Prepare for an extraordinary experience when Päivi Ekroth takes on the staggering virtuosity of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 followed by a musical exploration of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that explores the concept of Fate as an inescapable force and a blaze of sound.
Aha! With Alastair: Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Päivi Ekroth, piano
I. Allegro ma non tanto
II. Intermezzo. Adagio
III. Finale. Alla breve
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
I. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima
II. Andantino in modo di canzona
III. Scherzo, Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco
Päivi Ekroth, Piano
Päivi Ekroth is a Finnish-born classical pianist whose versatility as an artist has taken her from solo and chamber music performances to serving as a choral accompanist and a vocal coach for opera productions. Music of the Romantic era is often at the center of her solo recitals, but she has performed an extensive amount of solo and chamber music covering a wide variety of repertoire with strings, winds and brass as well as choral, operatic and lied repertoire. Her recent collaborations have included performances with soprano Deborah Voigt and flutist Sir James Galway. She has worked as a Collaborative Pianist at the University of Notre Dame since 2004.
Ms. Ekroth began taking piano lessons at the age of 11, and was already performing with orchestras in Finland soon after. She has performed in Finland, Estonia, Italy, Germany, China, New Zealand and the United States appearing at festivals such as the Ruhr Keyboard Festival, Settimane Musicali di Stresa e del Lago Maggiore, the Mikkeli Music Festival, the New Jersey Symphony’s Rachmaninoff Festival, the Music Academy of the West, the Ravinia Festival and the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival as part of the “Rising Stars” series broadcast on the National Public Radio (NPR). She performs regularly at Notre Dame’s various venues, and other local performances have included large-scale solo recitals in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as well as a solo engagement with the South Bend Symphony in 2014.
Päivi has called South Bend her home since 1996, when she joined the world-renowned Alexander Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University South Bend. While studying there she earned a Master’s degree and an Artist Diploma in piano performance and also served on the piano faculty. She was awarded a Performer’s certificate in recognition of performance excellence in piano by the Division of the Arts at Indiana University South Bend. Ms. Ekroth also holds a Master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Sibelius-Academy, Finland, where she studied with Sirkka Harjunmaa and Matti Raekallio.
Päivi Ekroth has been a recipient of numerous awards from organizations such as The Arts Council of Kymi, The Arts Council of Finland, The Alfred Kordelin Foundation and The Finnish Cultural Foundation.
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Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
SERGEI VASILIEVICH RACHMANINOFF
Born: April 1, 1873,
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
AT A GLANCE:
Composed: 1909 for his North American tour
Premiered: November 28, 1909, conducted by Walter Damrosch with Rachmaninoff as the soloist.
Duration: 45 minutes
In October 1906, Rachmaninoff moved with his wife and daughter from Moscow to Dresden. He was the successful composer of two piano concertos, three operas, chamber music, works for solo piano, and several dozen important songs. He was an admired conductor and recognized as one of the great pianists of his – and any – time. Like all composers who have consuming careers as performers, Rachmaninoff found himself longing for time just to compose. The move to Dresden was an attempt to take himself out of circulation, and he chose the beautiful Saxon capital because he and his wife had become fond of it on their honeymoon four years earlier. Offers to play and conduct kept coming in and were by no means all to be denied. Rachmaninoff decided to accept an invitation to visit the United States. For that tour, he wrote the present concerto. He made his American debut at a recital at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1909, then went to Philadelphia to conduct the first performance of the Second Symphony, and a few weeks later introduced his new concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Soon after, he played it again with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, another conductor struggling for time to compose.
In all his works for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninoff invented arresting beginnings. In the First and Fourth Concertos, he is aggressive and outright combative. The Second emerges from a famous series of groping, tolling chords. In the first measures of the Third Concerto, we find a quality we do not usually associate with Rachmaninoff – simplicity. For two measures, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and muted strings set up a pulse against which the piano sings a long and quiet melody, the two hands in unison, as in a piano duet by Schubert. It is a lovely inspiration, that melody unfolding in subtle variation, just a few notes being continuously redisposed rhythmically. Once only, to the extent of a single eighth note, the melody exceeds the range of an octave; most of it stays within a fifth, and that narrowness contributes to our sense that this is profoundly and unmistakably Russian. Rachmaninoff told the musicologist Joseph Yasser that the theme had come to him “ready made” and had in effect “written itself,” an impression and observation not at all inconsistent with Yasser’s later discovery of a close relationship to a Russian liturgical chant, Thy Tomb, O Savior, Soldiers Guarding.
