- Beethoven, Leonore Overture No.1 (9mins)
- Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No.1 (28mins)
- Walton, Symphony No.1 (43mins)
© Lucy Walker
Beethoven, Leonore overture no. 1
Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’ overture is associated with his only opera, Fidelio, first performed in 1805. The plot is intriguing and apparently based on a true story: the rescue of Florestan, a political prisoner, by his wife Leonore in disguise as a prison guard named ‘Fidelio’. Beethoven would have preferred to call his opera ‘Leonore, or the Triumph of Married Love’, but there was another opera doing the rounds at the time called ‘Leonore’, so ‘Fidelio’ it was.
But the name of Leonore survives in the shape of not one, but three separate overtures, with a somewhat complex history. In sum: number 1 was thought to have been written first but now isn’t, was never performed in public, and only discovered after Beethoven’s death; while number 2 was composed first and used at the premiere, and number 3 written for a revised version of the opera, and later thrown in between scenes in Act 2 (a fourth overture isn’t called Leonore at all and is the one generally used in opera performances today). All clear?
Leonore 1 was probably written for a planned performance of the opera in Prague in 1807 that never in fact happened, but it would have worked brilliantly as a curtain-raiser. Its opening section has a slowly-gathering sense of anticipation: an initial theme in the strings, followed by a series of scales passed around from section to section. The music surges towards a series of C major chords springing triumphantly upwards, very like Beethoven’s symphonic style. The lyrical central section links the overture definitively to Fidelio, quoting Florestan’s beautiful ‘prison’ aria from the second act, during which he sees a vision of his wife. The music then returns to the ‘triumphant’ themes, evolving from a quiet start through a boisterous crescendo, then a teasing sudden pianissimo before the final climactic chords.
Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, composed in 1959, was inspired by the remarkable gifts of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was constantly hungry for new works. (A rumour persists that the composer’s wife told Rostropovich that the way to get Shostakovich to write for him was not to ask him to write for him. This strategy, if such it was, eventually worked). Shostakovich raced through the composition in about six weeks, and Rostropovich – somehow – learned the cello part, including its five minute solo cadenza, in only six days.
Other than the unaccompanied cadenza, the orchestra and soloist are engaged in a passionate dialogue (sometimes a blistering argument) throughout, sharing much of the same material.
The orchestra is small for a Shostakovich work: strings, woodwind, a single horn, plus timpani and celesta in the percussion. The celesta makes only a brief, disturbing cameo in the second movement, while the horn is effectively a second soloist, appearing regularly to heckle the cellist. This is particularly the case in the first movement, a tightly-wound Allegretto. It begins with a four-note motif that pervades the entire work (apart from the second movement), starting with the cello’s opening statement, echoed by woodwind, and followed later by a sinister version in the strings. When the solo horn appears, it does little but repeat it, somewhat belligerently. The Allegretto ends abruptly with a bang, leaving the only gap in the work before the end.
The second movement begins with a richly scored melody in the strings, and a further starring moment for the horn. The cello arrives with a beautifully sad, folk-like tune. These themes evolve and transform throughout the movement, and the ending is disconcerting in the extreme: cello harmonics, lightly accompanied, with the celesta playing fragmented themes in a ghostly echo. The cadenza is long enough to qualify as a separate movement, gaining in momentum before ushering in the fourth movement.
As with many Shostakovich finales, this one has a diabolical energy, bristling with obsessive repetitions and characteristically grotesque humour. In a back and forth tune between low strings and woodwind we hear a snatch of the folk melody ‘Suliko’, known to be a favourite of Stalin’s: quite possibly this is what Stephen Johnson has described as ‘the aural equivalent of a nose-thumbing, or possibly a ruder gesture’ towards the late Russian dictator (Shostakovich reportedly had to restrain himself from laughing out loud every time this passage was performed). In the final moments, the horn appears once more to remind us of the motif from the first movement. The movement finally hurtles towards its conclusion with an abrupt seven-note burst from the timpani.
Walton, Symphony no. 1
Walton’s first symphony was commissioned by the Irish conductor Hamilton Harty in 1932, but not completed until 1935. The composer was at the time suffering a paralysing bout of composer’s block, which may be surprising, given how big and bold the Symphony is. He sailed past several deadlines before finally presenting the ever-patient Harty with an ‘Unfinished Symphony’– minus its final movement – in December 1934.
The reason for his blockage was partly that he often found composing a difficult and painstaking process. But he was also experiencing a great deal of personal turbulence in this period. He had heard ominous reports about Hitler’s rise to power and was extremely worried about friends in Germany; plus, his colourful affair with the dramatic Imma von Doernberg was going through a crisis, and she ultimately abandoned him. However, he turned a corner in late 1934, invigorated by the start of a new romance (with heiress Alice Wimbourne) and by the successful completion of his first film score. He eventually produced a finale for the Symphony and it was premiered – in its complete form – in November 1935.
The Symphony appears to follow the trajectory of Walton’s life at the time: a stormy first movement, a spiky Scherzo (marked ‘with malice’), a deeply-felt, tragic slow movement, and an optimistic, vivacious finale which speaks of the rebirth of his ‘muse’.
There is a powerful sense of anticipation right from the opening timpani rumble. The rest of the orchestra then wakes up to gather for an impressive crescendo, before taking a dramatically darker turn and introducing a surging theme in the lower strings, coupled with Walton’s trademark rhythms and jazz-inspired harmonies. This pattern of build/crescendo/dramatic explosion plays out across the whole movement. The most sustained example is towards the end: an extraordinary passage of about five minutes, full of obsessive repetition, heavy on the brass and with an energetic workout for the timpanist. The tension is finally released through an emotionally exhausted coda.
The ’malicious’ second movement crackles with a wild, unpredictable energy – Walton’s rhythms here have an unhinged quality, suggesting a volatile argument. A ‘false’ ending is followed by what sounds like a snarky ‘final word’, complete with metaphorical door-slam.
By total contrast, the Andante con melinconia is full of sorrow and regret, with a heartbreaking opening melody. The music begins in a suitably ‘melancholy’ mood, but becomes more emotionally raw as it continues – darker, even, than the more dissonant parts of the previous two movements.
The long-awaited finale, then, comes as a surprise in its bustling cheerfulness. The composer’s rhythms are here lively and dance-like, rather than unsettling, while each section of the orchestra indulges in playful fugues and canons with each other. The timpani plays a further major role, joined in this movement by percussive comrades, including tam-tam and cymbals. Some dissonance remains, and there is a more reflective ‘chorale’ for solo trumpet towards the end. But, after the fraught atmosphere of the previous movements listeners may feel – as undoubtedly Walton did – that this finale is a well-earned celebration.