(c) 2000, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin

W.A. Mozart (1756-1791)
Divertimento in D major, K. 136 (1772)

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Written in Salzburg in January 1772, Mozart's Divertimenti K. 136-138 were scored for string quartet, and research suggests that they were composed in preparation for Mozart's upcoming second journey to Italy. Most likely they were intended to be used as pleasant "filler" numbers for some occasions (a somewhat unsettling thought, but, nevertheless, true - these and other Divertimenti, as well as numerous Serenades and Cassations were written for and performed at garden parties and similar occasions as purely background entertainment - 18th century elevator music, if you will). Researchers have also determined that the title Divertimento in the manuscript is not by Mozart's hand. Today they are some of the most popular works in string orchestra repertoire. Thanks to the familiar "K" numbers which accompany Mozart titles (Kochel, in the second half of the 19th century, made the first systematic catalog of Mozart's works), we are reminded that 135 compositions preceded K. 136, including about a dozen operas and masses and some twenty symphonies. Around the time K. 136-138 were composed, Mozart was turning sixteen.

The Divertimento in D major, K. 136, is a very sunny, carefree composition, and the occasional slip into minor keys does not bring a shadow of drama. "Mozart is never easy" is a cliche of course, but so true nevertheless. To verbalize the challenge of performing it is as much a challenge in itself. In most cases, I schedule this piece at the opening of the concert - as if offering a glass of champagne when guests arrive.

The middle Andante is perhaps the most unpredictable movement in our repertoire - no other piece comes to mind where the speed, dynamics, and even articulation would vary so greatly from one performance to the next, yet retaining the overall character of sweet tenderness. (Come to think of it, this could be one of the reasons we have not yet recorded these Divertimenti, despite a long-standing request from Claves).

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
Six Sonatas for Strings (1804)
Each of the Sonatas is in 3 movements

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Summer, vacation time. You rent a cottage in the country and take your family there "to get away from it all". Your 12 year old, getting a bit bored already on the second day, powers up the notebook computer, and before you know it, creates a computer game that challenges and entertains the participants, while giving much pleasure to the spectators. Ask for a copy of this program and keep the diskette in a safe place - you never know.

After the Second World War, Alfredo Casella found in the Library of Congress a 150-year-old manuscript with this inscription: "The scores of these dreadful sonatas, composed by me on holiday at the home (near Ravenna) of my friend Agostino Triossi when I was at a most infantile age, not even having taken a lesson in counterpoint, the whole composed and copied out in three days and played like dogs by Triossi, double bass, Morini (his cousin), first violin, the latter's brother, cello, and myself on second violin, who was, to tell the truth, the least doggish." The ease and generosity with which the melodic material unfolds in these sonatas suggests that 12-year-old Rossini did not have to overly exert himself to produce these marvels. A smile is never more than a few seconds away, and there is an unmistakable presence of operatic elements, giving hint of what would one day blossom into magnificent stage works.

Today these sonatas are extremely popular both on stage and in the recording studio, performed mainly in string orchestra version. The recording of an integral set of Six Sonatas for Strings is Chamber Orchestra KREMLIN's most celebrated disc to date, having won both the Repertoire and Diapason d"Or awards in Paris and Gramophone's Critics Choice award in London.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Two Elegiac Melodies for String Orchestra, Op. 34 (1880)
Heart's Wounds
Last Spring

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The Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34, by Grieg serve as a wonderful opening for a program, especially when followed by intense, dramatic works such as Chamber Symphony by Shostakovich, Verklaerte Nacht by Schoenberg or Divertimento by Bartok (to name some of the works most commonly requested from our repertoire). In a brief seven minutes they usually allow the establishment of a good link between the audience and the orchestra and "set the stage" for more substantial compositions. This is not to say that Grieg's Melodies do not bear strong emotional content. They do, but the content is of comfort and serenity.

These pieces are Grieg's own arrangements of his Songs on poems by A.O.Vinje: "Heart's Wounds" (Op. 33, No. 3) and "Last Spring" (Op. 33, No.2) - and what wonderful arguments in favor of arrangements! This is one of the not-too-uncommon cases where the arrangement became more popular than the original work. And, while performances of these works in their original form are a real rarity, Schwann lists over 20 recordings of the string orchestra version (including ours), and they are very often heard in concerts.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra, Op. 20 (1892)
Allegro piacevole

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There are many jokes based on national characteristics, or rather on the common perception of these characteristics. There was the German engineer, French cook, Swiss banker and Italian lover who switched hats, and ended up being the German cook, Italian banker, French engineer, and Swiss lover. And the like. With the globalization of our lives these days, and "political correctness" keeping us on our toes, these jokes are perhaps not as cute as we once thought they were, but still, certain combinations do look more befitting than the others.

