Classic Mornings

Whose Hot Rococo Recipe?


It’s funny how performers and audiences are in such awe of composers of the past. That wasn’t necessarily the case in their own time. A case in point is related by Dutch musicologist Emmanuel Overbeeke in the notes to a new recording of music for cello and orchestra by Tchaikovsky.  He explains that Wilhelm Fitzenhagan, the cellist for whom Tchaikovsky wrote his famous Variations on a Rococo Theme, significantly reworked the composition in spite of the composer’s objections. The story is told that Fitzenhagen wanted to re-arrange the variations so that the most heroic and virtuostic would come at the end of the work and generate maximum applause.  Fitzenhagen gave Tchaikovsky’s publisher the impression that the composer had given his blessing. Tchaikovsky was out of the country at the time and most upset when he returned and learned of the changes. Yet we’re told that he was powerless to do anything at that point. Fitzenhagen had commissioned the work from Tchaikovsky. It wasn’t until 1956 that Tchaikovsky’s original version was published. Fitzenhagen’s was published in 1889. Tchaikovsky died in 1893.

The new recording seems to bring about a little reconciliation. It includes both versions of the Variations on a Rococo Theme.  We’re reminded that Fitzenhagen, one of Tchaikovsky’s colleagues at the Moscow Conservatory, was the cellist in the premiere performance of Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet. That’s the one with the lovely song-like movement (Andante cantabile).  Tchaikovsky later arranged the quartet movement for string orchestra. Knowing that Fitzenhagen was the first to play that lovely melody, which is “sung” by the cello in the quartet and the orchestral arrangement, suddenly makes him very special.

Hungarian cellist István Vardai is the soloist on the new recording.  We were introduced to him a couple of years ago on a CD that featured a cello concerto and 2 symphonies by the 18th century composer Johann Baptist Vanhal (CPO 777612). On the Tchaikovsky recording (Brilliant Classics 94876), Vardai gets to be a musical diplomat of sorts, with the help of the Pannon Philharmonic from Pécs, Hungary led by Tibor Bogányi. Vardai performs the Andante cantabile, Tchaikovsky’s orchestration for cello and orchestra of one of his piano nocturnes and both versions of the Variations. We’re left with the impression that Fitzenhagen altered the recipe, but not the basic musical creation. Still, it’s nice to be able to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s original.

Years ago, Randy Newman had a hit with an original song called "Short People". Recently, Randy Newman wrote some short pieces for pianist Gloria Cheng. They’re part of a suite titled: Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman. It reminds us that Randy Newman is a member of a legendary film music family. The playful Newman gives us cartoon-like portraits of his uncles. That might be expected from a composer who has won Academy Awards for Best Original Song for both Monsters, Inc and Toy Story 3. The final piece in the suite is titled: “Outdoors But Not the Red River Valley.” Newman says he remembers his uncle Alfred saying that in every film, director John Ford wanted to hear "Red River Valley", “which is a great tune, but you don’t want to hear it in every picture.” Randy Newman’s piece is a “Moment Musicaux” inspired by that memory. There’s even a reference to Alfred Newman’s famous 20th Century Fox fanfare in the piece. It’s on a CD titled Montage, which features piano music written for Gloria Cheng by several film music composers, from which we heard a bit of Newman’s suite. (Harmonia Mundi 907635)

A little fanfare for Christoph Eschenbach. The day after it was announced that he would not be renewing his contract as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center, I announced on February 20th  that it was his 75th birthday. We celebrated Eschenbach the conductor, pianist and chamber music player – all in the finale of a reconstructed Mozart concerto for violin, piano and orchestra featuring Eschenbach and violinist Midori. There are moments when the 2 instruments, playing without orchestral accompaniment, remind you of the sonata from which it comes. It was recorded about 15 years ago. (Sony 89488)  More recently, Eschenbach the conductor was in town in early 2010 to conduct the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra in a program with pianist Lang Lang. The performance of Beethoven 7th Symphony, which concluded the concert, was most exciting!

Pianist Aldo Ciccolini passed away on February 1st, 6 months shy of his 90th birthday. Those paying tribute online were sure to remember that the Naples-born pianist was a champion of the French piano repertoire. On our Classic Morning Prelude tribute, I wanted to be sure to play an excerpt from one of the 2 piano concertos by Antonio Salieri, which Ciccolini recorded with the ensemble I Solisti Veneti years ago. I’ve been playing it for years for listeners – noticing that it’s one of those recordings that’s no longer available.

February 15th marked the 100th anniversary of the death of a famous French composer of dance music.  His family was a sort of French counterpart to the Viennese Strausses. I was prompted to alter a famous quote for the occasion. I suggested, given the never-ending popularity of Emil Waldteufel’s famous waltz Les Patineurs, that some old composers never die, they just skate away.

I’m guessing that you may be spending a bit more time indoors these days, not necessarily lured outside even by winter sports. So join me for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday, with the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50 on FM 90.9 and online at