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Czech Philharmonic • Vasily Petrenko


At the December concerts of the B series, Vasilij Petrenko, a Russian-British conductor and the musical director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, will take over the program instead of Tugan Sochijev. Petrenko has previously collaborated with the Czech Philharmonic, conducting the opening concert of the Prague Spring in 2012. Now, after eleven years, he returns as a conducting star, set to prepare the same program that was originally scheduled for this season.

Subscription series B | Duration of the programme 1 hour 30 minutes

Programme

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, prelude for orchestra (10')

Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (23')

— Intermission —

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel (35')

Performers

Pierre-Laurent Aimard klavír

Tugan Sokhiev conductor

Vasily Petrenko conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Vasily Petrenko

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Performers

Pierre-Laurent Aimard  piano

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who was acquainted with Boulez, Messiaen, and Ligeti, is regarded by most listeners as an interpreter of music of the 20th-century avant-garde, but when he appears at famous venues like New York’s Carnegie Hall or the Konzerthaus in Vienna, he also plays older music, bringing a new perspective to its interpretation. He is also unafraid to take on major projects like performing Beethoven’s complete piano concertos, which he programmed to open the 2020/2021 season as the artist-in-residence of the orchestra Musikkollegium Winterthur.

Foremost among the many honours Pierre-Laurent Aimard has received is the prestigious International Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for 2017. As the son of two neuropsychiatrists, it was actually by chance that he discovered music. While going through the attic of a relative, he found various musical instruments including a piano. “It was love at first sight”, he says. At first he studied at the conservatoire in his hometown Lyon, but at age 12 he was invited to join Yvonne Loriod’s studio at the Paris Conservatoire. He was fascinated by music of the 20th century from his childhood, playing his first piece by Schoenberg at seven years of age! Fortunately, he had the chance to develop that interest once he was older. An important step was collaboration with Pierre Boulez and his newly founded Ensemble intercontemporain, and later he advanced his career by working with such leading composers as György Kurtág, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Marco Stroppa, and Olivier Messaiaen. 

Aimard’s 2018 recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux earned the pianist many awards including Germany’s prestigious critics’ award Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. He has also won acclaim for recording the complete piano music of György Ligeti, some of whose compositions will be appearing on the programmes of Aimard’s concerts this season in Europe, North America, Japan, and China in honour of the 100th anniversary of Liget’s birth. Also awaiting him are two premieres: a piano concerto by Clara Iannotta at the festival Acht Brucken and the Portuguese premiere of the composition Se da contra las piedras la libertad by Klaus Ospald. He has also engaged in long-term chamber music collaboration with Tamara Stefanović and the jazz pianist Michael Wollny, and with the French actor Denis Podalydès he is preparing a special theatrical project with music by Ligeti, Kurtág, Schoenberg, and Cage. 

Aimard is coming to Prague with Ravel’s Piano Concerto, which he has played with many ensembles including the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and George Benjamin at the BBC Proms, and his comprehension of Ravel’s music is also documented by a recording with the Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez (2010).

“I wouldn’t say that I’m a pianist—I’m a musician, and the piano just happens to be my instrument. I don’t like to limit myself to just a single function because that limits my perception of music”, says Aimard. Besides performing a wide range of repertoire as a pianist, he has also served in such positions as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. He is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, and teaching has been an important part of this professional life: he has been an instructor at the Cologne University of Music and Dance and at Paris’s College de France, and he gives lecture concerts and workshops. In the spring of 2020 he relaunched his online project Explore the Score, which focuses on interpreting and teaching Ligeti’s music. 

Vasily Petrenko  conductor

Vasily Petrenko

Russian-British conductor Vasily Petrenko, “Artist of the Year” by Gramophone, is Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he took on in 2021, becoming Conductor Laureate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra following his hugely acclaimed fifteen-year tenure as their Chief Conductor from 2006‒2021. His immense impact he has had on the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the city’s cultural scene has been recognised by two Honorary Doctorates.

He is Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra (since 2015), the Associate Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, and has also served as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (2013‒2020) and Principal Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (2009–2013). He stood down as Artistic Director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ in 2021 having been their Principal Guest Conductor from 2016 and Artistic Director from 2020.

Born in 1976, Petrenko was educated at the St Petersburg Capella Boys Music School – Russia’s oldest music school – and the St Petersburg Conservatoire where he participated in masterclasses with such luminary figures as Ilya Musin, Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov. He began his career as Resident Conductor (1994–1997) of St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. He has worked with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Symphony, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and several ones in North America. He has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, Grafenegg Festival and made frequent appearances at the BBC Proms. Equally at home in the opera house, and with over thirty operas in his repertoire, Vasily Petrenko has conducted widely on the operatic stage, including at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, and the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

In addition, he has established a strongly defined profile as a recording artist. Amongst a wide discography, his Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Elgar symphony cycles with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have garnered worldwide acclaim. With the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, he has released cycles of Scriabin’s symphonies and Strauss’ tone poems, and selected symphonies of Prokofiev and Myaskovsky.