Now, if one had to attach the adjective "romantic" to a certain nation, where would one start? And how far down the list would Great Britain would be? Lord Byron and Princess Di did wonders to romanticize the English, but still, the emotional attributes of what is associated with romanticism and "Briticism" probably do not go hand in hand. Or so I thought.

To account for my impression of the Brits, I suspect that in my youth there were just too many English jokes and too little British music. (For some reason, I never thought of Beatles as being British or anybody else. There were just the Beatles, the most romantic pop band on the earth). But, then I heard the music of Elgar. Its rich expressiveness and scope of emotions put everything right. However, the misconceptions of my adolescence did come in handy many years later, when I first began working on Elgar's Serenade in E minor. From the first reading, the first movement felt comfortable, the second movement was utterly captivating and my affection for it only grew stronger with time. The opening of the third movement did not work. It felt too understated and very illusive, a real letdown after such a gorgeous second movement. Many tries later, a funny thought visited me - could it be that Sir Edward (although at the time the Serenade was written he had not been knighted yet) felt a bit embarrassed about the emotional outburst of the second movement, as if saying at the beginning of the third "Sorry, I didn't really mean to disrobe my soul so much ...". As far away from the composer's intended approach as this may be, it did work for me very well at the time. And still does.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Introduction (Sextet) to the opera Capriccio, Op. 85 (1939-1941)

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This Sextet is from the last Strauss opera, Capriccio, written by the 77-year-old master. The libretto was originally suggested to Strauss many years earlier, by his son-in-law, Stefan Zweig, and the result was worth the wait - Capriccio is one of the finest works of Strauss, and indeed of the genre. The plot is very unusual for opera, lacking action, and filled, instead, with refined elaborations on the timeless question: what is primary in opera -- words or music? A beautiful, widowed noblewoman is to decide who interests her more - Flamand, the musician, or Olivier, the poet. On her birthday, each man presents her with his creation. For his reasoning in favor of the prevalence of music, Flamand offers an argument of enormous power - the Sextet, which is played on stage at the very beginning of the opera. For me, describing this music would go hand in hand with describing Niagara Falls: it is both constantly changing and remaining the same, it is not only mesmerizingly beautiful, but seems to have some ethereal message, and no words can compare with the joy of experiencing it on your own. Listen, and enjoy.

Oh yes, the burning question. The Countess decides that both men interest her equally.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Concerto in Re (1946)
Arioso: Andantino
Rondo: Allegro

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Concerto in D for string orchestra, a brilliant piece and typical example of Stravinsky's neo-Classicism, was written on commission from Paul Sacher, Swiss conductor and philanthropist, whose commissions brought into being great scores from Bartok (Divertimento, Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta), Strauss (Metamorphosen), Honegger (Symphonies No. 2 and 4), Britten (Cantata Academica) and others.

This is one of the most technically challenging works in our repertoire - not because any particular parts or elements of it are so difficult, but because any, even a very minor imperfection, is immediately apparent. As for the musical language, one can hear the continuation of traditions of the Russian nationalistic school with brilliant feel for instrumental color (Rimsky-Korsakov) and use of Russian folklore or, as it is the case here, quasi-folklore elements - the second movement brings image of an organ-grinder, interrupted by a "barking" gendarme. At the same time, there is a generous dose of unmistakably Stravinskian asymmetry and poly-rhytmic elements - perhaps his greatest influence on the development of music in this century. ("Of all the musicians of his age Haydn was the most aware, I think, that to be perfectly symmetrical is to be perfectly dead" - from "Conversations with Igor Stravinsky" by Robert Craft).

The psychological characteristics of an artist and his works often resemble each other, and so it is with Stravinsky. Brilliant intellect, boundless inventiveness, the ability to find and bring out the brightest of colors, enormous wit and a good dose of dry, even sardonic humor characterize Stravinsky as an author (and not only of music, but the written word as well) and as a personality. Concerto in Re is a convincing example of the above-mentioned qualities of Stravinsky the composer. And as for his personality, here is a light sampling: Billy Rose commissioned a piece from Stravinsky for a New York review, staged in 1945. On the opening night he cabled the composer: "Your music great success stop could be sensational success if you would authorize robert russell bennett retouch orchestration stop bennett orchestrates even the works of cole porter". Stravinsky replied with four words: "satisfied with great success" (quoted from The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht).

Anton Arensky (1861-1904)
Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky (1894)

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Fate of Anton Arensky is a gift for those advocating healthy lifestyle. In the last quarter of the 19th century Russia was bursting with musical talents, yet even in this constellation Arensky was considered one of the most promising stars. His principal teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov, who entrusted his student with a preparation of the vocal score for his opera Snow-maiden. He was only 20 when his first opera, A dream on the Volga, was premiered at the Moscow’s Bolshoi, to great acclaim. At 21, upon graduation with honors from the St. Petersburg conservatory he was immediately engaged to teach harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory, where among his students were Rachmaninov and Scriabin.

