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1935: Ginastera, Berg, Prokofiev on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, August 3rd, 5 to 6 pm. The year 1935 was a critical one for three composers at different stages of their careers. Sergei Prokofiev was just about to move back to the Soviet Union. Alban Berg (pictured) stopped work on his opera Lulu when the daughter of a friend died; he composed his astounding Violin Concerto in her memory, but would not live out the year.

Alberto Ginastera, however, was just at the beginning of a great life in music, and his youthful Concierto Argentino for piano brims with energy. He was still a conservatory student when he wrote this, and he later wished to revise it, but it caught the attention of conductor/composer/writer Nicolas Slonimsky. He was on his 1941 journey through Latin America, funded by Edwin A. Fleisher, founder of the Fleisher Collection. This was one of hundreds of works gathered by Slonimsky for the Collection.

Ginastera never did get around to reconsidering the Concierto Argentino, but the pianist Barbara Nissman found it at the Fleisher Collection about two decades after his death. Nissman was already devoted to the composer’s music and had become a friend of Ginastera. His estate was happy to encourage this premiere recording of a work foreshadowing the national pride and harmonic variety that would shine throughout his career.

Alban Berg had been commissioned for a violin concerto, but had done nothing on it while writing Lulu. Then, Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler (Gustav Mahler’s ex-wife), died of polio. Berg stopped working on the opera, composed the concerto, and dedicated it "To the memory of an angel."

It is an intricate, warm, feathery, and sad work, calling for the utmost control and expression from the soloist. The last movement is built on the notes of the chorale “Es ist genug” (It is enough), a centuries-old tune so chromatic that it employs all twelve notes. Berg deftly layers in the Johann Sebastian Bach harmonization, bringing the work to a profoundly moving close. It was the last piece of music he’d complete. He never finished Lulu, dying of blood poisoning on Christmas Eve 1935. He was 50.

As we saw on a previous Discoveries, Sergei Prokofiev was hemming and hawing over whether to move back to the Soviet Union. He had lived abroad for many years, but while he was enjoying the fame of a busy career, the very busyness from constant travel was catching up to him. He was homesick for the land of his birth, and although the regime had cracked down on artists, there seemed to be a fresh wind blowing. Different people—important people—wanted him back, and were willing to make it worth his while.

His second violin concerto premiered in December 1935, in Madrid, the finale tipping its hat with castanets, thanking Spain for the honor. The next year he was residing, for good, in the Soviet Union—which again began suppressing artists. 1935 was indeed a critical year.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Concierto Argentino (1935)
Alban Berg (1885-1935): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Violin Concerto No. 2, III: Allegro (1935)

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 11 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2. Look at an archive of all the shows here.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the 2007 Lucerne Music Festival in the infectious Malambo by Alberto Ginasterahttp://youtu.be/y36xmzYpujc