Join David Larkin as he explores the various themes and techniques of the compositions that will be performed by the ANAM Orchestra featuring Konstantin Shamray, Sophie Rowell, and Harry Ward.

Discover the context in which Mihkel Kerem, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler created their work and examine how their stories are expressed through these specific pieces of music.

Please note the program order has changed slightly since the recording of this pre-concert talk. This confirmed order is:

MAHLER Piano Quartet (1876) arr. Harry Ward - Arrangement commissioned by Musica Viva Australia
SCHNITTKE Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
KEREM Lamento (2008) - Australian premiere performances
TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 (1880)

Piano excerpts provided by David Larkin.

Hello. Thank you for joining me. My name is David Larkin and I'm a senior lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of music and I'm here to give a pre concert talk for Musica VIva's concert featuring the ANAM Orchestra with Konstanten Shamray, Sophie Rowell and Harry Ward. Now, appropriately for a program conceived during the Annus Horribilis that was 2020, the ANAM orchestra offers us a series of works which engage with darkness, tragedy and nostalgia. Two of the works were written by composers born in Russia and, who in different ways, faced hardship there. One is a lament written by a contemporary composer from Estonia, a country which suffered horribly under Soviet domination in the 20th century. And the remaining item is by Mahler, who was later to experience the feeling of being an outsider in his own land through rising anti Semitism. Three of the pieces end in a quiet or downbeat fashion and yet the music does not simply wallow in unrelieved misery. Rather, each piece is shot through with elements of hope, resistance and even catharsis. 

The Estonian composer and violinist, Mihkel Kerem, only turns 40 this year, which means he was still a child when Estonia regained its independence following the collapse of the USSR. Nonetheless, even if his memories of this period must necessarily be limited, the importance of not letting the horrors of the soviet regime fade from mind has been a major creative stimulus. This is most obvious in his Symphony No. 3, which he subtitled for the ‘victims of communism’, and among these might be numbered Alfred Schnittke, featured later on this program. Kerem's shorter Lamento is often coupled with the symphony on recordings and like the longer work, it too has a strongly commemorative tone. To my knowledge, the composer has not specified what the subject of lamentation is, which means it can be adapted to any new times of tribulation. 

In terms of musical style, there are observable similarities to the so-called new simplicity idiom famously employed by Kerem’s compatriot Arvo Pärt. The slow pace, drone cords, minimalist textures and largely diatonic palette are common to both. Lamento was shaped as a simple arc, starting quietly, growing in intensity in the middle, before fading out again. It revolves around a simple chant like melody intoned by the soloist right at the start. Originally, the solo was given to the cello, although the recorded version uses a solo viola. In this program, the solo role will be taken on by the violin in an arrangement made by the composer himself. 

This chant melody recurs again and again like a mantra, often against held chords in the strings. At the height of grief and tension in the middle section, the theme recurs beneath, wailing dissonances from the upper strings. At the end, the theme is recast in the major mode which the composer described as, quote “echoing as a prayer for hope”. 

Moving on, Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings in 1880, shortly after the 1812 Overture and he was as proud of the former piece as he was dismissive of the famous orchestral showpiece. He described the serenade as having been written quote “from conviction”, calling it a quote “heartfelt piece”. The first movement he described as an emulation of the composer he loved above all others: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Tchaikovsky called him quote “a being so angelical and childlike in his purity, whose music is so full of unattainable divine beauty that if there is someone whom one can mention with the same breath as Christ, then it is he.''

However, to my ear, the introduction to the first movement sounds more baroque than classical, with its stately yet impassioned chords recalling the pomp of the early 18th century. This same introductory music returns as a musical frame after the quick tempo music which occupies the majority of this movement. Once we settle into the allegro moderato quick tempo, with its elegant swaying melodies and burbling accompaniments, the comparison to Mozart rings truer. The second theme, a busy moto perpetuo over a pizzicato bass is especially delightful. David Brown has insightfully compared it to quote “those sparkling inventions from Mozart's Opera Buffa world.” Tchaikovsky has often been subjected to criticisms for how he develops his themes, but he evades any possible strictures here by emitting the development section entirely. This is possible, as he designated the movement pezzo in forma di sonatina: a piece in the form of a sonatina. That is, a little sonata. As the diminutive suggests, a sonatina is a less weighty form than the sonata and usually has a short link in place of the normal sonata development of themes from the exposition. It is worth noting here that when Tchaikovsky embarked on composing this work, he was unsure if it would turn out to be a symphony or a string quintet, and later designated it a suite before settling on the term serenade. The heyday of the instrumental serenade was in the 18th century, with one writer of the time describing it as, quote “an evening peace, because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights.”

