Friday, May 20, 2011

Podcast #7 – Tcahikovsky Festival, Part Two





For our second installment of the ITYWLTMT Tchaikovsky festival, I prepared the following menu:
·         Hamlet, fantasy overture in F minor, op. 67a (1889)
·          Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 (1888)
·         Third movement from the Manfred Symphony in B minor, op. 58 (1885)

Eleven years separate the Fourth and the Fifth symphonies – and the works I chose all were composed within the same three-year period.
Hamlet, op. 67a
The idea of a Hamlet overture had first occurred to Tchaikovsky in 1876. However, in 1888 the actor Lucien Guitry asked him to write some incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's play, to which Tchaikovsky agreed. The planned performance was cancelled, but Tchaikovsky decided to finish what he had started, in the form of a concert overture.
There is no musical enactment of the events of the play, or even a presentation of the key characters. The work adopts the same scheme he used in his other Shakespeare pieces, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet (1869, revised 1870 and 1880) and the symphonic fantasy The Tempest (1873), in using certain characteristics or emotional situations within the play. The essence of the work is the brooding atmosphere depicting Elsinore, but there is an obvious love theme, and a plaintive melody on the oboe can be seen to represent Ophelia.
I only have one version of Hamlet in my collection, and it features Leopold Stokowski conducting the “Stadium Symphony of New York” – which I take to be the New York Philharmonic in concert at Lewisohn Stadium (on the campus of the City College of New York). The overture is, coupled with Francesca da Rimini on this recording.
Lewisohn Stadium was a summer concert venue for the Philharmonic all the way back to the 1930’s (for example, Gershwin’s Cuban Overture was premiered at that venue). At the time of the Stokowski recording, the Philharmonic and their Principal Conductor were recording exclusively for Columbia records. The re-branding allowed the orchestra to be featured under different conductors.
Symphony No. 5, op. 64
Like the Fourth, the Fifth is a cyclical symphony, with a recurring main theme. Unlike the Fourth, however, the theme is heard in all four movements, a feature Tchaikovsky had first used in the Manfred Symphony, which was completed less than two years before the Fifth.
The theme itself is derived from a passage in Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar—significantly, a passage using the words "turn not into sorrow". The theme has a funereal character in the first movement, but gradually transforms into a triumphant march, which dominates the final movement. Tchaikovsky was attracted to this particular theme because the topic of the Fifth Symphony is Providence, according to the composer's notebook page dated 15 April 1888, which was about one month before he began composition of the symphony. The composer stated, in describing the introduction, "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." The changing character of the motto over the course of the symphony seems to imply that Tchaikovsky is expressing optimism with regard to providence, an outlook that would not return in his Sixth Symphony.
To Complete this Podcast
I wanted to complete this podcast with a taste of the Manfred Symphony, which precedes the composition of the Fifth by almost three years.
It is based on the poem "Manfred" written by Lord Byron in 1817. Like Romeo, Tchaikovsky wrote the Manfred Symphony at the behest of nationalist composer Mily Balakirev, who provided a program written by critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov had sent the program to Balakirev in 1868, hoping that Balakirev would write a symphony based on it. Balakirev did not feel capable of carrying out this project and sent the program to French composer Hector Berlioz (who had written a major composition based on another Byron work, Harold In Italy). Berlioz turned down the project, claiming old age and ill health, and returned the program to Balakirev. Balakirev kept the program until he reestablished contact with Tchaikovsky in the early 1880s.
The Manfred Symphony is the only programmatic symphonic work by Tchaikovsky in more than one movement. He initially considered the work one of his best, and in a typical reversal of opinion later considered destroying all but the opening movement. The symphony was greeted with mixed reviews, some finding much to laud in it, and others feeling that its programmatic aspects only weakened it. Manfred remained rarely performed for many years, probably due to its length and complexity. It has been recorded with increasing frequency but is still seldom heard in the concert hall.
I own two versions of the Symphony: a vinyl recording by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the London Symphony, and this one by Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra.


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I think you will love this music too.