The accompaniment cost Rachmaninoff considerable thought and trouble. He was thinking, he told Yasser, of the sound of piano with orchestra, of singing the melody on the piano “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” What he found invites, for precision and delicacy, comparison with the workmanship in Mozart’s concertos. The accompaniment does indeed not muffle the singing, but even while exquisitely tactful, it is absolutely “specific – full of character, the fragmentary utterances of the violins now anticipating, now echoing the pianist’s song, the woodwinds sometimes and with utmost gentleness reinforcing the bass or joining the piano in a few notes of its melody.
Such a conjunction of integration and contrast is characteristic of this concerto. The second theme, for example, is first suggested as a kind of twitch in a few wind instruments behind delicate piano passage-work before its formal arrival is prepared by a mini-cadenza and an expansive preparatory gesture in the orchestra. When it does appear, Rachmaninoff presents it in two different guises – first as a dialogue of orchestra and piano, then as a lyric melody. The further progress of the movement abounds in felicities and ingenuities, sharply imagined and elegantly executed. After a thunderous climax, a touching intervention of winds, and a spacious subsidence, the opening music appears again. The leisurely singing of the melody leads with extraordinary compressions to a final page in which fragments of themes ghost by in a startling amalgam of epigram and dream.
“Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this Adagio, though we shall discover that it is in fact, upbeat to a still more expansive finale. But the Intermezzo itself is all adventure and event, not least the piano’s disruptive entrance, which wrenches the music away to new and distant harmonic ground. What ensues is a series of variations, broken up by a feather-light waltz that perhaps represents Rachmaninoff’s memory of a similar interruption in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. The clarinet and bassoon melody of the waltz is close cousin to the concerto’s principal theme, and if one could scrutinize the piano’s dizzying figuration through a time-retarding device, one could detect that it too is made of diminutions of the same material.
When the Intermezzo gives explosive birth to the Finale, we are again in a torrent of virtuosity and invention. Here, too, the second theme gets a double presentation, first in harmonic outline, solidly packed piano chords against drumming strings, then – in a contrasting key, even – as a beautifully scored impassioned melody for the piano. After that, Rachmaninoff gives us the surprise of a series of variations on what pretends to be a new idea, but is in fact issue of a union between the first movement’s second theme and the beginning of the Finale. In the course of this episode, the concerto’s very first melody makes an unobtrusive, slightly varied reappearance in violas and cellos. That it is once again varied is characteristic, for the idea of repetition as instant variation has been implicit since the first unfolding of that opening melody. Now, this idea has become an important part of the means at Rachmaninoff’s disposal as he faces the task of integrating a work laid out on an uncommonly large scale.
The Third Concerto offers an immense challenge to stamina and endurance, the orchestral passages that frame the Intermezzo being the soloist’s only moments of respite. Few pianists would agree with Rachmaninoff’s own estimate that the Third Concerto is “more comfortable” than the Second. Moreover, to a degree truly uncommon for a concerto in the big Romantic bravura tradition, Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to blend, accompany, and listen.
Symphony No. 4 in
F minor, Op. 36
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893,
AT A GLANCE
Composed: 1877 and bears a dedication to his patron, Mme. Nadezhda von Meck
Premiered: February 10, 1878, with Nicolai Rubinstein at a concert for the Russian Musical Society in Moscow.
Duration: 45 minutes
By the dawn of 1877, the thirty-six-year-old Tchaikovsky already stood at the forefront of his generation of Russian composers. That year, two things occurred that had a decisive influence on the direction his path would take. Both were fraught with problems. Either could have derailed him entirely.
The first was the consolidation of his relationship with Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck. Immensely wealthy (thanks to the commercial success of her recently deceased husband, an engineer from Riga), maternally productive (with eighteen variously fathered children), and musically adept, she had positioned herself in Moscow society as a notable patron of the arts and as a collector of musicians. She was a friend of the eminent pianist and conductor Nicolai Rubinstein and had recently added to her entourage the alluring young violinist Yosif Yosifovich Kotek, a former pupil and sometime companion of Tchaikovsky’s. She adored Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession, and in December 1876 she used Rubinstein and Kotek as go-betweens for her first contact with the composer, which took the form of a generous but undemanding commission to make an arrangement of one of Kotek’s compositions.
That was what Tchaikovsky assumed. But in February of 1877, a second letter arrived from von Meck. “I should like very much to tell you at length of my fancies and thoughts about you,” she wrote, “but I fear to take up your time, of which you have so little to spare. Let me say only that my feeling for you is a thing of the spirit and very dear to me.” Tchaikovsky responded the next day: “Why do you hesitate to tell me all your thoughts?…Perhaps I know you better than you imagine.” An affair was born, but an affair with a supremely strange twist. By von Meck’s decree, they were not to meet in person. For the next thirteen years, they exchanged a flood of effusive correspondence. She deposited 500 rubles in Tchaikovsky’s bank account every month, an act of benefaction that freed him significantly to pursue his artistic goals without having to undertake “work for hire” to pay the bills. There was a price to pay for this. Von Meck was neurotic and mercurial, but Tchaikovsky handled his patron adeptly until she suddenly broke off their relationship, almost without warning, in 1890.
