Edvard Grieg –
Peer Gynt: Suite No.1, Op. 46
I. Morning Mood
II. The Death of Åse
III. Anitra’s Dance
IV. In the Hall of the Mountain King
Carl Nielsen –
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.33
I. Praeludium. Largo – Allegro cavalleresco
II. Poco adagio – Rondo. Allegretto scherzando
Adele Anthony, violin
Symphony No.4, Los Angeles
I. Con Sublimata
Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46
Mention the words Norway and classical music and one name invariably pops to mind: Edvard Grieg. No other Norwegian has come close to achieving the eminence
of the composer known outside his homeland essentially for three works (or collections): the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16; the Holberg Suite, Op. 40; and
portions of the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. Grieg wrote nearly 90 minutes of music for the play’s 1876 premiere and later extracted eight
sections for the Suite No. 1, Op. 46, and Suite No. 2, Op. 55.
Ibsen’s vast, five-act work initially was controversial, prompting writers, including Hans Christian Andersen, to protest that the verse text wasn’t poetry.
But it quickly became Norway’s most celebrated play, generating productions worldwide that continue to shed light on the sprawling narrative of the hapless Peer’s
misadventures from Norway to North Africa. Ibsen tells his story as social satire in scenes juxtaposing realism and surrealism.
Grieg wasn’t particularly interested in the ramifications of Ibsen’s text. He wrote 26 movements, including songs and choral works, that conjure atmospheres and
define characters. The complete score would only be published in 1908, a year after Grieg’s death. Eight of the movements were destined for immortality—those in
the two suites. Grieg devised them in 1888 and 1891, respectively, arranging the movements out of the order they appear in the play to give each a logical arc.
His captivating blend of tender lyricism and folkloric grandeur can be heard throughout the suites, especially No. 1, which opens CityMusic’s program.
A pastoral scene is set in “Morning Mood,” the prelude to Act 4, with lilting flute and oboe solos leading to full orchestral radiance and tranquility.
Peer has been gone some time when, toward the close of Act 3, he returns home to find his mother nearing her end. “The Death of Åse” is brief, a mere 45
bars for strings, but the feelings are intense, moving from sadness and anguish to resignation.
Peer’s travels in Act 3 take him to Morocco, where he encounters a tribe of Bedouins and becomes entranced by the chieftain’s daughter, who turns the tables
on him by stealing his valuables and disappearing. Her act of seduction, “Anitra’s Dance,” is a mazurka for strings and triangle. Grieg achieves sinuous colors
by muting the divided violins and alternating bowed and pizzicato passages.
We’re back to Act 2 for the suite’s rousing finale, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Peer is intoxicated after meeting three lusty dairymaids and dreams
of a woman in green who turns out to be the troll mountain king’s daughter. She takes him to visit dear old dad and company, who are depicted in the famously
menacing march by cellos, basses, and bassoons before the entire orchestra gets in on the delirious act.
Donald Rosenberg © 2015
Carl Nielsen: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 33
What Edvard Grieg is to Norway and Jean Sibelius to Finland, Carl Nielsen is to Denmark. All of these composers are indelibly associated with their respective
country’s musical identity. This year, the music world is celebrating the 150th anniversaries of the births of Sibelius and Nielsen.
The current CityMusic program has a fascinating connection between Grieg and Nielsen. In the summer of 1911, Grieg’s widow, Nina, invited Nielsen to the family
home in Troldhaugen, where Grieg had composed in a hut on the lake. Nielsen took advantage of the serene atmosphere to start work on a violin concerto, which
proved challenging. “It has to be good music and yet always show regard for the development of the solo instrument, putting it in the best possible
light,” he wrote. “The piece must have substance and be popular and showy without being superficial. These conflicting elements must and shall meet and form a
The “higher unity” is among the more unconventional elements of the concerto, and it may partly explain why this remarkable work isn’t played nearly as much as
its Finnish cousin, the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Nielsen eschewed the traditional three-movement concerto format to create a piece that still raises questions
about the score’s structure. It is cast in two movements, each starting with a slow section that gives way to faster activity. Some observers see the first
movement’s Praeludium—in keeping with the name—as a prelude to the main body of the movement, which would suggest an overall three-movement design.