In 2023/2024 he returns to tour the US and Europe with the Royal Philharmonic, makes his debut with the NDR-Elphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg and returns to the Seoul, Hong Kong, Israel and Dresden Philharmonics, the Pittsburgh and Dallas Symphonies, the Filarmonica della Scala, Milan, and the orchestra of the Palau de Les Arts, Valencia.

Compositions

Claude Debussy
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Claude Debussy, born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, began his musical career during an especially fruitful period of French cultural history. Thanks to his artistically oriented relatives, he was surrounded by painters and musicians from his childhood, and when he decided to study at the Paris Conservatoire, he received piano lessons from a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. At age 25, he began attending the legendary soirees at the home of the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Among the regular guests were the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the painter Claude Monet, the poet Paul Verlaine, and the author Marcel Proust. Their ideas and innovations in the visual arts and literature, which pointed away from formal structure and instead prioritised the expression of moods, atmosphere, and colour, also found their way into Debussy’s music. In 1876, Mallarmé wrote his epic poem L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), inspired by Theodore de Banville’s pastoral play Diane au bois (Diana in the Woods). The poem consists of the rhapsodic monologue of a faun, a mythological being that his half human and half goat, who awakens from an afternoon nap in the woods somewhere in the sunny Mediterranean. He tries desperately to remember a dream—or was it a real encounter?—with a pair of lovely nymphs. All that mental effort makes him tired again, and he finally falls back to sleep, hoping he will renew the encounter with his elusive dream companions.

Debussy decided to give free musical expression to the sensuality of Mallarmé’s text, and between 1892 and 1894 he composed his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune for orchestra. He entrusted the character of the faun to a flute, which opens the piece with the loosely syncopated, chromatic main motif. The flute is answered by muted French horns and a gentle harp glissando. Tremolo strings join in, then the oboe, and finally the music is taken up by the whole orchestra. The instrumentation and the gentle wavering of tempo are intended to evoke the dreamy atmosphere of a hot afternoon, and the plentiful use of the winds highlights the music’s pastoral character. The return of the main theme, even lazier than at the beginning, introduces the concluding section. The flute is joined by solo cello and then oboe, and the magical ending features French horns, violin, harp, and the gentle sound of antique cymbals. The work was premiered in Paris on 22 December 1894. The negation of formal structure by constant musical flow and the innovative handling of themes and orchestration made the composition the iconic work of a new trend known as Impressionism, igniting a revolution that released music from the bondage of 19th-century traditions. Pierre Boulez fittingly commented: “The flute of Debussy’s Faun breathed new life into music.”

Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major

Thirteen years younger than Debussy, Maurice Ravel followed in the footsteps of the pioneer of Impressionism in many ways while also advancing the style. Already as a young man, he took a different path from that followed by the musical establishment, having been inspired both by Baroque music and by jazz and modern trends. He enjoyed experimenting, and he proudly claimed his Basque ancestry. His output was not large, consisting of piano music, chamber works, two piano concertos, ballets, two operas, and eight song cycles. Being an excellent pianist, he had long toyed with the idea of composing a work for piano and orchestra, but it would not be until the sixth decade of his life that he finished his piano concertos, one quickly after the other. The impetus that led him to write the concertos was his first successful tour of the USA in 1928, after which he planned another tour to present himself as the piano soloist in his new concerto. That tour, however, never took place. In 1932, Ravel suffered a head injury in a traffic accident, and his condition continually worsened over the last five years of his life.

In 1929, Ravel first wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major on commission for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War. Immediately thereafter, he went to work on his Piano Concerto in G major, and in conceiving it he took inspiration from Mozart: “In my opinion, the music of a concerto should be light and brilliant and should not descend into profundity and drama. It is said of certain classics that their concertos were written not ‘for’, but ‘against’ the piano. I agree completely. I intended to give the concerto the title ‘Divertissement’. Then it occurred to me that it was unnecessary to do so because the title ‘Concerto’ ought to be sufficiently clear.” In January 1932, the pianist Marguerite Long gave the work its premiere with Ravel leading the orchestra. It was Ravel’s conducting that got the worst reception from the critics. The soloist’s performance and the work itself received favourable reviews.

