Ralph Vaughan Williams:
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Violin Concerto No. 1
The Firebird — ballet music
About the event
The concert will spotlight two key figures of 20th century English and Russian music literature, Vaughan Williams and Igor Stravinsky, with a piece between their works by one of the most exciting polymaths of our time, the composer-conductor-performer Jörg Widmann. The solo part of Widmann’s concerto is played by the violinist of the premiere, Christian Tetzlaff, whose performance had been lauded by Bachtrack as authoritative due to his passion and relentless virtuosity. The conductor for the evening will be Robin Ticciati, who studied under Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. According to music critic Kristóf Csengery, “the British conductor demonstrates elegance in communicating with the orchestra, great choice of tempo, confidence in his phrasing and a great deal of sensitivity for sound quality”. He has the opportunity to showcase all this in The Firebird, in which Stravinsky lent unprecedented complexity to ballet music.
To compose English music free of German influence – this is one of the key messages of the oeuvre of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is for this very reason that the composer often reached back to the British renaissance for inspiration. This was the case for his Tallis Fantasia, completed in 1910, which drew from Thomas Tallis’s 1567 theme. It was while compiling his The English Hymnal for the Church of England that Williams first came across the plaintive melody, whose motifs he then relied on to compose the Fantasia. What makes the piece unique is its unusual spatial arrangement and the apparatus involved: it features a full string section, a string nonet and a string quartet, each separate from the others, in a way mimicking the divisions on an organ.
Widmann’s one-movement concerto composed in 2006 has the soloist playing nearly non-stop. Without breaking the conventions of the genre, the composer pushes the envelope in tone and tempo. The beginning of the concerto feels like the curtain rising as we join in the violin music already playing behind. It starts out at the bottom of the violin’s range, struggling again and again in vain to climb ever higher. The soloist, like an Orpheus guiding the listener through a desolate, terrifying underworld, concludes the piece at ethereal heights, soaring up from the depths after a multitude of contrasts.
“Mark him well,” said Sergei Diaghilev, commissioner of the music to The Firebird, “he is a man on the eve of celebrity”. The piece was the first, but far from the last, in a series of collaborations. The music of the ballet, which was based on Russian folk tales, wowed Parisian audiences. The deep bass in the ominous introduction followed by the natural harmonics of the strings demonstrate the composer’s legendary orchestration skills. The story of Prince Ivan fighting with the aid of the Firebird the evil Kashchei, who turns knights into stone, is brought to life through fragments of folk songs, birdsong, twisted scherzos, magnificent lullabies and jubilant fanfares. This time not only the excerpts recycled as suites, but the full ballet music is performed.
Did you know? Vaughan Williams' Fantasia was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral on September 6, 1910 under the composer's direction, Widmann’s violin concerto premiered in Essen on September 17, 2007 (conductor: Manfred Honeck), the first night of Stravinsky’s The Firebird was in Paris on June 25, 1910 (conductor: Gabriel Pierné); the Festival Orchestra last played the Fantasia in Budapest on April 18, 2010 (conductor: Peter Oundijan), Stravinsky’s ballet music in Athens on November 16, 2015 (conductor: Iván Fischer), and will be performing the violin concerto now for the first time.
Contemporary events Hungarian poet Dezső Kosztolányi’s volume entitled The Complaints of a Poor Little Child first appeared in 1910 / Symphony No. 8 of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler premiered in Munich on September 12, 1910 / in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy interior minister, who focused on tough measures against crime and restricting immigration, was elected president of France / the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to British writer Doris Lessing.