Whatever one decides about the score’s architecture, there can be no argument about its individuality and beauty. Nielsen’s distinctive sound world, so
evident in his symphonies, pervades the Violin Concerto, both in its colorful harmonic language and penchant for chromatic writing that occasionally blurs
tonal centers. The first movement’s Praeludium presents the solo violin as declamatory narrator who shapes fiery and tender lines. There appears to be a momentary
homage to Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations before violin and orchestra dig into the vigorous Allegro cavalleresco (literally, cheerful and chivalrous).
The violin develops the material in an extended cadenza.
The second movement opens with winds introducing a haunting theme the violin soon gives more chromatic treatment. Then comes a muscular Rondo that tests the
oloist’s virtuosity, but largely in lilting context—“showy without being superficial,” as the composer put it. The orchestra, which mostly has served as
graceful and sturdy partner, gets a few moments in the glistening Nielsen sun. Yet the violin remains the center of attention, especially after a few
exclamation points from the timpani leads the soloist into an acrobatic cadenza. The Rondo’s bucolic theme returns as violin, in its highest register, and
orchestra arrive at the decisive D major chord that brings this cherishable concerto to a close.
Donald Rosenberg © 2015
Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4 (“Los Angeles”)
“Guardian Angels,” the title of this CityMusic Cleveland program, has roots in Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4. The Estonian composer, whose mystical music is the
most popular of any composer in the classical realm today, was writing a choral piece based on an ancient Russian Orthodox canon in 2007 when he was approached
to create a symphony for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its music director at the time, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pärt found the offer enticing for two
principal reasons: the canon he was using at the time included a prayer to a guardian angel; and the symphony would have its premiere in Los Angeles,
the City of Angels.
The composer hadn’t written a symphony since 1971. In the years following, Pärt converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, studied early music, and developed a
style, tintinnabulation, based on chant and the ringing of bells. As he once said, “I work with very few elements — with one voice, with two voices. I build
with the most primitive materials — with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I called it
tintinnabulation.” The style permeates the Symphony No. 4, which is scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani, and percussion
(including those essential bells).
Pärt began his career writing in neo-classical and serial styles—the latter to the chagrin of the Soviet regime—until he came close to abandoning music
altogether. But he lifted himself out of darkness as he explored old music and began cultivating a simpler way of summoning ethereal atmospheres and setting
sacred texts. Like many of his works, the Symphony No. 4 became a form of protesting oppressive regimes in general and Vladimir Putin in particular.
Pärt dedicated the symphony to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil executive who was imprisoned, many say unjustly, for nine years. “With my composition,
I would like to reach out my hand, extending it to the prisoner, and in his person to all those imprisoned without rights in Russia,” Pärt declared.
(Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky at the end of 2013.)
The three movements of the mournfully eloquent Symphony No. 4 unfold in the composer’s characteristic slow and ruminative style—the soundscapes always
shifting in some understated yet deeply expressive way. Otherworldly string textures and subtle percussion and harp effects create an aura of suspense and
sadness, amid breathtaking silences, in the first movement, Con Sublimata (With Sublimity). The atmosphere is more intense in the second movement, Affannoso
(Labored), which alternates urgent episodes, complete with rumbling basses and eerie pizzicatos, with quietly anguished passages. The finale, Deciso (Decided),
extends the solemnity through a bracing march and canons that inch ever upward until most of the instruments fade away, leaving harp, bell, and timpani to
signal the parting of Pärt’s guardian angel.
Donald Rosenberg © 2015
Season 11 (2014-2015)
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Season 9 (2012-2013)
Season 8 (2011-2012)
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Season 6 (2009-2010)
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