Sheng Cai, Piano, in memory of Peter Longworth
November 3–4, 2018
Oakville Performing Arts Centre
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano concerto in B flat major, No. 2, Op. 83
I: Allegro non troppo II: Allegro appassionato III: Andante IV: Allegretto grazioso
Brahms’s first piano concerto did not become popular for some time, and Brahms attempted another one only after 20 years had elapsed, by which time he had become well established through the impact of his early symphonies. What emerged was one of the largest concertos ever written up to then. It includes four movements rather than the conventional three, and it is structurally so extensive that it is almost a “symphony” for piano and orchestra. The solo part is technically challenging, but the soloist must remain involved in the orchestral ensemble.
The long first movement is founded on an opening horn call to the other instruments. The piano awakens with slow arpeggios, and the woodwinds respond, followed by an early solo cadenza. Only then does the main body of the movement progress. There is an extensive development, with repeated references to the horn call, which is finally reiterated as a closing fanfare, with accompanying octave trills for the piano.
The second movement is a scherzo, a rare addition for a concerto. It may have been written for Brahms’s violin concerto and then discarded. In keeping with the rest of the piece, the movement is again “symphonic” in scope and passion.
The third movement andante begins with an expressive cello solo – a melody which is taken up by the violins, and then by the piano. Later there is a brief dialogue between the soloist and clarinets. In the coda, the cello restates its theme, accompanied by trills and arpeggios in the piano.
The finale movement is a rondo, once again on grand scale. Its bright opening theme recurs repeatedly, and eventually it rounds off the piece as well. The solo part is brilliant, especially at the final return of the rondo refrain in a faster tempo. The work concludes with yet more piano arpeggios and a big crescendo in the full orchestra.
Petr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-93): Nutcracker – Act II
Chocolat (Spanish Dance)
Café (Coffee, Arabian Dance)
Thé (Tea, Chinese Dance)
Danse des Mirlitons (Dance of the Reed Flutes)
La mère Gigogne et les polichinelles (Mother Ginger and “children”)
Valse des Fleurs (Waltz of the Flowers)
Pas de Deux; Variation (Tarantella)
Danse de la Fée Dragée (Dance of the sugar Plum Fairy)
Valse Finale et Apotheose (Final Waltz and Apotheosis)
The enchanting music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker was first performed in December 1892, less than a year before his death. The score shows Tchaikovsky in a rare, light-hearted mood, with none of the self-doubt that plagued most of his life. Yet, pessimist to the end, Tchaikovsky’s own assessment of the Nutcracker was “… infinitely worse than The Sleeping Beauty”! An indifferent audience reaction to the Nutcracker’s first performance may have reinforced Tchaikovsky’s opinion, but it probably reflected an inferior production, as well as the unfamiliar and socially unacceptable spectacle of children scurrying around on stage! The work has of course since gone on to become one of the world’s favourites.
Some of the ballet’s best-known melodies are found in the so-called “Character” dances in Act II. These dances are set pieces, and while they do little to move the story line along, they do give the various sections of the orchestra their own moments to shine. Favourites include the flute trio and English Horn in Mirlitons, the clarinets and oboes in the Arabian Dance, the bass line in bassoons during the Chinese Dance, and the trumpets in the Spanish dance – but there are so many more!
A symphonic mood that had prevailed in Act I returns towards the end of Act II, culminating in the Pas de Deux with its dramatic descending scales in the strings and brass (who but Tchaikovsky has ever done so much with just a simple major scale?) and the Waltz of the Flowers (including a wonderful harp cadenza). The celesta (fairy bells), used in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, is an instrument that Tchaikovsky discovered soon after its invention, and which he kept secret from his competitors in order to be the first to use it in an orchestral context. The Final Waltz at times becomes pure music-hall, permitting a reprise for the various dancers. Ever mindful of his audience, Tchaikovsky sends his listeners home with a reflective Apotheosis, and – for good measure – just one more crashing orchestral climax.
One can listen to this music hundreds of times (many of we veterans of the Nutcracker pit have done this!), but still hear something new in it every time.
Notes © by Stephen Walter
About Sheng Cai
Bio to come.