Program Notes: Brahms, Beethoven & a Competition Winner, April 30, 2013, 7:30pm at City Performance Hall

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Coriolan Overture – Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s overtures hold an unusual place in the orchestral repertoire, one that is altogether different from those of, say, Mozart or Rossini.  Both of the latter were more closely associated with the operatic stage than was Beethoven.  Consequently, their overtures have double lives:  at the opera house as curtain raisers, and in the concert hall as one-movement symphonic masterpieces. 

Beethoven, however, completed only one opera:  Fidelio.  He did not write with the fluid ease of either Mozart or Rossini.  Beethoven’s constant revisions during the composing process reflect not only the exacting high standards he set for himself, but also the internal struggle that permeates much of his music.  Fidelio is an excellent example, for it has four overtures:  the three Leonore overtures, and the overture to the opera proper.

Beethoven’s other overtures make frequent appearances in the concert hall, but they vary widely in content and quality.  One way of dividing them is the occasional pieces of less dramatic import, and the magnificent middle-period masterpieces.  The former category includes King Stephen and The Consecration of the House; the latter group is dominated by the Fidelio/Leonore “gang of four,” Egmont, and Coriolan.  Such a division is admittedly arbitrary, but at least it encourages us to take a closer look at Beethoven’s considerable orchestral output beyond the nine symphonies and the seven concertos.

What they all have in common is a bond in staged drama.  Fidelio may be Beethoven’s sole completed opera, but he considered several other operatic projects.  Furthermore, he produced one of the most popular ballets of the early 18th-century — The Creatures of Prometheus — and also composed incidental music for several plays.  The common denominator for his overtures is thus the theatre.  Only one of Beethoven’s overtures, Namensfeier, was conceived independent of the stage.

The overture we hear this evening is a stepchild among Beethoven’s better-known works.  Coriolan (1807), is contemporary with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasia, all splendid works that are performed regularly.  Coriolan has taken a back seat to Egmont, although it is vintage “heroic” Beethoven.  Its music is explosive, seething, barely controlled, frequently verging on violence.  Such characteristics are the stuff that has contributed to the Fifth Symphony’s overwhelming popularity.  Coriolan shares that work’s stormy tonality of C minor.  Why then has it not achieved the same “pop” status?

The explanation may lie in Beethoven’s source, a drama by Heinrich von Collin based on the same legend as Shakespeare’s play. The story concerns a general of the Roman republic who is banished from the city because of his proud disdain for the plebeians.  He allies with the enemy Volscians, and schemes attack on his fellow Romans.  His wife and mother enter the enemy camp in order to plead with him.  In Collin’s drama, the tormented general commits suicide (a dénouement significantly different from Shakespeare, in which Coriolanus is killed by the Volscians).  Collin’s play was produced successfully in Vienna in 1802, but by 1807 its popularity had dwindled.

Beethoven’s musical evocation focuses on the hero’s moment of decision.  The overture is a succinct sonata form that the composer imbues with the conflicts and human drama inherent in Collin’s play.  Beethoven plunges us into the turmoil with agonized chords at the start.  Coriolanus’s indecision is apparent in the unstable, flexible rhythm of the principal theme, whose lurching accents and phrasing are out of synchronization with the movement’s theoretical `march’ meter of 4/4.  At the conclusion, the hero is destroyed.  No triumph emerges from this particular struggle.  Beethoven’s message is dark, focusing exclusively on the hero’s frustration.  Beethoven’s musical momentum is tied to Coriolanus’s emotional, one-track mind.  The result may be a tad depressing, but it is undeniably powerful in its finality.

Beethoven scored the Coriolan Overture for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, and strings.

– Laurie Shulman © 2013


Piano Concerto No. 1 in F#-minor, Op. 1 – Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff led a three-pronged career:  as pianist, conductor, and composer.  By the time he embarked on his first concert tour to the United States in 1918, his personal repertoire included three of his own piano concerti, as well as those of Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  Unfortunately the demands of travel and performance cut severely into the time he had available for writing new pieces.  On several occasions, he reworked an early composition in order to meet the need for a new performing vehicle.  The First Piano Concerto is such a work.

