75 years ago today – the first performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto

Today marks 75 years to the day since the premiere of Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Like much of this composer’s work, the Violin Concerto took a while to gain popularity, but since we have moved into the 21st century it has taken up a much more regular position in the concert hall.

In her excellent biography of the composer, Jessica Duchen tells the story of the concerto, and how it was suggested to Korngold for close on 30 years by his friend Bronislaw Huberman, founder of the Palestine Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic). The regular suggestion became something of a running joke until 1945, when Korngold unexpectedly produced a completed score for the concerto. Ultimately the work had its first performance on 15 February 1947, with the incomparable Jascha Heifetz as soloist and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Golschmann.

As you will hear from this live performance with violinist Hilary Hahn and the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester under Kent Nagano, the work has an intense, lyrical profile from the start, shot through with the descriptive powers Korngold used to such good effect in his film scores. There is a longing quality to the first movement especially, a nocturnal second and an energetic third which generates impressive momentum to the finish.

Watch and see what you think:

Scriabin at 150

Today marks 150 years since the birth of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, one of the most colourful characters in 20th century music – and one of the most original thinkers too.

A lot of that thinking went beyond his music to embrace the universe itself, culminating in the unfinished Mysterium project. This hugely ambitious concept was to be performed in the Himalayas and followed by the end of the world.

That gives an indication of the scope of the composer’s thinking, and you can trace that in his music too, which moves from Chopin-influenced piano works to increasingly complex and dense music, notable for its rich harmony and unusual rhythms. As Scriabin’s music progressed so did his fascination with colour and in particular synaesthesia, which became a primary stimulation for him in his writing.

Arcana intends to look at his work in more detail this year, particularly the ten piano sonatas which stand as a fascinating and innovative cycle of work. For now, though, you can enjoy Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire. Depending on your viewpoint, this tone poem, set in the composer’s favourite key of F sharp major, could be Scriabin’s Symphony no.5, or a second piano concerto. Either way it is an exotic, unbroken piece of music lasting nearly 25 minutes, rich in colour and certainly rewarding repeated listening!

In February 2010 Anna Gawboy, a Scriabin scholar and doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Music, attempted to realize the composer’s ultimate wish of a colour keyboard which would perform the work. She worked towards this with conductor Toshiyuki Shimada, the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the lighting designer Justin Townsend.

You can watch the lead-up to the concert and the performance itself on the documentary below:

Listening to Malcolm Arnold – some reflections

Yesterday we marked 100 years since the birth of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, and today I wanted to lift the lid on just a handful of his lesser known orchestral works, which I have been listening to while holidaying in Cornwall – just a few miles from St Merryn, where the composer lived from 1965 to 1972.

The first piece to catch my ear is an early one, however. Arnold wrote the short tone poem Larch Trees in his late teens, when he had just become principal trumpet player for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He introduced it to them in 1943 but it lay unperformed until 1984. It is as evocative as the title implies, a moody piece creating a colourful autumnal atmosphere but finding darker, more craggy harmonies. As it evolves, Arnold reveals the influence of Sibelius on his early musical thoughts, in particular The late masterpiece Tapiola. There are also hints of Moeran in the slower music, and vivid imagery of the wind sighing in the branches of the trees.

In contrast, the Serenade for Small Orchestra is a pocket dynamo of a piece. It’s bright and breezy first movement makes full use of the smaller forces, with impudent humour and a surprisingly big sound from the small forces. Arnold always has melodic interest in this music, and the soft second movement, followed by a brash third, are packed with ideas.

The Clarinet Concerto no.2, written for Benny Goodman in 1974, is also a loud piece at times – but carries a very different message. Infused with jazz, and channeling the spirit of New York, it has a riotous third movement in the form of a rag – The Pre-Goodman Rag, as titled by Arnold. Composer and performers throw caution to the wind here, improvising and revelling in free musical form. The cadenza of the first movement does the same, the clarinet stepping up with a full repertoire of brays and swoons. Just as revealing is the second movement, turning icy cold with its awkward harmonies. As Arnold’s biographer Piers Burton-Page notes, it is revealing of the composer’s increasing creative and ultimately mental turmoil.

