Alexander Shelley, Lawrence Power and the Aspen Chamber Symphony

July 20, 2018

Alexander Shelley makes his debut next week at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.

BARTÓK: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76
ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: Pentatonic Étude
BARTÓK: Viola Concerto, BB 128

SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61

Bartók traveled far and wide to pursue his interest in folk music, and in 1915, when he wrote his suite for solo piano called Romanian Folk Dances, he was particularly fixated on traditional Romanian tunes. The work’s six attacca movements are warm and spirited arrangements of music Bartók heard during multiple trips to Transylvania. Bartók created an orchestral version of the suite in 1917, and it remains one of his most popular works.

After receiving a commission from Scottish violist William Primrose, Bartók began writing his Viola Concerto in the summer of 1945, but he died of leukemia that September, at the age of 64, and left the concerto incomplete. Tibor Serly, a violist and violinist who’d orchestrated some of the composer’s piano works in the past, pored through Bartok’s hard-to-decipher notes and sketches and completed, structured, and orchestrated the piece, which Primrose premiered in December 1949 with conductor Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Bartók planned for the concerto to have four movements, writing in August 1945 that the work would include:

a serious Allegro, a Scherzo, a (rather short) slow movement, and a finale beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to an Allegro molto. Each movement, or at least 3 of them will, [be] preceded by a (short) recurring introduction (mostly solo for the viola), a kind of ritornello.

Some critics responded negatively to the completed work (which wound up having only three movements), saying it was more a Serly composition than a Bartók one, but the concerto quickly became a staple of the viola repertoire.

Esa-Pekka Salonen based his Pentatonic Étude, written in 2008, “on some well-known passages from the [viola] repertoire,” he explained in a program note. The work includes a “passage from the first movement of Bartok’s Viola Concerto,” which stands out for its “obvious ear-worm qualities” but also for its technical challenges.

Violist Lawrence Power, who’s been praised for his “extraordinarily eloquent playing” by The Guardian, will solo in Salonen’s étude, which he premiered at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2015, as well as Bartók’s concerto. Power recorded the Bartók in 2010 with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. BBC Music Magazinepraised the recording for Power’s “highly charged account of the solo part,” while Gramophone magazine said that, in Power’s performance, “everything comes across with maximum impact.”

Schumann sketched his entire Symphony No. 2 in less than three weeks in December 1845. He began orchestrating the work two months later, in February 1846, but his ongoing struggles with mental and physical illness kept him from completing the process until October. “I wrote the symphony when I was still ill,” Schumann said in a letter to a friend, “I feel that people are bound to notice this when they hear the work. . . It was only after I had completed the whole work that I really felt any better.” Contrary to Schumann’s concerns, the symphony has an overall feeling of triumph and joyfulness — announced at the very beginning with a rousing brass chorale—which belies the suffering and sadness the composer endured while writing it.