Performance Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | 8 PM

Mariinsky Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
To close out their focus on Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall, the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev have invited Daniil Trifonov to perform the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Trifonov is the most recent winner of the historic Tchaikovsky Competition, which turned Texan Van Cliburn into a star when he won the inaugural contest in 1958. Also on the program are works by composers who carried on Russia’s grand musical legacy into the 20th century: selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Shostakovich’s First Symphony.
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The Program

Three Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64bis and Op. 64ter

A Star-Crossed Score

The three excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet on tonight’s program mirror the myriad moods of the piece, which is by turns lyrical, brash, and witty, with plenty of passion—all shot through with Prokofiev’s acrid irreverence. This complexity is an admirable rendering of Shakespeare’s vision of young love assaulted by harsh, dumb reality, but for years it confused the critics, who judged it too “cold” to be proper love music. (Olin Downes of The New York Times wrote in 1938, “There is the partial suggestion of that which is poignant and tragic, but there is little of the sensuous or emotional.”)

Today, Romeo and Juliet is one of Prokofiev’s most popular scores (indeed, it was always popular with audiences, if not critics—a classic case of the former being ahead of the latter), but its initial history was as star-crossed as Shakespeare’s lovers. Beginning in 1934, Prokofiev fought for six years to get his “undanceable” ballet produced in Russia, succeeding with the Kirov only after mounting an unusual public-relations campaign in which he performed piano and orchestral excerpts in Europe and America.

Symphonic Ballet

As a ballet, this Romeo and Juliet is necessarily more sectional and specific than Tchaikovsky’s famous Fantasy Overture or Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette. Nevertheless, it is very much a “symphonic ballet” that works wonderfully as concert music, so much so that Prokofiev, fed up with delays in the staging of the complete work, knocked out two orchestral suites before the full dance version was premiered. (“Masks” is from the Suite No. 1; “Friar Laurence” and “Montagues and Capulets” are from the Suite No. 2, which Prokofiev conducted himself with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1938.) The dramatic structure consists of an elaborate tissue of motifs that represent not only specific characters, but also their thoughts and fantasies of each other, sometimes criss-crossing or coalescing—a technique, in fact, inaugurated in another masterpiece about tortured lovers, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

A Closer Listen

The music chosen from this massive score takes in a variety of Prokofiev’s styles—not only the predominant “romantic” mode from this mature period, evident in the opening “Friar Laurence,” but others as well. Delectable touches of Prokofiev’s Neoclassicism are evident in the clear, decisive lines of the second excerpt, “Masks,” while the strutting pomposity of “Montagues and Capulets” recalls “barbaric” and satiric aspects of an earlier Prokofiev. The latter sequence is introduced by a chorale that consists of fateful, shattering discords followed by hushed string sounds—one of the most dramatic juxtapositions in all of Prokofiev.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23

An International Splash

The plummeting fanfares and ascending piano chords that open Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto herald what is probably the most popular Romantic concerto in the repertoire, both in live performance and recordings. Full of passion, lyricism, and technical bravura, the piece was Tchaikovsky’s first work to achieve international acclaim. It was premiered not in Russia, but in Boston, and it was the rousing climax of Tchaikovsky’s 1891 opening of Carnegie Hall.

The Usual Funky Beginnings

The concerto suffered the same kind of miserable composition history that tormented Tchaikovsky in so many other works, including the First, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies. In this case, the culprit was not the public or his own self-doubt, but his “friend” and mentor, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, for whom Tchaikovsky played the concerto on Christmas Eve 1874. According to Tchaikovsky’s famous letter to his patron, Nadia von Meck, Rubinstein responded to the piece with stony silence, then deounced it with a “torrent” of invective:

It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar … only two or three pages were worth preserving. The rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.

Tchaikovsky’s resolute response—“I shall not alter a single note”—was a far cry from his participation in the denigration of later masterpieces like The Nutcracker. He did touch up an orchestral passage here and there, and made a few piano passages stronger: Rolled chords at the very beginning, for example, became explosive shards that make the concerto go off like a bomb.

