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Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra adds variety to the series with repertoire for larger instrumentation. In the dual role of soloist and artistic director, Jan Mráček leads his colleagues in two Baroque works by Händel and Geminiani, Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso inspired by the Baroque genre, and a lovely ballet suite by Igor Stravinsky.
Georg Friedrich Händel
Sonata for violin and continuo in D major, Op.1, No. 13, HWV 371 (11')
Concerto Grosso No. 1 (32')
— Intermission —
La Follia (12')
Pulcinella, ballet suite for orchestra (24')
Jan Mráček violin
Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra
The Czech violinist Jan Mráček was born in 1991 in Pilsen and began studying violin at the age of five with Magdaléna Micková. From 2003 he studied with Jiří Fišer, graduating with honors from the Prague Conservatory in 2013, and until recently at the University of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna under the guidance of the Vienna Symphony concertmaster Jan Pospíchal.
As a teenager he enjoyed his first major successes, winning numerous competitions, participating in the master classes of Maestro Václav Hudeček – the beginning of a long and fruitful association. He won the Czech National Conservatory Competition in 2008, the Hradec International Competition with the Dvořák concerto and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009, was the youngest Laureate of the Prague Spring International Festival competition in 2010, and in 2011 he became the youngest soloist in the history of the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 2014 he was awarded first prize at Fritz Kreisler International Violin Competition at the Vienna Konzerthaus. When the victory of Jan Mráček was confirmed, there was thunderous applause from the audience and the jury. The jury president announced, “Jan is a worthy winner. He has fascinated us from the first round. Not only with his technical skills, but also with his charisma on stage.”
Jan Mráček has performed as a soloist with world’s orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Symphony of Florida, Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, Kuopio Symphony Orchestra, Romanian Radio Symphony, Lappeenranta City Orchestra (Finland) as well as the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK), Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra and almost all Czech regional orchestras.
Jan Mráček had the honor of being invited by Maestro Jiří Bělohlávek to guest lead the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in their three concert residency at Vienna’s Musikverein, and the European Youth Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda and Xian Zhang on their 2015 summer tour. He has been a concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic since 2018.
In 2008 he joined the Lobkowicz Piano Trio, which was awarded first prize and the audience prize at the International Johannes Brahms Competition in Pörtschach, Austria in 2014.
His recording of the Dvořák violin concerto and other works by this Czech composer under James Judd with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra was recently released on the Onyx label and has received excellent reviews.
Jan Mráček plays on a Carlo Fernando Landolfi violin, Milan 1758, generously loaned to him by Mr Peter Biddulph.
“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.
Despite its low opus number, Handel’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D major No. 13 belongs to the works of his late period. It is part of a set of 19 sonatas for solo flute, oboe, or violin and continuo, as arranged by Friedrich Chrysander, one of the most important German music historians of the 19th century. (Handel’s authorship of some of these sonatas was, however, later disputed.)
Violin Sonata in D major was written about 10 years before the composer’s death and it is considered a masterpiece in its genre. At the same time, it is the last violin sonata composed by Handel. (His eyesight deteriorated greatly in 1751, and he subsequently lost it completely, making it impossible for him to continue composing. To his last days, however, he did not lose his phenomenal memory and his ability to improvise, which he capitalized on, especially when playing the organ.) By this time, Handel had been living for forty years in London, where he had attained fame mainly as an opera composer (he had his first spectacular success with Rinaldo, his first opera composed in 1711 for the English audience), oratorios (including the most famous of them, Messiah) and incidental pieces for various festive occasions (e.g., Music for the Royal Fireworks).
With its four movements alternating slow and fast, this sonata has the character of sonata da chiesa (church sonata), a popular type of Baroque sonata. The first and third movements feature a striking music for violin, reminiscent of operatic arias. The fast second movement is fugal in construction. The piece concludes with another fast movement (in AB form), reminiscent of a dance. In composing, Handel often used musical material from his other works, and so we can hear the last movement of this sonata in his oratorio Jephtha (1751).
