Sunday 7 November 2021

Claude-Achille Debussy
Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune

The poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and Debussy were made for each other. Mallarmé described himself as the product of an “uninterrupted series of functionaries in the Administration and the Regis-try.” Yet he was a true literary revolutionary. In 1864 he wrote: “I am in-venting a language, which must necessarily spring from an entirely new poetics, which I could define in these few words: paint not the thing but the effect it produces … All words must efface themselves before the sen-sation.” In the following three years he wrote his masterpiece, L'après-midi d'un faune, in which a faun wakes in the afternoon heat (“Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour”) and contemplates his satisfactory encoun-ter with two nymphs that morning, wishing that he could perpetuate it. True to his 1864 ambition, the poem is as much about the effect that his words produce as anything else. Mallarmé first met Debussy, who was then barely known and near-destitute, in 1890 and soon persuaded him to write a ballet score based upon his poem. The premiere was announced: it was to be in February 1891 and Debussy contemplated a three-movement work. But, for rea-sons that are uncertain, the premiere did not happen. It is not even clear if Debussy had written anything at all by the time of the cancellation. However, the poem never left him; and during 1893 he worked on the sin-gle movement that we now know as the Prélude. If Mallarmé’s poem was determinedly impressionistic, Debussy’s Prélude was doubly so. He later explained what he was aiming to achieve, writing that the Prélude “is per-haps such dream as is left at the far end of the faun’s flute? More precise-ly, it’s the poem’s general impression, for if I’d followed it any closer the music would have run out of steam like a carriage-horse competing for the Grand Prix with a thoroughbred.” In his brilliant biography “Debussy – a painter in sound”, Stephen Walsh says “It’s as if one were to picture the faun lying in the grass with his double flute in the hot Attic sun, amid a general air of languor and sensual promise.” Debussy’s music captures the impression of the poem perfectly. The flute’s opening solo “waters the grove with melodies” and sets the tone for what follows. Over quietly slow-moving chords, Debussy weaves a tracery of melody across the orchestra, culminating in the glorious theme in the middle section that flies from bottom to top of the register first in the winds, then the strings and finally with the solo violin, always support-ed by what Debussy described as “undulating, cradle-rocking music, abounding in curved lines.” Stephen Walsh memorably describes the mu-sic as “movement and flow without direction, like light on rippling water.” For my money there is no better description of the piece than by Debussy’s early biographer, Louise Liebich, who wrote in 1908:

“a veil of palpitating heat seems to be suffused over the composi-tion, and corresponds to the glow of Eastern sunlight in the poem, and also to the remote, visionary nature of the poet’s imagery and fancies. … All through the piece the composer preserves this feel-ing of elusiveness, of mirage: he attains it by the use of delicate unusual harmonies and by the silvery, web-like tracery of the phrases. … The chords are of exceeding richness and present a depth of glowing colour. The interspersed solos for violin, oboe, clarinet, cor anglais, resemble dainty broidery, and portray inti-mately the ramifications of doubt and longing in the faun’s mind, which he likens to a multitude of branches with slender pointed sprays and sprigs.”

The Prélude was first performed on 22 December 1894 in the Salle d’Har-court in Paris. That same day a Jewish Captain in the French army, by the name of Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason, having been falsely ac-cused of passing military secrets to the German Embassy in the city. As the century drew to a close, life and art in a troubled French republic were far removed one from the other. By 1912, when Nijinsky premiered his hyper-sensual and highly controversial ballet to Debussy’s music, Dreyfus had been pardoned, exonerated and reinstated; but the rifts in French society remained as deep as those in French art.


Camille Saint-Saëns
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61

Allegro non troppo; Andantino quasi allegretto; Molto moderato e maestoso – Allegro non troppo
Soloist: Darin Qualls

Saint- Saëns’ output over a long life was prodigious. Quite apart from be-ing a composer of distinction, he was a virtuoso organist and pianist, which enabled him to present his five piano concerti as soloist, and wrote books about music, philosophy, painting, literature and the theatre. In addition, he was a distinguished teacher, famous raconteur, an accomplished lin-guist, mathematician and astronomer and a devoted traveller. He had a marvellous facility for writing instantly memorable tunes and once re-marked of himself: “I produce music as an apple tree produces apples.” To similar effect he once wrote that “the artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colours, and by a beautiful suc-cession of chords does not understand the art of music.”

