Program notes

Program notes

Program notes by Martin Boucher ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK, Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104 Dvořák’s cello concerto, one of the major concertos for cello, is w...

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Program notes by Martin Boucher ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK, Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104 Dvořák’s cello concerto, one of the major concertos for cello, is without a doubt one of the most well-known and frequently performed pieces in the repertoire. Dvořák composed the piece while in New York for his third term as Director of the National Conservatory, where he taught composition. It was his last and certainly most successful concerto. The piece followed on the heels of the “New World Symphony.” Dedicated to Dvořák’s close friend, Czech cellist Hanus Wihan, the concerto was premiered in 1896 by Leo Stern in London, with Dvořák conducting. Why did Wihan not premiere the work himself? There are a number of theories, but whether it was a scheduling problem or a disagreement about certain modifications to be made to the concerto, the answer is unclear. Regardless, the work went on to be a huge and unwavering success! The piece is deeply sensitive, full of emotion: Dvořák was going through a difficult period with the illness of Josefina Kaunikova, a childhood sweetheart. The first movement has two themes, the first played by the clarinet and then the string section. The second theme, wonderfully lyrical and majestic, is played by the french horn, almost like a “second soloist;” the “real” soloist finally makes an appearance, repeating the previously presented thematic material. Several development sections follow, each more stunning than the last, and the movement ends tutti with an impressive restatement of the theme. The slow movement is a real gem: a variety of timbres, a seamless discourse between soloist and orchestra, and gorgeous melodies. And the last movement is full of colourful contrasts in the orchestra, tempo changes, multiple timbres; excitement is in the air! The emotional charge in this movement is tangible, and not surprisingly so, as it was written as a tribute to Josefina Kaunikova, who by then had passed away, but who had loved the melody played by the solo violin. The work ends with a mighty crescendo played by the entire orchestra.

JOHANNES BRAHMS, Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 Brahms’s Symphony in D major, the second in a cycle of four, was composed in 1877 in Pörtschach, a town in the Austrian Alps on the shore of the magnificent Lake Wörthersee. The enchanting backdrop may have provided inspiration for the rapid completion of the work: it was composed in a single summer, quite a contrast with the composer’s first symphony, which had a particularly long gestation period of close to 20 years! The magical and even bucolic setting brings to mind Beethoven’s Symphony “Pastoral.” During the same period, Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto No. 2 and several chamber music works. It was a prolific time! The symphony was premiered in Vienna in December 1877, under the direction of Austrian-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter. This joyful work has a very formal structure. The opening melody presents an outdoor setting of rural landscapes, discreetly introduced by the French horns, and then passed to the bassoons and flutes before being taken over by the strings. Keep these ideas in mind throughout the piece: landscapes, the countryside, nature! I can’t help but think of the video recording of the piece produced several years ago conducted by the legendary Austrian maestro Carlos Kleiber, whose performance seems to create landscapes like an artist making brushstrokes... Amazing! The pace picks up in the development section, with a subject that resembles a ride through the Austrian meadows. Short interludes in the winds, in particular the oboes and flutes, conjure images of butterflies flitting about and rivers flowing by. The second movement, approximately 10 minutes in duration, begins with a highly lyrical cello theme, played in turn by the violins, the horn and the winds. A number of emotional peaks eventually culminate in a calm finale. The short Scherzo, about five minutes long, begins with a true country dance with an almost child-like melody played by the oboes. A much quicker Presto section follows. Here, it’s easy to imagine running wild through the meadows! The initial theme returns, and then another race through the fields (that’s the principal of a Scherzo: a theme and variations), and eventually, it all ends peacefully. The last movement, almost the same length as the first (12 minutes compared to 15), takes off at a gallop after a short introduction. And it’s a wild ride! A sudden and short interruption from the clarinet, not featured enough in this symphony, is repeated in the strings: for just a minute, you might think it was Smetana’s Moldau! A dramatic development concludes with a final fanfare.