Rossini’s operatic overtures are miniature operas in themselves, full of musical jokes, comical characters, young lovers and cheated grooms. Paganini in turn packed his first violin concerto with skilful tricks that he had developed on his tours of Italy. Ning Feng weaves beautiful and engaging music out of Paganini’s acrobatics.
Smiles, laughter, fun – words that may sound stupid when applied to a distinguished artist but that nevertheless reflect the attitude to music and life of Mario Venzago (b. 1948). And audiences find they are catching. “He can even make Brahms dance,” as one listener put it. Here is a man who simply loves his job, travelling and working with different orchestras; being able to mould the sound they produce. Many are the orchestras with which he has worked ever since conducting took over from the piano in the 1970s. He has been Music Director or Chief Conductor in Winterthur, Heidelberg, Bremen, Graz, Basel, San Sebastian, Newcastle, Gothenburg and Indianapolis, and in 2010 returned to his native Switzerland as Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Bern Symphony Orchestra.
The name Venzago is familiar to many in Finland, for he has made many guest appearances with the Tampere Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and was an Artist in Association of the Tapiola Sinfonietta for many years. He last conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in spring 2019. When not conducting, Venzago invariably wears a scarf, and it is always red. He says it makes him happy.
The moment Ning Feng (b. 1982) begins to play, the critics start hearing golden echoes of the great violinists of days gone by, but the career of this Chinese virtuoso has not always been smooth and easy. For political and financial reasons, his father had not been able to play the instrument he loved, but as the political climate changed, he arranged for his son to take violin lessons instead. The boy made excellent progress, despite being told that his little finger was too short for him ever to be very successful. From the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in China, he progressed to the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin to study with Antje Weithaas and the Royal Academy of Music in London with Hu Kun, where he was the first student ever to be awarded 100% for his final recital. From then on, he reaped one success after another in international competitions including the Queen Elisabeth, Yehudi Menuhin and Paganini. Ning Feng makes his HPO debut tonight in a concerto he recorded last autumn for Channel Classics. He plays a 1721 Stradivari violin, known as the ‘MacMillan’, on private loan.
Overture to Il viaggio a Reims
In 1825, the town of Reims was teeming with people attending the coronation of Charles V. The event was celebrated all over France, and Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) wrote an opera with no fewer than 14 soloists to honour the occasion. The plot of Il viaggio a Reims (to give it its full name The Journey to Reims, or The Hotel of the Golden Fleur-de-lis) is a sort of forerunner of the road movie, telling of all the things encountered by a mixed bunch of people on their way to the coronation. Rossini was aware that the opera would have little lasting significance and it ran to only four performances, but he later re-used nearly half the material in his opera Le comte Ory of 1828. For years, the Journey was thought to have been lost, but the score was later found and the opera reconstructed. The original had no overture, just a short introduction, and the piece nowadays going by the name of ‘overture’ is made up of music from his opera The Siege of Corinth of 1826.
Niccolò Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6
“Five feet and five inches in height, a long, pale face, a protruding nose, an eagle eye, hair flowing to his shoulders,” is how one contemporary described the now legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840). Not only did he command a spectacular technique; he also knew how to manipulate his audiences. Some claimed he was in league with the devil. His first violin concerto is thought to date from about 1816, though he is known to have revised it later. It is in three movements and in a style reminiscent of that of his fellow Italian Rossini. The various techniques required of the soloist – triple stops, flageolet notes, left-hand pizzicatos – pose few obstacles for today’s great violinists, but Paganini’s contemporaries declared them virtually impossible to play. Paganini allowed no one to see his manuscripts for fear that others would copy his techniques, and the first violin concerto was not published until after his death.
Luigi Nono: Incontri
Can art influence? Is art political? Does a work of art reflect its society? Should an artist have and stick to his own ideology? The answer to all these questions was, for Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924–1990), an unconditional ‘yes’. He hated fascism, saw in socialism a chance to build a better world, and joined the Communist Party in 1952. Right from the start, his works were statements, and freedom and a just society were dominant themes in many. Incontri for 24 instruments was premiered in 1955 in Darmstadt, at that time the centre of new European music, its courses attracting many of the leading contemporary avant-garde composers. The work is characterised by the use of a complex mirror form and a twelve-note series, and it may be regarded as Nono’s idea of the perfect society in which opposites are finally reconciled and solidarity prevails; views may collide but arrive at mutual understanding.
Giuseppe Martucci: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 75
Despite being quite a celebrity in his day, Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909) – composer, pianist, conductor and teacher – is little known today. Though he conducted the Italian premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for example, he never felt like writing an opera, and his works consist mainly of chamber music, solo songs and piano pieces. His importance in the history of music derives specifically from his championing of absolute music in a country renowned for its vocal music, and especially opera.
Martucci spent six years working on his first symphony before finishing it in 1895 and conducted it in Milan in November of that year. Toscanini sometimes performed it, but it was seldom heard thereafter until the Martucci centenary in 2009 aroused new interest in him. The symphony is in the traditional four movements and, like his other symphony, follows in the footsteps of Brahms, whom he greatly admired. Its glowing, romantic idiom evokes associations with, among others, the operas of Wagner and the music of Schumann