Showcase Sommerfest 2014 - page 24

Sommerfest
Rachmaninoff and Brahms
july 10, 11
24
MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA SHOWCASE
Brahms’ First is a heroic
per ardua ad astra
symphony
in the vein (and the key) of the Beethoven Fifth.
His Second, by comparison, is all relaxation and
expansiveness. He wrote to the critic Eduard Hanslick,
“In the course of the winter I shall let you hear a
symphony that sounds so cheerful and delightful you
will think I wrote it especially for you, or rather for
your young wife.” Hans Richter conducted the first
performance at a Vienna Philharmonic concert on
December 30, 1877, and it went brilliantly. Within the
year there were performances, many of them under
Brahms’ own direction, in major cities across Europe.
Leipzig, Bremen, Amsterdam, The Hague, Hamburg,
Dresden, Düsseldorf and Breslau.
a tightly packed work
Much as Beethoven’s
Pastoral
, for all its “harmless”
surface, is one of his most tightly composed works,
so is the Brahms Second, a singularly integrated,
concentrated symphony.
allegro non troppo.
The work begins with a double idea,
a fairly neutral four-note motif in cellos and basses,
upon which horns, joined almost at once by bassoons,
superimpose a romantically atmospheric melody. But
it is the bass component of the double theme that turns
out to be crucial. It is germinal to the entire symphony,
many of whose ideas share the pattern of those first
three notes
.
The first movement is uncommonly rich and varied in
its material, the salient ideas being a three-chord growl
for low brass with cellos, bracketed between a soft drum
roll and an isolation of the three-note motto; a soaring
melody presented as a conversation between violins
and flute and beginning with the three-note motto; a
glowing tune for cellos and violas in thirds, with the
cellos on top; and a buoyantly leaping theme—to be
played
quasi retenente
(as if held back) for just a little
extra emphasis. The development reaches the extreme
points, for this movement, both of dusky harmony and
radiant physical energy.
adagio non troppo.
Nowhere is Brahms’ desire for
concentration more evident than in this
Adagio
. The
cello theme with which it begins, accompanied by
the bassoons in contrary motion, is one of his most
amazing inspirations. The horn picks up a fragment of
the cello melody and uses it to begin a fugue. A new
theme,
grazioso
and given an element of caprice by its
persistent syncopations, divides the measures differently
so as to create the illusion of faster motion. A third idea
in flowing, conjunct motion continues in this vein. The
effect is one of ever faster motion.
Against this Brahms introduces the slowest music we
have yet heard, the first movement’s three-note motto,
now sounded as solemn warning by trombone and
bassoon, answered by tuba and basses. Brahms stirs the
blood by accelerating the rate at which the harmonies
change, and it is with almost disorienting speed that
in just one and a half quiet measures he travels across
vast harmonic spaces to begin the recapitulation. Every
detail, every relationship is reconsidered, and the last
melancholy descents of violins and clarinet set off,
beautifully, the peaceful closing chords.
allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino).
The third movement
is one of those leisurely quasi-scherzos that are a
Brahms specialty. The oboe starts it with an ambling
dance tune. The first trio arrives very soon, scurrying,
quicker, and a variation of the oboe tune; a second trio
combines the light-footed gait of the first with the triple
meter of the oboe theme and adds some witty off-beat
accents of its own. The close is sweetly wistful.
allegro con spirito.
There follows a swift finale. The
sotto
voce
opening is a variation of the first bars of the whole
symphony. Later themes move more broadly across the
measures, though not with less energy. A touch of gypsy
music enlivens the scene, and this exuberant movement
culminates in a blazing affirmation of D major, and, by
the way, a wonderful demonstration of how exciting
Brahms makes every trombone entrance by using those
instruments sparingly and knowingly.
Program note excerpted from the late
Michael
Steinberg
’s
The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide
(Oxford
University Press, 1995), used with permission.
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