Program Notes: Vanska Conducts Brahms' Third

Program Notes: Vanska Conducts Brahms' Third

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Full program notes:


Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria Leonore

Overture No. 2, Opus 72(a)

Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, originally titled Leonore, is doubtless the only opera in history to have four separate overtures. This tale of marital fidelity, political idealism and resistance to tyranny comes to its climax in a dark dungeon, where the heroine Leonore prepares to sacrifice her life to protect her imprisoned husband Florestan from the evil Pizarro; the couple is rescued at the last minute by the arrival of the good minister Don Fernando. The opera took Beethoven 11 difficult years to complete, going through three different versions, and even then the composer was not completely satisfied. The story of the creation of its four overtures tells us much about his painful progress toward a final version of the opera.

What we know today as the Leonore Overture No. 1 was drafted in 1807 for a proposed production of the opera in Prague. That performance never took place, and Beethoven discarded this overture, which was not performed until after his death (and was published with the absurdly high opus number of 138, which is his last opus number).

a daringly original no. 2
At the premiere of Leonore in Vienna on November 20, 1805, the opera was preceded by a piece we know today as the Leonore Overture No. 2, the music heard in this program. It is a daringly original piece of music. Rather than writing the expected opera overture in sonata form, Beethoven wrote what is in effect a dramatic tone poem: composed of themes from the opera, this overture offers a sequence of the opera’s most dramatic events. Unexpected in form and difficult for its performers, this overture excited a firestorm of criticism.

And so, for the revision of the opera performed four months later, Beethoven re-cast that overture: he rounded off some of its rough edges and provided the recapitulation of themes that No. 2 was missing. Now known as the Leonore Overture No. 3 (and now in sonata form), this was the overture that introduced the revised opera on March 29, 1806.

But there remained a fatal problem with Beethoven’s Leonore overtures. The beginning of this most serious opera is surprisingly light in tone: the first scene shows the frothy infatuation of the young Marzellina with the new jailer’s assistant. Prefacing such a scene with either No. 2 or No. 3 is deadly. The Leonore Overture No. 3—in Donald Francis Tovey’s wonderful phrase— “annihilates the first act” when it is used as the overture to the opera. Long before Tovey made that observation, Richard Wagner had seen the same thing. He said that this music “is no longer an overture, it is the most grandiose drama in itself….Far from giving merely a musical introduction to the drama, this overture tells the story more completely and more stirringly than the ensuing, broken theatrical action.”

Beethoven came to the same realization. For his third and final (1814) version of the opera, now renamed Fidelio, he gave up on writing an overture that in any way foreshadows the events of the opera and instead wrote an entirely new piece. His brief Fidelio Overture, a conventional curtain-raiser full of thrust and noble sentiment, makes a perfect lead-in to the first scene of the opera.

music of stark power
Beethoven’s decision to write the Fidelio Overture has banished the three Leonore Overtures to the concert hall, where they have led varied careers. The first is seldom performed, and the third has become almost too popular: its dramatic music and formal balance have made it a concert favorite. That leaves, somewhat in limbo, the Leonore Overture No. 2, which in fact many people prefer to the more familiar No. 3. It is rawer (some would say bloodier), and it is closer to the violent events of the opera. Despite rough edges and formal imbalance, No. 2 offers music of stark power, and—perhaps more effectively than in the popular No. 3—it brings certain moments of the opera to vivid life.

After the powerful opening chords, descending string lines mirror the descent into the dungeon where the hero Florestan is held by Pizarro, and soon woodwinds sing a bit of Florestan’s great aria at the beginning of Act II, “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” (In the Springtime of Life), a sad account of how far he has fallen from his happy early life. A long transition leads to the Allegro, with its rising-and-falling main theme, first announced here only by cellos. This develops at some length, then is interrupted by the sound of an offstage trumpet. In the opera, it signals the arrival of Don Fernando, who rescues Florestan and has Pizarro jailed, and its appearance in the overture was one of the things that bothered early critics. Another was the lack of a recapitulation: in the Leonore Overture No. 2 Beethoven simply ignores classical form and concludes with the heroic music that, in the opera, signals the triumph of good over evil.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger


Krzysztof Penderecki
Born: November 23, 1933, Dębica, Poland; now living in Kraków, Poland

Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra

Not until he was in his 40s did Krzysztof Penderecki become really interested in the possibilities of concerto form and embark on the formidable series that now includes two concertos for violin, one for viola, two for cello, and others for piano, flute, clarinet and horn, among other instruments. Many of his concertos are for unusual combinations of instruments, and he has transcribed several of his concertos for other instruments. Clearly, Penderecki has found fertile possibilities in the combination (some might say opposition) of a virtuoso solo performer with a large orchestra.

a lonely protagonist
Penderecki wrote his Cello Concerto No. 2 in 1982 for quite specific performers. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned it for Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premiere in Berlin on January 11, 1983, with the composer conducting. The most striking feature of this music is how little it resembles the classical concerto. Rather than being in three clearly-defined movements, it is in one continuous span lasting nearly forty minutes. Rather than the “playing together” implied in the word concerto, the Second Concerto often sets its soloist as a lonely protagonist against the resources of a sometimes overwhelming orchestra. Rather than offering his soloist discrete cadenzas at expected moments, Penderecki gives the cellist many cadenzas along the way, some of them accompanied by the orchestra. And rather than offering the conflict-and-resolution of the classical concerto, the Cello Concerto No. 2 seems to be playing out a larger drama. This music takes us a long and haunting musical journey, then leaves us musing on the meaning of that journey.

Penderecki calls for a large orchestra here. The woodwinds, brass and strings may seem normal enough, but to these he adds a huge percussion section—then uses those instruments almost with a fury. All different kinds of drums (including snare, tenor and bongos), plus bells, gongs, xylophone, celesta and many other instruments punctuate this music, and sometimes almost overwhelm it. The writing for cello can be impassioned and lyrical (Penderecki knew that he had a virtuoso performer in Rostropovich), but the soloist must compete with a turbulent—at times violent—orchestra. The Cello Concerto No. 2 can be haunting and beautiful music one moment, then deliver a visceral punch the next.

one continuous span
The concerto is in one continuous span, but that span consists of eight sections at different tempos. Audiences may find it most useful to embrace the entire music-drama being played out here rather than trying to follow the progression of those eight sections, but for first-time listeners a general guide may be useful.

The first section, marked Andante con moto, opens with a pulsing, descending string line—this dark and keening figure will return throughout the concerto. Textures thicken, bells ring, tensions rise, and from out of the depths the solo cello rises on a long recitative-like passage and accelerates directly into the Vivo, announced by a timpani salvo. This is a dramatic section, driven by the violent orchestra. The cello’s brief cadenza, accompanied by drums, glides directly into the third section, marked simply Tempo I. The grieving violin line from the very beginning and some beautiful writing for the lower strings lead to the cello’s long flow of intense melody.

A snare drum announces the spirited Allegretto, a scherzo-like section that races along, propelled by furious outbursts from the percussion and shrieks from the full orchestra. A brief cello cadenza makes the transition into the Lento. This is the longest movement in the concerto—and perhaps its expressive center. The lamenting violins from the opening return once more, and lower strings set a somber mood. Here the cello makes a long solo journey over some incredible writing for the orchestra. One of the pleasures of this concerto is how good it sounds: slithering strings, ringing bells, great shimmering rips, deep chords. The next two sections—Allegretto and Poco meno mosso— are both scherzo-like, with a brilliant cello part over spirited outbursts from the orchestra, particularly the percussion. The cello responds to all this with a long cadenza that flows directly into the final section. Back comes the pulsing string lines from the concerto’s beginning, the cello sings its final lament, and—after so much furious energy—the Cello Concerto No. 2 glides icily into silence.

