The Peninsula Music Festival - 59th Season 2011 - Program Notes
Program 9 - Saturday, August 20, 2011 - Festival Finale
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Composed in 1878 and 1881.
Premiered on November 9, 1881 in Budapest, conducted by Alexander Erkel with the composer as soloist.
First performed at PMF in 1983 with John Browning, soloist, and Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting. The most recent PMF performance was in 2004 with Boris Berman, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
Brahms was a complex person. The paintings and photographs from his later years show him usually stern, occasionally smiling, but always hidden behind that great hedgerow of beard. He was capable of hurling forth truly bitter insults — he called Bruckner’s works “gigantic snake symphonies” — but he also regularly passed out pocketfuls of candy to the little tots who followed him around Vienna on his daily walks. He loved the simple, comfortable pleasures of plain, abundant food, new wine and well-worn clothes, but composed the most sophisticated music since Beethoven and moved among the highest echelons of musicians and society to dispense it. He could playfully disparage even such a monumental undertaking as this B-flat Concerto as a “tiny, tiny little piano concerto” and “a couple of little piano pieces,” but was at the same time so serious about his work that he became violent over any intrusion while he was composing. One time, for example, a young man who had been trying for years to catch a glimpse of the great master heard that Brahms was working on the second floor of his (Brahms’) vacation retreat. The man commandeered a ladder, climbed to the second story, and silently looked in for a few minutes. Brahms saw the face at the window, stormed over to it, and threw the ladder into the street, with no little harm done to the young man. Before he slammed the window shut, he bellowed curses at the miscreant, and shouted that he was never to be disturbed. Brahms was, indeed, a complex person, brimming with seeming contradictions.
The contradictions that marked Brahms’ personal life are reflected in the Second Concerto. This work, “sober, reflective, philosophical” according to Milton Cross, is the largest concerto ever composed in traditional, classical form. (Busoni’s Piano Concerto is half again as long, but its unique, hybrid form, which includes a men’s chorus, puts it out of the running.) Vladimir Horowitz, who played and recorded the Concerto with his father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini, called it the greatest music ever written for piano, yet this majestic work was inspired by two light-hearted, sun-filled trips to Italy.
In April 1878, Brahms journeyed to Goethe’s “land where the lemon trees bloom” with two friends, the Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth and the composer Carl Goldmark. Though he found the music of Italy ghastly (he complained of hearing one opera which consisted wholly of final cadences), he loved the cathedrals, the sculptures, the artworks and, especially, the countryside. Spring was just turning into summer during his visit, and he wrote to his dear friend Clara Schumann, “You can have no conception of how beautiful it is here.” Still under the spell of the beneficent Italian climate, Brahms sketched themes for his Second Piano Concerto on his return to Austria on the eve of his 45th birthday. Other matters pressed, however, and the Concerto was put aside. Three years later, during the spring of 1881, Brahms returned to Italy and was inspired by this second trip to resume composition on the Concerto. The score was completed by July. Whether or not the halcyon influence of Italy can be detected in the wondrous music of the B-flat Concerto is for each listener to decide. This work is certainly much more mellow than the stormy First Concerto, introduced over twenty years earlier, but whether this quality is the result of Brahms’ trips to the sunny south, or of a decade of imbibing Viennese Gemütlichkeit, or simply of greater maturity is a matter for speculation.
In his biography of the composer, Walter Niemann cited the three most important characteristics of Brahms’ concerto style: “the suppression of all display of technical virtuosity by the soloist as an end in itself; the equal footing maintained by the soloist and the orchestra; and the approximation of the concerto to the symphony in intellectual content.” (The integration of the piano into the music’s texture at the expense of brilliant but vapid passagework stems from Schumann’s Piano Concerto.) Eduard Hanslick called the B-flat Concerto “a symphony with piano obbligato.” Carl Geiringer viewed the piano part as “that of a chamber-music work, although it demands the technique of a virtuoso.” The work requires a pianist not only of stunning technical achievement, but also one of immense physical endurance and impeccable musicianship. The B-flat Concerto is a work large and serious while at the same time hauntingly beautiful in performance and in memory.
