RNS Summer Chamber Music

Sage Two

Royal Northern Sinfonia Summer Chamber Music

ALISSA FIRSOVA Souvenir mélancolique
BORODIN String Quintet


STRAUSS Metamorphosen (septet version)

A chance to hear Rudolf Leopold’s septet arrangement of Strauss’ moving outpouring of his grief at the destruction of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War. Plus music from the talented young British-Russian composer Alissa Firsova, the rich melodies of Borodin’s Quintet, and Beethoven’s elegant miniature Rondino.

Programme notes

Souvenir mélancolique for Clarinet and Horn, Op. 23

Alissa Firsova is a British-Russian composer, pianist and conductor. Since winning the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer competition in 2001, she has received two world premieres at the Proms, both conducted by Andrew Litton: her Bach Allegro was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010 and her Bergen’s Bonfire featured in the Bergen Philharmonic’s 250th Anniversary Prom in 2015.

Her music has also been performed by Imogen Cooper, Henning Kraggerud, the Dante Quartet, Netherlands Blazer Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players and the Britten Sinfonia, amongst others. Alissa was recently invited to the Verbier (Switzerland), Asiago (Italy) and Conques (France) Festivals as pianist/composer-in-residence. Her music is available on disc by The Sixteen on the Coro label and Henning Kraggerud on the Simax label.

As a pianist she gave her Wigmore Hall and Proms debuts in 2009, has performed for numerous prominent venues and festivals since, and released her debut CD, Russian Émigrés, in 2015. She has enjoyed collaborations with artists such as Stephen Kovacevich, Stephen Isserlis, Roman Simovic, Tim Hugh, Andrew Marriner and the Dante Quartet.

After completing a postgraduate conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music under Colin Metters, Alissa was invited for a ‘triple’ debut with the English Chamber Orchestra as director, composer and conductor at London’s Cadogan Hall in 2013. She has twice conducted the Camerata RCO (Members of the Royal Concertgebouw) in the world premiere of her Le Soleil de Conques, in Conques in 2015, and the following year for the Union Musicale series in Turin.

Alissa’s other recent premieres have included her Alma Mahler inspired piano duet Bride of the Wind, performed by the Françoise-Green Duo in their St John’s Smith Square Viennese residency in April 2016, and her triple concerto Asiago Concerto, for the 50th Asiago Festival, which she performed together with the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Marc-Daniel van Biemen and Julius Berger in August 2016.

In November 2016, Alissa joined the Tippett Quartet in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet for a series of concerts in London and Oxford, which also included the world premiere of her Tennyson and Blackdown inspired Tennyson Fantasy for string quartet, and they also brought this programme to the Haslemere Festival in May this year. Alissa was invited to curate and co-present the BBC Radio 3 Breakfast Show on 8 March, celebrating International Women’s Day.

She is very excited about her forthcoming debut Composer Portrait CD for the Vivat label, and future commissions include an orchestral piece for British conductor Alexander Soddy, who will be premiering it with his Mannheim National Theatre Orchestra in March next year, as well as a work for viola and piano for Krzyzsztof Chorzelski.

Alissa Firsova writes . . .

Souvenir Mélancolique Op.23 was written for the Netherlands Blazer Ensemble in 2011, and illustrates a correspondence by letter between Tchaikovsky and his supporter, Nadezhda von Meck. There is a thematic reference to the first subject of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, as the first three notes of it become the main material of my piece, only in inversion.

It also grows out of my clarinet concerto, Freedom, where the horn joins the clarinet for a duet in the cadenza. Both pieces are part of a cycle called Expressions, which blossomed in 2003 from a piece called Eternity for clarinet and piano. Each following piece was connected with the clarinet and would express a certain emotion I was feeling at the time, including Awaiting (clarinet and piano), Victory (bass clarinet), Loss (clarinet and string quartet), Birth of Remembrance (clarinet, flute, violin and cello), Celebration (clarinet, flute, violin and cello), Freedom (clarinet concerto) and finally, Souvenir Mélancolique (for clarinet and horn), forming the peak of the cycle, so far.

© Alissa Firsova

String Quintet in F minor
Allegro con brio – Andante non troppo – Menuetto – Finale: Prestissimo

Alexander Borodin’s life was dominated, and divided, by two great passions: science and music.
From the age of eight he began taking an interest in the piano, flute and cello – and at the same time as he began lessons in these instruments, he was getting stuck into chemical experiments and making fireworks!
All this was a foretaste of a brilliant career, but whereas today the name of Borodin is celebrated as the composer of works with rich, memorable melodies, in his own time this musical talent was recognised only by a few of his close friends and supporters.