The piano takes part in the cheerful uproar right from the beginning, joined playfully by the percussion and piccolo. A moment later, a “jazzy” theme is heard in the piano and echoed by the clarinet, reminding us that the work was intended to captivate American audiences. Jazz enchanted Ravel when he heard it on his American tour, and in his concerto he combined it in an original way with Impressionistic dreaminess and with modern, rhythmicised tectonics. The second movement begins with the solo piano playing a slow, gentle waltz with a melody of breathtaking lyricism in the right hand. The melody is then taken up by the flute, and the orchestra quietly makes its presence felt. The English horn introduces another theme ornamented by the piano’s fanciful garlands, and a long trill illuminates the ending. We know from Ravel’s comments that the Adagio, which makes such a natural, fervent impression, cost him great effort, and he made many changes to it until the very last moment. The short, brilliant finale is entirely in keeping with Ravel’s playful compositional style. The piano alternates virtuosic runs and rhythmic passages with the orchestra, in which the strings get not a moment’s rest. Listeners will not miss the trombone glissandos, the bassoon solo, and whole array of percussion ranging from the whip to the snare drum and even a thump on the bass drum at the very end.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel

We are not yet finished with Ravel today. He turned out to be the author of the most successful orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, an iconic work by the Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. Whether in the original version for piano or in an orchestral arrangement, it has been one of the composer’s most popular works for more than a century. Mussorgsky was an important figure in the period when the style of Russian classical music was taking shape. A phenomenal melodist, he was unafraid of unconventional procedures, perhaps in part because he was basically self-taught as a composer and an outsider in his personal life. His struggles with alcoholism led to his death at a rather early age.

A great friendship was behind the creation of Pictures from an Exhibition, originally a suite for piano. The painter and architect Viktor Hartmann had close ties to the “Mighty Handful”, a group of composers to which Mussorgsky belonged, alongside Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui. Hartmann liked to employ elements of medieval Russian architecture and folk culture in his works. He died suddenly in 1873 at just 39 years of age. His friends, shaken by the tragic news, organised a retrospective exhibition of Hartmann’s sketches, watercolours, theatrical costume and set designs, and architectural studies, and after having attended the exhibition, Mussorgsky felt the need to capture the experience in music. Early in the summer of 1874, he completed his long, technically difficult suite for piano, admitting it had been written hastily in a letter to Vladimir Stasov, an arts critic and the organiser of the exhibition of Hartmann’s works: “Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord. They come running to me, ready baked, and I swallow one after the other until I have overeaten. I can hardly put it all down on paper quickly enough.” The composer only wanted to play the suite for his friends, and he had no plans performing it in public or having it published. After Mussorgsky’s death Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov decided to revise the composition and have it printed. It first found a place in the standard repertoire in an orchestral version commissioned from Maurice Ravel by the conductor Serge Koussevitsky in 1922. The result was the perfect combination of Russian Romanticism with the colourful orchestration that was typical of Paris in the early 20th century. Several composers have made attempts at orchestrating Pictures at an Exhibition, but only Ravel’s version has enjoyed wide acceptance.

The suite contains descriptions of ten of Hartmann’s paintings interspersed with repeated appearances of the striking Promenade theme, music that evokes walking through the exhibition. In one of his letters, Mussorgsky mentioned that the promenades were conceived grandly as a reflection of the bulk of his figure. The first picture, Gnomus, is a woodcut of a gnome presented as nutcracker angrily crushing nutshells in its jaws. For this reason, the music “jerks” with irregular rhythms and “cracks” with strong accents. Il vecchio castillo (The Old Castle) sounds like an Italian serenade of long ago, with its English horn melody and cello accompaniment evoking a troubadour’s song in front of a medieval Italian castle. Ravel makes a joke by using the saxophone in this otherwise archaicising movement. Tuileries depicts a park full of children playing and bickering while being watched by their nannies in the famous Parisian garden. The cumbersome music of Bydło (The Oxcart) reflects the hardships of life in the countryside, describing a peasant and an oxcart loaded with timber, the wheels turning with rhythmic regularity. The contrasting quick movement titled Dance of the Baby Chicks in Their Shells is based on a costume design by Hartmann—a dancer dressed in remnants of an eggshell is portrayed in music by a merry scherzo. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle are two Jews, one a rich authority figure, the other a poor, impudent man. The former is characterised by a powerful melody in the low register, and the other by shrill high notes. Both representations are satirical and reflect Russian antisemitism of the period. The picture of The Market in Limoges suggests swarms of people at a French town market, with shouting vendors, haggling, and arguments. In the subterrestrial Catacombae – Sepulcrum romanum, Hartmann painted himself walking with a lantern and observing bodies buried long ago. Mussorgsky conceived the music as a personal encounter with his deceased friend, and to the movement’s menacing chords and variations, he appended the final Promenade with the Latin subtitle Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language). A picture of a bizarre clock in the shape of a hut on chicken legs was interpreted by Mussorgsky as the cabin of the witch Baba Yaga, and he created a demonic scherzo full of twisted harmonies and wild, virtuosic passages. The suite’s climax is the monumental Great Gate of Kiev, inspired by Hartmann’s architectural plan for the Bogatyr Gates in the Ukrainian capital. Into the movement, Mussorgsky inserted one last quote of the Promenade theme, a melody from the Orthodox liturgy, and the ringing of church bells, which assume their true form in Ravel’s orchestration, thereby creating a finale worthy of a work on such a grand scale. Here, with undoubted skill, a Russian artist is paying tribute to Kiev’s historical importance and sovereignty, albeit from a period Russian perspective. One hopes that such respect shall soon make itself felt in our modern times!

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