But he did have weakness for alcohol, which to a much degree was the reason for deterioration of his health and early death at 44. Today only a handful of his compositions are being performed, so one could say that Arensky drank himself to oblivion, right?

Well, not quite. Much in the same fashion Mussorgsky’s partiality for the spirited substance dissipated his health and shortened his life, but did not dethrone composer’s place amongst the greatest. Arensky’s compositions do not possess the same strength or originality. Yet, the best of them, such as the Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, or the Piano Trio, are relatively often heard on concert stages, and not without a good reason. The Variations are a memorial tribute to Arensky’s friend and colleague, Tchaikovsky, who passed away just a year before the Variations were written. In my opinion, Tchaikovsky is heard not only in the theme itself, but in many of variations – an innocent imitation of style and language, masterfully done.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 (1899)

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Passionate, utterly romantic and sinfully beautiful, Verklaerte Nacht is the most often performed work of Schoenberg, and yet his reputation among the "mainstream" concert audiences seems to be that of a destroyer of tonality, father of dodecaphony and inventor of the serial technique. Although at this time we shall be dealing just with the former, I'll take a short detour and re-tell (I cannot recall the source and this is not a verbatim quote, but the meaning is close) the answer Schoenberg gave to the question: "Why don't you compose music as beautiful as your Verklaerte Nacht?" - "I do, you just have to learn to hear it."

Verklaerte Nacht began its life as a string sextet, written by a 25-year-old Schoenberg inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel with the same title. In 1917 Schoenberg transcribed it for a string orchestra, and the revised orchestral version appeared in 1943.

Two people walk through the bare, cold woods; the moon runs along, they gaze at it. The moon runs over tall oaks, no cloudlet dulls the heavenly light into which the black peaks reach. A woman's voice speaks:

I bear a child, but not by you. I walk in sin alongside you. I sinned against myself mightily. I believed no longer in good fortune but still had mighty longing for a full life, mother's joy and duty; then I grew shameless, then horror-stricken, I let my sex be taken by a stranger and even blessed myself for it. Now life has taken its revenge: Now I have met you, you.

She walks with clumsy gait. She gazes upward' the moon runs along. Her somber glance drowns in the light. A man's voice speaks:

The child that you conceived be to your soul no burden. Oh look, how clear the universe glitters! There is a glory around All, you drift with me on a cold sea, but a peculiar warmth sparkles from you in me, from me in you. It will transfigure the strange child you will bear for me, from me; you brought the glory into me, you made myself into a child.

He holds her around her strong hips. Their breath kisses in the air. Two people walk through high, light night.

The sections of the music clearly correspond to those of the poem, and one can quite prudently follow both, easily finding musical depictions of the words and actions. For most listeners, however, this will not be necessary in order to enjoy the composition, as it is an equally strong and convincing work loosely connected to a mood-setting poem, or as a totally abstract piece of music.

A few years ago one interviewer asked me if I would choose to be a musician in my "next life". It did not take me long to give a sincere affirmative answer, but thinking of it made me realize how badly I envy the real gods, the composers. I would give anything to know what it feels like to experience the music being born, to hear it inside one's head for the first time. I guess that interview must have happened during the time I was rehearsing or performing Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht, as every time I come back to this composition, something triggers this thought to visit me again.

Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Divertimento (1939)
Allegro non troppo
Molto adagio
Allegro assai

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Rehearsing and performing Bartok's Divertimento, or even just looking through the score, always provokes a very distinct sense of suspense and inner turmoil, even in the light, sunny episodes of the opening movement, or the driven finale. (I wonder if I would have the same feeling if I wouldn't have known about the second movement -- one of those questions to which I will never know the answer.) This work was composed in 1939, and although it makes strong impact just as "pure" music, knowing the time of its creation and the prevailing atmosphere in pre-war Europe, immediately turns it into a diary of its time, and the resulting emotional state strongly engraves itself into one's perception of this composition. For me personally, the second movement represents some of the greatest pages in music literature. Time in it both moves and stands still, pain of inner suffering is nearly physically felt, and the depiction of inhuman superpower is absolutely extraordinary -- yet more remarkable for being achieved with such limited means. I am at loss finding an explanation for the title Bartok has given to this work, and have not come across any convincing theory on this subject. As much as music speaks for itself in this masterwork, unlocking this secret will, perhaps, bring yet more rewards.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-1917)
Arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai

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Years ago I read a cute account of one's visit to a concert hall which, in essence, went like this: "On the program there was Bruckner's Symphony No. xx. Musicians gathered on stage and the light was dimmed, but still strong enough to glance through the program booklet, which I did. Then, some time later, the majestic melody began unfolding, filling the hall and capturing everybody's attention. It was the main theme of the first movement, and it was gorgeous. By that time the poor violins had been playing tremolo non stop for at least 15 minutes". Bruckner's symphonies were aptly called "Cathedrals of sound", and to hold the structure, one indeed needed a foundation of proportional might. One of the major challenges to the performers of this music is to hold this structure as a whole, without losing sight of its dimension. In day-to-day language, the composition should not feel too long.

