Virtuoso Passion: d’Albert’s Cello Concerto

Virtuoso Passion: d’Albert’s Cello Concerto

On March 29, 30 and 31, the Houston Symphony presents Carl Orff’s spectacular masterpiece, Carmina Burana. Houston Symphony Principal Cello Brinton Averil Smith opens the concert with d’Albert’s passionate Cello Concerto. In this post, discover this virtuoso cello showpiece and the stormy love-life of the composer who wrote it. Get tickets and more information here.

d'Albert and Finck
D’Albert with his third wife, Hermine Finck

Even for a musician, Eugen d’Albert was a colorful character. His grandfather, a Frenchman who served in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, settled in Hamburg after the war owing to a certain Teutonophilia that his grandson would inherit. D’Albert’s father, however, left Germany to become a composer of popular dance music in Britain, and d’Albert was born in Glasgow. From an early age, d’Albert showed great promise as a pianist and composer, and his teachers included Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame); he disliked the country of his birth, however, and when he was old enough he moved to Germany, changing his name from the French “Eugène” to the German “Eugen.”

In Weimar, he became one of Liszt’s best piano students and met the first of his many wives. Despite his small stature and receding hairline (which prompted the composer Busoni to dub him “d’Alberich” after the dwarf character in Wagner’s Das Rheingold), he seems to have had a way with women. His second wife, the great Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, said that when he played the piano he seemed to transform into “a fairytale prince.” On one occasion, d’Albert reportedly compared his marriages to Beethoven’s symphonies, joking that he would continue marrying until he reached the ninth “with chorus”; in the end he would tie Henry VIII’s six (most of them, fortunately, fared better than Henry’s wives).

He quickly became one of Germany’s leading pianists, and despite his scandalous personal life, critics held his interpretations of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in high regard. As his career progressed, however, he increasingly turned to composition, and would write a number of successful operas for Germany’s stages. Completed in 1899, his Cello Concerto dates from his longest and most stable marriage (to his third wife, the opera singer Hermine Finck). A virtuoso showpiece for the soloist, the concerto is full of the Romantic ardor and dramatic flair with which d’Albert undoubtedly lived his life.

The Music

Following the example of his teacher Liszt, d’Albert fused the traditional three movements of the concerto into one integrated whole. The piece begins with rapid string crossings for the cello, above which a haunting melody with a hint of exoticism appears in the oboe:

A second theme is introduced by the horns, which leads to a bounding, joyful third theme. During a development full of virtuoso passagework, the soloist introduces one other main theme—a melody marked “dolce” (“sweet” in Italian). The haunting, exotic melody that opened the work is then reprised, and the music slows as the melody introduced by the horns leads seamlessly into the slow movement. For now, the joyful third theme seems to have disappeared.

The lyrical main theme of the slow movement is introduced by the full orchestra and alternates with contrasting episodes, including a dramatic recitative (a speech-like style of music used in opera) for the soloist above tense tremolo strings. The third movement begins with fast, mischievous music in 6/8 time (the meter of a jig), which leads to the return of the first movement’s “dolce” theme, now marked “appassionato” (Italian for “passionate”). The joyful melody from the first movement soon follows, but is overwhelmed by the climactic return of the exotic theme that began the concerto. Ultimately, the joyful theme prevails, bringing the work to an exuberant end. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss d’Albert’s Cello Concerto and Carmina Burana March 29, 30 and 31. Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information.

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