RACHMANINOFF’S SECOND PIANO CONCERTO
XIAN ZHANG conductor
KIRILL GERSTEIN piano
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Praised as “alarmingly gifted” by Classical Review, Kirill Gerstein scales the towering peak of the “Rach 2,” one of the most loved concertos in the repertoire.
VERDI Nabucco Overture
Verdi himself said that “Nabucco was born under a lucky star,” and his rousing overture remains as popular today as ever.
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2
Keyboard pyrotechnics and expressive melodies. Completed as Rachmaninoff overcame depression and writer’s block via hypnotherapy.
ELGAR Enigma Variations
At once jovial and sincere. Each variation is an homage to a family member or friend, but Elgar hinted at a secret “enigmatic” theme that links the variations.
Classical Conversation—Sat, Feb 25, and Sun, Feb 26, before the concert
Enjoy a lively Classical Conversation beginning one hour before the performances. NJSO Director of Artistic Planning Patrick Chamberlain will talk with NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang. Free for ticketholders.
#OrchestraYou—Fri, Feb 24, after the concert
Find your flute, tune up your trombone or dust off your double bass and join forces with conductor Jeffrey Grogan, other audience members and NJSO players right in the lobby of NJPAC. Advance registration for participants is required by Feb 17; spectators are invited to stay and applaud this talented group. More information.
Talkback—Sat, Feb 25, after the concert
Patrick Chamberlain, the NJSO’s Director of Artistic Planning, and friends decode the hidden messages in works such as Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Free for ticketholders.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2016
VERDI: Nabucco Overture
Born: October 10, 1813, in Le Roncole, near Busseto, Parma, Italy
Died: January 27, 1901, in Milan, Italy
World Premiere: March 9, 1842, at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala
NJSO Premiere: 1965–66 season; Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted.
Duration: 8 minutes
The country we call Italy did not take shape as a political entity until the late 19th century. For centuries before that, the Italian peninsula consisted of a patchwork of independent kingdoms, city-states and small duchies, plus the Papal States. The Alps provided natural protection to the area’s northern borders; however, Italian territory found itself still subject to military invasion from France to the west and Austria to the northeast. For much of the 19th century, Venice and Lombardy belonged to the Habsburg Empire, and branches of the French Bourbon dynasty ruled Naples and Sicily.
Partly as a result of the French Revolution, Italian nationalism and the desire for unification grew. The movement, known as the Risorgimento (“Resurgence”), gathered momentum in the 1830s and 40s. Liberal republican sentiments gained currency along with the idea of resurrecting the idealized grandeur of Italy’s rich history. In a signal coincidence of art and history, Verdi’s first great operatic success, Nabucco, played an important role in Italy’s nationalist movement. Hebrew slaves sing “Va, pensiero,” a chorus in the third act. Patriotic Italians read between the lines, translating the situation to the oppression of their Austrian rulers. Although Italian unification was not effected until 1870, Verdi’s beloved chorus became an unofficial national anthem and remains popular to this day.
The opera’s plot is based on the Old Testament tale of Nebuchadnezzar and the tyranny of Jerusalem. Verdi and his librettist, Temistocle Solera, played on the political sympathies of the Milanese audience. The premiere was greeted by tumultuous cheers and applause, as Verdi secured and held his listeners’ attention from the sonorous brass chorale that launches the slow introduction.
His overture draws primarily on choral themes from the opera, and its most lyrical moment features an extended quotation from the “Va, pensiero” chorus, here introduced by woodwinds and pizzicato strings. The balance of the overture consists of rousing march rhythms that build to a stirring and victorious climax.
Instrumentation: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets in pairs; piccolo; four horns; three trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion and strings.
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Born: April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California
Composed: Primarily in 1900–01
World Premiere: November 9, 1901, in Moscow. Alexander Siloti conducted; Rachmaninoff was the soloist.
NJSO Premiere: 1936–37 season. Rene Pollain conducted; Rudolph Ganz was the soloist.
Duration: 33 minutes
The opening of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the marvels of the literature. With no orchestral preparation, the pianist plays a series of quiet chords in F minor, alternating with a low F in the most sepulchral region of the keyboard. Seven times we hear the chord—each time with a slightly different harmony and another response from that low F. Each time the exchange takes place, the volume increases slightly. The eighth time, now quite loudly, the pianist thunders another big chord, then three portentous notes leading to a decisive landing on C. It is the first time Rachmaninoff has tipped his hand that his concerto is in C minor, the advertised key. His opening ploy has been a red herring—teasing us, building suspense, putting us on the edge of our seats, waiting for a door to slam, a shoe to drop … or a rocket to blast off.
Takeoff, as it happens, is immediate. The piano is off and running in a swirling of arpeggios. The orchestra, hitherto silent, plunges in with the passionate first theme, and the tapestry of Rachmaninoff’s music comes into focus. His remarkable opening is one of the most dramatic and original in the concerted literature. That simple eight-bar piano introduction throws down a gauntlet, declaring the soloist’s dominance over the orchestra, yet paradoxically indicating codependence. Rachmaninoff requires the orchestra to anchor the home tonality and the principal theme, thereby providing the framework for the pianist’s activity.