The challenge of writing and performing miniatures is directly the opposite in nature, as the limited time should not feel insufficient to define the work's emotional characteristics. Prokofiev succeeded magnificently, writing Visions Fugitives as a piano cycle of 20 miniatures. The average length of each is about one minute, and some as short as 20 seconds. Barschai transcribed 15 of them for string orchestra. They are great fun to perform and, hopefully, to hear.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a (1960)
(String quartet No. 8, arranged by R. Barshai)
Allegro molto
(Played without pause)

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Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 110 bis, holds the honors of being one of the most frequently performed works in its original version, as String Quartet No. 8, and in Barshai's arrangement for string orchestra, approved by Shostakovich.

Written in Dresden, in just three days in October of 1960, this quartet bears a dedication "In memory of victims of fascism and war ". While the character of the composition well tends itself to this dedication, even without knowing Shostakovich's privately made statements (his daughter, Galina, recounted that after completing the quartet Shostakovich said: "I dedicated this work to myself", and the same is found in the recently published Shostakovich's letter to his friend, Isaak Glikman), it is very clear from the music itself, that this work is autobiographical. Thematic material of all five movements is based on Shostakovich's monogram -- musical signature DSCH (D, E flat, C, B in German notation), and there are numerous quotations from his symphonies, and other works.

This composition is a testimony to Shostakovich's incredible ability in just a few bars to create a complete emotional world. The opening movement is full of anticipation of tragedy, yet with moments of relief and hope. Then comes the brutal force and agony of the second movement, and the waltz-like third movement, full of typical Shostakovich's bitter-sweetness. The fourth movement is introduced by a repetitive three-chord phrase, in which some hear gun shots, and others, including myself, the notorious KGB knocks on the door, followed by a quote from the revolutionary song "Tormented by Hard Bondage" and the emotional culmination - an aria from his opera Katerina Izmailova. The fifth movement returns the material of the opening movement, but this time there is no more hope, just total acceptance of the tragic fate.

For many years I always follow this work with the performance of Bach's First Contrapunctus from the Art of the Fugue. Years ago, when I began performing this work, it struck me how unsettling it felt to hear the applause after this composition. My experiments to ask the audience to refrain from applause produced no less unsettling result, especially when this composition was performed right before the intermission, which is usually the case. The only other solution was to go back to music immediately after this work. The moment I thought of Bach's First Contrapunctus, it just felt right. Starting in the similar emotional atmosphere as the opening of the Chamber Symphony (on the rare occasions when we play this Contrapunctus on its own, it is played totally differently), it then takes a drastically different road, becoming a majestic hymn to the human spirit.

I would like to stress, that by performing the Bach immediately after the Shostakovich I am not suggesting that anything needs to be added to what Shostakovich has said in his composition. On the contrary, this work is one of the most powerful and complete statements ever expressed in music. In fact, so much so, that for me, my colleagues and, hopefully you, the listener, another powerful statement is needed to restore the inner balance.

Mieczyslaw Vainberg (1919-1996)
Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 145 (1986)
(Allegro moderato)
Andante - Allegro

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Mieczyslaw Vainberg was born in Poland in 1919. He graduated as pianist from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, the year WWII began, and was able to escape from Poland to the Soviet Union in the same year. He continued his musical education, this time as composer, at the Minsk Conservatory. In 1943 Vainberg sent Shostakovich the score of his First Symphony, and the impressed Shostakovich assisted in arranging for an official permit allowing Vainberg to move to Moscow, where he resided until his death in February 1996.

Vainberg was a most prolific composer, working in a wide range of genres, evidenced by his works for symphony orchestra (including 22 symphonies, symphonic poems, overtures, etc), operas, ballets, oratorios, instrumental concertos, chamber music, compositions for unaccompanied string instruments, lieder, works for piano solo, musicals, incidental music for theater and radio shows and music for dozens of movies, including some of the most beloved titles in the Russian cinema.

His works were premiered by the most imminent Russian musicians, such as Rostropovich, Kondrashin, Oistrakh, Gilels, Kogan, and the Borodin Quartet. Vainberg had a close relationship with Shostakovich, full of mutual admiration. The premiere performance of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony was done in reduction for piano four hands, when the author was joined on stage by Vainberg (this performance is now issued on CD). The fondness which Shostakovich felt toward Vainberg manifested itself in 1953. Vainberg was married to the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels, a great Jewish theater director and co-chairman of the Soviet-American Jewish Congress during the Second World War. (After the war Mikhoels was murdered on the order of Stalin). In early 1953, at the start of Stalin's monstrous anti-Jewish campaign, Vainberg was taken by the KGB, and Shostakovich, in the rarest for him instance of such brave and extremely dangerous behavior, petitioned Stalin and the Central Committee for Vainberg's release. After Stalin's death in March 1953 and arrest of Beria the anti-Jewish campaign was curtailed, and Vainberg was released.

