Inside the Music: Russian Dance

Discover more about classical music with our video series and interactive programme notes. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra makes its second appearance under its Chief conductor, Kirill Karabits, who continues to introduce us to Russian rarities – Glazunov’s suite From the Middle Ages, a symphony in all but name, and Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite, with its sombre waltz and beautifully-shaped theme-and-variations final movement. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 lies at the heart of this programme, a work that harks back to Mozart, despite moments of Romantic anguish…

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

10 things you didn’t know about…Beethoven

  • Beethoven was born in December 1770, but the exact date isn’t known. He was baptised on 17 December, and so scholars have concluded he was probably born the day before.
  • By the premiere of his Symphony No. 9 in May 1824, Beethoven had become so profoundly deaf that he had to be turned around to acknowledge the applause.
  • Beethoven regarded the Italian composer Cherubini as the greatest of his contemporaries. He modelled his own Egmont Overture on the Italian’s overture to his opera Medée
  • The composer’s deafness started when he was just 25 and would often converse with friends by getting them to write down what they wanted to say.
  • His Heiligenstadt Testament, written on a retreat to the Thuringian spa town, is a moving account of his battle with his debilitating deafness.
  • Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 was only nicknamed ‘Moonlight’ in 1832 after the German poet Ludwig Rellstab observed that the first movement sounded to him like moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne.
  • In a poll of 151 conductors by BBC Music Magazine in 2016, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ was voted the greatest ever written.
  • Beethoven never married – he saw marriage as incompatible with his urge to create. But we do know he was madly in love with someone he referred to in a letter as his ‘Immortal beloved’. She has remained a mystery ever since.
  • One of the composer’s most unusual works is his ‘Rage over a lost penny’, written around 1796 soon after he had apparently dismissed a maid for mislaying a gold coin.
  • Beethoven’s final words are often said to have been in Latin, and translated as ‘applaud friends, the comedy is ended’. In fact, they were probably ‘Pity, pity, too late!’ after his publisher had presented him with a case of wine.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on Beethoven

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3

5 key moments to listen out for

From the Middle Ages
Glazunov’s beautiful love theme comes at three and half minutes in, as the lovers lie together, oblivous to the raging storm outside.

Third Piano Concerto
The first movement cadenza is almost four minutes long and is a true tour de force for any pianist. It ends in the most delicate fashion, with 30 seconds of beautiful solo trills. A brilliant touch.

Third Piano Concerto
Halfway through the final movement, Beethoven introduces a short fugal passage in which the orchestra swaps and plays around with the same short phrase. It’s a brilliant bridge to the closing few minutes of the concerto.

Suite No. 3
Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies No.s 5 and 6 both feature a tragic waltz – a symbol of damaged love and dashed hopes. The second movement Valse Mélancolique is another beautiful example.

Suite No. 3
The final part of the Suite features a theme and 12 variations, the final of which is a triumphant polonaise – it’s full of pomp, but a good deal of vented emotion, too…

Delve deeper: expressive Beethoven and two Russian rarities

In the years between the completion and the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven was particularly productive, with a series of piano sonatas (which included the Moonlight), violin sonatas including the ‘Spring’ Sonata, and the First and Second Symphonies, plus one or two string quartets. If these works heralded a more mature style in Beethoven – the Romantic composer as opposed to the post-Classical student of Haydn – the Piano Concerto No. 3 confirmed that from the opening bar. With its dark opening, Beethoven was at last steering away from Mozart’s shadow with a new intensity, and its key of C minor was no coincidence: it’s the same tonality as two of his most radical works: the Symphony No. 5 and the ‘Pathetique’ Piano Sonata.

But Beethoven is playing with our emotions, and second movement’s key of sunny E major is as far from C minor as it’s possible to get. It is, said one German critic at the time, “one of the most expressive and richly sensitive instrumental pieces ever written.” The final third movement takes us into a helter-skelter rondo, as if the torment and subsequent peacefulness of the previous two movements have been long forgotten.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite is a work of huge contrasts, too – it’s not often performed in the concert hall, yet this quasi-symphony deserves to enjoy the limelight once again. Suites Nos 1-3 were all originally destined to be symphonies in their own rights, but were relegated to Suite status simply because Tchaikovsky felt their movements less well ‘worked out’. Of course, he was splitting hairs – the second movement of the Suite No. 3, Valse mélancolique, is on a par with those haunting waltzes from Symphonies No.s 5 and 6, and the final Theme and Variations features a Polonaise as every bit as fine as that found in the opera Eugene Onegin. In fact, it was probably due to the success of the Suite at its premiere that Tsar Alexander III ordered a new production of Eugene Onegin to be staged the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St Petersburg.

If Tchaikovsky Third Suite is new to you, then there’s no doubt that Glazunov’s From the Middle Ages will have also passed you by… until now, of course. Glazunov is an interesting figure, having taught Shostakovich, completed many of Borodin’s unfinished works and conducted Rachmaninov’s First Symphony drunk, inadvertently giving the composer a nervous breakdown. But he is also one of Russian music’s most melodically-inspired composers, despite his conservative style. Each of his symphonies is worth hearing, and the Violin Concerto is uniformly sublime. From the Middle Ages is a charming suite in which Glazunov romanticises various scenes from medieval Europe – the overture is a richly-scored tableau with a soaring central theme, depicting young lovers lying together, oblivious to the stormy sea battering their castle. It’s more Hollywood than medieval, but it’s no less ravishing for it.

Words: Oliver Condy

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform their Russian Dance concert on 16 November 2017. Click below for more information and to book