A Splendid Wintry Carpet Programme Preview III

Concert III

Selected pieces from Romeo and Juliet (op. 64: 1935) arranged for violin and piano
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     A frosty night, the wide sky clear,
     Illumed by a wondrous, celestial choir,
     Flowing so quietly, so harmoniously…

from Alexander Pushkin (1799—1837): Eugene Onegin (1823—1832; chapter 5, verse 9, lines 1—3)


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.
[Shakespeare’s play, the Prologue]

Julia [Juliet]

Thou was the prettiest babe that e’er I nurs’d;
An I might live to see thee married once,
I have my wish. [Act 1, scene 3]

Tanz der Ritter [The Dance of the Knights]

But He that has the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen. [Act 1, scene 4]

Balkonszene [The Balcony Scene]

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the Sun. [Act 2, scene 2]

Tanz de Paare [Pas de Deux]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
[Act 1, scene 5]

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire.
The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is mad blood stirring.
[Act 3, scene 1]

Kampf und Tybalts Tod [Duel and Tybalt’s Death]

Now, Tybalt, take the “villain” back again
That late thou gav’st me; for Mercutio’s soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company.
Either thou or I, or both, must go with him.
[Act 3, scene 1]

Prokofiev extracted three orchestral suites and one for piano from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, with the purpose of reliving the musical impact of the original in the context of a concert. The intent behind this selection for violin is, however, different: it is principally to create a virtuoso performance piece via melodies familiar from the ballet, and is more concerned with technical display. As such, its wellspring is a musical genre familiar to nineteenth century concert-goers, by which arias from any recently-composed opera soon found their way into the hands of the local fiddling fraternity. Most of these potpourris of opera tunes have since fallen by the wayside and are no longer performed, with the notable exception of Carmen Fantasy, which is still regularly heard in several versions.

Valse-Scherzo, op. 34 (1877)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Originally intended for violin and orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo was dedicated to former composition student, the violinist Josif Kotek, and premiered by Polish violinist Stanislaw Barcewicz in Paris in 1878, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. Kotek was evidently a violinist of distinction and was credited with assisting Tchaikovsky in editing the more technically demanding passages of the violin concerto to be more suitable for the instrument; however, clearly with only limited success given the extreme difficulty that remains, though the musical merits of the piece are undeniable.

Tchaikovsky himself was trained in Western European composition and the Germanic tradition at the newly-opened St Petersburg Conservatoire, and he worked for many years as Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatoire. Thus, his musical style orientates itself much more strongly in a pan-European rather than purely Russian direction. The year 1877 in which the Valse-Scherzo was composed was an important turning point for Tchaikovsky, as in addition to his friendship with Kotek, he also suffered a short-lived and unsuccessful marriage to Antonina Miliukova. Moreover, in the same year he first started to correspond with his future patroness Nadezhda von Meck, who had herself played chamber music with Kotek. In his final years, Tchaikovsky’s more international style set him on a path to the outside world a generation earlier than Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Medtner, and he visited America in 1891 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University in 1893.

That said, the Valse-Scherzo is no more than bit of froth, and fun for both player and audience alike, featuring: up-bow flying spiccato; repeated down-bows; playing high on the G-string; melody in false harmonics; patterns in consecutive thirds; ricochet bowing; complex arpeggiated double stops; scales in fingered octaves; and virtuoso scales. After a spirited start there follows a central cantabile section, and then a cadenza before the reprise of the opening. Tchaikovsky’s fascination with the waltz form is well-known, and this was just another firecracker to set alongside the celebrated examples in his ballets The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.

Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 3 in E minor “Epic”, Op. 57 (1935—38)
Nikolai Medtner (1880—1951)
     I. Introduzione: Andante meditamente – Allegro
     II. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace e leggiero
     III. Andante con moto
     IV. Finale: Allegro molto

Like the second violin sonata, the years during which the third violin sonata was composed also span a period of transition for Medtner, as during this time he moved to settle in London. It too is a huge work, lasting some 45 minutes. The composer himself aptly titled it “Epic”, as is recorded on the frontispiece of the first edition, published by Novello. In terms of primary musical ingredients, the same driving, dense symphonic polyphony of chromatic harmony derived from Brahms and Wagner dominates. Large-scale classical architectures, as well as Medtner’s characteristic divisions into smaller sections, each one developing a different motif through incessant repetition, are also important features. Something fundamental has, however, changed. Like so many émigré artists, as the period overseas becomes extended, a home-sickness starts to kick in and the aesthetic features of a long-lost native land begin to reassert themselves. In 1951, Medtner died at his home in Golders Green and was buried in nearby Hendon cemetery, both suburbs of North London with very large Jewish populations. These are mostly descendants of refugees from Eastern Europe, and to this day Yiddish can still be heard in conversation on the streets. Perhaps it is this ethnic milieu that explains in part Medtner’s cultural shift.

The whole sonata is cast in a gloomy E minor. A sombre sense of spacious sorrow hits the ear with the first few dark chords of the Introduzione, where bare piano harmonies with no adorning figuration are followed by a violin melody in sonorous folksy double stops of which even Prokofiev would have been proud. Occasional traceries of fast violin scales over subsequent recurrences of these piano chords add an almost Debussy-like sense of arabesque that also seems uncharacteristic of the Brahmsian sternness of Medtner’s earlier work. When the movement proper begins with the allegro, the metre is hard, incisive, and geometric, and the violin part is replete once more with lavish double stops: here is klezmer folk-fiddling! And if these melodies were devoid of their rolling accompaniment, they would be found to be no more than simple folk-tunes with few chromatic notes: the verve and swing of the music really gets the feet tapping.

The Scherzo that follows also brings a similar sense of movement if not more; but suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of the feverish intensity, the music changes. As with the last movement of second violin sonata, the habanera rhythm emerges, though this time less assertively and more ghostly in manner. The slow third movement begins with seven declamatory piano chords which recall the opening to the Finale of Brahms’ symphony no. 4; however, by contrast, it continues with a violin melody that is a simple folk tune in clear phrases with clear cadences, and its notes are all drawn only from the F minor scale. That is also the case with the slow chordal piano accompaniment: melancholy and mournful, bemoaning a far-off homeland that has been lost.

In the Finale, the folk fiddler crashing into gutsy chords returns. About halfway through, however, the music stops its relentlessness, and the violinist is left high and dry with an improvisatory soaring solo that is entirely repetitive, modal, and folk-like in character. This is a kind of Eastern European Lark Ascending with Chagall’s folk violinist suddenly bemused by a mystical dream. It is merely, though, a short-lived fantasy before the symphonic argument resumes, and with the final tumultuous climax and glorious chords, we are left wondering: who is the real Medtner?

About the Author: Dr Colin Huehns studied violin with Emanuel Hurwitz. His first experience in music from outside the Western Classical tradition came at King’s College, Cambridge, when he wrote a dissertation on the music of Hunza Valley and Gilgit, Pakistan, an interest which culminated in a PhD thesis awarded by Cambridge University for ‘Music in Northern Pakistan’ in 1992.
He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has remained active as a composer. Following a three-year British Academy Research Fellowship at Cambridge, Colin spent three years as a student at the Xi’an Music Conservatoire, studying the erhu with the distinguished virtuoso Jin Wei.

Since returning to the UK in 1999, he has taught electives in non-Western, traditional, and folk music at the Academy. He has also taught electives, which include learning the erhu, and Chinese and British members of the dulcimer family. As well as continuing to play the viol, viola, violin, rebec, Renaissance fiddle, and various dulcimers, his main teaching, research, performance, and composition interests now centre on his Chinese instruments, which include some twenty different members of the erhu, yangqin, and Mongolian horsehead fiddle families.
Colin’s erhu performances have included recitals in Munich, Leeds, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, but he is particularly proud of having recorded two CDs of erhu music written especially for him.