The second movement opens with one of the most winsome melodies Tchaikovsky would ever write. A seemingly effortless waltz theme, whose later reappearances are accompanied by filigree writing in the supporting lines. Considerably shorter than the other movements, this waltz takes the place of what might more usually be a scherzo and provides a charming counterpart to the first movement. The third movement is marked elegy. But even here, Tchaikovsky demonstrates an 18th century restraint, worlds away from the overt expressions of agonized grief he would create in works like the sixth symphony. We should not make the mistake of equating this decorum with a lack of feeling, however. There is something especially heartbreaking about the main melody of the movement the first time it is heard with no more than light pizzicato support, as if a brave face were being put on in the face of suffering. Things do become a little more unbuttoned as the music unfolds, but even when he is being most forthcoming, Tchaikovsky never abandons the Mozartian chastity characteristic of the work as a whole. The finale initially seems to be no big departure from the subdued ending of the elegy. Here, for the first time, Tchaikovsky emphasizes his Russian credentials, subtitling the movement Tema Russo - Russian Theme. In fact, he employs not one, but two Russian folk songs, which had been collected by his friend and one time mentor Mily Balakirev in 1866 and which Tchaikovsky had also arranged as part of his 50 Russian Folk Songs, a collection for piano duet he made in the later 1860s. 

The first we hear is a vulgar hauling song. Now this is played by muted strings in the slow introductory section and sounds as delicate as the original song must have been crude and rough. 

The second is a street song from the Kelowna district of Moscow, which in total contrast of the first, is presented as a madcap whirlwind. The robustious energy of the finale is only checked towards the very end, when the theme from the start of the first movement returns. The big surprise is that this quasi baroque theme, which opened the serenade, can be shown to be close kindred to the second folk song which dominates the finale. Let's listen to the two of them back to back, 

So notice that descending 4th: Na, Na, Na, Na. 

This relationship is made clear as the opening theme gradually speeds up and turns into the folk tune, with the whole work finishing in a blaze of good spirits. 

The second half of the concert begins with Mahler's single movement, Piano Quartet in A minor arranged for piano and strings by Harry Ward. Given the symphonic focus of most of Mahler's output, there is an aptness in making an orchestral arrangement out of his sole surviving piece of chamber music, even if there still is a gulf between the small group of strings needed here and the gargantuan 100 piece orchestras Mahler customarily wrote for. A generation or two ago, the musical establishment was somewhat disdainful of these arrangements, regarding them as inferior to the quote “authentic” originals. However, nowadays, they are often seen to have the positive virtue of de-familiarising works we think we know well. When we hear familiar melodies, but in a different guise, or decked out in unfamiliar sonorities, we are given a chance to encounter something already known as if it were in some way new again.

Until 1964, no one knew of the existence of this piece, as Mahler had destroyed all copies of his early compositions, or so it was thought. He clearly esteemed this work of his teenage years highly enough to have held onto the manuscript of this first movement. Even though he abandoned composing the rest of the piece after sketching a few bars of the second movement. We can be thankful that Mahler held onto this quartet as it reveals his astonishing precocity as a composer. True, it shows few signs of Mahler’s mature style. Instead, one hears that he had been immersing himself in Brahms’ chamber music idiom. The pieces heard playing in an early scene in Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island and Mark Ruffalo's character guess is that it's Brahms. He's pretty much on the money stylistically, even though it takes Leonardo Dicaprio to identify it correctly as Mahler. Inevitably, the work lacks the sophistication that Brahms brought to his mature compositions, but for a 16 year old it’s remarkably competent. In a true Brahms-ian fashion, Mahler derives the majority of the material used in this movement from just two short motifs. The first of these consists of an ascending leap which falls back one note.

The second is a figure which descends from a high note. 

These are used obsessively throughout the course of the movement, with ideas getting passed from one instrument to another, and occasionally the two being combined. The piano participates in this motific working out, but usually also maintains some kind of consistent figuration as a backdrop, chugging repeated notes, lively broken chords or virtuosic octaves. After the brooding start, the music rises frequently to heights of passion. But in the end, it all ebbs away quietly after a short violin cadenza. 