The seventeen-year-old Rachmaninoff began work on this piece in 1890 while enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory.  He completed the first version the following year, and appeared as soloist performing the first movement with the Conservatory Orchestra in spring 1892, with Vasily Safonov conducting.  Like most of Rachmaninoff’s early pieces, this first version of the concerto bore the stamp of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.  He had not yet found the individual voice that makes his music so easily identifiable to our ears.

By the late 1890s, Rachmaninoff had dismissed his F#-minor concerto as a student work.  He considered revising it in 1908, but other projects diverted him.  Nine years later, in autumn 1917, he returned to this first concerto.  While the Bolsheviks wrought political cataclysm practically at his doorstep, Rachmaninoff remained virtually oblivious, as he overhauled the score.  In the early 1930s, he recalled to Oskar von Riesemann:

I sat at the writing table or the piano all day without troubling about the rattle of machine-guns and rifle shots.  I would have greeted any intruder with the answer that Archimedes gave the conquerors of Syracuse.

(When the Romans stormed Syracuse ca.212 B.C., an invading soldier burst into Archimedes’s quarters, demanding that he follow him elsewhere. Oblivious to the fracas, the Greek mathematician bade the Roman wait while he finished solving a problem. Enraged, the soldier stabbed Archimedes, who died.)

Rachmaninoff’s concentration and absorption in his work must have been remarkable.  By 1917, the original concerto was more than a quarter-century old.  His style had evolved and his command of orchestral writing had grown. Where the early version had been diffuse and unpolished, the revised concerto is economical, feisty, and exuberant.  One defining facet of the 1892 concerto survived virtually intact:  its splendid melodies.  We can clearly hear Rachmaninoff as master of the grand theme in this concerto. Those themes were there from the start.

The piano part in the revised version is more fluid, and consistent with what we have come to recognize as Rachmaninoff’s characteristic style.  The interaction of piano and orchestra is highly sophisticated.   The traditional structure represents considerable tightening over the 1892 version.  This metamorphosis took place in near record time.  The alterations were complete in November, 1917. By Christmas, Rachmaninoff had left Russia permanently.

The newly-introduced concerto had a difficult time finding acceptance with critics and audiences, primarily because of the huge success that continued to greet the composer’s Second (1901) and Third (1909) Concertos.  He told his friend Alfred Swan:

I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now.  All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily.  And nobody pays any attention.  When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.

Although this piece will never surpass its successors in popularity, it has much to offer.  Rachmaninoff had a lifelong predilection for minor mode that is part of his musical signature, casting a shadow of melancholy on many works.  This First Concerto breaks from that pattern.  It is less mournful than some of the later compositions, displaying a more extrovert personality that asserts itself at the opening with the brass fanfare.

For those who delight in the fireworks of a keyboard virtuoso, this concerto will not disappoint.  Its first movement is ablaze with Lisztian acrobatics that will tax even the most athletic pianist.  Rachmaninoff’s lengthy cadenza gives the soloist superb additional opportunities to display both technique and musicianship.  The slow movement, a nocturne, is rich with the lyricism we treasure in Rachmaninoff, and the finale brisk and exciting, with metric and key changes that keep our ears alert while pleasing them.

The first performance took place on 17 March 1892 at the Moscow Conservatory Rachmaninoff was the soloist for the first movement only; Vasily Safonov conducted. The revised version was first performed on 18 January 1919 in New York.  Rachmaninoff was the pianist; Modest Altschuler conducted the Russian Symphony Orchestra.

The score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, piano solo, and strings.

