Friday, May 13, 2011

Podcast #6 – Tchaikovsky Festival, Part One

(UPDATE 2011-06-12 En français -

For our first of three podcasts, I propose the following menu:
·         The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia after Shakespeare, Op. 18 (1873)
·         Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78)
·         Assorted music about storms

This montage is no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:

The Tempest, op. 18
From a timeline perspective, The Tempest is a contemporary of his Second symphony (op. 17). As the title suggests, it is based on the play by William Shakespeare. Similar in structure to Tchaikovsky's better-known Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture, it contains themes depicting the stillness of the ship at sea, the grotesque nature of Caliban, and the love between Ferdinand and Miranda. The love music is particularly strong, being reminiscent of the love music from Romeo.
I own two versions: one “broadcast” performance by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony and the one I chose, by the Bamberg Symphony conducted by José Serebrier. Serebrier was an assistant under Stokowski, and he certainly has inherited his mentor’s flair for the dramatic and interpretation,as the performance will attest.
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies have this in common: they are programmatic, and make use of recurring themes and thematic evocations that help “unify” the symphony. The opening fanfare of the symphony’s first movement are found to open the “coda” of the Finale, for example.
Tchaikovsky found that with a loose symphonic-poem type of structure pioneered by Franz Liszt, he could combine large-scale orchestral writing with emotions and instrumental colors toward which he gravitated naturally. The result was a symphonic hybrid, a cross between the primarily architectural form of the symphony and the primarily "literary" or "poetic" form of the symphonic poem.
In letters to his patron, Mme Von Meck, Tchaikovsky proposes a program for his symphony and offers insight on the work's musical architecture. Assertions to the effect that "the first movement represents Fate" are oversimplifications: according to a letter the composer wrote to Madame Von Meck in 1878, it is actually the fanfare first heard at the opening ("the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony") that stands for "Fate", with this being "the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain". As the composer explained it, the programme of the first movement is—"roughly"—that "all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness ...". He went on: "No haven exists ... Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths".
The narrative suggested by Tchaikovsky reveals his state of mind at the time, in which he has just ended an unhappy marriage and – no doubt – struggles with his own homosexuality and the despair associated with these events.
The middle movements provide interesting highlights as well. The second movement is introduced by the melancholy melody of the oboe. The music's impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominated the opening movement. The scherzo incorporates the use of pizzicato strings and a lovely trio.
To Complete this Podcast
Building on The Tempest, I chose a few pieces that continue on the idea of storms.
John Estacio’s opera Filumena is the romanticized version of a real event that occurred in Southern Alberta during prohibition. The main character, who married a much older man, falls in love with the son of a bootlegger. The story eventually depicts the murder of an RCMP constable, and Filumena’s last moments, just before her judicial hanging. One “recurring aria” in the opera is about how Filumena loves the mood and electricity of a storm. The aria occurs several times in the opera – here taken just at the end of Filumena’s wedding in the first scene of the opera.
Antonio Vivaldi wrote twelve concerti in his op. 8, the most famous of which are the first four - “The Four Seasons”. The fifth, La Tempesta di Mare (The Sea Storm) is just as good as its more famous partner concerti. The performance I chose is a vintage recording by Louis Kaufman, the violinist who “rediscovered” the remaining op. 8 concerti and provides here its first ever recording.
Johann Strauss Jr’s “Thunder and Lightning” Polka is a fine way to end our podcast – in a brisk, fun high note.
I think you will love this music too.

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