Yet in this very facility lay the key to his possible limitations. A contempo-rary wrote in the magazine Musiciens d’aujourd’hui, “He is tormented by no passions, and nothing perturbs the lucidity of his mind. … He brings into the midst of our present restlessness something of the sweetness and clarity of past periods, something that seems like fragments of a vanished world.” And an early edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians said of his piano playing that it “was, and always remained, remarkable for purity, perspicuity and ease; the only qualities not displayed by him were poetic intensity and fervour.”

This may seem all the more remarkable when it is remembered that his personal life was deeply unsatisfactory and that he was no stranger to dis-aster. He married quite late in life in 1875. The couple had two children, but both died within a period of six catastrophic weeks in 1878. Three years later Saint-Saëns and his wife separated. They never divorced, but lived the rest of their lives apart.

His three violin concerti spanned more than twenty years. Saint-Saëns later described how, in 1858 and aged only fifteen, the Spanish-born virtu-oso, Pablo de Sarasate called upon him “youthful and fresh-looking as the spring and already a celebrity, though a dawning moustache had only just begun to appear. He had been good enough to ask me, in the most casual way imaginable, to write a concerto for him. Greatly flattered and delight-ed at the request I gave him my promise.” The result was the concerto in A Major, commonly described as his first even though he had already written one. The third concerto was written for Sarasati in 1880. Saint-Saëns wrote that “during the composition of this concerto, Sarasate gave me invaluable advice, to which is certainly due the considerable degree of favour it has met with on the part of violinists themselves.” Even so, it did not achieve instant recognition – perhaps because Sarasate, who gave the premiere on 2 January 1881, was not initially pleased with it because he thought it did not display his virtuosity to sufficient advantage. However, the concerto was taken up by that other great virtuoso, Eugène Ysaÿe, and soon became established as one of the composer’s most abidingly popular works.

The soloist announces the bold first theme which is developed with fistfuls of notes, scales and arpeggios. The second theme is gentle and tender and is followed by a re-rendering of the first, which again leads to re-statement of the second after which the tension and virtuosity progressively increas-es to the end of the first movement. The second movement starts with the solo violin singing a gently lilting melody with an easy flowing grace that is echoed by violins and the oboe and a delicate arpeggio from the flute. The movement proceeds on its easy way until the end when, in a moment of pure magic, the solo violin goes to the very top of its register playing arpeggios in harmonics above the clarinet. One commentator de-scribes this as “an ethereal effect”, which is something of an understate-ment. The finale opens with a cadenza-like recitative from the soloist be-fore launching into a bravura main theme reminiscent of a tarantella. A sweeping second theme leads to a chorale-like section after which the main elements are woven with increasing complexity and virtuosity to end in a state of high excitement.


Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Carmen Suites Nos. 1 and 2

 Suite 1
1. Prélude (Prelude to Act 1), Aragonaise (Prelude to Act IV)
2. Intermezzo (Prelude to Act III)
3. Sequedilla (Act 1)
4. Les Dragons d’Alcala (Prelude to Act II)
5. Les Toréadors (Introduction to Act I)

Suite 2
6. Marche des contrebandiers (Introduction to Act III)
7. Habañera (Act I)
8. Nocturne (Micaëla’s Aria, Act III)
9. Chanson de Toréador (Act II)
10. La Garde Montante (Children’s Chorus, Act I)
11. Danse Bohême (Chanson Bohême, Act II)

Bizet was a compulsive composer of operas from an early age, having worked on thirty or so identified projects, many of which were unfinished, by the time he came to write Carmen. His “Pearl Fishers” (with its duet for a thousand British Airways advertisements) had proved to be the most suc-cessful, but he was bitterly opposed by a solid phalanx of critics and the public was largely indifferent. In an attempt to win over both critics and the public he decided on something different.

“They make out that I’m obscure, complicated, tedious and ham-pered by technical skill rather than lit by inspiration. Well, this time I’ve written a work that is all clarity, vivacity, full of colour and melo-dy. It’ll be entertaining. Come along, you’ll enjoy it.”

He was, of course, completely right and his Carmen melodies have been sung, whistled, played, plagiarised and re-arranged ad infinitum ever since. But old prejudices die hard and his masterpiece was initially received with a degree of indifference. During the opera’s first run, Bizet suffered two mas-sive heart attacks and died at the early age of 36 without knowing that Car-men would sweep the board and immortalise his name for all time. Even the critics miraculously realised upon his untimely death that he was a true master.

One of the many rearrangements was the creation of tonight’s two suites. The difficulty for a note-writer is that the suites, for musical reasons, do not follow the order of the opera’s story. It hardly seems to matter as the music stands gloriously on its own. But here is a short synopsis, simply by way of reminder.

