Saturday, 3 February 2024

CHF 150 | 110 | 50 | 30.-

S. Rachmaninov
Danses symphoniques pour deux pianos op. 45b

C. Saint-Saëns
« Le Carnaval des animaux »

Sergey Ostrovsky, premier violon
Pascale Servranckx-Delporte, deuxième violon
Lyda Chen, alto
Dan Sloutskovski, violoncelle
Ivy Wong, contrebasse
Claudia Pana, flûte
Dimitry Rasul-Kareyev, clarinette
Sébastien Cordier, percussions

Under the patronage of

Concert presentation

Saint-Saëns: Le Carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals)
Young Camille was a precocious child. At the age of eleven, he was giving recitals of Beethoven and Mozart on the piano. At 18, he was appointed organist of the church of Saint-Merri in Paris, and subsequently La Madeleine – where Liszt would anoint him ‘first organist of the world’. Even so, it was in his mature years that Saint-Saëns would offer the world his most mischievous work. Did the impending death of his mother prompt this return to his origins? Given that Saint-Saëns had maintained a symbiotic relationship with her throughout his life, we might well imagine that this playful trip down memory lane represented for the composer a final journey to the vivid land of his best years – which is to say, to the supreme realm of orchestration. For in childhood, there is no division between the mental and the corporeal. Children ‘accept everything as it comes’, as Charles Trenet once sang: ‘Life, death, village squares and electric trains … Dolls, puppets, strokes of the cane…’ Francis Blanche paid tribute to ‘the music of the master Saint-Saëns’, for ‘the pleasure of the five senses’.

Here, the orchestration of the Carnaval des animaux, which varies from movement to movement, and thus from animal to animal, is stipulated for two pianos and two violins, but also a viola, a cello, a double bass, a flute, a glass harmonica, a xylophone… with a full complement of instruments only in the finale. All possible sonic combinations are explored by this point. Had Saint-Saëns not founded the Société national de musique in order to bring some sheen back to the art of instrumental composition, which had been neglected by audiences in favour of the theatre? With this work, written in 1886, he sought to shift the theatre (or in other words, visual entertainment) back towards the musical realm. In this sense it is not surprising that Saint-Saëns was the first composer for the silver screen in France’s history. Nor that Sacha Guitry devoted a portrait to him in his masterpiece Ceux de chez nous (‘Those of Our Kind’), where we observe a bearded Saint-Saëns conducting an orchestra of 80 musicians ‘and only he was able to hear their harmonies’, said orchestra turning out to be reduced to a single pianist: Alfred Cortot. No surprise, either, that this work proved a repeated source of inspiration for cinema across the world, from Terrence Malick to David Fincher, through to the soundtrack of the Harry Potter films.

How did he achieve this success? We must believe that Saint-Saëns, who devised this score as an ‘piece of fun’ (plaisanterie), on the occasion of a Shrove Tuesday concert hosted by cellist Charles Lebouc – no joke! – had a certain presentiment that the 20th century would be a multifaceted one. Besides, with its numerous keyboards, its pistons and pedals, wax the organ not a ‘one-man band’ machine from the very outset? A 3D instrument? There can be no doubt that the passion Saint-Saëns devoted to the instrument shaped the contours of the madcap imagery in the Carnival. From the prodigious effect of the piano bubbles in Aquarium to the scraping of strings of the Tortoises re-entering their shells, not forgetting the rampant gallop of Hémiones (‘Wild Asses’), or the remarkable garden of Fossils – where the dreams of every childhood come together in a substratum of musical history, Mozart’s ‘Ah! vous dirai-je Maman’ (‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’) morphs into nursery rhymes such as Clair de lune and ‘J’ai du bon tabac’ … before culminating in Rosina’s aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville! Embarrassed about the work’s fanciful theme, the old Saint-Saëns forbade performances of the Carnival till his death, with the exception of The Swan, an animal recalling Schubert’s Schwanengesang as well as Tchaikovsky, whose feathers seemed to him to guarantee a modicum of gravity. It would prove his only error of taste to forget that the greatest works are funny.

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances (for two pianos)
In 2017 Rachmaninov left his native land, making his way to the United States ‘with his hands as his sole assets’ as his friend Nikolai Medtner put it. The image is an arresting one, but omits one detail: the composer’s legendary memory, capable of playing any piece from memory having heard it just the once, even years later. Let us suppose, then, that on top of his extraordinary hands, the young artist made a heart-wrenching departure from his Bolshoi Theatre, but with a hundred shards of Tchaikovsky, Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov ringing in his ears. Let us quote Vladimir Horowitz here: ‘Every educated Russian has something in his blood that never leaves him.’ So it was that, regardless of the saying, the expatriate Rachmaninov devised two Symphonic Dances for orchestra, not far from New York, which he also arranged, in parallel, for two pianos. Or two continents? For, echoing Saint-Saëns’s Carnival, which was a return to the artist’s childhood, this work is a return to the snows of Moscow. Despite being a stickler for order and routine, Rachmaninov did not hesitate, indeed, to juggle harmonies in this half-conscious testament, merging the childlike tones of Peter and the Wolf with the enigmatic fragments of Pictures at an Exhibition, by his compatriots Prokofiev and Mussorgsky – all at the same time overflowing with Chopinesque tropes, echoes of Orthodox traditional chants and a taste for the avant-garde. Scriabin is said to have remarked of the young Horowitz, mentioned above ‘He will make a good pianist, once he has learned other forms of music – painting, dance, jazz.’ In sum, a total artistic spectrum, eminently Slavic, essential in the performance of these Symphonic Dances. As it turned out, it was indeed Horowitz who would give the first performance of this work in three parts – morning, noon and evening, representing an allegory of life. Six months later, in February 1943, Rachmaninov would obtain his American naturalization papers. A month later he was dead, and his new nationality denied him the grave he had hoped for in Moscow, between Scriabin and Chekhov.

Same day