Top 10 Pandemic-Proof Concert Pieces

Top 10 Pandemic-Proof Concert Pieces

In “The Almonac” Henrik Almon, library manager at Ricordi Berlin, presents works from the publishers’ inexhaustible repertoire that are worth hearing straight away yet are rather seldom to be found in the programming of the major opera houses and orchestras.

Perhaps the most difficult task for programmers during Covid times is to create programs for theatre, orchestra, and ensembles that are crisis-proof. The conditions under which concerts may take place change on an almost daily basis; plans that are put together ad hoc, at the last minute, and through immense dedication by those involved must be often be discarded shortly afterwards. As a publisher too, one suddenly gains a completely different perspective on the potential of certain titles within their repertoire. 

Despite all the cancellations in the music industry, there are perhaps a few works that emerge from the crisis as Corona Winners. These are works which have found themselves in the limelight more often now than they did previously, because in addition to their musical qualities they have favorably small instrumentations, moderate durations, catch the ear, and are easily combined. 

So here, some library recommendations; the top 10 pandemic-proof concert pieces from our group’s repertoire.

#10 – Leo Brouwer: Concierto Elegiaco

Although guitar concertos have often led a shadowy existence in the concert world thus far, the genre might now flourish due to the usually-manageable size of both its instrumentation and duration. Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s third concerto for guitar and orchestra, Concierto elegiaco, which he wrote for the late Julian Bream, perhaps fits just as well to our time. Its atmosphere is musically reduced and restrained for long periods before releasing into sudden, rhythmic, fortissimo tutti strokes. It is reminiscent of the melancholy wait – either in the midst or in anticipation of – the next lockdown.

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#9 – Jacques Ibert: Divertissement

Jaques Ibert is a rarely-played composer, at least in Germany, but his Divertissement is currently undergoing a major renaissance. It is a suite based on René Clair’s 1928 silent film comedy “Un chapeau de paille d’Italie.” As a successor of the French Groupe de Six, Ibert follows in the musical footsteps of Arthur Honegger and David Milhaud. The mood in Divertissement is joyful, frivolous, and propulsive (without any pitfalls or tricks), with plenty of musical citations that are a joy to recognize. It is an ideal Corona-fade-out good-vibrations piece. (Which at the same time presents some virtuosic challenges for a full orchestra.)

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#8 – Darius Milhaud: Le création du monde

Another suite, this time composed by Darius Milhaud in 1923 for the Ballet Suédois in Paris after having spent the previous year in New York’s Harlem. In La creation du monde, he works with a wide range of jazz influences – including the instrumentation, which reflects the usual size for jazz combos of the time (and during Corona times allows for social distancing between the musicians). Only seven woodwinds, four brass players, and four strings are needed.

A further source of inspiration for Milhaud was Blaise Cendrar’s 1921 “Anthologie nègre,“ a volume of poetry based on various African myths. In the midst of current discourse on cultural appropriation, exoticism, and postcolonialism, the obligation for concert organizers to maintain contextual awareness of the work also provides the chance to bring such discussions into the classical music world, where they have – in comparison to other cultural scenes – been less prominent. 

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#7 – Rota: Concerto per Archi

Nino Rota is perhaps best known as a film composer through his collaborations with Federico Fellini, Lucchino Visconti, and even Francis Ford Coppola. A few of his works have however found their way into concert hall repertoire, such as his Concerto per archi. As the title suggests, the piece is written exclusively for strings, and its three movements total a relatively short 15 minutes – all in all, good conditions for a pandemic performance. The work is musically reminiscent of Prokofiev, particularly his first piano concerto: From a few constantly cycling motifs an arc of tension develops in which the reduced musical material undergoes constant chromatic variation. Rapid scene switches from tragic, to funny, to distorted satire conjure pictorial associations even without the film itself and can even be transferred almost self-referentially to our current concert situation!

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#6 – Saint-Saëns: L’assassinat du Duc de Guise

This work is generally considered to be one of the first pieces commissioned for film. It was composed for a 1908 film of the same name, which depicts the death of Henri I, de Lorraine, the Duke of Guise. The film was an absolute mega-project of its time, due to both the number of stars before and behind the camera, and its incredible length at 15 minutes – far exceeding the standard at the time. 

In his composition, Saint- Saëns builds a steadily-increasing narrative arc that dramatically sets the scene for the plot to murder the Duke of Guise, planned by King Henri III and carried out by his bodyguard. The second scene in particular includes some musical highlights – as the king, hesitant about informers, entrusts his murderous plan to his bodyguard, a constantly recurring horn ostinato evokes a dark sense of foreboding. 

But even without the film, Saint-Saën’s piece works quite brilliantly as means of escapism from corona – even if one must forego a happy ending.  