It has been an intense journey: long, dark, dramatic—and finally enigmatic.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, bell tree, bongos, chimes, crotales, cymbals, field drum, gong, guiro, rototoms, snare drum, tambourine, tamtam, temple blocks, timbales, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger


Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 3 in F major, Opus 90

The shortest of Brahms’ symphonies may also be his most complex. The dense interweaving of major and minor tonalities, florid and jarring themes, is unlike anything that had gone before it. The context of its creation was unique. The year was 1883, and Brahms had just turned 50—a milestone few men relish. Sure enough, he was enamored of a younger singer, the contralto Hermine Spies, and suddenly he’d begun writing lieder for the alto range.

Portly and prone to beer and cigars, the bachelor composer with the enormous beard had grown melancholy about his prospects with women. The texts of the songs, as Jan Swafford points out in his fine 1997 biography, dwell on being “over the hill.” Thus, instead of his usual posh vacation-spas like that at Bad Ischl, he spent the summer in a country house overlooking the Rhine in Wiesbaden, where Hermine lived. It’s not clear what, if anything, went on between them, but it’s reasonable to presume that he poured much of his emotion into his main project for the summer, the Third Symphony.

The First Symphony, 15 years in the works, had taught Brahms much about forging an individual style, and about weaning himself from Beethoven. The Second came out in a flow that at least one writer has suggested was a little too fast.

The Third, written after a six-year hiatus and composed and scored in a few weeks, was intriguing to its first listeners partly because of the way it seemed to meld the First’s struggle with the mellifluous melodic style of the Second. (Granted, the hiatus had seen the completion of the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures.)

Already at its premiere in Vienna in 1883, with Hans Richter on the podium, the Third was proclaimed by many to be the composer’s greatest work up to that time. Ironically, this was just the sort of mutual acclaim by press and public that seemed to make Brahms uneasy. For how does one top one’s “greatest work so far”?

Faust and beyond
There is some evidence, too, that Brahms did not start from scratch when working on the Third. For the middle two movements of the Symphony, he might have drawn upon music he had sketched in 1881 as incidental music for Goethe’s Faust. In any case, the composer has integrated these movements into a symphonic conception of almost unprecedented unity. Some have gone so far as to characterize the Third in terms of a cyclic plan like that of Liszt’s piano concertos, in which an entire multi-movement work is conceived as a single continuous structure.

Indeed, the tonal plan of the Third Symphony is unusual in many respects—such as the use of C major and C minor, respectively, for the two inner movements; and the return of early thematic material at the end of the work is only one of many means by which the four movements are unified. “What a harmonious mood pervades the whole!” said Clara Schumann of the Third, immediately perceiving this sense of wholeness. “All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart, each one a jewel.”

major and minor, locked in combat

allegro con brio. Much has been written of the stupendous rising motto in the brass that opens the Symphony’s first movement, which forms an essential building-block for the entire piece. The signature of F—A-flat—F is heard not only in the massive wind chords that begin the piece, but also in the bass line that accompanies the subsequent string theme.

The A-natural of the main theme’s outline of F—A—F casts itself in immediate relief with the A-flat of the bass, creating a major-minor tension whose spring-like coil unwinds itself throughout the Symphony. Several writers have pointed out the resemblance of the first descending string theme to a subject in Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, a connection that makes sense in light of Brahms’ summer home on the Rhine. If the development section seems too concise for the material presented in the exposition, Brahms makes up for this by extending the movement through a substantial coda that elaborates the essential descending motif.

andante. The second movement is uncomplicated but darkly shaded, encompassing a hymn-like first theme and a pointedly contrasted second subject, heard in the clarinets and bassoons, that—in a bit of structural slight-of-hand—is skipped in the recapitulation but instead becomes part of the final movement’s resolution.

poco allegretto. The third movement, neither scherzo nor minuet, reminds us somewhat of the composer’s intermezzos for piano, and features one of his most passionate melodies.

allegro. The finale, beginning squarely in F minor, serves as a genuine culmination, and its tranquil coda in F major heightens the sense of relief, indeed of the “triumph” of major over minor, and of resolution over tension.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by Paul Horsley

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