“It is the fulfilment of a dream we shared with Jiří Bělohlávek: after two years of preparations, we are ushering in regular concerts of the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. This name does not stand for one particular ensemble; instead it represents a project in which the orchestra members will be performing in various chamber groups,” said David Mareček, Chief Executive Officer of the Czech Philharmonic, in the spring of 2018. Jiří Bělohlávek was convinced that it was healthy for the Czech Philharmonic to play in a smaller ensemble. In a smaller orchestra, with a repertoire spanning the Baroque to the present, the musicians can hone the intonation, phrasing and collaboration of individuals within the whole. The Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, consisting exclusively of the members of the Czech Philharmonic put together for a specific occasion, has been officially established in the 123rd season.
Praised for his remarkable range of colours, his confident and concentrated stage presence, his virtuosity and technical poise as well as the beauty of his tone Josef Špaček has gradually emerged as one of the leading violinists of his generation. He appears with prestigious orchestras and collaborating with eminent conductors. He equally enjoys giving recitals and playing chamber music and is a regular guest at festivals and in concert halls throughout Europe, Asia and the USA. Josef Špaček studied with Itzhak Perlman at The Juilliard School in New York, Ida Kavafian and Jaime Laredo at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and with Jaroslav Foltýn at the Prague Conservatory. He was laureate of the International Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. By the end of the 2019/2020 season he served as concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the youngest in its history. Josef Špaček performs on the ca. 1732 “LeBrun; Bouthillard” Guarneri del Gesù violin, generously on loan from Ingles & Hayday.
The Four Seasons, Four Concertos for Violin and String Orchestra Op. 8
A Contest between Harmony and Invention – that is what the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi called his most famous collection of violin concertos published in Amsterdam in 1725. At first a successful composer of sacred music and opera, within fifteen years of the enthusiastic reception of the collection L’estro armonico (Harmonic Fancy), Op. 3, he won Europe-wide fame as a pioneer of the instrumental concerto. The collections that followed, Op. 4 (La Stravaganza), Op. 5 (violin sonatas), Op. 6 and 7 (violin concertos), which came out in rather poor printed editions, were surpassed by Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (A Contest between Harmony and Invention), Op. 8. This collection contains mature, virtuosic concertos for solo violin, documenting the composer’s uniqueness. It is divided into two parts with six compositions each. In the first part, Vivaldi assigned each concerto a descriptive title indicating its character or even a storyline. Besides La tempesta di mare (A Tempest at Sea) a Il piacere (Pleasure), there are the four most famous of all – Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. In the second part of the collection, only one concerto has a title and a programme – La caccia (The Hunt).
The Four Seasons is a groundbreaking cycle, which brings an entirely new concept: describing and narrating action using the abstract language of instrumental music. There are onomatopoetic descriptions of a babbling brook, birdsong, a shepherd and his barking dog, buzzing flies, a storm, and a frozen landscape. The programme of The Four Seasons is uniquely described in four sonnets by an unknown poet that accompany the score. There are disputes over whether the music was composed to the sonnets or vice versa, but it cannot be ruled out that Vivaldi wrote the poems himself. Directly in the score, the composer marked references to corresponding passages in the sonnets.
A fact of local significance to Czechs is that Vivaldi dedicated the collection to Count Václav Morzin in Prague, who had earlier appointed Vivaldi as his “Musical maestro in Italy” – an honorary title that required to supply him with some compositions from time to time. According to dedication at the beginning of the printed collection, Morzin knew The Four Seasons long before they were published and that Vivaldi had already sent the count the cycle in manuscript as a piece for Morin’s ensemble’s repertoire. In the dedication, Vivaldi literally apologises to Morzin for now dedicating to him something he had already given him (or sold him – in those days, humbling dedications to aristocrats were connected with a financial reward). “Please do not be surprised that amongst these few humble concertos, Your Eminence also finds The Four Seasons, which have so long enjoyed the noble favour of Your Eminence kind generosity. You may believe that I found it appropriate to have them printed, because while they remain the same, I have added to them sonnets and even very clear explanations of everything contained in them, so I am sure they will appear new to you,” writes Vivaldi in the introduction to the collection.
