The middle movement combines both slow movement and scherzo into a gentle lullaby, whose initial flute melody is lovingly shared between soloist and orchestra, and a central, fantastical, balletic Prestissimo section. The movement has structural integrity not only through the quality of Tchaikovsky’s melodic writing and imaginative orchestration but also by the way rhythmic ideas effortlessly transform from background to foreground as a kind of variation technique. The finale pushes the soloist’s virtuosity to the limit as it returns to the exuberance of the opening movement. Its main theme again originates in a Ukrainian folk melody, now strongly rhythmic and energetic. This vies for attention with Tchaikovsky’s big, full-blooded broad melody throughout the movement’s rondo structure. The music drives forwards towards a martellato cadenza and the grandest of conclusions in a score that has become a landmark in the tradition of the Romantic concerto.

LEOš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba: Rhapsody after Gogol, JW IV/15 (1915-18)

Czech composer Leoš Janáček had contemplated writing a score based on Gogol’s account of the early 17th century Cossack hero Taras Bulba since 1905, long before it finally came to fruition during the First World War. It was a time of intense nationalism, when Slavic Moravia was hoping to find independence from Austro-Hungarian rule, with Russian help. Janáček originally titled his three-movement suite ‘Slav Rhapsody,’ though its inspiration was clearly drawn from Gogol’s strongly patriotic message. Janáček wrote: “Not because he [Taras Bulba] killed his first son for having betrayed his country [First Part], nor because of the martyr’s death suffered by his second son [Second Part], but because ‘there is no fire nor suffering in the whole world which could break the strength of the Russian people’ – for these words which fall onto the stinging fiery embers of the pyre on which Taras Bulba, the famous Cossack captain, was burned to death [Third Part], I have composed this rhapsody according to the legend as written down by N.V. Gogol.”

Despite the subtitle, Taras Bulba is only really rhapsodic in the first part, as Andrij, fearing discovery, secretly searches for the girl he loves at night among the starving inhabitants of a besieged town. The conflict between love and war is viscerally portrayed during their love scene, as the harsh, metallic sounds of war intrude upon the gentler, yearning phrases of love and inevitably lead to the fatal confrontation between father and son. In the second part, Janáček’s constant repetition and skill in manipulating small musical motives drive the second son, Ostap, through grief at the loss of his brother through battle to his own fate. Captured by the Poles in a wild mazurka-like celebration, Ostap’s screams while being tortured are represented by the high E-flat clarinet. In the third part, Taras himself, now captured, nailed to a tree and about to be burned, finds satisfaction, despite another victory dance (a krakowiak), at seeing his comrades escape. The music, with its many cross references to earlier scenes, builds to a magnificent climax as Taras Bulba, oblivious to his pain, predicts a glorious future for his people. Bells, organ, brass and full orchestra resonantly confirm a triumphant outcome to Janáček’s stirring symphonic rhapsody.

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1873)

In 1870, Ferdinand Pohl, librarian to the Vienna Philharmonic Society, showed his friend Brahms a set of six Feld-Partitas for eight wind instruments. He believed them to be by Haydn. The second movement of the B-flat Partita particularly caught Brahms’s eye. Called Chorale St. Antoni in the manuscript, Brahms immediately saw potential in its irregular, yet musically logical structure. The theme was believed to be a traditional Austrian pilgrim song, which added a romantic touch to the discovery. In his mind, Brahms began to formulate a set of variations on the chorale that could be viewed as a tribute to Haydn and to the classical era in general. He had already paid tribute to the Baroque era in his Handel variations. And he had acknowledged his friend and mentor Robert Schumann and his romantic ideals in his Schumann variations. In August 1873, he played over the completed two-piano score of the Haydn variations with Clara Schumann and sent the manuscript off to his publisher. It appeared in print November 1, 1873, almost simultaneously with the première of its orchestral version (also now known by the title Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale).

Brahms writes on a symphonic scale. His extensive study of the old polyphonic masters from the 18th century and earlier provided him with a detailed knowledge of variation technique. He was to draw on this insider’s knowledge when building the vast structure of his Haydn Variations. But his knowledge also worked at the micro level. Hearing the deceptively simple chorale theme, Brahms would have intuitively recognized its built-in contrast and balanced structure [a sort of miniature sonata-form, in fact]. This gave him a pointer to the overall structure of the work.

Energetic and forward driving, the first three variations function like an opening movement. Then comes a more reflective Andante, in the minor key. Variations 5 to 8 function as a scherzo, with hunting calls and galloping rhythms in No. 6 and a graceful, trio-like Siciliano in No. 7. Brahms concludes his virtuoso transformation of the original Haydn theme in a passacaglia, with 17 repetitions of a solemn, five-bar theme. (Sad to spoil a good story, but although Haydn’s name became attached to both the St. Anthony Chorale and the six original Partitas ever since their listing in the publisher Breitkopf’s catalogue of 1782-4, 20th century musicologists have agreed that the music is not, in fact, by Haydn at all. It remains without attribution).