Toward the end of his life, in 1980s, Vainberg composed four Chamber Symphonies. We began performing some of them while he was still alive, and the time I spent with the composer listening to our live concert recordings (Vainberg was bedridden the last years of his life) is one of my most treasured memories.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)
Lamento for Strings (1980)
(String quartet No. 2, arranged by Misha Rachlevsky)
(Played without pause)

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Until the mid-eighties, when ideological oppression in Russia was lifted, the works of Schnittke had a very difficult path getting to the major concert stages of the country. At the same time, his music was heard by millions, as Schnittke was one of the most sought-after composers for movies and television. In 1980 he was working on a movie with a brilliant young Russian film director, Larisa Shepitko. Then tragedy struck - Larisa died in a fatal car accident. The second string quartet was written shortly thereafter, and dedicated to her memory.

Knowledge of these circumstances convincingly "de-codes" this work, making it nearly a piece of program music. The four movements of this composition unfold a chain of events similar to the emotional steps, which often accompany the parting of a loved one. The first movement is unsettled and questioning, somewhat unreal, perhaps even with reticent hope of "just a bad dream". The anguished second movement takes under seven minutes, but seems to last forever. A remarkable transformation takes place: the beginning of the movement throws everyone into horror and complete disorientation, but when the same material returns at the end of the movement, strangely, it appears orderly, nearly victorious, just like the relief of reaching the final destination of a long journey. The third movement makes this composition perhaps the most "Russian" of Schnittke's instrumental output, as it invokes the distinct image of a Russian liturgical service, substituting choruses of the Russian Orthodox Church with strings. By then, the tragedy is a reality, and its bottomless grief is passionately expressed. The concluding fourth movement completes the cycle by bringing a sense of acceptance, even serenity.

In 1994, a Schnittke Festival, commemorating the 60th birthday of the composer, was held in Moscow, and Chamber Orchestra KREMLIN was invited to present a concert. Wanting to include a new work in the program, I asked the composer for his permission to arrange his Second String Quartet for string orchestra. His sincere, enthusiastic endorsement of this idea was a most rewarding, humbling experience for yours truly.

Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932)
Russian Photographs (1994)
Ancient town Aleksin
Cockroaches throughout Moscow
Evening bells

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Profession of performing musician has many rewards. One of the highest of them is in an opportunity to work with composers, have them hear the rehearsals, offer comments and suggestions. Collaboration with Shchedrin began with a bang – a concert of his works at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. From the very first time we played for him it was clear, that we are very much on the same wave-length as to interpretation of his music, and a wonderful relationship, both professional and personal, was forged practically immediately.

Shchedrin’s music is well known in Russia and internationally, and there are many performers, including some of the best known names on the scene, who always welcome opportunity to present his compositions. This is not surprising, as one could hardly find a better vehicle for captivating the audience.

This is not only music with wonderful melodic material, masterful development and colorful orchestration. There is also a message, subject, story – can’t quite find a single word to describe it. I guess the best way to describe my own view of it is to say that Shchedrin’s music is always about something. And what separates him from many other is that this very something is very definable, nearly tangible image. The Russian Photographs is a cycle of four movements - or, one could say, four stories. The frozen time in the Ancient town of Aleksin - playing or listening to this movement is like slowly turning pages of an album of old lithographs. Cockroaches throuout Moscow is a portrait of a modern city, but rather than taking a birdview of it, it examines the level under the surface of the city, with its own life. Stalin-cocktail is a movement, which forces both, performers and the audience to take a position – what sounds funny to some terrifies the others. Then comes all-unifying “The Evening Bells”.

The Russian Photographs places considerable technical and emotional demands on performers, but what glorious rewards!

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Death and the Maiden, D. 810 (1824)

(String quartet in D minor, arranged by Misha Rachlevsky)
Andante con moto
Scherzo: Allegro molto

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Music aficionados might notice that we do not use Mahler's arrangement of Death and the Maiden for string orchestra, but my own. The reason is simple - the "divisi" (sub-division into two or more parts within one group of instruments) in Mahler's version clearly suggests large performing forces, as he had at his disposal. Other than that, Mahler's version deviates very little from the original, and mine is yet less so. Why then, one could ask, mention Mahler at all?

Well, because. While the practice of performing arrangements and, in this case, taking one of the true shrines of quartet literature and expanding it to full string orchestra, is becoming accepted on concert stages, it still has its detractors, and having protagonists such as Mahler and Bernstein (with Beethoven's Op. 131) certainly strengthens the position of the "pro-arrangements" clan.