In Act 1 soldiers wait outside the Seville tobacco factory. Children imitate the guards, including Don José and his commanding officer as they enter (La Garde Montante). The faithful Micaëla is also waiting for Don José. The women come out of the factory, including Carmen who sings about the fick-le nature of her love (Habañera). She flirts with Don José and throws him a flower before going back to work. Don José and Micaëla are speaking when a ruckus develops inside the factory. Carmen has slashed the face of anoth-er worker. She refuses to answer questions and Don José is ordered to take her to prison. Left alone with Don José she tempts him with the prospect of being her next lover (Sequedilla). He gives in and helps her to escape.

After an entr’acte (Les Dragons d’Alcala), Act 2 starts in a tavern. Zuniga tells Carmen that Don José has been released after a month in prison, at which she is delighted. Just then the bullfighter Escamilio enters with his entourage (Chanson de Toréador). Three of Carmen’s friends are aston-ished when Carmen says she will not join them in their escapade planned for that night because she is in love. Don José approaches and Carmen or-ders a feast in his honour (Danse Bohême); but her mood changes to fury when he says he must return to his barracks. He is about to leave when Zuniga returns, hoping to find Carmen alone. Blind with jealousy, Don José attacks Zuniga. He now has no choice but to leave the army and throw in his lot with Carmen and her friends.

In Act 3, the smugglers meet in the mountains (Marche des contrebandi-ers). Don José and Carmen argue. The cards are out, and Carmen reads them as predicting death – first for Carmen, then for Don José. The smug-glers set off to do their business. Don José remains on guard. Micaëla ar-rives (Nocturne). She hides when Don José fires a shot. Escamilio arrives with a bullet hole in his hat. He has come because he has heard that Car-men has already tired of Don José. Escamilio hopes to find her and to be next in her affections. Don José challenges him with a knife. Escamilio has the better of the fight but Carmen arrives and puts a stop to it. Escamilio invites her to his next bullfight. Micaëla is found and tells Don José that his mother is dying. They leave together, but not before Don José has threat-ened Carmen.

Act 4 takes place outside the bullring in Seville. Escamilio arrives with a ra-diantly happy Carmen in tow. Her friends warn her that Don José is hiding in the crowd, but she is determined to face him. The crowd follows the procession into the bullring. Don José confronts Carmen and begs her to leave with him; but she refuses, saying that she no longer loves him. She is eager to watch Escamilio, but Don José blocks her path. She furiously throws away the ring he had given her. He stabs her just as the cheers go up for Escamilio in the ring. As the crowd comes out Don José confesses what he has done and throws himself on her body. A tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions converted into what is often described as an opéra comique. With glorious music from start to finish.

Jeremy Stuart-Smith November 2021




Violinist Darin Qualls is a native of Portland, Oregon, USA. He studied at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, with master violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. He was awarded the Starling Prize for excellence in music performance, providing a full tuition scholarship and the opportunity to perform as a soloist.

Following his studies, he joined America’s musical academy, the New World Symphony, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, where he per-formed as leader of the orchestra and as a featured soloist. In 1996 he com-menced his professional career with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in Amsterdam taking part in several world tours and in 2000 joined the Nether-lands Radio Philharmonic under the direction of Edo de Waart. Darin is now based in the UK and performs throughout Europe, America and Asia as chamber musician and soloist. He has performed at London's Barbican Centre, Amsterdam's Concert Gebou, New York's Avery Fisher Hall, Tokyo's Bunkamura Orchard Hall, and Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Darin is an ardent Francophile with a real love for Debussy, Ravel, Bizet and this year’s centenary composer, Camille Saint-Saëns. He is also a big admirer of Django Reinhardt and performs regularly as part of The Gypsy Jazz Quartet, a tribute to the legendary Quintet du Hot Club. Darin plays on a violin made in 1768, in Rome by Jacobus Horil.

The KPO, founded in 1965, is one of London’s leading amateur orchestras. It provides opportunities for advanced players of all ages to perform works from the classical and modern repertoire, Including pieces that are rarely heard in the concert hall. It also provides a platform for well-established soloists, as well as exciting younger players. Soloists over the years have included Iona Brown, Hugh Bean, Jack Brymer, Melina Mandozzi and Thomas Carroll and “younger generation” performers such as Milos Karadaglic and Fenella Humphries.

The KPO welcomes advanced players, particularly strings. Rehearsals are held on Monday evenings in the hall at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, SW1W 9AL from 7.00pm—9.30pm (nearest tube Victoria Station).