He was far better known to his Russian countrymen and women as a pioneering academic in the disciplines of chemistry and physics.

In 1850 Borodin was accepted as a student at St Petersburg’s Medico-Surgical Academy, and after a year as a surgeon in a military hospital and three years of advanced study in Europe, he returned to become a professor of chemistry.

Borodin outlined this career dilemma in a letter to a friend in 1876: “As a composer seeking to remain anonymous, I am shy of confessing my musical activity. This is intelligible enough; for others it is their chief business, their occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business, my professorship.

“I have to be constantly in touch with my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people one must always be close to them.”

This was while he continued to labour on Prince Igor, the operatic project he’d begun seven years earlier; one that would occupy him for a further 11 years until death would cut short his contribution.

Borodin had composition lessons in 1862 from Mily Balakirev, and became known as one of the Mighty Handful of young composers in St Petersburg from 1856-1870, led by the nationalist Balakirev, who wanted to establish a Russian style that embraced folk music as well as oriental harmonies, and rejected the European – particularly Germanic – influences that held sway in the nation’s conservatories.

Even so, when Borodin first began composing he was very much under the influence of German music, especially that of Felix Mendelssohn. Borodin was a keen cellist and joined up with a fellow student, Mikhail Schiglev, who also enjoyed an interest in chamber music. The pair regularly attended musical gatherings at the St Petersburg home of an amateur cellist, Ivan Gavrushkevich, who first suggested Borodin should write a string quintet.

At first Borodin rejected the idea, saying his distinguished professor at the academy, Nikolay Zinin (1812-1880), had warned him against occupying himself with musical ‘romances’, adding: “You know I rely upon you as my successor, but you think of nothing but music. You make the mistake of hunting two hares at once!”

Recent research has thrown some light on the almost forgotten String Quintet in F minor. It is thought to date from 1853-4, and the fact that it involves two cellos may indicate Borodin was keen to include his friend Gavrushkevich in any performance. For whatever reason, Borodin failed to complete the work. He broke off before the finale’s coda, and that was filled in much later by Orest Yevlakhov (1912-1973), a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory who was a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Scholars believe what began as a student exercise represents one of the earliest chamber works of the emerging Russian nationalist movement. It draws upon folk themes explored in the 1820s by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and by Franz Xaver Gebel (1787-1843), a German composer and Moscow resident from 1817 whose chamber quintets and quartets won praise across Russia, not least from Borodin.

However, as the Allegro con brio first movement soon shows, the spirit of Mendelssohn lives on in the way Borodin enables the melodious main theme to become the source of a series of lyrical elaborations, with gently plucked strings drawing it all to a close.

A wistful cello melody opens the Andante non troppo second movement, and the first violin and viola take up the melody. Two variations on this theme follow.

A sprightly Menuetto comes next, with a sweeping waltz-like trio at its mid-point.

Russian folk themes come very much into their own in the vigorous Prestissimo finale, although the influence of Mendelssohn is never far away. There is a sombre passage featuring the first cello, but spirits are soon revived and the music eagerly strides towards the triumphant coda.

In 1872 Borodin helped break down the barriers against women wanting to study medicine by founding and supervising a course for them at St Petersburg’s Medico-Surgical Academy.

Mighty Handful
Dubbed as such by critic Vladimir Stasov, the five were Balakirev, Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

‘Tail-piece’. A musical display which rounds off a movement and often includes material heard earlier.

Rondino in E flat major for Wind Octet, WoO.25

Most of Ludwig van Beethoven’s chamber works for wind ensembles date from his Bonn years. By 1800, having moved to Vienna to advance his career, such music appears to have had less appeal. This was possibly because the young composer was finding his exploration of piano trio and string quartet forms a more satisfying challenge. Either that or the dwindling interest among patrons in harmoniemusik – for wind bands performing out of doors on festive occasions, or indoors for the dining aristocracy – had made it a sterile pursuit.

Scholars are divided over Beethoven’s intentions for what became known as his ‘little rondo’. Some argue it was originally intended as the finale to his Octet; others point out that, for a finale, this mellow and rather stately Andante would have been out of place and something of an anti-climax to the largely robust mood of the Octet. They feel sure Beethoven had been toying with the idea of a divertimento-style work – which would usually involve more than four sections – before eventually deciding on the traditional four-movement structure of an octet. Whatever the case, it seems this charming little gem for wind instruments became surplus to Beethoven’s requirements.