As unbelievable as it seems to us now, this quartet, written in 1826, two years before Schubert's death, was rejected by the music publishers as uninteresting. The first performance took place in Berlin in 1833, five years after the composer's death; the reviewer wasn't kind to Schubert, criticizing the work's "irregular harmonic progressions".

Time did the justice to the work, however, and now Death and the Maiden is one of the most beloved works in repertoire. Incidentally, the piece was nicknamed after Schubert's death, based on the title of one of Schubert's songs which he had "re-arranged" (aha!) for the theme of the second movement.

And as for Mahler, although he finished an arrangement of the entire work (and even began arranging some of Schubert's other quartets), he conducted only one movement - the variations - in a single concert in Hamburg on November 19, 1894. Discouraged by the criticism that he deprived Schubert's quartet of its intimacy, he did not pursue performance of the complete work. This did not stop him, however, from reviving this practice four years later, when he moved from Hamburg to Vienna. There he completed the arrangement of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, and performed it in its entirety.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Octet for strings (1825)

Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
Scherzo. Allegro leggierissimo

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Many years ago I heard an interesting view on Mendelssohn's place in the hierarchy of history's greatest composers, and while this theory is somewhat odd, perhaps there is something to it.

A few fellow musicians and I were reading through some of Mendelssohn's chamber works, not the most popular ones, like the Octet, but those hardly ever heard in concert. We were all quite astonished by the beauty of the music and the exquisite craftsmanship of writing, and the conversation turned to discussing Mendelssohn's musical heritage in general. It was easy to agree that Mendelssohn is commonly viewed as "lightweight" when compared with Brahms or Schumann. It is true, the most noticeable attributes of his musical style are grace, elegance, fragile lightness, and for most part, the moods and subjects he deals with are that of happiness and content, rather than the ferocious struggle of Beethoven, the passionate soul-searching of Schumann or the global monumentalism of Brahms. But in his territory, Mendelssohn has few rivals.

So, in discussing this "image problem" at the above-mentioned sight-reading session, one of my colleagues offered this comment: "We just can't forgive Mendelssohn for not suffering enough, as most other great composers had to." Indeed, as we glance at the biographies of great creators - not just composers, but writers, artists - it is obvious that beyond the rich and eventful life one would expect them to have, they had a far greater share of turmoil and suffering than statistically allocated as average. Food for thought, isn't it?

As for Mendelssohn, he indeed was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His family was not only one of the most prosperous and cultured in Germany, but one enhanced with strong discipline (5 am for daily arrisal, 6 am on Sundays) and the best tutoring on all subjects, including music, where Mendelssohn's precocious talents were quickly discovered and strongly supported.

The Mendelssohn mansion became the site for twice-monthly concerts, and in 1822 a summerhouse was fitted as a concert hall where several hundred people were invited every Sunday for a concert featuring works of standard repertoire and the newest compositions of Mendelssohn. For these concerts the 13-year old selected the programs, led the rehearsals, appeared as a solo pianist and even conducted some programs, standing on a stool so to be seen by the musicians. And, of course, he composed -- by 1825, when, at 16, he created a true shrine of chamber music literature, the Octet, he was author of some 80 works , including thirteen string Sinfonias, operas and operettas, concertos, motets and much chamber music.

So, is history fair to Mendelssohn? Listen, and judge for yourself!

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 (1866)

Arranged by Misha Rachlevsky
Allegro non troppo
Scherzo: Allegro non troppo
Poco Allegro

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There are some very good and "proper" answers that are routinely given to the question of why transcriptions are made - to expand the repertoire, to introduce the works to larger audiences (or, conversely, to afford the possibility of performing a work in an intimate setting), to bring out additional colors which the arranger hears "hidden" in the composition. True as those answers may be, when a transcription is done by a performing musician, the dominating reason, I believe, is the desire to perform a given work which happened to be written for a different instrument or configuration of instruments. This is certainly true in my case for the majority, if not all, transcriptions I have made.

The resulting works differ in the degree each deviates from the original, and in the instance of Brahms' Sextet, this deviation is one of the smallest, if compared with other "stolen / borrowed" works in our repertoire.