– Laurie Shulman © 2013


Symphony No. 4 in E Minor – Johannes Brahms

When looking back at the lives of important figures, it is instructive to remember that most did not examine themselves through the grandiose wide-angle lens of history, considering the possible implications to their legacy of their each and every action. For the most part, they, like us, lived their lives in the moment, making decisions whose significance became clear only much later, often after their deaths. Such was not the case with Brahms. A student of history and a collector of original manuscripts penned by his greatest musical forebears, Brahms was constantly aware of where he fit in the musical tradition and the responsibility that therefore rested on his shoulders. He was anointed at a young age by the public and by critics as Beethoven’s awaited successor, and his work was mercilessly and microscopically dissected and compared against the greats. Early in his career, this sense of expectation and his fear of never being able to fulfill it paralyzed him, with the result that he bloomed late as a composer—Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin all died at a younger age than Brahms was when he finally completed his First Symphony.

By the time he matured as a composer, however, Brahms turned this reverence for the past into his greatest strength, writing works that applied the forms, techniques, and wisdom of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to the new Romantic idiom. Brahms’s critics derided this as uninspired conservatism. “The real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary,” said George Bernard Shaw. “He is the most wanton of composers … only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby, rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” But this pretentious criticism widely misses the mark and reeks of the jealousy so common in critics enslaved to newness for newness’s sake. Brahms’s music teems with originality and genius, and though many of his contemporaries successfully blazed new paths to greatness, Brahms proved that there was still untapped potential in the “antiquated” forms of Classicism. History has certainly vindicated him. Even Schoenberg, perhaps the most revolutionary composer of all time, recognized Brahms’s achievements and gave a series of lectures in 1947 entitled “Brahms the Progressive.”

Written in the idyllic Austrian town of Mürzzuschlag during the summers of 1884 and 1885, Brahms’s Fourth (and final) Symphony is the composer’s ultimate fusion of past and present. At a time when Wagner and his acolytes were pushing tonal harmony to its breaking point, Brahms begins his symphony with a simple pattern based on intervals of a third—specifically, falling thirds echoed by their inversion, rising sixths—the fundamental building block of tonality. But this pattern, which becomes the basis for the entire movement, is treated so organically and is allowed to travel so far afield that its simplicity and conventionality become just the opposite. The structure, too, is deceptive. Though the movement is cast in sonata form—the backbone of the Classical symphony—it is defined by the ways it breaks that mold. After a repeat of the opening eight measures, seeming to indicate that we have started the standard repeat of the exposition, Brahms instead alters the harmony and whisks us away into the development section. Then, we hear a quiet variation of the opening theme (in the woodwinds and at half the original speed), which would suggest a gradual buildup to the movement’s climax. But without warning, the tempo launches forward and we are immediately thrust into the heart of the recapitulation.

In the Andante, too, we hear Brahms as historian and progressive. Ostensibly in E major, the movement is indeed based on a theme that centers around E. But it incorporates the pitches of the C-major scale (all white keys on a piano) to essentially transform the harmonic structure into that of the Phrygian mode, one of the standard pitch sets used in mediaeval and Renaissance music. This offers Brahms a host of chromatic and melodic possibilities, which the composer uses to make this one of his most harmonically modern-sounding movements. Brahms’s music-history treatises would also have explained that the melancholy Phrygian mode should resolve to the sunny Ionian mode (identical to C major). Sure enough, the Allegro giocoso is in C and—with its pounding timpani, tingling triangle, and marching rhythms—is a rousing, energetic interlude to what is otherwise quite a weighty and solemn work.

The Fourth Symphony’s finale distills Brahms’s genius to its purest form. Inspired by the composer’s Renaissance and Baroque idols, it is a chaconne—a form in which a melodic pattern and its harmonic foundation are repeated over and over but transformed by means of extensive variation limited only by the composer’s imagination. The movement begins with a severe and blustery statement of its fundamental eight-note theme and proceeds through a whirlwind of 30 exceptionally diverse and inventive variations that demonstrate Brahms’s mastery of the form. The theme finds its way through the entire orchestra, appearing everywhere from the low brass to the upper woodwinds and exploring seemingly every possible permutation of the pattern. Finally, the chaconne gives way, and a fittingly stentorian coda concludes the piece.

– Jay Goodwin © 2013

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