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 2017. When not conducting, Venzago invariably wears a scarf, and it is always red. He says it makes him happy.
One of the earliest memories of his career was, says, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (b. 1962) when a storm ripped the roof off the hall where he was due to play and the concert was cancelled, but the great Georges Cziffra offered him the second half of his own recital in another hall. As a result, the hall was packed with not just his family but the press as well. His solo career really took off in 1998, when Sir Georg Solti invited him to appear with him in Paris. By the time the concert was due, Solti had died, but the concert conducted by Pierre Boulez was a great success. Bavouzet has reaped even higher acclaim for his discs, especially the set of the complete works for piano by Debussy (Chandos) that has, among others, won Gramophone awards.
Born in Metz, a centre of new French music, Bavouzet studied the oboe and percussion for ten years in addition to the piano and met many leading contemporary composers during the festivals in his home town. He also composed electronic music of his own. In 2012 he was named Artist of the Year at the International Classical Music Awards. Speaking of performance he says, “I think one of the most important things as an interpreter is to understand the style of the composer. But you cannot do anything against your nature! I can only try to be as transparent and faithful as possible when I play any composer.”
Leopold Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue & Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) was one of the great conductors of the 20th century, and one of the first to spot the potential of both conductor superstardom and the emerging art of sound recording. He also made dozens of orchestral arrangements. That of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was an immediate hit, and the great Walt Disney liked it so much that he insisted on having it in his animated feature film Fantasia of 1940.
The Toccata and Fugue was a format popular in the Baroque: a sort of improvised prelude designed to demonstrate the player’s virtuosity followed by a showpiece for the composer’s command of counterpoint. Bach’s original was totally devoid of any narrative, but 20th-century film makers turned it into a potpourri of horror clichés.
The other Stokowski arrangement on tonight’s programme is that of Ein fest Burg ist unser Gott (1933), the origin of which has often been falsely attributed to the chorale prelude BWV 720 for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach. For both the Bach organ work and Stokowski’s orchestration are based on the hymn of that name by Martin Luther –borrowed by Felix Mendelssohn, for example, in his fifth symphony.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Paganini Rhapsody
Never has there been such a virtuoso as Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), reckoned to be in league with the devil, so dazzling was his playing. His compositions for the violin, viola and guitar were beyond anything that had gone before in their technical demands, and crowning them all were his 24 Caprices for solo violin. Many composers have borrowed the theme of the last of these but none better than Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The Rhapsody consists of an introduction, a theme and 24 variations, but it can also be conceived of as a concerto with three movements and a solo cadenza. Though the piece does not have a programme as such, a ballet version of the music follows a story concocted by Rachmaninoff of Paganini’s heroic deeds in love and music.
The soloist at the premiere conducted by Leopold Stokowski was Rachmaninoff himself. One anecdote reports that he was so worried about performing the last variation, strewn as it is with potential technical pitfalls, that he always had a stiff drink to steady his nerves before a concert. Hence, the last variation is unofficially known as the “Crème de menthe”.
Arthur Honegger: Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique”
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) was Swiss but spent most of his adult life in France. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he built his music not on modernism but on roots running deep in the Germanic tradition: Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. During WWI, he was accused of Nazi sympathies and boycotted on the radio. By far his best-known (but not necessarily his best) works are the programmatic Pacific 231 and Rugby.
The symphonies he wrote during the war have been interpreted as anti-war manifestos. The third (1945) is his most harrowing, profound and mentally exhausting. “My intention,” he wrote, “was to symbolise the creation of modern man against the morass of barbarism, stupidity, suffering, machine-minded-ness, and bureaucracy that has been besieging us for some years now.” The symphony does not have a plot, but the three movements are titled according to parts of the Catholic Mass (hence “Liturgical”). The ominous opening Dies irae alludes to the Requiem, and the slow De profundis clamavi to Psalm 130. The final Dona nobis pacem marches towards an inevitable violent climax and ends with a devout postlude foreshadowing a postwar emptiness.