Those interested in the evolution of the public's musical taste should find Brahms an interesting case to explore. During his lifetime, recognition of his talent was far from universal. Detractors saw in him a retrograde, whose devotion to pure classicism was a throw-back to the exploration of new musical horizons, charted by demonic Wagner. He was often accused of dullness, and no less a figure than George Bernard Shaw wrote excruciatingly denunciatory articles about his music. His "anti-fan club" included Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler, Piotr Tchaikovsky. There is a much-repeated legend of the 1900 opening of Symphony Hall in Boston, when the "Exit in Case of Fire" sign was temporarily renamed "Exit in Case of Brahms". Today, however, Brahms is one of the top crowd-drawing names, and the catalog of his works is remarkably fully represented on concert stages and in recordings. And very deservedly so.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 (1880)

Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo - Allegro moderato
Valse: Moderato. Tempo di Valse
Elegie: Larghetto elegiaco
Finale (Tema Russo): Andante - Allegro con spirito

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The music of Tchaikovsky creates an illusion that it arrived in this world absolutely effortlessly (like the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky's favorite composer). It is indeed so at times, but far not always, and the supremacy of the results of his numerous revisions, from corrections to major rewrites, convincingly illustrate Tchaikovsky's saying that "the muse doesn't come without being called". The Serenade for String Orchestra (the correct Russian title, although in the West it is customarily called "Serenade for Strings"), written in a relatively short time in September - October 1880 (simultaneously with the 1812 Overture), was definitely one of those happy instances: ".. it poured from the heart" wrote Tchaikovsky. Another lucky moment was the immediate and unanimous success of this work.

The Serenade quickly rose to the top tier of the works Tchaikovsky was scheduling for the concerts he conducted himself, and under his baton was heard in many major European music centers as well as in his 1891 visit to the States, where he conducted it in Baltimore and Philadelphia. It seem that the composer himself was nearly embarrassed for the affection he felt for this work: (from his letter to Nadezhda von Meck, his pen-friend and patroness): "The first movement is my homage to Mozart, it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model. Do not laugh, dear lady, at my zeal for standing up for my latest creation. Perhaps my parental feelings are so warm because it is the youngest child of my fancy".

While the whole composition is heard on a single breath, so to speak, the two inner movements are extraordinary. The Waltz is exquisite, and the Elegy is one of the most moving, heartfelt statements in music. Again, from Tchaikovsky's letter to Nadezhda von Meck: "It is often said that good actors never perform for a whole audience. They choose one person in the theater who appears to be a compassionate soul and perform the entire piece with the aim of pleasing only him or her". There are not too many scores that can rival this Elegy as a medium to address "a compassionate soul".

Two points about Serenade which I learned recently, while not being anything significant, are amusing, and I will share them with you. In his letter to Jurgenson, his publisher, Tchaikovsky revealed that he first conceived this work as a symphony, then thought that his sketches could be appropriate for a string quartet or an orchestral suite, and finally decided ("inspired", as he wrote) on Serenade for String Orchestra.

And again, from Tchaikovsky's letter to Nadezhda von Meck, written after the Serenade was completed, but did not yet have its official premiere performance: "I wish you could hear my Serenade performed properly. It loses so much played at the piano, and I think that the middle movements played by the violins would win your heart". On the piano? Yes, a very common practice before the invention of the phonograph, and even some time after. In the summer of 1881 von Meck hired a 18-year-old Paris Conservatory student to play four-hand piano pieces with her as well as to give piano lessons to her children. He also did some transcriptions on her request, and the excerpts from Swan Lake became his first published scores. The name of a young man? Claude Debussy.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 22 (1875)

Tempo di Valse
Scherzo: Vivace
Finale: Allegro vivace

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Just like delivering good news to someone has a positive rub-off effect on the messenger, performing Dvorak's Serenade is really a very therapeutic endeavor for performers. There is so much "pure goodness" in it. Somehow even the moments which could cast a gloomy shadow - light melancholy of the Waltz, or the fragility of the opening of Larghetto - retain the wonderfully cloudless atmosphere. Usually large scale compositions have drama, tension, conflict -- the tools which help the performer "to take a position", interpreting work from his/her unique angle. If to compare a dozen great performances of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony with another dozen of equally great performances of his Nutcracker Suite, the range of differences in interpretation will be far greater in the former. ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Lev Tolstoy, the opening sentence of "Anna Karenina"). The remarkable thing about Dvorak's Serenade - this "cloudless goodness" is fully sufficient for sustaining meaningful communication for nearly half an hour of music.

While the circumstances surrounding creation of the work and the emotional content of the resulting composition far not always go hand in hand, in this particular instance they do. In the summer of 1874 the recently married Dvoraks were expecting their first child. Dvorak was employed as the organist at one of Prague's churches - a position which did not create any problems for getting qualifying papers from the City Hall, documenting his poverty. With these papers, and a healthy stack of his recent scores (which included two symphonies, orchestral overtures, songs and some chamber music), he applied for a government grant. A distinguished jury, which included Johannes Brahms, did not fail to recognize the "genuine and original gifts", and on their recommendation, the Minister of Culture presented Dvorak with the highest stipend available under this program. Little wonder that the announcement of this grant stimulated an outburst of creativity. And it was in this happy wave, that Serenade for Strings was completed in just 11 days.