The Concerto opens with a sylvan horn call answered by sweeping arpeggios from the piano. These initial gestures are introductory to the sonata-allegro form proper, which begins with the robust entry of the full orchestra. A number of themes are presented in the exposition; most are lyrical, but one is vigorously rhythmic. The development uses all of the thematic material, with one section welded almost seamlessly to the next, a characteristic of all Brahms’ greatest works. The recapitulation is ushered in by the solo horn, here given a richer orchestral accompaniment than on its earlier appearance.
It is rare for a concerto to have more than three movements. The second movement, a scherzo, was added by Brahms to expand the structure of this Concerto to a symphonic four movements. The composer’s biographer Max Kalbeck thought that the movement had originally been intended for the Violin Concerto but that Brahms, on the advice of Joseph Joachim, for whom the piece was written, had eliminated it from that work. In key and mood, it differs from the other movements of the Concerto to provide a welcome contrast in the overall architecture of the composition.
The third movement is a touching nocturne based on the song of the solo cello heard immediately at the beginning. (Brahms later fitted this same melody with words as the song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer [“My Sleep Grows Ever More Peaceful”].) An agitated central section gives way to long, magical phrases for the clarinets which lead to a return of the solo cello’s lovely theme.
The finale fuses rondo and sonata elements in a style strongly reminiscent of Hungarian Gypsy music. The jaunty rondo theme is presented without introduction. It is carefully and thoroughly examined before two lyrical motives are presented. As a study in the way in which small musical fragments may be woven into an exquisite whole, this rousing movement is unexcelled.
Donald N. Ferguson summarized the mood of this wonderful product of Brahms’ maturity: “There is no extravagance of joy, but rather a keen sense of well-being, expressed in phrases unimaginable by any but the deeply experienced.”
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Composed in 1869-1876.
Premiered on August 17, 1876 in Bayreuth, conducted by Hans Richter.
First PMF performance
Wagner’s cycle of “music-dramas,” The Ring of the Nibelungen, is unique in the history of art: an ancient mythological tale spread over four interdependent operas; the capstone of Romantic orchestration, harmony and expression; a nodal point in the history of music; and an integral part, for both better and worse, of the German psyche. Wagner’s grand conception left no thinking person untouched in the late 19th-century. Almost all were seduced by the overwhelming power and emotion of the operas, though some (notably the French) eventually rebelled against Wagner’s musical style and aesthetic ideals. His impact on modern thought and art has been enormous — one German scholar at the beginning of the century estimated that of all the figures in Western history until that time, only Jesus Christ had been more written about than Richard Wagner.
Wagner was a fascinating if essentially despicable person: political dissident, rabid anti-Semite, financial deadbeat, flagrant adulterer — not the sort you would want to date your daughter or move in next door. Yet when his music was played, all that was not only forgotten but forgiven. A century after his death, it is now possible to relate or dissociate the works from the man as much as is desired. It is best to enjoy them, in the opera house or the concert hall, as magnificent expressions of grand emotions spread across a vast fresco. Whether heard as abstract pieces or specifically dramatic ones, excerpts from the Ring are stirring music that rivet the attention and remain indelibly in the mind.
Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey are the excerpts surrounding the scene of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. Dawn breaks after the preceding nighttime scene during which the three Norns (the Fates of northern mythology) have foretold the inevitable cataclysm and the downfall of the gods. Morning finds Siegfried and Brünnhilde emerging from the cave in which they spent their bridal night. Reluctantly, Brünnhilde urges her lover to set out on further deeds of valor. They exchange pledges of undying love and give precious gifts — Brünnhilde receives the fated Ring made from the gold of the Rhine, the possession of which endows the wearer with the power to rule the world; Siegfried gets the noble steed Grane. With ecstatic protestations of love, Siegfried departs. The curtain falls and the orchestra plays the majestic music accompanying his journey to the Rhine.
