Full programme

  • Fauré, Masques et Bergamasques  (14mins)
  • Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No.3  (28mins)
  • Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique  (55mins)



Welcome to tonight's concert featuring our incredible soloist and good friend Benjamin Grosvenor.

We begin with Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques which is a very gentle piece and good for the opening of the concert. The overture is so great. It’s fantastic. We can feel the many French flavours, French perfumes, French colours, from this piece. The last movement can be a little philosophical. So, they are four very interesting pieces.

Next, we have Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3. Actually, this concerto is related with Japan. Prokofiev went to Japan, and we hear the sound elements from Japan. Prokofiev didn't mention exactly that it was a Japanese theme, not like that. But somehow people can feel the connection. Especially for the Japanese people.

Prokofiev loved the ballet so much. His music is always like dance music. People can dance and it’s so beautiful.

Now, the beginning of the piece... it’s a C major opening, and the beginning of the piano solo is only a scale, very simple but so exciting. It’s like opening a door and through it, a C major scale is coming. Wow! We’re then immediately invited into Prokofiev's world.

The second movement is always a little deeper, typical Prokofiev, introspective. And the third movement, again dancing, exciting, enthusiastic music. Also, the melody is so beautiful. But not only the melody, the rhythm is so important. A very simple rhythm but it can have such power. It's very, very interesting, and it’s a very tough piece for the pianist actually. But I know Benjamin, and I can imagine he’ll play so well. He’s incredible. You will love it.

For the second time this season we finish the concert with Symphonie Fantastique, another very special piece for me. I have conducted this piece many times – it was one of my first professional orchestra performances. It is a part of my body; it's very strong, and it requires some madness and crazy feelings.

Kazuki Yamada, Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor

Programme Notes

Crazy in love: when Berlioz fell, he fell hard, pouring all his passions and fantasies into an epic, opium-fuelled orchestral showstopper. He didn’t call it “Symphonie Fantastique” for nothing! But that’s not the only good story we’ll be hearing today, as Kazuki Yamada evokes French poetry, and our good friend Benjamin Grosvenor takes the spotlight in Prokofiev’s firecracker of a Third Piano Concerto.

Masques et Bergamasques, Op.112

I. Ouvertue
II. Menuet
III. Gavotte
IV. Pastorale

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

“The characters Harlequin, Gilles and Colombine, whose task is usually to amuse the aristocratic audience, take their turn at being spectators at a fête galante on the island of Cythera. The lords and ladies, who as a rule applaud their efforts, now unwittingly provide them with entertainment by their coquettish behaviour.”

Close your eyes, if you like, and imagine an eighteenth century that never was: a world of blue skies and swirling silk, where elegant gentlemen pay courtesies to beautiful ladies and the dancers and clowns of the Commedia dell’arte amuse them with tales of witty and tender flirtation. That’s the world that the poet René Fauchois dreamed up in 1918 at the request of Prince Albert of Monaco – whose realm might have been tiny but whose opera house and orchestra were superb (ask Kazuki Yamada). Masques et bergamasques, when staged in Monte Carlo in April 1919, was like a painting by Watteau come to life.

Naturally, Fauchois asked his friend Gabriel Fauré to write the music. Fauré was 73 at the time, and almost completely deaf: he was unwilling to write a wholly new score. Instead, he reworked a sequence of pieces from different periods of his life, and he included three of them in this suite from the drama. The sparkling, dancing Ouverture and the lilting Menuet both came from a symphony that the student Fauré had started in 1869, at the age of 24, and then withdrawn – as did the sprightly Gavotte. Inspired, he did in the end write one new, original piece for Masques et bergamasques, and it closes the suite: the lovely Pastorale – emotion recollected in luminous tranquillity.

Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26

I. Andante – Allegro
II. Tema con variazione
III. Allegro ma non troppo

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

In the spring of 1927, the violinist David Oistrakh heard Prokofiev play the piano in Odessa, and was bowled over. “What struck me about Prokofiev’s playing was its remarkable simplicity” he recalled later. “Not a single superfluous gesture, not a single exaggerated expression of emotion, no striving for effect.”

That could almost do as a description of one of the pieces Prokofiev had played on that Russian tour, his Third Piano Concerto, which he’d written in France and premiered in Chicago on 16th December 1921. Prokofiev had planned “a large virtuoso concerto” as far back as 1911, he explained. “In 1913, I had composed a theme for variations…in 1916-17 I tried several times to return to the Third Concerto. I wrote a beginning for it…[themes] were composed in St Petersburg, some in the Pacific Ocean and others in America…Thus when I began working on the [third concerto] I already had the entire thematic material…” But somehow it all fits beautifully together. That shouldn’t surprise us; composers often let ideas gestate for years until their final shape and destiny becomes clear.

