Glimmers of Light and Dark with the London Philharmonic
The London Philharmonic’s concert this Tuesday, December 6, in Hill Auditorium, features an intriguing program of the familiar, dramatic and mystifying. With Mozart’s beloved Violin Concerto no. 5, Matthias Pintscher’s seething and violent towards Osiris (2005) and Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed “Manfred” Symphony, the performance will begin in a delicate, comfortable musical environment and then take the audience on a wild ride through space and time, concluding with a prodigious and fantastical tone poem.
The Mozart concerto opening the evening’s music is an admittedly incongruous aperitif to the Pintscher and Tchaikovsky, simply because those later works are rooted in extra-musical narratives, as I will explain later. The Violin Concerto no. 5 is better known as one of Mozart’s greatest achievements in the concerto repertoire, seamlessly melding technical demands on the soloist with his typically beguiling melodic ideas. According to ClassicalArchives.com, this work may be the most commonly performed violin concerto in classical music. Though the piece employs a broadened dramatic scope – and even includes the direction “aperto”, something Mozart usually limited to his operatic scores – the piece is pro forma, lovely Mozart, complete with an indefatigable supply of charming melodies to delight any and all listeners.
Try to savor the halcyon mood of the Mozart as much as possible, be cause towards Osiris and the “Manfred” Symphony could not be two more different works, both in terms of their affect and inspiration. Based on Egyptian mythology, Matthias Pintscher’s towards Osiris was commissioned by conductor Simon Rattle for a 2005 recording of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, released on the EMI Classics Label. Maestro Rattle’s aim was to have a group of living composers create a set of new works to pair with The Planets, which he dubs “The Asteroids”. Though there are no galactic connotations in towards Osiris, the piece does unfold like view a series of disconnected constellations, which eventually become more unified thanks to a gradually energizing percussion part.
Pintscher’s music is uncommonly brutal, an affect that makes sense in light of the myth on which the composer based the piece. In a documentary EMI produced as part of their recording project with Simon Rattle, Pintscher describes the Egyptian myth of Osiris wherein the God is torn into pieces that are ultimately collected and reanimated by his wife, Isis. Towards Osiris emulates this story with startling precision. As I already noted, the musical ideas are disparate and violent, seemingly representative of Osiris’ dismembered remains The percussion part is crucial to the motivation of the music’s activity, just like the flapping of Isis’ wings as she attempts to bring her deity husband back to life. In the end, the music surges with the increasingly active lifeblood of the percussion part and the once isolated ideas of the work’s beginning come together in one sonic mass.
Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony is similarly based on an extra-musical program, though the connection here is a little more deliberate. The narrative on which Tchaikovsky based the work is an adaptation of the supernatural-themed poem “Manfred” by Lord Byron created by the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov. In turn, Stasov’s inspiration came from Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, an enormously popular work in Russia for which Stasov imagined the “Manfred” Symphony as a sort of sequel. Tchaikovsky’s participation in the project came accidentally. Initially, Stasov wished to work with Mily Balakirev, but the composer refused and (thankfully) recommended Stasov approach Tchaikovsky, instead.
Like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the “Manfred” Symphony represents its program through musical ideas, some clearer than others. The long, dark opening movement is meant to evoke the desolate condition in which we meet Manfred, walking alone through the Alps as an exile, searching for relief from his regrets and memories. Themes emerge to represent the characters in the story, Manfred and his love Astarte, but do no reappear under the conventional pretexts we often see in Tchaikovsky’s works, including the beloved fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. Rather, Tchaikovsky writes the “Manfred” Symphony with liberal formal ideas, focusing on the music’s dramatic character over traditional structural requirements.
To this extent, the “Manfred” Symphony is very much the Richard Strauss tone poems Don Quixote or Ein Heldenleben: large, multi-movement works conceived to highlight the facets of a detailed extra-musical narrative. Armed with an uncommon sense of thematic and formal freedom, Tchaikovsky’s score is unpredictable and compelling, reflecting the emotional turmoil of Byron’s Manfred with a wide palette of orchestral colors and a multitude of captivating melodies (the latter, of course, is something we always expect with Tchaikovsky). This colorful and dramatic personality is most obvious in the final movement wherein Manfred finds himself in an underground “Hall of Evil”. Symbolically, an organ enters and signals our hero’s glorious acceptance of death and the end of his torment (listen closely to the bassoons and cellos in the piece’s final bars and you may be able to hear a very obvious allusion to the final movement of Symphony Fantastique, a work Tchaikovsky must have greatly admired).