It gives me great joy to welcome you to our 43rd Concert Season, entitled “The Magic Returns!”, and to the first in Consortium’s series of four exquisite digital performances, which you will be able to enjoy safely in the comfort of your own home!
We hope you will be impressed by the excellence of the musicianship, but also by the professionalism of the fine videography, which uses multiple cameras and microphones, changing angles, and close-ups, so as to bring you right up close and personal to the performers, even more intimately than you might experience in a live concert.
“Rhapsodic Romanticism” debuts virtually on September 25, and features two of our finest local musicians. Evgeny Chugunov performs two impassioned heart-on-sleeve Brahms Rhapsodies and five charming vignettes from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for you. Lakehead University Department of Music’s 9-foot Steinway concert grand is perfect for the repertoire, lending a very noble sound. Associate Professor Chugunov is a sensitive artist and a critically acclaimed concert pianist; he expresses a rare musicality, charming his audiences around the world.
TBSO cellist Peter Cosbey joins him in soulful music by Bloch (Scenes from Jewish Life) and Arensky. A lively Hungarian Dance by Brahms, arranged for cello and piano, provides a rousing finale! Peter Cosbey has become a regular, valued performer with Consortium, where he continues to enthrall audiences with his virtuosity, rich tone, and expressive style. Together, these artists have created a memorable and magical concert, as they pour their whole soul into their performance!
This season we have branched out from our usual concentration on the Baroque period, moving into the realm of unbridled Romanticism in two of our offerings, namely in this, the opening concert of our virtual series, and next, in our long-awaited live performance with which we hope to welcome in the New Year, if all goes well by then. Both will feature works by the late 19th-century Russian composer Anton Arensky. We are pleased to reveal that Evgeny Chugunov will return for our first live concert, and that he will be joined by distinguished violinist Jeremy Bell, a favourite and frequent guest performer for Consortium over the past 20 years!
Our concert title has been chosen to reflect the spirit of much of the music to be heard. The word “Rhapsodic” evokes feelings that are impassioned, powerful, abandoned, rapturous, ecstatic. These characteristics may be reflected in music, and are found in spades in the paired Rhapsodies of Opus 79 of 1879 by Johannes Brahms, which Chugunov has selected as his opening solo set. But rhapsodies also swing in another direction, to the lyrical, poetic, dreamy, magical, as the music partakes of highly-contrasted moods, tempi, dynamics, and colours. We hear all of this in both pieces. Interestingly, although the musical expression is rhapsodic in character, Brahms employs a clear formal structure.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a noted pianist and conductor as well as a composer. Born in Hamburg, Germany, he spent most of his life from 1862 in Vienna. If you have heard the phrase “the three B’s”, that originated from the pen of 19th-century conductor, pianist, composer and music critic Hans von Bülow, who in a letter to his wife referred to Brahms as being “after Bach and Beethoven the greatest, the most sublime of all composers.”
Our soloist Evgeny Chugunov writes: “Brahms’s music has always attracted me with its mystery, depth and mysticism. His music occupies an exceptional place among romantic composers. As a performer, I return to his works repeatedly so that every time I find something new, unnoticed earlier. Every pianist should come back to Brahms’s music during their professional life, each time touching it at a new level, discovering unique nuances, lines, colours.”
The Opus 79 Rhapsodies are the most substantial works on our programme. This is glorious, mature Brahms! Both are in a minor key. The pianistically demanding No. 1 is marked “Agitato”, and No. 2 “Molto passionato”, but not too fast. Passages of sweeping passion and intensity alternate with sweet, tender lyricism. We witness bold, bombastic outbursts, as the pianist’s hands fly all over the keyboard, sometimes in octaves, sometimes in arpeggios. A slower central section provides quiet, gentle, mysterious moments. Ever-changing moods, flashes of drama, subside into restraint. Watch the poetry of Chugunov’s hands on the keyboard, especially when they cross over one another in a particularly delicate passage. The beauty is that the virtual video permits you to see such subtleties up close, which you would not be able to witness in a live concert.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a Swiss-born American composer and academic of Jewish heritage. Much of his music reflects a Hebraic melodic inspiration; his father had originally wanted to be a rabbi. He wrote many works on Jewish themes, including Israel Symphony (1916), Baal Shem (violin, 1923), Méditation Hébraïque (cello, 1924), Suite Hébraïque (viola, 1951), and his most famous, Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque (cello and orchestra,1916). Bloch had a special affinity for the cello; in Schelomo, this instrument represents the voice of Schelomo, or Solomon.
Our featured composition, From Jewish Life, was written in 1924, the year that Bloch became an American citizen, and was dedicated to the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had previously premiered Schelomo at Carnegie Hall. It consists of three short movements: the ardent, impassioned Prayer, plaintive, soulful Supplication, and the expressively moving Jewish Song. The melodies spring from his very Jewish soul.
In Bloch’s words: “It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex glowing agitated soul…the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our souls”. And in his published manifesto, he continues: “I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent – a voice which seemed to come far beyond me, far beyond my parents… This entire Jewish heritage moved me deeply; it was reborn in my music”.
In selecting the Bloch solos, I had in mind that they well reflected the mood which prevailed during the pandemic, being rather introspective and sorrowful. The timing of the creation and release of this virtual concert also aptly coincides with the several Jewish High Holydays which fall within the month of September 2021. Peter Cosbey has given Bloch’s music an incredible intensity of feeling. It makes one want to weep with emotion. His cello speaks richly and resonantly, in mellow tones, with a whole range of dynamics, be it crying out with fervent passion, or expressing mournful, meditative moods. And the sensitive manner in which Chugunov accompanies the cello is absolutely sublime. These two superb artists have formed the perfect team; their performance is indeed breathtakingly beautiful!
