Soloist: Ivan Sendetsky (cello)
The Mariinsky Youth Orchestra
Conductor: Zaurbek Gugkaev
The symphony poem Don Juan, Op. 20
Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
La Mer, three symphony 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.
Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor is one of the greatest masterpieces in the romantic repertoire. The Concerto was written during the third and final year that the composer spent in New York at the National Conservatory and it was completed on 9 February 1895. It was first performed on 19 March 1896 in London by Leo Stern, though it had initially been intended for Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan to perform it.
Dvořák began writing it after the immense success of the ultra-romantic Second Cello Concerto in B Minor by Victor Herbert, the Irish cellist, composer and conductor and a colleague at the Conservatory. The latter had recently arrived in the USA where he became leader of the cellos in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, a member of the New York String Quartet and the creator of an orchestra of his own that performed light music as well as composing popular operettas. But he was also an acclaimed composer of serious music.
Dvořák’s work on the Concerto did not flow easily. He had left for America for the first time alone, without his family, and that increased his nostalgia. Unlike his earlier American works, (the New World symphony or the Fourteenth Quartet), the Cello Concerto is free of Americanisms. In the middle of the second section one can hear the theme of Dvořák’s song Leave Me Alone (Op. 82 No 1). The story of its composition is connected with the composer’s hearing of the sickness and death of his wife’s sister, with whom he had once been in love. In the finale the theme returns – in the final duet of the cello and the solo violin.
Following in the footsteps of Liszt, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov who had set examples for the poetic depiction of scenes of nature in music, Claude Debussy won a reputation as a maestro of musical “painting”. That last word conveys most clearly the essence of the incredibly subtle sounds that call forth instinctive associations with the canvasses of the French impressionists.
According to the memoirs of Marguerite Long, there was a particularly mysterious note in Debussy’s attitude to the sea. “Can you hear the sea?” he would say, “The sea is the most musical thing that there is...” Debussy was drawn by the endlessly changing colours of the sea and the ocean, the reflections of the sky, thundery clouds, the dazzling sun and the moonlight... Calm and mirror-like, majestic billows, lazily approaching the shore from the horizon, seething waves and the quietly splashing sea... Debussy gave spirit to the sea, imbuing his tableaux of it with some meaning known only to him. Does it really come as any surprise that he “repeated” the words of Musorgsky whom he so admired (which he could not actually have known!) – “...The idea of a troubled sea is incomparably more threatening and imposing than a storm”?
The three symphonic sketches La Mer are woven together as a symphony – specifically a “French” symphony, which generally has three movements. The music flows from the slow and fundamentally contemplative first section De l’Aube à midi sur la mer (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea) to Jeux de vagues (Play of the Waves) , a kind of symphonic scherzo, with its tumultuous “spills” of sound and vividly dance-like rhythms, and, ultimately, to the final Allegro which is called Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea) . The triumphant coda of the finale is structured around the extravagant final use of “the theme of the sea” that creates an arch between the start of the symphony and its conclusion.
La Mer was first performed on 15 October 1905 in Paris under the baton of Camille Chevillard. But Debussy’s score would only meet with true success three years later when it was conducted by the composer himself.
In 1913 Debussy conducted La Mer in St Petersburg and Moscow.