Biographies

Marzena Diakun, conductor

Born in Poland in 1981, Marzena Diakun has made a name for herself across Europe, particularly in France, following a very successful tenure as Assistant Conductor with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France from September 2015 to December 2016.

She has since received invitations to conduct the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sweden, Göteborg Opera, Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias, the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, Orquestra Sinfónica do Estado de São Paulo, Busan Philharmonic and, in France, Orchestre de Poitou-Charentes, Orchestre de Picardie, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, the Orchestre National de Lyon (Berlioz & La Chaise-Dieu festivals) and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with whom she will conduct a subscription series concert during 2017/2018. Marzena has also worked with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra, Jenaer Philharmoniker, Slovenian National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Presidential Symphony Orchestra in Ankara.

Marzena is very active in her home country: she has been engaged to conduct the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw, Wroclaw Philharmonic NFM, Krakow Philharmonic, Lodz Philharmonic, Kielce Philharmonic, Silesian Philharmonic and the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestras.

She has established experience in conducting contemporary music, and premiering numerous works with both the Smash Ensemble (Spain) and Berg Orchestra (Czech Republic). Among the soloists Marzena Diakun has worked with, one can list Andreas Staier, Ewa Kupiec, cellists Truls Mørk and Daniel Müller-Schott, singers Camilla Nylund, Klaus Florian Vogt, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Nathalie Stutzmann, Sabine Devieilhe, Jodie Devos, Jean-François Lapointe.

The conductor received Second Prize at both the Prague Spring Competition for Conductors in 2007 and the Fitelberg International Competition for Conductors in 2012. She also received the highest distinction award from the Polish Minister of Art in 2005 and, in January 2017, was awarded the highest Polish distinction: the National Paszport Polityki award in the classical music category.

Marzena Diakun studied piano before graduating in 2010 in conducting with Mieczyslaw Gawronski at the Karol Lipinski Academy of Music in Wroclaw. She furthered her studies at the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna in Uros Lajovic’s class, and attended masterclasses with conductors Jerzy Salwarwoski, Marek Tracz as well as Gabriel Chmura, Howard Griffiths, Colin Metters, Kurt Masur and Pierre Boulez, the latter as part of the Lucerne Festival Academy.

Previously, Marzena was Assistant-Conductor to Jerzy Maksymiuk at the Koszalin Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrey Boreyko at the Berner Symphony Orchestra. In the United States, she was recipient of a Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood Music Festival, and won the Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship in 2015. Marzena Diakun is currently a tenured lecturer at the Wroclaw Academy, having led her own conducting class since 2013.

Alexandra Dariescu, pianist

Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, recently named as ‘one of 30 pianists under 30 destined for a spectacular career’ (International Piano Magazine), dazzles audiences worldwide with her effortless musicality and captivating stage presence.

From recent appearances in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to the Royal Albert Hall, Dariescu’s 2017/18 season marks more important milestones including debuts both at Vienna’s prestigious Musikverein, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dinu Lipatti with two concertos (Lipatti & Grieg) performed together with the Transylvania Philharmonic conducted by Gabriel Bebeselea and her Vienna Staatsoper debut in recital with Angela Gheorghiu. Alexandra Dariescu makes her US concerto debuts with the Utah Symphony and Kazuki Yamada as well as her Canadian debut with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and Marzena Diakun and Orchestre Philharmonique de Québec with Fabien Gabel. Alexandra also performs Lipatti and Grieg with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Cristian Mandeal in London’s Cadogan Hall and will be soloist with the Brighton Philharmonic and Barry Wordsworth as well as Bath Philharmonia and Jason Thornton. Following her return to the Enescu Festival for a duo recital, Alexandra will be resident at the Iserlohner Herbsttage für Musik in Germany performing a recital, concertos by Haydn and Rachmaninov and giving a three-day masterclass.

A highlight of this season will be the world premiere of Dariescu’s own production, The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu – a ground-breaking multimedia performance created for piano solo with dance and digital animation – which will take place at Barbican’s Milton Court, followed by performances at Moscow’s International House of Music, the Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival and multiple tours to China.

This season will see Alexandra complete her trilogy recording of Messiaen and Faure preludes which compliments the previously released CDs of Chopin/Dutilleux and Shostakovich/ Szymanowski preludes (Champs Hill Records). The 2016 release of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No. 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev’s concert suite of arrangements from The Nutcracker (Signum Records) received high praise. Another recording features Emily Howard’s ‘Mesmerism’ for piano and orchestra with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was released on NMC Records.

Always curious to continue learning, Alexandra receives advice and guidance from Sir András Schiff. She has been mentored by Imogen Cooper through the Royal Philharmonic Society/YCAT Philip Langridge Mentoring Scheme. A former artist of Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) she was a Laureate at the Verbier Festival Academy. In 2013 Alexandra received the UK’s Women of the Future Award in the Arts and Culture category. She became the youngest musician to receive the Custodian of the Romanian Crown Medal and in 2017 was presented with the Radio Romania’s Cultural Award. In 2017 Alexandra was appointed patron of Music in Lyddington. A former graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, as well as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Alexandra was appointed an Honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Northern College of Music in 2016.