Cosbey and Chugunov now continue in a less profound vein, performing two short character pieces by Russian composer/pianist Anton Arensky. Born in 1861, Arensky spent much of his life in St. Petersburg, studying composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. He subsequently became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, teaching Rachmaninoff, among others, and died in 1906 of tuberculosis at the age of 44. As to impressions made on contemporaries, one man remarked: “there was so much intelligence and humor in him! He was not distinguished by beauty: stooped, tousled hair, but his eyes burned like coals, and he spoke so captivatingly, so passionately that his rumpled face became appealing.” He was much admired by the great Russian novelist Tolstoy.
Arensky’s music displays influences of Tchaikovsky, who mentored him. As a tribute to the master, Arensky composed Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky one year after his death. Petite Ballade Op. 12, No. 1 (1887) was dedicated to famous Russian virtuoso cellist Carl Davidov, and has a tranquil, singing melody, over a gently rippling piano accompaniment. Peter Cosbey delivers the quintessentially Romantic tune with style and grace. He then moves on to Orientale, the first of four pieces from Op. 56 (1902). This is a more forthright and assertive piece, with the flavour of a Spanish dance, in terms of both rhythm and sonority. The cello and piano share the melodic content, and there are some soaring cello lines.
It is very fitting that Evgeny Chugunov is performing works by two Russian composers for us. He was born in a small town in the Siberia region of Russia. He was immersed in music from his earliest days, deeply indebted to his first piano teacher, who believed in him, opening a limitless music world, and infecting him with a great love for the piano. Every day after school, he ran to her studio, even if he didn’t have a lesson that day, listening to other students’ playing, absorbing information, and most importantly, listening to the music. He eventually entered Moscow University, immersing himself “with great enthusiasm in the musical world of the capital. World-class musicians’ concerts formed my musical taste and determined the highest professional standards, to the achievement of which I devote all my musical life.”
He goes on to say: “The Seasons of Tchaikovsky occupy a special place in musical life in Russia, since these pieces have surrounded everyone since childhood. I always dreamed of playing this cycle, fully understanding the musical complexity of these works. No wonder their implementation is included in the mandatory requirements of the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. The pieces of this set have a clear form…but at the same time, they are saturated with truly Russian images, intonations and colours.” We accordingly present the second part of that work so dear to Chugunov’s heart, as a foil to the Brahms Rhapsodies which we just heard.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) composed The Seasons between his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his ballet Swan Lake, on commission. They are a set of twelve short solo piano character pieces, typically Russian, one for each month of the year. They appeared monthly during 1876 in the journal Nuvellist, and originally appeared under the French title Les Saisons. A framed announcement went forth in December 1875 on the cover, proclaiming that “Our celebrated composer P. I. Tchaikovsky has promised the editor of Nuvellist, that he will contribute to next year’s issues a whole series of his piano compositions, specially written for our journal, the character of which will correspond entirely to the titles of the pieces, and the month in which they will be published in the journal…”. Some were later orchestrated by other composers.
Chugunov performs the final five, beginning with August, the month that his performance was recorded, and proceeding to the end of the calendar year. They are entitled August – Harvest; September – The Hunt; October – Autumn Song; November – Troika: December – Christmas. Poetic epigraphs were provided by the publisher for each. October’s aptly mirrors the resigned, elegiac, melancholy mood of the music, marked “Andante doloroso e molto cantabile”.
Autumn, our poor garden is all falling down, the yellowed leaves are flying in the wind.
Harvest is energetic and powerful, with driving, changing rhythms, interrupted briefly by a quiet, lyrical, rather nostalgic-sounding middle section before returning to the opening excitement and a hammered ending. The Hunt has the energy of the chase, with overtones of paired hunting horns, and lots of repeated notes.
November’s Troika, which imitates the jingling of sleigh bells in the right hand, was Rachmaninoff’s favourite encore. It is fascinating watching Chugunov’s rapid finger action up close. December finishes off the cycle with a deliciously swinging Christmas waltz, which would fit nicely into a ballroom scene in Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina, which was published two years later. It is amply clear that Evgeny Chugunov is consummately at home performing these delightful little vignettes from his homeland, infusing them with great Russian character and charm.
Evgeny Chugunov’s Tchaikovsky set ended with a waltz. It is fitting to wrap up our Rhapsodic Romanticism concert one notch higher with yet another dance. Both artists join forces in the energetic, increasingly frenetic Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5. This is likely the most well-known of the 21 he composed. Originally published in 1869 for piano four-hands, Brahms arranged them for solo piano in 1873. Others orchestrated them. In 1881 Italian virtuoso cellist Piatti arranged them for cello and piano, and this is the version heard here. As an aside, Peter Cosbey follows the example of Piatti, almost always performing without the use of a cello endpin.
Brahms was fascinated and inspired by Hungarian gypsy folk music throughout his life, and worked in “Hungarian” elements, even into some of his chamber music. When still a teenager he chanced to meet the Hungarian violinist Ede Remény, who introduced him to the gypsy style. Shortly thereafter, Brahms became his accompanist; they gave concerts and toured together. Hungarian Dance No. 5 is a Csárdás, a party-piece, serving as entertainment, which could also be danced to. It is lively and energetic right from the outset, lapsing into a contrasting middle section, with its rubato, another mark of gypsy music, then returning to the foot-stomping rhythm, with passionate intensity, to end with two crashing chords, a fitting conclusion to our Rhapsodic Romanticism, which we hope you have enjoyed!
Please see our concert schedule for more information on our programming and read our artists’ bios. Very special thanks go out to Robin Smith of Robin Smith & Associates: CIBC Wood Gundy for being our Virtual Concert Season Sponsor.