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8pm Saturday 26 October 2019

Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre Ultimo

BORODIN – In the Steppes of Central Asia

BRUCH – Violin Concerto No.1

SIBELIUS – Symphony No.5

Conductor: Sarah-Grace Williams

Soloist: Victoria Jacono-Gilmovich (Violin)

Borodin, Alexander (1833-1887) 


In the Steppes of Central Asia

To help celebrate the silver jubilee (25 years) of the rule of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1880, a pair of gentlemen named Tatishchev and Korvin-Kryukovsky approached many of Russian’s most prominent composers, commissioning music for the tableaux vivants that would form part of the celebration. Several important works were composed, however this jubilee project would never be realised, as both of these gentlemen disappeared mysteriously and the project collapsed.

In the Steppes of Central Asia takes shape as program music, and depicts the borderlands of Russia and Asia in the steppe lands of the Caucasus mountains. Russian troops are announced with the opening theme, until a cor anglais presents an Eastern melody that represents the Asian caravan under the protection of the opening theme. String pizzicato describes the plodding, travelling of the caravan’s horses and camels. Borodin makes it as easy as possible for the audience to follow, by writing – ‘The songs of the Russians and those of the Asiatic natives mingle in common harmony then die away in the distance’.


Bruch, Max (1838-1920) Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
  1. Vorspiel: Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio
  • Finale: Allegro energico

When asked to list the compositions that made Max Bruch famous, one can be forgiven for only being able to name his Violin Concerto No. 1, such is its fame and regard as a virtuosic and flamboyant work for solo violin and orchestra. In his day, Bruch was a widely renowned composer in Germany, having studied with Reinecke and Hiller in Cologne, and as well as the three most famous compositions that he is known for, composed two other concerti, three symphonies, a concerto for two pianos, a wide range of chamber music, songs, three operas and a vast array of choral music.

Bruch sought advice from the concertmaster of the Mannheim orchestra, Johann Naret-Koning, to whom he intended to undertake the first performance. Despite this, Naret-Koning was forced to withdraw from premiering this concerto due to ill health. The public premiere, performed now by Otto von Königslöw, suffered a less than positive reception, and Bruch continued to revise the work, and receiving further advice from who can be considered one of the most renowned violinistists of all time, Joseph Joachim. Joachim went on to premiere the revised version in Bremen in 1868, and this time, the public responded so excitedly that Bruch’s reputation soon reached across the Atlantic to where Pablo de Sarasate would perform the Concerto in New York in 1872.

Entitled Vorspiel which translates to ‘Prelude’, the First Movement serves as an extended introduction before proceeding attacca to the Second Movement. The Vorspiel beings with a conversation between Violin and Orchestra, developing into contrasting themes that explore the amazing range of the violin, particularly in the stratospheric high register, displayed with virtuosic technical passages. The Adagio contains three beautiful and sweet main themes, which build to an empassioned climax before subsiding. The Finale opens with a soft yet intense theme in the orchestra that is passed to the Violin with flamboyant double stopping. The Concerto concludes with a long accelerando which leads to a thrilling conclusion that builds higher, faster and louder until two grand chords wrap up the Concerto.


Sibelius, Jean  (1865-1957) 


Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82
  1. Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto) – Vivace molto, Presto – Piü Presto
  2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto – Poco a poco stretto – Tranquillo – Poco a poco stretto – Ritenuto al temp I
  • Allegro molto – Misterioso – U Pochettino largamente – Largamente assai – Un Pochettino stretto

Diary entries from April 1915 give us great insight into the challenges and inspiration that Sibelius faced while composing his Fifth Symphony. The Finnish government commissioned Sibelius to compose a symphony in celebration of his 50th birthday, which was to be declared a national holiday.

Sibelius’ home in the country was nestled in the forest by the edge of a lake, roughly and hour’s drive from Helsinki, and Sibelius reported having seen a flight of sixteen swans that was ‘one of the greatest impressions of my life!’, and the resulting theme was instrumental in guiding his hand through the composition of his Fifth. Despite this, he wasn’t without his challenges, and wrote:

Spent the evening with the symphony. The disposition of the themes; with all its mystery and fascination, this is the important thing. It is as if God the Father had thrown down mosaic pieces from heaven’s floor and asked me to put them back as they were.

Sibelius conducted the premiere on his birthday, December 8, 1915 to a warm audience reception. Despite the positive reception, Sibelius was unhappy with the Fifth, and set about revising the work. The main change that survives in modern performances if the combination of the first two movements to reduce the number of movements from four to three. A third revision in 1919 finally saw him happy with his output, and this is the version that is most often performed today.

Mystery and beauty reminiscent of his lakeside forest home begin the First movement, and the seamless combination of the initial two movements into one movement provides us with a grand opening movement in an expanded sonata form. The second movement is in a more traditional Classical style, with the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto tempo marking and theme-and-variations form keeping the symphony from over-indulging. Sibelius’ swan theme emerges in the Finale, in the form of a horn chorale and then expanded upon by the rest of the brass section. A feeling of resounding triumph is evident throughout the Finale, with six widely separated, powerful chords bring the Symphony to a triumphant conclusion.


©Andrew Doyle 2018