And the Third Concerto is gloriously clear. The clarinet sings a lyrical melody, the orchestra joins in, enraptured - and with a sudden, thrilling acceleration, the piano makes a high-speed entrance. From then on, the keyboard is both an energising and a subversive force – steering this first movement into its spiky second melody, and only gradually (at the centre of the movement) letting itself be dragged into the orchestra’s dreamy reminiscences of that lyrical opening melody. The voltage increases relentlessly as the first movement hurtles to its end. Next comes the theme – deadpan and balletic – that Prokofiev had noted down before the war. Now, in the brave new world of 1921, the piano leads it on a series of five variations, by turns delicate, angular and energetic, rhapsodic, martial and finally, well, what? Resigned? Nostalgic, even?

Regardless: Prokofiev the joker is back at the opening of the Finale – as awkward bassoon and ringing piano launch a movement of steadily mounting energy that finds room for episodes of soaring, luminous song before the piano ignites the final conflagration. The Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, hearing the concerto, responded with a sonnet:

An exultant flame of a crimson flower, A verbal keyboard sparkling with flames That suddenly leap forth in fiery tongues… Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom...

Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14A

I. Rêveries – Passions (Dreams and passions)
II. Un bal (A ball)
III. Scène aux champs (Scene in the country)
IV. Marche au supplice (March to the scaffold)
V. Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat (Dream of a witches’ Sabbath)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

“Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the life of an Artist.

A young artist of an unusually sensitive nature and a vivid imagination has taken opium in the depths of lovesick despair. The drug has thrown him into a deep sleep, accompanied by the most extraordinary visions. In this state, his feelings and his memories take on the form of musical ideas. Even his Beloved One takes the form of a melody in his mind – an idée fixe [an obsessive idea], which returns constantly, and which he sees everywhere.”

That’s the story that Hector Berlioz claimed to tell in his Symphonie Fantastique – and at least one part of it was entirely true. He really was “a young artist of an unusually sensitive nature and a vivid imagination”, and in the spring of 1830, he was studying in Paris in the grip of not one, but three overpowering passions.

The first was Shakespeare. In September 1827, an English theatre company had performed Hamlet in Paris: it “struck me like a thunderbolt”, he recalled. The second was Beethoven’s Eroica symphony: “Beethoven opened before me a new world of music”. And the third was love: crazy, unrequited love. Harriet Smithson was an Irish actress in the Shakespeare company; Berlioz had never even spoken to her, but he was smitten all the same. Meanwhile Camille Moke, a 21-year old pianist, took that as a challenge: “She set my senses on fire till all the devils of hell danced in my veins”.

So those were the ingredients. Mixed together in the mind of a young composer in love with the gothic and the Romantic, the result was the Symphonie Fantastique, written early in 1830 and first performed on 9th December 1832. Harriet was in the audience. Amazed by its programme, she made enquiries about the composer – “That poor young man…I hope he’s forgotten me”. Instead she learned, to her astonishment, that the piece was actually inspired by her. They were married within the year.

Berlioz insisted that his music should speak without words and the Symphonie Fantastique is definitely graphic enough to speak for itself! The one idea to bear in mind is the idée fixe – the tune representing the Beloved, which recurs throughout the Symphony. It’s the long, lilting melody played by the violins immediately after the start of the fast Passions section of the first movement – coming after the long, wandering Rêveries.

Un bal is just that – an elegant Parisian valse, with harps glittering like diamonds. The Beloved appears, on oboe, in the centre of the movement – and our hero’s heart is still skipping beats. In the peaceful Scène aux champs a lonely shepherd (cor anglais) pipes to his offstage sweetheart (oboe). By the end of the movement, his only reply is a distant rumble of thunder.

In the Marche au supplice the drugs have kicked in: our artist hallucinates that he’s being executed, and the idée fixe makes a final appearance on clarinet before the guillotine blade falls and the head bounces into the basket. But it’s not over: the scene darkens for a hellish supernatural fantasy of witches rejoicing in his doom. There are orchestral bells as midnight strikes, and the tuba belts out the Dies Irae funeral plainchant. As the dance spirals into madness, Berlioz unleashes everything he has left in a riotous orgy of sound.

© Richard Bratby

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