Full programme

  • Beethoven, Violin Concerto  (42mins)
  • Elgar, Enigma Variations  (31mins)

Performers

Introduction

From the profound and challenging realm of Beethoven's compositions, to the enigmatic power of Elgar's Enigma Variations - enjoy an unforgettable experience brimming with passion and intrigue.

There's a unique excitement that comes with each performance. This week we have two concerts featuring different soloists. Part 1 features pianist Alice Sara Ott and Part 2 features violinist Maria Dueñas. Beethoven's music is regarded as the most profound and challenging for any soloist or musician, as it requires a philosophical approach to making music. Both soloists are fantastic performers, and I'm excited to play with them for the very first time.

I used to believe that Beethoven should be very serious music somehow. But then I had an increased sentiment, why not to play the funny things? I'm sure Beethoven put his humour in his music. If we look, we can find those moments. They exist and can really be enjoyed.

The Enigma Variations is also a very English piece of music composed by Elgar. It is a mysterious piece, and the meaning behind the variation names is unclear. Each variation is named after a person, sometimes only with initials and is a representation of that person. It is a very mysterious piece of music, and each person can interpret it in a unique way. Playing the Enigma Variations is like telling a story with many chapters, and it's a joy to perform it again.

I hope you enjoy your evening.

Kazuki Yamada, Conductor


Programme Notes

Dan the bulldog, Dorabella with her infectious giggle, and the noble, eloquent Nimrod – Elgar’s Enigma Variations are an unforgettable musical portrait of the friends who made him the man he was, right here in the Midlands 125 years ago. But it’s much more than that, and tonight Kazuki Yamada joins violinist Maria Dueñas to pair it with a masterpiece that Elgar loved throughout his life: Beethoven’s radiant Violin Concerto.

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61

I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Larghetto
III. Rondo: Allegro

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was premiered in Vienna on 23rd December 1806, and it left the audience baffled. “Commonplace”, “tiring”, a “concerto for timpani” – those were just some of the reactions. It wasn’t what they expected from any sort of concerto, let alone from Beethoven. He’d written the concerto in a hurry, having heard that the Viennese violinist Franz Clement was planning a benefit concert. Beethoven raced to complete it, and handed over the score, headed with a typically awful pun (“Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement” – “Concerto in mercy [clemency] for Clement”) so late that Clement had to sight-read it on the night.

Clement went one step further, scattering the concerto’s movements throughout the concert, and inserting between them a masterpiece of his own - a trick solo performed on one string of an upside-down violin. Knowing what to expect, it’s a miracle that Beethoven kept his temper, let alone completed the Concerto. But in 1806 Beethoven – working hard at his 5th and 6th symphonies, and revising his only opera Fidelio – was thinking on another level. The violin is the supreme singer amongst instruments, so Beethoven gave it space to sing as never before. There’s no showing-off for its own sake – in fact, except for just two notes near the very end, he doesn’t even use any pizzicato (plucking).

A new kind of concerto needed a new approach to the orchestra. So the themes of the first movement glide in on the woodwinds; the horns open up huge vistas and the bassoon echoes the high-flying violin, like the shadow thrown as a bird soars over a sunlit landscape. And it all begins with five quiet taps of the drum: no-one had ever done that before.

So if the Larghetto feels particularly personal, that’s no coincidence. Halfway through, the violin enters with a melody so touching that it’s hard not to wonder if it has a special meaning. In fact, it’s uncannily similar to a moment in Fidelio – the melody with which the political prisoner Florestan blesses his jailer for offering him refreshment. Without ever being explicit, Beethoven makes himself perfectly clear. And if the dancing final Rondo is rather more lively than the first movement, nor does it resort to fireworks and gimmicks (Clement provided plenty of those elsewhere). Joyful without being frivolous, it closes the concerto with a happiness that’s been truly earned.

Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Theme (Enigma)
I. (C.A.E.)
II. (H.D.S-P.)
III. (R.B.T.)
IV. (W.M.B.)
V. (R.P.A.)
VI. (Ysobel.)
VII. (Troyte.)
VIII. (W.N.)
IX. (Nimrod.)
X. Intermezzo (Dorabella.)
XI. (G.R.S)
XII. (B.G.N).
XIII. Romanza (* * *)
XIV. Finale ( E.D.U.)

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

After a long day of violin teaching at The Mount School in Malvern in October 1898, Edward Elgar had dinner, lit a cigar and sat down at his piano. “I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying ‘Edward, that’s a good tune…play it again, I like that tune’”. He tried the tune differently, asking “Whom does that remind you of?” “That’s Billy Baker going out of the room” she replied. Out of that parlour-game grew the greatest orchestral work yet written by a British composer: a series of miniature musical portraits of his nearest and dearest. First performed in London on 19th June 1899, the Enigma Variations marked a turning point not just in Elgar’s career, but in the history of British music.

Why? Well, there was the technical mastery. Elgar never went to music college, but while his academically-trained peers had been learning their orchestration from textbooks, he’d been playing his violin in amateur operas, local orchestral societies and the Three Choirs Festival. He knew, from within, exactly how an orchestra worked. This practical know-how was allied to a masterly structural vision. The work is a set of variations – one of the clearest musical forms to follow. Elgar went a step further, and structured the Enigma Variations as a miniature symphony, with a first movement (I-VII), a slow movement (VIII-XIII) broken by a delicate intermezzo (Dorabella), and a grand finale (XIV).

Yet just as much, they’re a set of 15 perfect, self-contained orchestral cameos. Tone-painting came easily to a seasoned miniaturist like the composer of Salut d’Amour and Chanson de Matin, and you don’t have to be a musicologist to enjoy the pictures of distant liners (***) and Hereford organist George Sinclair’s bulldog Dan splashing in the Wye (G.R.S.) - or to respond to the profound emotion of Nimrod: inspired (so Elgar said) by a conversation about Beethoven with his German-born publisher Augustus Jaeger. The original theme (the first thing we hear) is a self-portrait – gloriously transformed in the final variation EDU (“Edu” was Caroline Alice Elgar’s pet name for her husband. She makes her own appearance early on, as C.A.E.).

Inspiration like this can’t be faked, and in writing about his friends and family, Elgar didn’t have to fake anything. The people – and places – he chose to portray in the Variations were those that had sustained him through his troubled formative years. The whole piece glows with a sense of genuine love – for friends, for family, for home. And the “Enigma”? Elgar was a wizard at cryptic puzzles and what he called “japes”. Is it the counterpoint to another famous tune – perhaps Auld Lang Syne, or the National Anthem? Or an abstract concept, like Friendship? Elgar’s only response to every suggestion was “No – nothing like it.” We’re left with the music, and Elgar’s understated, endlessly evocative dedication: “To my friends pictured within:”

© Richard Bratby


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