The programme includes:
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No 6 in B Flat Major, BWV 1051
Dmitry Shostakovich – Alexander Tchaikovsky
Symphony for Viola and Strings, The Thirteenth (arrangement of String Quartet No 13 in B Flat Minor, Op. 138)
Concertino for Viola and Strings in A Minor
Arpeggione Sonata in A Minor, D 821 (arrangement for viola and strings)
On 24 March 1721 Johann Sebastian Bach
sent Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, the scores of six concerti “for various instruments.” The Margrave, whom Bach had met in 1719 in Berlin, was a passionate music lover who collected the scores of more than two hundred concerti by various composers in addition to being a strong proponent of Antonio Vivaldi. Bach’s Brandenburg concerti were based on a model created by Vivaldi (almost all are in three movements and feature wind instruments), but each of them is highly original.
No two are alike, each is unique, and together they comprise a veritable encyclopaedia of Baroque music.
Brandenburg Concerto No 6
was composed for two violas, two violas da gamba and basso continuo. In a break with tradition, the “Cinderella” violas perform the solo, the noble violas da gamba accompanying. This can probably be explained by the fact that Bach’s then patron, the Prince von Anhalt-Köthen, loved to play the da gamba while Bach himself liked to play the viola (it is not hard to imagine which of the two was the more virtuoso performer!). In the second movement the da gambas fall silent and, to the background of an accompaniment continuo, the violas carry the infinitely beautiful two-voiced fugue. If the number of performers is increased, Concerto No 6 becomes a concerto grosso for two violas and low strings.
Dmitry Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets as well as his fifteen symphonies are artistic worlds that in many ways are close and which meet with one another. Both the symphonies and the quartets were composed by the same hand and born in the spirit of one and the same great maestro. But this is not the main thing that connects them – in both the quartets and the symphonies the composer recorded his own time, his own century.
Shostakovich’s symphonies (even such deeply personal symphonies as the Fifth, Tenth and Fifteenth) are always symphonies of the universal fate that attended the composer and the people. It was not by chance that Anna Akhmatova said of Shostakovich’s music that “It was with me in my grave. As if a thunderstorm sang.” The quartets – in precise accordance with the chamber genre – are dominated by a confessional tone. Here there is no contradiction: the composer himself frequently referred to other quartets he wrote as chamber symphonies. Shostakovich did not object to the unique “elevation of the status” of his Eighth Quartet, which has been arranged for chamber orchestra (transcriptions have been made by Abram Stasevich and Rudolf Barshai) and which has emerged as a chamber symphony that is popular all over the globe. The same “fate” awaited other quartets later – the Fourth, Tenth and Fifteenth: their philosophical depth, ceding nothing to Shostakovich’s symphonic masterpieces, became loved by a wider audience. These arrangements include the Thirteenth Symphony for Viola and Strings – a transcription of Quartet No 13 in B Flat Minor, Op. 138 produced by Alexander Tchaikovsky.
The one-movement Thirteenth Quartet (1970) is a musical tribute to the outstanding violist Vadim Borisovsky, who celebrated his seventieth birthday in January 1970. In Shostakovich’s late quartets, the motif of forgiveness sounds particularly sharply. Composed in a hospital ward, the Thirteenth Quartet is mournfully sunk in character. It has been noted on more than one occasion that it is as if composed for solo viola and string trio (which is in fact the case for Alexander Tchaikovsky’s transcription in the form of a symphony for viola and strings). And for a further “fifth instrument” not indicated in the score: the musicians have to beat their bows on the sounding board. Dry “bones of death” like the high-register pizzicato bring to mind other examples of the genre of danse macabre. As in the Twelfth Quartet or the Fifteenth Symphony, Shostakovich makes use of serial technique, but in terms of intonation his dodecaphonic themes are in relief and melodious.
The soloist’s monologue is initially deep-seated, full of gloomy contemplation, and in its development reaches great tension, underlined by the heartless rhythm of the icy chords. The central section is livelier – if such may be said of this selfsame dance of skeletons. The returning viola monologue does not herald enlightenment – it breaks off with a piercing “shriek”ss on an extremely high note.
Niccolò Paganini’s fantastic virtuoso skills were just one side of the new romantic performing style he created. The famous Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin was a revolution in violin technique (it was not by chance that Franz Liszt swore he would attain the same level of virtuoso skill on the piano with which Paganini had stunned his contemporaries on the violin). However, first and foremost these caprices, just like Paganini’s concerti for violin and orchestra, are a dazzling manifesto of the era of “Sturm und Drang”, a kind of declaration of musical romanticism.
It was not only the violin that Paganini performed brilliantly. The list of his compositions include over two hundred works for guitar, among them a dozen sonatas for violin and guitar and some five quartets for violin, guitar, viola and cello. In these ensembles, completely untraditional in terms of the musicians, yet another instrument the virtuoso composer played – the viola – draws our attention. Hector Berlioz was so staggered by Paganini’s skill that he dedicated his symphony for solo viola and orchestra Harold en Italie to him.
The Concertino for Viola and Strings in A Minor (1820) is a version of one of the aforementioned quartets. Its music gives us an idea of the great variety within the fervent romantic’s creativity. Paganini, heir to the great maestri of the Italian baroque – Vivaldi, Corelli and Tartini – borrowed many performing techniques from folk music performers, whose imagination was not constrained by “scholarly” rules.
Franz Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano (1824) was one of the first works ever written for the instrument invented by the Viennese craftsman Johann Stauffer in 1823. This instrument combines elements of both the cello and the guitar. In the 1820s the arpeggione was highly popular, though just ten years later it was forgotten, only to be remembered at the close of the 20th century in connection with growing interest in authentic performance. Schubert’s sonata is traditionally performed on the cello or the viola, the word “arpeggione” often appearing as part of the work’s title.
One particular feature that makes the work stand apart is its direct link with the everyday romance. Principles of song, so typical for Schubert’s music, are expressed not just in the emphasis on the corresponding circle of intonations but in the style of performing and developing the musical material too. For example, the initial introduction of the theme in the first movement is a typical introduction to a romance; its paraphrase for solo viola accompanied by the piano is also a typical example of vocal composition. In the second movement (Adagio) there is a more profound image, the dramatic re-examination of which results in a mournful afterword (such “summing up” melodious finales are frequently to be met with in Schubert’s later songs). The finale of the sonata is based on dance music, and in its concept one can pick out the idea of “the liberation of emotions” which is especially clear in the episode constructed on the elated intonations of yodelling.