Josef Suk (1874-1935)
Serenade for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 6 (1892)

Andante con moto
Allegro ma non troppo e grazioso
Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo presto

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The name Josef Suk rolls off one's tongue far too easily for a composer whose music is hardly known outside the Czech Republic. This is largely thanks to his grandson, an outstanding Czech violinist Josef Suk who presently enjoys a very active career as soloist and chamber musician. To complicate matters a bit, it should be noted that the first-mentioned Josef Suk (who cannot be called Josef Suk Sr., because he, in turn, was the son of yet another Josef Suk, also a musician and his first and important teacher. The youngest known to me in the dynasty of Josef Suks, the above-mentioned violinist, is the great-grandson of Antonin Dvorak. So, if you are still with me, you've probably already figured out that Josef Suk, the composer of Serenade for Strings, was married to Dvorak's daughter. And from this point on, he is the only Josef Suk we will be talking about, and the fact that he was a brilliant violinist and founder of the Czech (formerly Wihan) Quartet, with which during 41 years (1892-1933) he gave over 4,000 performances, should not have him confused with his violinist grandson, whom I will not risk calling Josef Suk Jr., because should he have a son or grandson of his own, I am pretty sure that the clan's tradition will not be broken.

The Serenade was written on the recommendation of Dvorak, who felt that the 18-year-old composer, at that time his student at the Conservatory, should broaden the emotional content of his compositions, which to that point were very dark and tragic, and write something more cheerful. The result was splendid. While Dvorak's influence is quite apparent, it is very much original music. Although the overall spirit of the Serenade is indeed cheerful, Suk was unable to stay within just the happy moods, and in this respect his Serenade differs drastically from that of Dvorak's.

I planned to close this note by mentioning that the great promise shown by the young composer did not seem to materialize. Out of curiosity I opened a catalog of his works and found there a great many compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles and piano, which I have never heard. So, I will withhold my comments, but this discovery spawned an idea for an alternative ending:

In Soviet years, during attacks on Solzhenitsyn, there were staged meetings at which "volunteers" from various social groups were made to express their distaste for the "smearing lies about our wonderful life and devoted government" in his books. Once someone managed to voice a question to a particularly zealous orator: "Have you read any of Solzhenitsyn's books?" The answer was a resounding "No, I have no interest in these repulsive lies." This is a true story, and the orator's answer is more thoughtful than it may seem at first, because at that time reading one of Solzhenitsyn's books was a crime severely punishable by law. Now, after this mind-bender, to figure out who is who among the Josef Suks is a relative piece of cake, excuse the pun.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Metamorphoses (1945)

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Time and time again we find ourselves faced with the fact that the works created out of pain and turmoil far outnumber those that arrived in this world under happy, content circumstances. And, exceptions notwithstanding (and among them there are some glorious compositions), more than the quantity, the quality of music and strength of the message are also superior. Strauss wrote Metamorphoses in 1945, upon seeing the destroyed opera houses in Munich and Dresden.

I will not even attempt to write about the music itself, the often quoted phrase of Strauss’ compatriot, Henrich Heine “when the words end, music starts” rings very true here. Hence, a couple related points.

Many, if not most musicians (and yours truly among them) would vary performance of the work from concert to concert. Over the years the difference in one’s perception of the score could change dramatically, but even repeating the same composition the day after a given performance usually brings in some changes. (For many years I did not believe that one can play identically and not sound stale and insincere. Then I performed with a soloist, who at all the rehearsals and then in concerts four nights in a row played absolutely identically - and gloriously beautiful, captivating everybody on stage and in the hall at every performance.) As for myself, some works would deviate just a little, other more so, but still, the general outline for a given night is always clear before I give the first beat. When, many years ago, I began conducting the Metamorphoses I was surprised to see how far I would deviate from the prepared “game plan” both at rehearsal runs through and then at concerts. This is not unusual in the initial stages of adding new works to the repertoire, but as a rule once the work “settles”, one gets a good degree of predictability as of how “the tune will go tonight”. Surely, many things will still affect the performance – acoustics of a hall new to us is one of them (presence of an audience sometimes noticeably change it from a rehearsal in an empty hall), the way we “link” to the audience in the previous compositions, some other factors. Well, many years and many performances behind me I am now happily accepting the fact that “metamorphoses” will take place during the performance, and I count my blessings for having this marvelously flexible and responsive orchestra in front of me.

And another point. Strauss originally wrote Metamorphoses for 23 solo strings. Or did he? A few years ago a score of Metamorphoses for a string septet was discovered, and it is believed that it was completed shortly before the commonly known version. In our case, we perform this work in a transcription for Kremlin’s configuration, which is a bit smaller, than Strauss’ score calls for, yet every note of the original is played. The transcription by Vladislav Bezroukov, concertmaster of the orchestra, enables us to perform this piece both in Moscow and on tour.

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