Besides bringing this work into line with Mahler’s other orchestral compositions, Ward’s arrangement of this piano quartet has a delicious appropriateness to it. As Mahler himself was an inveterate arranger of the works of others. For example, he took string quartets by both Beethoven and Schubert and rescored them for string orchestra. So it is fitting that his own works have had the same treatment. As it happens, Ward is by no means the first to appropriate Mahler’s Piano Quartet to new creative ends. Among others, the Soviet German composer Alfred Schnittke used material from it to fuel his own piano quartet of 1989. However, Schnittke's malarian homage is not our focus today. Instead, in this program, we will hear one of Schnittke's original works, his 1979 Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra. Concertos have been a hugely significant part of Schnittke's output. Alongside 15 instrumental concertos, he has also produced six Concerti Grossi, part of a broader 20th century revival of the Baroque genre. A crucial aspect of all concertos is the relationship established between the soloist and the orchestra. This can work in many different ways. Competition, dialogue, partnership, and often the relationship changes many times throughout the course of the same piece. However, Schnittke’s friend and biographer, Alexander Ivashkin interprets this in a very particular fashion when he writes of, and I quote, “the personalised and profoundly individual statement of the soloist who stands in opposition to a featureless and satanic social situation.” This is clearly a reference to the highly oppressive situation under which artists worked in communist Russia and like Shostakovich before him, Schnittke all too frequently fell foul of the powers that be. 

There are certainly moments in this concerto where the soloist and orchestra clashed strongly. In one place, for instance, the strings have traditional sounding chords, but the consonance is shattered by deliberate dissonance chords on the piano. Taking on Ivashkin’s metaphor, one might hear the soloist in this point as rebelling against the official dictates to write accessible proletarian music symbolized here by the orchestra. Who would not have predicted such a tense standoff from the first bars of the peace. The concerto is one of the most understated openings I know. The soloist has only isolated notes, occasional chords, barely puncturing the silence. This impressionistic opening lasts for a surprisingly long time, and even when big chord clusters arrive, as they usually do in Schnittke’s music, the orchestral members are still spectators. Eventually the strings enter gradually while the piano settles into a simple broken chord figuration, a passage that in texture, if not harmony, might be called Mozartian. A word that is often used of Schnittke is polystylism, the deliberate embrace of sometimes radically different musical idioms within the same piece. Within the unbroken 25 minute length of this concerto, one can hear passages that sound like Prokofiev's motoric rhythms, a jazz infused Nawar idiom with pizzicato walking bass and a leaden footed waltz among many others. Another notable feature which you will hear easily is Schnittke's fondness for polytonal chords. For instance, E flat major in one hand and E minor in the other. This can lead to some wonderfully sweet and sour moments. 

One final thing to listen out for might be the way in which Schnittke gradually reveals a Russian church corral over the course of the movement. The core motif is a simple do re mi, first heard in the minor and then deployed multiple times in the major, culminating in the aforementioned passage where piano and strings clash. Let's hear the first part of the completed tune. 

Yet the peace does not finish in an atmosphere of violence. Instead, like the Mahler, it ends quietly, although there is no ultimate resolution between the orchestra. The bass is finished on a low C while the piano, insistently, if quietly, plays the note most distant from it, an F sharp. Maybe there's an unbridgeable gap between the two. Yet difficult though life in Soviet Russia may have been for an independently minded artist like Schnittke, as distilled into musical form in this concerto, the struggle between an individual and the collective forms the basis for an utterly compelling work, one that itself is poised between tradition and innovation. My name is David Larkin, thank you for your attention and I hope you enjoy this concert. 

Dr David Larkin

David Larkin is a senior lecturer in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, specialising in nineteenth-century music. He joined the University of Sydney in 2010, after two years as a postdoctoral research fellow attached to the School of Music, University College Dublin sponsored by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

His music education began at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, where he studied piano, violin and organ. He graduated from University College Dublin in 1999 with a first-class honours B.Mus degree, and in 2002 was awarded the M.Litt degree with distinction for a thesis exploring the musical and personal connections between Liszt and Wagner. In 2007, he gained his PhD from the University of Cambridge for a dissertation entitled ‘Reshaping the Liszt-Wagner Legacy: Intertextual Dynamics in Strauss’s Tone Poems.’