A Proving Ground for Virtuosos

Beginning with Hans von Bülow, piano virtuosos pounced upon the concerto for its combination of technical display and Romantic sensibility, and the work has become a proving ground for over 135 years. Horowitz’s interpretation with Toscanini set new standards for terrifying speed; Van Cliburn rocketed to international fame by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in his 1958 performance—much to the dismay of Soviet cultural czars—and Vladimir Ashkenazy (despite his stated distaste for the big octave passages) won the competition in a draw with John Ogden in 1962.

A Concerto with Everything

It’s easy to see why the piece is such a favorite. This is the Romantic concerto with everthing: an epic first movement that resembles a full-blown tone poem, an enchanted slow movement that rivals Tchaikovsky’s most delicate ballet scenes, and a super-charged finale in high Russian style. Tchaikovsky was skeptical about the sound of a piano against an orchestra, but the two coexist in perfect tension and balance.

The concerto is also—especially for a warhorse—surprisingly original in structure. The celebrated opening theme, imperious as it is, never returns in the course of the work (though musicologists have recently claimed to find intervallic traces of it). It blazes forth, then burns itself out. The concerto is so bursting with memorable ideas that Tchaikovsky doesn’t need this glorious tune again. Yet he manages to provide codas for the first and last movements that are so dramatic, we don’t miss the theme’s mysterious disappearance.

The work even manages to work in a few folksong quotations of the kind that were so fashionable among Tchaikovsky’s colleagues in the “Mighty Five” (with a snatch from a French folksong insinuated into the middle of the slow movement for good measure). These are not just pretty scenery, as is sometimes the case with folk-music borrowings by Borodin and others, but fully developed thematic kernels in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony from the same period.

The lure of the concerto became so great that grumpy Nikolai Rubinstein himself eventually began performing it in Russia—no doubt, one of the sweeter moments in Tchaikovsky’s career.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10

Shostakovich Signatures

Like the first symphonies of Brahms, Mahler, and Sibelius, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 is instantly recognizable as the work of its creator. Although composed when Shostakovich was only 19 and still a student at the Petrograd Conservatory, the symphony already bears many of his mature characteristics: tart irony and parody juxtaposed with intense lyricism, bombastic vulgarity set against exquisite refinement, a Russian darkness in the writing for lower strings and brass brightened by playful solos for unexpected instruments (including, in this case, timpani and piano), and traditional symphonic structures reformatted in novel ways. From the beginning, Shostakovich’s art was characterized by extreme contrasts and tensions, and this symphony is no exception. Even the borrowings in the work—a nod to Prokofiev in the work’s sarcasm, a bow to Mahler in the gorgeous slow movement—remained constant in Shostakovich’s later works.

Pre-Stalin Exuberance

At the same time, this symphony contains an exuberance and freshness that were not to last. Its crystalline scoring and divertimento feel are a happy contrast to the heavy rhetoric of the later symponies. This is partly a function of the piece being a young man’s work, but also of its place in Soviet history. The symphony was composed in 1924–1925, before the Stalinist repression that was to plague Shostakovich for so much of his life. Even the Ninth Symphony, a light-hearted work in the spirit of the First, has an underlying bitterness in several sections. Who knows how much of the vitality of the First Symphony would have endured had Shostakovich not been depressed by Soviet censorship and the horrors of World War II.

An International Success

Even the reception of the symphony was part of an early, relatively uncomplicated period in Shostakovich’s life. The 1926 premiere was a big success with both critics and the public, as were subsequent performances around the world with major conductors and orchestras, including Bruno Walter and the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1927, Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1928, and Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic, also in 1928. Not bad for a teenager who was almost a total unknown. It is fortunate that Shostakovich got such a great boost so early: Once Stalin’s purges began, he needed all the self-confidence and courage he could muster.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Suki Sandler in support of the 2011-2012 season.
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