The relationship between piano and orchestra in this concerto is unusual. Throughout the work, Rachmaninoff entrusts most of the melodies to the large ensemble, while the piano takes a decorative, textural role. Keyboard provides lush embroidery for the dense fabric of the music. No transparent muslin or sturdy denim here. Rachmaninoff’s luxuriant materials are velvet, satin brocade, silk moiré and ermine trimming.
Straddling two centuries
By the skin of its teeth, the concerto is a 20th-century work. In reality, it is a late Romantic concerto in the virtuoso tradition. What distinguishes it from dozens of less stellar late Romantic concerti is the glorious piano writing and Rachmaninoff’s increased skill in handling orchestral resources. He also strikes a fine balance between Russian gloom and rhapsodic ecstasy. It is little wonder that the concerto’s themes have appeared in film soundtracks and popular songs since the 1930s, most famously “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen.
The Second Piano Concerto was a breakthrough work. It marked Rachmaninoff’s emergence from a deep depression that had gripped him for three years, following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. Its success boosted Rachmaninoff’s international reputation as a master of the concerto, affirming his genius to a broad public.
Instrumentation: woodwinds and trumpets in pairs, four horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings and solo piano.
ELGAR: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Op. 36
SIR EDWARD ELGAR
Born: June 2, 1857, in Broadheath, near Worcester, England
Died: February 23, 1934, in Worcester, England
World Premiere: June 19, 1899, at London’s St. James Hall; Hans Richter conducted
NJSO Premiere: 1957–58 season; Samuel Antek conducted.
Duration: 29 minutes
During the 19th century, German and Austrian musicians referred disparagingly to England as “das Land ohne Musik”—the land without music. Elgar was a pivotal figure in the 20th-century renaissance in English composition. His Enigma Variations made him a national celebrity.
This remarkable score bears the inscription “Dedicated to my friends pictured within.” Over the first page, the word “Enigma” appears. Each of the 14 variations is titled either with a monogram or a nickname referring members of Elgar’s circle. Thus, “C.A.E.” of the first variation is his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar; Variation II’s “H.D.S.-P.” is Hew David Steuart-Powell, the pianist in Elgar’s trio (along with “B.G.N.,” Basil Nevinson, the cellist and subject of Variation XII) and so forth. Many of his Worcestershire friends thereby achieved a measure of immortality.
Elgar clearly delighted in expressing their personalities through music. Writing to his friend August Johannes Jaeger in October 1898: “Since I’ve been back I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme; the Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled ’em with the nicknames of my particular friends—you are Nimrod. [“Jaeger” means hunter in German—Elgar’s reference is to Nimrod, the mighty hunter in the Bible.] That is to say I’ve written the Variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party.’”
Jaeger was Elgar’s advocate at the London music publishing house of Novello, and he did much to promote Elgar’s music and encourage his friend. Elgar returned the support by making Jaeger’s the central variation of the set, the pivotal slow movement with the greatest emotional impact.
“Nimrod” is said to have been inspired by an evening walk during which Jaeger waxed poetic about Beethoven’s slow movements. Surely it is no accident that Elgar placed this variation in E-flat major, Beethoven’s heroic key. Many listeners perceive a strong similarity between the “Nimrod” variation and the famous slow movement to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata, Op. 13.
What is the ‘enigma’?
Elgar never revealed the meaning of his subtitle, writing: “The enigma I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the variations and the theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.”
This cryptic clue has led to countless theories about the hidden, unstated theme, with guesses ranging from “God Save the King” and “Auld Lang Syne” to “Ta ra ra boom-de-ay,” “Home Sweet Home” and Martin Luther’s chorale “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” No definitive solution has been universally accepted, and the secret of the enigma remains one of music’s tantalizing mysteries.
That stated, this musical portrait gallery is a treasure trove of brilliant character sketches, belying Elgar’s insistence that Enigma was absolute music, independent of those who had inspired it. William Meath Baker, the “W.M.B.” of Variation IV, is said to have been a decisive, athletic man who went about life with great physical flourishes punctuating his activities; his variation is appropriately resolute. Isabel Fitton, the “Ysobel” of Variation VI, was a viola student of Elgar’s; her lyrical, gentle variation features a viola solo and allegedly satirizes technical problems in her string playing that she never overcame.
Contemporaries described Arthur Troyte Griffith (“Troyte,” Variation VII) as an argumentative type. Elgar paints him with vigorous timpani, then brasses in animated dialogue with rapid violin triplets; this is a true virtuoso variation, enough to convince us that Troyte was a formidable opponent in debate!
“Dorabella” (Variation X) was Elgar’s pet name for Dora Penny, the youngest member of his circle included in the Enigma Variations. Her variation has the airy delicacy of ballet music. Sprightly, chirping fillips of woodwinds and strings in “Dorabella” invite choreography; it comes as no surprise that Frederick Ashton created a ballet from Elgar’s piece in 1968.
Technically, what makes the Enigma Variations so marvelous is a combination of splendid orchestration, careful gauging of key changes and brilliant transitions from one variation to the next. Spiritually, what binds it is the overriding affection Elgar had for his friends. Variation XIV, “E.D.U.” (Alice’s pet name for her husband was “Edu”), binds the set together in exuberant conclusion, as if to say “Lucky me, that my life is enriched by these wonderful people.” Whether heard as an independent piece of music or in the context of Elgar’s musical portrait gallery, Enigma Variations is one of the masterpieces of the repertoire, and Elgar’s finest composition.
Instrumentation: two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, organ ad lib. and strings.