He took the manuscripts of the Octet and the fragment with him to Vienna, and reworked and expanded the former as his first String Quintet Op.4 in 1795. The original score of the Octet was published much later, which accounts for its high Op.103 designation. However, the Andante must have merited less utilitarian value as it remained untouched, stashed away among Beethoven’s papers until Anton Diabelli eventually published this elegant miniature – which he named Rondino – in Vienna in 1829, two years after its creator’s death.

The Rondino in E flat major WoO.25 was composed in or around 1792 in the same key as, and contemporaneously with, the Octet, which had been commissioned as music to be played at the banqueting table of Maximilian Franz. This music-loving Elector of Cologne, whose court was in Beethoven’s home city of Bonn, had employed the talented 14-year-old as second organist in his chapel from 1784, and as a viola player in the court orchestra from 1791.

The first horn sounds the lyrical rondo theme for the first eight bars, just before its fellow instruments savour the song for themselves. The next section invites short solos for clarinet, oboe and bassoon before the opening theme is recalled and made subject to variation. The music shifts to the minor key before the recurring theme makes a return in another varied form.

As the Rondino’s coda draws near the pair of horn players face a particular challenge. They are left alone with the original theme but the second and fourth bars are then repeated under the score’s instruction con sordino – ‘with the mute’. This alternate muffling and unmuffling of the horns approaches an echo effect, and the players are faced either with some deft single-handed juggling with their mutes or some well-judged hand-stopping!

This is the work’s coding in Werke ohne Opuszahl – Works without Opus number – the German catalogue compiled in 1955 by Hans Halm and Georg Kinsky which lists Beethoven compositions not originally published with an opus number or which survived only as fragments. It has since been extended to include such works by other German and Austrian composers.

Septet realisation RUDOLF LEOPOLD b.1954

“My beautiful Dresden, Weimar, Munich – all gone!” wrote the despairing Richard Strauss to the librettist Joseph Gregor.

The laying waste of Dresden through the Allied saturation-bombing raid on 12 February 1945 had seemed the blow to end all blows, as much for him as for Germany herself.

Dresden, the nation’s cultural heart, had been the last city still standing, and the veteran composer was already in mourning for the earlier destruction of his birthplace, Munich, along with its opera house, the scene of so many of his triumphs.

Ironically, Strauss’s personal grief was to trigger a new burst of creativity in the 81-year-old, which was to result in one of his most moving, ingenious and respected works.

After the Munich bombing Strauss sketched a few bars in his notebook which he thought he might use for a memorial to his lost city. Then, a month after Dresden was reduced to rubble, Strauss began work on a ‘study for 23 solo strings’ using the seed of his earlier jottings to cultivate a single-movement work and incorporate references to the funeral march from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony.

Strauss had at this time been reading through the works of Johann von Goethe, and the eventual title for his new composition, Metamorphosen, is sympathetic to the German poet’s use of that word in his later years to describe the transformation and growth of an artist’s mind and works over a lifetime.

Metamorphosen similarly grows and transforms, from a slow and sombre introduction, through intricate patterns of rising intensity, before subsiding towards an elegiac conclusion.

The ‘Eroica’ funeral march motif appears in several places, but is most emphatically expressed on the cellos and basses just before the end.

At this point in the score the heartbroken Strauss, lamenting the collapse of German culture, inscribed between the staves: IN MEMORIAM.

The version for string septet we hear this evening has been realised by Rudolf Leopold, one of Austria’s leading cellists. He was a chamber music professor at the Vienna Music University from 1983-1990, and since then has been a professor of cello at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz.

The discovery in 1990 of a short score suggested that Strauss had originally conceived Metamorphosen as a work for seven strings. This realisation by Leopold was published in 1996.

Strauss claimed this theme from Beethoven’s Third Symphony ‘escaped from his pen’ before he realised what it was.

Rudolf Leopold (b.1954) began his career with the Franz Schubert Quartet, and became solo cellist with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Vienna-based baroque group Concentus Musicus Wien. In 1981 he founded the Vienna String Sextet and toured Europe, the USA and Japan for 23 years. In 2007 Leopold formed his own baroque ensemble, Il Concerto Viennese.

All programme notes © Richard C Yates

Part of What's On in July and August

This Summer at Sage Gateshead sees SummerTyne Americana Festival return along with events for all the family and outstanding exclusive shows from Mercury Rev and Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Bootleg Beatles with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

More Season Events

blog comments powered by Disqus