Tchaikovsky embarked on his involvement with von Meck and the composition of his Fourth Symphony practically at the same time, and the two “projects” were greatly intermeshed in his mind. In his letters to von Meck he often referred to it as “our symphony,” sometimes even as “your symphony.” By May, he had completed the lion’s share of work on the new piece. “I should like to dedicate it to you,” he wrote on May 13, “because I believe you would find in it an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.”
Then a second bizarre thing happened. He got married on the spur of the moment. The explanation for this rash act is open to a broad range of speculation and interpretation. Perhaps it had to do with anxiety about his homosexuality. Perhaps it was an exploit of filial devotion to an eighty-one-year-old father who viewed marriage as the principal goal of a man’s life. Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, maintained that the bride, Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova, a former pupil of Tchaikovsky’s, flung herself on his brother and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t marry her – a tale that modern scholars have largely discounted. Whatever the reason, the hastily arranged marriage took place on July 6, 1877. Two weeks later, Tchaikovsky fled in panic and spent the summer at his sister’s estate in Ukraine, estranged from Antonina. In September, he returned to his bride in Moscow to try to make another go of it, but this time the effort lasted only eleven days. At that point, Tchaikovsky fell terribly ill, fled to Saint Petersburg, had a nervous breakdown, remained unconscious for two weeks, and woke up to a life that would not henceforth include Antonina, though they were never divorced.
During this misadventure, the Fourth Symphony had been put on hold. Only in the latter half of 1877 did Tchaikovsky return to edit and orchestrate what he had composed between February and May. “Our symphony progresses,” he wrote to von Meck on August 24. “The first movement will give me a great deal of trouble with respect to orchestration. It is very long and complicated: at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple, and it will be easy and pleasant to orchestrate them.”
Tchaikovsky’s comment is apt. The center of gravity is very much placed on the first movement, and the other three stand as considerably shorter and less imposing pendants. When von Meck begged him to reveal the meaning behind the music, Tchaikovsky broke his rule of not revealing his secret programs and penned a rather detailed description of the opening movement:
The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the central theme. This is Fate, i.e., that fateful force which prevents the impulse towards happiness from entirely achieving its goal, forever on jealous guard lest peace and well-being should ever be attained in complete and unclouded form, hanging above us like the Sword of Damocles, constantly and unremittingly poisoning the soul. Its force is invisible, and can never be overcome. Our only choice is to surrender to it, and to languish fruitlessly.
Even if we recognize that Tchaikovsky penned these words after he had essentially completed the symphony, we may find something authentic and convincing in his program, given the emotional roller coaster he had ridden in the preceding months.
On the other hand, music is not prose. To his friend and fellow composer Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky wrote: “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words…But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He then went on to suggest that, on a technical level, “my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not, of course, copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.” By this Tchaikovsky was surely referring to the pervasiveness of the “Fate” theme, the fanfare motif that helps bind the opening movement together and serves as a sonic landmark for listeners somewhat in the way the famous “ta-ta-ta-daaaa” of Beethoven’s Fifth does in that far more compact piece. Tchaikovsky’s harmonic procedures, however, are far different from Beethoven’s. Tchaikovsky was natively drawn to rhapsody, Beethoven to discipline. The harmonic scheme Tchaikovsky adopts here, which involves enunciating the tonic of F minor firmly in the introduction and the turbulent waltz theme of the movement’s main section, and then all but ignoring that key until almost the end, would have struck Beethoven as unfeasible.
As we have already mentioned, the ensuing movements are less monumental in their architecture and apparently less all-embracing in their musical autobiography. A famous oboe solo opens the Andantino, a generally melancholy movement. “You feel nostalgic for the past,” Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck of this movement, “yet no compulsion to start life over again. Life has wearied you; it is pleasant to pause and weigh things up.” Much of the movement does seem to carry a heavy weight on its shoulders, but—as in the first movement—the proceedings are leavened by glimpses of balletic arabesques.
Certainly, the Scherzo is the most balletic movement of all, from its fleet pizzicato opening to the tangy, wind-flavored peasant dance at its center. Although audiences had some trouble with this symphony when it was new, this Scherzo movement rarely failed to elicit compliments.
After the ethereal pianissimo conclusion of the Scherzo, the Finale erupts with a fortissimo explosion for the full orchestra, with far-from-bashful timpani, bass drum, and cymbals. A folk tune, “The Little Birch Tree,” furnishes the stuff of the movement’s main theme, and the brasses revive the “Fate” motif from the first movement as a disturbing presence in the carnival atmosphere of this otherwise buoyant Finale.
Program subject to change.