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#5 – Respighi: Antiche Danze ed Arie (Suite No. 3)

Of the three orchestra suites Respighi wrote in the style of 16th and 17th-Century Italian lute pieces, the third has the smallest instrumentation, and also demands the least technically from musicians. In contrast to what is perhaps Respighi’s best-known work, the monumental Pini di Roma, this suite captivates the listener through a very homogenous soundscape. Respighi’s sense for drama is nevertheless evident in the final movement – a passacaglia. Despite having fewer musicians, the playing stirs within me a sense of bygone historicity; especially in the Passacaglia’s middle passages. It is a feeling that creeps up on us more often nowadays.   

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#4 – Tansman: Variations sur un thème de Frescobaldi

Baroque revival No. 2: Alexandre Tansman also dedicated himself to string instrumentations of 17th Century music. In his set of variations on a theme from Girolamo Frescobaldi he evokes a sound aesthetic that is quite similar to Respighi’s; the work was written only a few years later in 1937. Unlike Respighi’s suites, Tansman’s work is perhaps still unbeknown to most listeners. Despite his many interesting works, the composer is yet to see any major rediscovery in Germany. 

Despite a somewhat difficult instrumental treatment, this piece shouldn’t be too demanding in terms of musical technique. From the perspective of musical analysis, a highlight is probably the penultimate variation, a fugue entitled “Allegro Risoluto.” The chorale-like variation No. 5, (“Lento”) in the middle of the work, however, also makes for extremely beautiful listening.  

Read the previous Almonac on Tansman's Bric-à-brac (in German)

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#3 – Scelsi: Natura renovatur 

This piece from Giacinto Scelsi was composed around the time between those of Leo Brouwer and Alexandre Tansman, in 1967. Scelsi’s experimental tonal language is, however, closer to the conventional notion of “contemporary music.”  The term has anyway lost its temporality completely and has become instead a kind of genre designation. Be that as it may, its instrumentation (11 strings), duration (under 15 minutes), and relatively moderate (for “contemporary music,” and thankfully so) technical demands on musicians make Scelsi’s Natura renovator another Corona-compliant item from programs. 

A current suggestion for interpretation: The constantly-shifting, glissando-like layers of sound give rise to delightful associations with the reality of our situation, which seem to slip out of our control. 

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#2 – Honegger: Symphony No. 2 H153 

Arthur Honegger was likely filled with latently depressive, even eschatological thoughts as he composed this work in the winter of 1941/1942 in German-occupied Paris. A minimal three-note melody forms the symphony’s core; the musical course repeatedly stalls; brute-force eruptions retreat mantra-like back into the circling beginning. Only in the third movement does a way out of the impasse unexpectedly emerge: A solo trumpet begins a theme reminiscent of J. S. Bach, which brings the symphony to a chorale-like end. 

Depressive feelings seem to have consolidated towards the end of this Pandemic Top 10. This work is definitely not one to lighten the mood, but it is nevertheless one of the composer’s most gripping works. 

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#1 – Poulenc: Concerto en sol mineur

At the very top of our Pandemic Top 10 is Poulenc’s Concerto en sol mineur. This 20-minute concerto for organ, timpani, and strings is most often heard at church concerts. But even outside churches, its instrumentation presents few challenges for concert halls with an organ. Even during the composer’s lifetime, the organ concerto had fallen somewhat out fashion – but this piece’s ability to extract such potential from the instrument quickly made it a standard of modern organ repertoire. The history of its performance, as well as its impact, are remarkable. In a certain way, it agrees with many of the core elements of the works listed here, which have already enriched – and can further enrich – performance schedules: With monumental impact despite a smaller instrumentation, and chromatically-falling lines as well as references to the Baroque, this work is also an homage to J. S. Bach. 

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The author

Henrik Almon has been responsible since 2013 for the rental department of Ricordi Berlin. Since then, he has constantly been rummaging through the labyrinthine entanglements of 200 years of publishing history, music archives scattered across Europe, analog and digital data banks as well as cryptic messages concerning the delivery of shipped parcels.

Prior to his life at Ricordi, Henrik Almon virtuously completed a rock-solid business course before plunging into the academic depths of musicology, media studies and literature. His studies took him from Weimar and Jena via Paris to Brazil, where he worked for a time as a piano teacher. An enduring passion for Brazilian composers culminated in 2018 in the completion of his dissertation “Discourses on Art-Music in Brazil in the First Half of the 20th Century”. Outside of Ricordi he continues to be an ardent violinist in one of the many Berlin university orchestras.

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Photos: Durand Salabert (Milhaud, Honegger), Marie-Louise James (The Almonac)