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Inside The Music: London Calling

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was the inspiration for and dedicatee of many of the 20th century’s most important cello works, including Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Benjamin Britten’s Suites for solo cello. In fact, Rostropovich premièred over 117 major works during his lifetime. But during the 1950s, it was Shostakovich that the cellist had his eye on, desperate for his fellow Russian to compose a work for him. Instead of asking the composer directly, however, Rostropovich turned to Shostakovich’s wife for advice, which she gave him: ‘never ask him, or talk to him about it, at all.’ Not the most helpful of suggestions, but it would only be a matter of time before Shostakovich turned his pen towards Slava, as the cellist was affectionately known – the two of them were great friends and would spend many happy hours playing music and drinking vast quantities of Russian vodka together. The ultimate distraction, one might think, from the daily, suffocating repressions of Soviet Russia.

Shostakovich presented Slava with his concerto in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1959, and four weeks later, the cellist travelled to the composer’s dacha in Komarovo, about an hour by train from the city, for the first play-through. Shostakovich, so the story goes, rushed around looking for a music stand, whereupon Rostropovich revealed that he didn’t need one. He’d learned the concerto off by heart.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 begins with a simple, gruff four-note motif or theme played on the cello underpinned by a sinister march accompaniment scored for the woodwind. Throughout the movement, the motif changes and develops, continuously ratcheting up the tension. This tiny cell of a theme is almost identical to that of a film score Shostakovich had written 11 years earlier for The Young Guard, which tells the story of a group of Soviet soldiers arrested and executed by the Nazis. It’s worth saying at this point that, in the final movement, Shostakovich quotes from the 19th-century Russian composer Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, so it’s highly likely he was expressing some sort of horror at the way the 20th century was unfolding. Beyond that, it’s difficult to pinpoint his exact targets, although the Soviet regime was continually in his sights – after all, the concerto was written just a couple of years after his stinging Symphony No. 11 (performed at Colston Hall on 29 October by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits) and just five years after Stalin’s death.

Prokofiev Sinfonietta

Opening the concert is a work by another Russian, Sergei Prokofiev’s charming but rarely performed Sinfonietta, a work whose breeziness and youthful swagger bears more than a striking resemblance to his Symphony No. 1, better known as the ‘Classical’ Symphony. Written when he was just 18 (and tweaked right up until 1929), Prokofiev dedicated the work to his conducting tutor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Nikolai Tcherepnin. You can already hear the germs of the more mature Prokofiev poking through in this work, with hints of the luscious scoring of his later ballet Romeo and Juliet and the light-hearted capriciousness of Peter and the Wolf.

Haydn Symphony No. 104 London

From one youthful work to one written at the end of a composer’s life… Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, written in 1795, was the final symphony to emerge from the Austrian composer’s pen and the last in his set of 12 colourful symphonies composed specifically for a series of concerts in Hanover Square in the heart of the capital. During the latter part of his life, Haydn was invited by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon to take part in – and write music for – these series, travelling to London on two occasions, the first spanning two seasons from 1791-92, the second from 1794-95. Symphony No. 104 (the only one to be called the ‘London’) was written for and premièred at a benefit concert at the end of his second stint, an event that was traditionally organised after each concert series, designed to raise money for the visiting musician (the conductor and orchestral players would give their services free of charge). Haydn later wrote: ‘The whole company was thoroughly pleased and so was I. I made four thousand Gulden on this evening. Such a thing is possible only in England.’ It’s worth saying that 4,000 Gulden would be worth anything up to around £9,000 in today’s money. Not a bad haul.

From the outset, it’s clear why Haydn’s symphony might have made so much money. The work oozes confidence and suaveness, from the four-note motif that opens the work, demanding the listener sit up and take note, to the rumbustious scherzo and the delightful slow movement full of character, passion and spirit. It’s certainly not hard to see why Haydn’s slow movements were often chosen as encores. So, apart from the location of its première, is there anything particularly ‘London’ about this symphony? It’s been suggested that in the final movement Haydn is mimicking London market-sellers’ cries: ‘Lavender! Lavender!’, scored in the falling three notes of the movement’s theme. And with the movement’s moods constantly changing, it’s as if Haydn is taking a stroll through the streets of London in all their guises – busy, exciting, imposing and, on the other hand, ugly, dirty and threatening.

Perhaps Symphony No. 104 is Haydn’s ultimate guide to urban living…

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