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Dvořák, Ravel, Smetana

  • St Peter's Church Kensington Park Road London, W11 (map)
Conductor Johann Stuckenbruck

Conductor Johann Stuckenbruck

Conductor Johann Stuckenbruck
Pianist Peter Austin

Smetana Vltava (The Moldau)
Ravel Piano Concerto in G major
Dvorak Symphony no. 8

Come and join us as we perform pieces by Smetana and Dvořák, evoking their beloved rural Czech landscapes, and Ravel, who had fallen under the spell of American jazz the previous year.

Smetana Vitava (The Moldau)

The Moldau is the most popular six works comprising Bedrich, Smetana's collection of symphonic poems titled Má Vlast (My Country), and is one of the most widely performed symphonic poems ever written. Vltava is the name of a river that runs through rural Czechoslovakia and Prague. Moldau is its German name and has come to be the preferred title for this piece, not least because Smetana himself was a German-speaking Czech.

During its composition, the composer was plagued by severe headaches, symptoms of a condition that would cause him to go completely deaf in October 1874. Smetana had found his walks along the shores of the Moldau a source of compositional inspiration and thus decided to include a portrait of it in this series, which he began in 1872 with Vysehrad. He gave The Moldau a sort of Rondo structure and divided it into eight continuous sections. A pair of swirling flutes opens the work to represent the two sources (springs) of the Moldau, and then energetic clarinets soon join them before the famous main theme is presented.

The string melody has a Czech folk-like character in its serene, proud character, and represents the Moldau River. Oddly, research supports the view that the source of this theme is a Swedish folk song, Ack, Värmland du sköna. There follows ‘Forest Hunt’ with triumphant horns and trumpets, after which a joyous folk-ish theme depicts a ‘Peasant Wedding’ celebration.

‘Moonlight: Dance of the Water Nymphs’ ensues, bringing instrumentation of delicate textures and music of nocturnal serenity. The main theme briefly returns before ‘The Rapids’, a lively, powerful section before the river theme returns, but soon yields to the Vysehrad, the main theme from the set's first symphonic poem. This grandiose section leads to what would be a quiet ending, but for the two boisterous chords that spring up to close the work.

Ravel Piano Concerto in G major

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major was composed between 1929 and 1931. The concerto is in three movements and is heavily influenced by jazz, which Ravel had encountered on a concert tour of the United States in 1928.

The concerto was deeply infused with jazz idioms and harmonies, which at the time were highly popular in Paris as well as the United States, where Ravel was traveling on a piano tour. Ravel remarked that "The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm. ... Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it." After his well-received tour, Ravel wanted to give the first public performance of this new work himself. However, health issues precluded this possibility, with his preparatory practice of Liszt's and Chopin's etudes leading to fatigue. He then planned a premiere for March 9, 1931, in Amsterdam, but these plans also were canceled due to his work on the Concerto for the Left Hand, his many public appearances, and his performances of his other works.[3]

Eventually, Ravel offered the premiere and dedicated the concerto to Marguerite Long, who was known for her performances of the works of Fauré and Debussy and had earlier asked Ravel for a new work. She played the concerto on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. A few days after this highly successful premiere, Ravel and Long started a tour of twenty cities in Europe, where the work was received with consistent enthusiasm.

Dvořák Symphony No. 8

The Symphony No. 8 in G major was composed in 1889, and Dvořák conducted the premiere in Prague on 2 February 1890. In contrast to other symphonies of both the composer and the period, the music is cheerful and optimistic.

Dvořák kept the typical format of a symphony in four movements, but structured them in an unusual way. All movements show a remarkable variety of themes, many of them based on Bohemian material. Occasionally the development of the themes seems like improvisation.

The first movement is a powerful and glowing exposition characterized by liberal use of timpani. It opens with a lyrical G minor theme in the cellos, horns, clarinets and bassoon with trombones, violas and double basses pizzicato, that gives way to a "bird call" flute melody. In the recapitulation, the second main theme is played by the English horn, two octaves lower than in the exposition. The movement ends with a short but energetic coda.

Second movement moves along at a reasonable speed. It begins with a typically beautiful clarinet duet and ends quietly, but contentedly. Similar to Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, the music is inspired by the tranquil landscapes, depicting a summer's day, interrupted by a thunderstorm.

Most of the third movement is a melancholy waltz that music ends unlike the second movement. The first notes of the Trio section are used in the Coda, and contrast to the sweet and languid waltz of the first theme, the second sounds more like a Bohemian folk dance.

The finale begins with a fanfare of trumpets that progresses to a beautiful melody first played by the cellos. The building tension is released at approximately two minutes into the piece, with a cascade of instruments triumphantly playing the initial theme at a faster pace. A central contrasting episode is derived from the main theme. From there the movement has a tempestuous middle section before returning to the slow, lyrical section. The piece ends on a chromatic coda, in which brass and timpani are greatly prominent. There is an unmistakably Czech flavour and a joviality to the music and its always cheerful and optimistic.

Earlier Event: September 29
Così fan tutte
Later Event: February 2
Pavlos Carvalho plays Dvorak