The special relationship between Count Morzin and the great Italian composer is a unique phenomenon in the musical scene of Bohemia of the first half of the eighteenth century. The reason for the contact between them was Morzin’s interest in music and his effort to build up and maintain an excellent musical ensemble. Its activities, members, and repertoire are being thoroughly researched from the preserved materials, and scholars are discovering the great ability of Morzin’s musicians as creative artists and performers. The virtuosity of Vivaldi’s cycle is one proof of this.
Čtyři roční doby v Buenos Aires
Piazzolla’s name is synonymous with the tango – the composer dedicated his entire life to its promotion and artistic development. Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, a child of Italian emigrants, was born in the Argentine town Mar del Plata. His family, which moved to New York four years later, loved and listened to jazz and classical music as well as the traditional Argentine tango. At the age of eight, Piazzolla began playing the bandoneon, a type of accordion, and at age twelve he composed his first tango. Thanks to his piano teacher, he fell in love with Bach’s music, and he later played it on the bandoneon. At the age of fifteen, he returned with his family to Mar del Plata, and at seventeen he went to Buenos Aires, where he joined Anibal Troilo first-rate tango orchestra. In 1946 he formed an orchestra of his own. Because of his ambitions as an arranger, he began studying with the great Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, and he continued to learn to play the works of the classical composers – Bartók and Stravinsky. He even tried his hand at composing classical music. In the 1950s he sent to Paris to study on a scholarship with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. He played her his tango Triunfal, and Boulanger is said to have declared: “Astor, your classical compositions are very well written, but this is where the real Piazzolla is; never leave him behind.” For Piazzolla, this was a clear impulse to return to the tango and the bandoneon, so he decided to merge classical music and the tango into sophisticated music with the tango’s passion. This is where the history of the “new tango” (“tango nuevo”) begins. After returning to Argentina, in Buenos Aires he founded an octet with two bandoneons, two violins, contrabass, cello, piano, and electric guitar, and he began composing innovative works for the group in the style of chamber music with the feel of the tango. His brand new style attracted admirers as well as some aggressive detractors among the fans of the traditional tango. In 1959, after a short “jazz” visit to New York, he founded a quintet in Buenos Aires (bandoneon, violin, contrabass, piano, and electric guitar), and this became Piazzolla’s favourite combination. He also worked on big orchestral projects and recordings. He composed the chamber tango-opera María de Buenos Aires with songs in the tango rhythm, and in Paris he composed the oratorio El Pueblo Joven. Later he composed in Italy, to which he fled from Argentina’s military dictatorship. He created fusion with rock music, adding percussion, a synthesizer, a guitar, or a saxophone to his quintet. He collaborated with Chick Corea and Gerry Mulligan, as well as with the Russian cellistlistou Mstislav Rostropovich.
His collection Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Porteñas means Buenos Aires in the local dialect, so the title means The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) is written in the tango style that was typical of his quintet. Because Piazzolla loved European Baroque music from his childhood, he knew Vivaldi’s Four Seasons well. He took loose inspiration from the concertos’ content, but not from their musical style. In addition, he wrote his “season” as separate pieces and presented them that way, although he did play them all together occasionally. The oldest, Summer (1965), was originally composed as music for Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz’s play Melenita de oro, and thereafter as an independent piece. Four years later, Piazzolla wrote Winter, then Spring and Autumn in 1970.
From 1996 to 1998 the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (*1955) took the four original compositions and created new arrangements for solo violin and string orchestra and a new breakdown of each composition into three tempos (fast-slow-fast, but without a break). This was done with the intention of creating clear ties to Vivaldi’s concertos. He also added to each part a direct quote from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but taking into account the different hemispheres where the two sets of four compositions were written. For example, Piazzolla’s Summer has elements of Vivaldi’s Winter.