Alfred Schnittke lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, where he experienced the adversity of the regime of the time. Repressive measures against his music and his person were manifested in bans on the performance of his works or a travel ban. Nevertheless, his compositions found their way to audiences abroad, thanks in particular to musicians in exile such as violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Schnittke’s music is distinguished by its great intimacy and integrates many styles from different eras. Concerto Grosso No. 1 from 1977 is an example of the composer’s “polystylism”. This term was first used by Schnittke in his 1971 article on the subject. By this he means the use of two disparate themes from different periods, or a newly composed theme reminiscent of a particular period, but linked to yet another style or styles. He first used the principle of polystylism in 1968 in his Violin Sonata No. 2. The many quotations and allusions in his music often create the impression of a musical collage.
Concerto Grosso No. 1 is the first of six concerti grossi, the last of which Schnittke composed in 1993. It was written for two solo violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and small string orchestra. The Baroque form of the concerto grosso suited Schnittke’s idea of a dialogue between soloists and the ensemble. The concerto combines Baroque elements with elements of atonality and genres from different stylistic periods. It is built on several themes, including a chorale, a waltz on a B-A-C-H motif and a tango, which Schnittke varies most often through the techniques of imitation and dodecaphony. The work found a tireless promoter in Gidon Kremer, who even played the piece several times together with its composer at the harpsichord (this allowed Schnittke to travel abroad and his name began to gain more prominence in the West). The original piece was scored for two solo violins, but in 1988 the composer created a version in which the solo violins are replaced by flute and oboe.
Francesco Geminiani was not only a friend of George Frideric Handel, but shared a similar fate with him – like Handel, he also spent much of his life in London. He won renown there not only as a composer, but also as a teacher and an accomplished violinist (he is the author of The Art of Playing on the Violin). He also performed as a violin virtuoso before King George I – accompanied by Handel on the harpsichord. Most of his works, however, have fallen into oblivion with the passage of time.
Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No.12 in D minor “La Follia” is a transcription of Arcangelo Corelli’s Violin Sonata in D minor (Geminiani studied violin with him in Rome), published together with eleven other sonatas in 1700 under opus number 5. In the years 1726–1727, Geminiani arranged all these sonatas as concerti grossi. The folia is a harmonic-metric scheme, originally a dance of Iberian origin, which has inspired many composers across the European continent and historical periods, such as J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. The theme heard in the opening of the piece forms the basis for a series of variations. While Corelli’s version has only one solo violin part, Geminiani added a second solo violin and expanded the continuo parts (harpsichord and cello) to a small string ensemble. Both versions achieved considerable popularity during their composers’ lifetimes.
Igor Stravinsky’s ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella rank among his most famous works. The one-act ballet Pulcinella marks the beginning of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. At that time, the composer was already living permanently outside his homeland as a result of the First World War and especially the Russian Revolution. The impulse to compose this ballet came in the spring of 1919 from the director of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (whose collaboration on previous ballets had helped Stravinsky to worldwide fame), and as early as the following spring the work was premiered at the Paris Opera. The sets and costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso, the choreography and libretto, by Léonide Massine. The music for Pulcinella (a character from the Italian commedia dell’arte) is based on little-known works then believed to have been composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, a Neapolitan composer of the first half of the 18th century. However, it later turned out that many of these pieces attributed to Pergolesi were actually written by other composers, such as Domenico Gallo.
In 1922, Stravinsky arranged the music for the ballet into a concert suite in eight movements. Probably the best known is its opening movement, Sinfonia. Stravinsky did not change the original melodies, but his individuality is especially evident in the instrumentation and treatment of the timbre of the individual instruments, in the way he plays with rhythm, phrasing and dissonance. He does not adhere to traditional ideas of balance and in the Vivo movement, for example, he lets the melody be heard in trombone and double bass, with the trombone being significantly more expressive. Stravinsky himself described Pulcinella as “a backward look [...], but it was a look in the mirror, too.” The result is an almost Baroque concerto grosso with extravagant Stravinsky elements (enhanced by the trombone, which was not part of the Baroque orchestra).