We began by listening to Ravel’s Pavane for a dead Infanta played on the clarinet by Emma Johnson with the English Chamber Orchestra. Ravel was born on 1875 in Ciboure, a Basque town near Biarritz, his father was a French engineer and his mother was Basque although she grew up in Madrid which probably accounted for the Spanish influence on her son. His father was an enthusiastic student of music and encouraged his son to develop his musical tastes. When he was seven he started piano lessons and seven years later he passed the examination to enter the Paris Conservatoire. He would never reach the first rank of pianists and was more interested in composing and later he studied composition with Fauré. The Pavane for a dead infanta was composed in 1899 originally as a solo piano piece but he later orchestrated it. The pavane was a slow processional dance often used in church funeral services. This piece does not refer to a specific person but, according to Ravel he named it because he liked the sound of the words. It was dedicated to his patron the Princess de Polignac, born in Yonkers New York into the Singer family and heir to the eponymous sewing machine fortune.
Then we heard the Scaramouche suite written by the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was born in Marseilles in 1892 and started out as a violinist but went on to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire under Widor. He was appointed as secretary to Paul Claudel who was then the French ambassador to Brazil which, no doubt, explains the Brazilian influence on his music. In 1937 Milhaud contributed some works for the Paris International Exposition amongst which was the Scaramouche suite for two pianos. Scaramouche was the clown character in the Comedia del Arte with a bit part in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody! The suite became very popular despite the doubts of the composer.
After that we returned to more conventional classics with the third allegro assai movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 played by Alfred Brendel with the Academy of St Martin of the Fields conducted by Neville Mariner. Perhaps you may recall that we played the second adagio movement of the same concerto last month so I shall not repeat the comments made then.
Following on from that we heard a rather unusual transcription of the Brahms violin concert for piano arranged and played by the Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. It was somewhat unusual and after listening to it we were not entirely convinced that it really worked, but perhaps we were influenced by over familiarity with the original version.
Then we heard Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor played by the Solisti di Zagreb. Typically, a concerto is written for a solo instrument and orchestra whereas a concerto grosso is written for more than one solo instrument, in this case 2 violins and a cello. Vivaldi was well known in musical circles during his lifetime, indeed JS Bach transcribed some of his concertos, but he became neglected until the beginning of the 20th century and most recently he has become infamous as the source of much of the music on hold that plagues us today!
Finally, we heard the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams recorded in St Augustine’s church London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis. This well known piece was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral during the 1910 Three Choirs Festival and, amongst the audience was one Herbert Howells who later became known as a composer of English Church music. Howells later went on to describe the work as “a supreme commentary by one great composer on another”. Vaughan Williams became editor of the English Hymnal which brought him into contact with the music of Elizabethan composers such as Tallis and he began to realise that such tunes over the centuries had come to form the very texture of the English musical mind.