The Viola Concerto has made an equally strong impression. It was written in St Merryn, Cornwall, in response to a commission from Roger Best and the Northern Sinfonia. It has a really strong first movement, the soloist ascending from the busy activity of the orchestra with a melody of power and poise. It is difficult not to equate this with the windswept Cornish Coast. The solo instrument retreats a little in the second movement, sharing the stage with some profound thoughts from the orchestra, and then a vibrant finale exchanges quirky ideas and syncopation. It is a fine vehicle for the viola, proving its strength and versatility.

These are just four pieces from an extensive and sadly underperformed body of work. They show off Arnold’s sense of humour and his gift as a tunesmith but also the depth of feeling lying just beneath the surface. He is an enormously approachable composer, and when could be better than his anniversary year to get acquainted with his music?

Malcolm Arnold at 100 – The Padstow Lifeboat

written by Ben Hogwood

Today marks 100 years since the birthday of English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Arnold has always had a chequered relationship with the concert-going and record-buying public. He was too often seen as a vulgar composer, or someone who couldn’t resist a musical prank, which his work with Deep Purple, in the Concerto for Group and Orchestra of 1969, and his involvement in the Gerard Hoffnung concerts did little to dispel. Writing a piece that included parts for three vacuum cleaners (A Grand, Grand Overture) was a bridge too far for some. His personality is often cited too, for Arnold – who suffered consistently from poor mental health – gained a bad reputation amid his struggles with alcohol and financial problems.

Yet beneath the humour beat a deeply caring musical heart that revealed itself in a myriad of different compositions. The nine symphonies speak with power and concentrated thought of his struggles, and though many still lie dormant the success of the Fifth at the BBC Proms this year said much for the musical quality in the mind behind it.

Arnold mastered many forms, writing concertos for most of the principal orchestral instruments, chamber music that is still all too rarely heard, and stage works that are only just being properly discovered. The Dancing Master, winner of a BBC Music Magazine award this year thanks to a recent recording on Resonus, is testament to that, while the film music has started to get its due reward. The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Hobson’s Choice are all fine scores.

Since I am writing this from holiday in Cornwall, I have chosen to focus on some of the pieces Arnold wrote in his time living at St Merryn. The first one is a light-hearted treasure, The Padstow Lifeboat – with a striking written-out part intended to include the foghorn.

The piece was written in 1967 to commemorate the lifeboat’s inauguration, with Arnold still discovering more local musical appeal having not long moved from London. Due in part to the success of the piece, it was not long before he was made Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1968. It is a lively, humourous march that can’t help but raise a smile!

Alexander von Zemlinsky at 150

Today marks 150 years since the birth in Vienna of composer, conductor and teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Zemlinsky is a figure of great historical importance in classical music, with a marked impact behind the scenes on the direction it was to take in the 20th century. In his early twenties, he caught the attention of Brahms, who was impressed with the Clarinet Trio published as a composer’s Op.3 in 1896. Around this time Zemlinsky also met Schoenberg, and then Alma Schindler, with whom he had an intense relationship. Their union was unexpectedly and suddenly broken in 1902, however, when Alma married Gustav Mahler.

Zemlinsky’s musical family tree is an intriguing one. As a teacher he mentored and encouraged Berg, Webern and Korngold. As a conductor he received unreserved praise from Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Weill. Stravinsky declared in 1964, “I do believe that of all the conductors I have heard, I would choose Alexander Zemlinsky as the most outstanding, and this is a mature verdict.” Schoenberg admired his “natural, unforced and obvious greatness”.

It is as a composer that we remember him here, however, for Zemlinsky’s music has not yet reached the audience it deserves. One of his greatest works, the Lyric Symphony made a strong impression at the Proms in 2016, and the Clarinet Trio was performed at the same festival this year. Those are just two of many fine compositions, however. Brahms was also impressed with Zemlinsky’s symphonic writing, and as an orchestral composer both his tone poem Die Seejungfrau and the Sinfonietta are fine works. The magical opening bars of the former, as heard in a new recording from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko for Onyx Classics, are to be treasured:

The four string quartets are also highly regarded, as is the output for solo piano, while another strong area for Zemlinsky was Lieder. Here there are many fine settings, perhaps the best of which are his 6 Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck of 1910-13.

The Spotify playlist below brings a number of these pieces together – while you can visit the Alexander Zemlinsky website to learn more about his life and work. Meanwhile a biography by Antony Beaumont, published in 2000 by Cornell University Press, is also highly recommended.