A great climax of charging rhythms dominated by the brasses begins the Rhine Journey. With shining optimism and unquenchable love, Siegfried sets off. His horn call is heard from a distant glen. After a triple-meter passage brimming with youthful vigor, Siegfried reaches the great river, which is represented by a surging theme and the shimmering song of the Rhine maidens. The music softens, and leads, in the opera house, directly into the first act. For the concert hall, Wagner provided a brilliant ending that resounds through the full orchestra.
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Composed in 1909-1910.
Premiered on January 26, 1911 in Dresden, conducted by Ernst von Schuch.
The only previous PMF performance was in 2002 with Victor Yampolsky conducting.
Norman Del Mar titled the chapter on Der Rosenkavalier in his biography of Richard Strauss, “The Crowning Success.” Notoriety was hardly new to Strauss when this opera appeared in 1911, but its success solidified a reputation that had elevated him, according to universal opinion, to the position of “The World’s Greatest Composer.” The last dozen years of the 19th century saw the production of most of his tone poems, each one generating more popular interest than the one before. When Salome appeared in 1905 and Elektra followed three years later, Strauss was branded as the principal dispenser of musical modernity, stretching not only technical resources but also psychological probings in music far beyond anything previously known. It was therefore significant news when the Berlin Boersen-Courier learned before the premiere of Strauss’ 1911 opera from that ubiquitous and eternal “well-informed source” that the score was “absolutely un-Strausslike, inasmuch as none of the excessively modern subtleties predominates in the vocal parts or orchestration. On the contrary, the score is brimming over with exceedingly pleasant and catchy melodies, most of them in three-four time. Yes, melodies, incredible as this may sound in the case of Richard Strauss. One waltz, especially, which the tenor sings, is likely to become so popular that many people will believe it is the work, not of Richard, but of Johann Strauss....” (The two Strausses were unrelated.)
The Berlin correspondent knew what he was talking about. So popular did Strauss’ bittersweet opera with the 18th-century Viennese setting prove to be that its music and fame spread through Europe like wildfire. Extra trains from Berlin and other cities had to be added to the rail schedule to handle the throngs journeying to Dresden to see this new artistic wonder. Productions were mounted within months in all the musical capitals of Europe. The 1917 catalog of the London publisher Chappell and Co. listed no fewer than 44 arrangements of music from Der Rosenkavalier for instrumental combinations ranging from brass band to salon orchestra, from solo mandolin to full symphony. The opera was made into a motion picture in 1924 — five years before sound movies were introduced! (A pit orchestra without singers played the much-truncated score.) The popularity of the haunting and infectious music from Der Rosenkavalier continues unabated today in both the opera house and the concert hall.
The libretto by the gifted Austrian man of letters Hugo von Hofmannsthal is one of the masterworks of its type for the lyric stage. It gently probes the budding, young love of Octavian and Sophie, poignantly examines the fading youth of the Marschallin, and humorously exposes the blustering Baron Ochs. It is a superb evocation of sentiment, wit and vigor wedded to one of the most opulently glorious musical scores ever composed. Harold Schonberg wrote of the emotional milieu of the opera, “In Der Rosenkavalier, there are no Jungian archetypes, only the human condition. Instead of long narratives, there are Viennese waltzes. Instead of a monumental Liebestod, there is a sad, elegant lament from a beautiful, aristocratic woman who begins to see old age. Instead of death, we get a bittersweet and hauntingly beautiful trio that in effect tells us that life will go on as it has always gone on. People do not die for love in Hofmannsthal’s world. They face the inevitable, surrender with what grace they can summon up, and then look around for life’s next episode. As Strauss himself later said, the Marschallin had lovers before Octavian, and she will have lovers after him.” Der Rosenkavalier is an opera wise and worldly, sophisticated and touching, sentimental and funny that contains some of the most memorable music to emerge from the opera house in the 20th century.
The Suite that Strauss extracted from Der Rosenkavalier includes the Prelude to Act I, the luminous Presentation of the Rose from Act II, the blustering Baron Ochs’ Arrival and Waltz from Act II, the glorious trio and duet in the opera’s closing scene, and a rousing selection of waltzes from the score.
©2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda