Soloist: Dmitry Ganenko (cello)
The Mariinsky Youth Orchestra
Conductor: Zaurbek Gugkaev
Don Juan, symphonic poem, Op. 20
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33
La Mer, three symphonic sketches, L 109
Following the premiere of his symphonic poem Don Juan
the twenty-five year-old conductor Richard Strauss woke up the next day as the greatest conductor in Germany, a worthy heir of Wagner and Liszt. It is true that his patron Cosima Wagner (the widow of one genius and the daughter of another) did not approve of the flippancy of its theme as well as its embodiment. But that doesn’t alter anything: Strauss succeeded in continuing the tradition of Liszt’s symphonic poems and masterfully controlling Wagner’s huge romantic orchestra. Moreover, in his music one can hear light echoes of Venus’ grotto scene in Tannhдuser
It is believed that the source of Richard Wagner’s plot came from a poem by Nikolaus Lenau, the melancholic and trumpeter of “world grief”. In 1844 Lenau began to write his own Don Juan
, hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with the wife of his friend. The same year he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he ended his days, while only a fragment remains of his last work.
Richard Strauss, “the last Romantic”, always expressed a certain share of irony when dealing with romantic excesses. Perhaps the reference to Lenau was just a joke. Because in this dazzling poem by the young composer the energy bursts forth on every front. The music is sparkling and light and the sense of measure never lets Strauss down – as would later be the case.
The refined timbre of the cello, expressive yet also noble, was tremendously popular among 19th century Russian composers. Musical soirées, held regularly at noble families' estates, rarely passed without his being involved: as well as instrumental pieces for various ensembles, the rich and beautiful sound of the cello often had a solo role in vocal works in a duet with the singer. Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (1876) is a brilliant example of combining two styles – the concert virtuoso and the chamber domestic – in one work. In spite of certain allusions to music of the 18th century – and first and foremost the style of Mozart who was reverentially admired by the Russian composer – the theme of the Variations is absolutely unique. Developing throughout the work, it as if travels through a century of musical history, building a bridge from Mozart’s era to the time when Tchaikovsky lived and wrote. “Brilliant! There, at last, is real music!” exclaimed Liszt after hearing the Russian composer’s latest opus at a music festival in Wiesbaden.
The symphonic suite La Mer (1905) was not only the pinnacle of Claude Debussy’s career, but a masterpiece, a symbol, a “style icon” as we would say today of impressionism in music. In art, the impressionists developed a new technique of painting based on short brushstrokes and which stood out for the almost “flickering” quality of the layers of paint, while Claude Debussy created his own, utterly unique fabric of sounds. In counterbalance to classical music, where the work refers back to a precise division of relief and background (accompaniment), the French composer combined the relief and background in colourful textural sound images. The brief melodies appear then quickly disappear, succeeded by similar ones, defining the work no more than the spume on the crest of a wave in the sea. The element of water is an ideal metaphor for Debussy’s style. Later Pierre Boulaise called these sound objects “textural diagonals”; they blend the classical division into the horizontal (the melody) and the vertical (the chords) and open up the path of timbre and sonority in 20th century music. The effect achieved by Debussy was that of ephemera, a sketch, an embodiment of every second, the desire to sense and live every detail and every sound to the full. This is also reflected in the composer’s definition of the genre of La Mer as symphonic sketches. The need to build a classically structured composition falls away: the composer related to form as to a rope of pearls, the sound images following one after another.
The orchestral score of La Mer is one of the most demanding in the international symphony repertoire, and the opportunity to hear this work performed live is tremendous good fortune.