Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23 (1838)
Berlioz was a Romantic-era firebrand whose innovations in exploiting the characteristic sounds of instruments coincided with the appearance of increasingly larger orchestras (and audiences.) His exuberant style often unpredictably lurches between one idea and the next, often with maximum contrast in style and volume.
The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini begins with a noisy outburst that gives way to a slower theme plucked by the cellos and basses. This slower music competes with recurrences of the faster music until it culminates in the contrapuntal combination (noted by the composer in the score to make sure it is appreciated) of “the theme of the Adagio combined with the second theme of the Allegro.”
ÉDOUARD LALO 1823 – 1892
Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra (1876)
Édouard Lalo was a French composer of Spanish descent who followed Berlioz by a generation. His music was criticized at first for being “too progressive and Wagnerian” but was later overshadowed by the colorful developments of later composers like Debussy and Ravel. Despite prolific production of chamber music, orchestral music, and even an opera, he is represented in modern orchestral programming mainly by his Symphonie Espagnol, which is essentially a violin concerto.
His Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra is cast in the typical three movements. The First begins with a brooding Prélude before launching into an expressive Allegro maestoso that takes advantage of the solo instrument’s ability to sing across wide pitch registers. The Second Movement begins slowly as expected, but several times it is interrupted with a lilting Allegro presto whose repeated rhythmic figures in the orchestra create a kind of minimalist background. The Third movement, like the first two, begins slowly and seriously but soon breaks into a rollicking Rondo, with contrasting sections that pave the way for the welcome return of the Rondo melody.
MODEST MUSSORGSKY 1839 – 1881
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1923)
Mussorgsky was born into a family of Russian nobles that was impoverished by the Czar Alexander’s freeing of the serfs in 1861. He fell in with “The Five,” a group of amateur composers devoted to the creation of Russian music less affected by Western European influences. In Mussorgsky’s brief 46 years he was able to create a small body of works that show a distinctive, raw talent not inhibited by discipline or reliance on tradition.
His piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition” was a tribute to his late artist friend Victor Hartmann. A number of short characteristic movements inspired by paintings and designs of Hartmann and are interspersed with “Promenade” movements which represent the exhibition-goer’s meanderings. The piano originals are vivid in the way rhythms and harmonies are used to evoke the visual images, but in Maurice Ravel’s masterful orchestration, they are made even more so. Ravel was not the first or last to orchestrate the suite, but his version is the most familiar, and the final section depicting Hartmann’s fairly modest (and unused) plan for a gate in Kiev is thrilling in its sonic magnificence.