Program Notes: André Watts with Osmo Vänskä

Program Notes: André Watts with Osmo Vänskä

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Full program notes:

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen
Born: June 9, 1865, Nørre-Lyndelse, Denmark
Died: October 3, 1931, Copenhagen

Pan and Syrinx, Pastorale, Opus 49

When Carl Nielsen composed Pan and Syrinx at the end of January 1918, he was under a deadline: his daughter Anne Marie was going to marry the Hungarian violinist Emil Telmányi on February 6, and he was writing the piece as a wedding present for the young couple. The premiere took place on February 11, five days after the wedding.

For his inspiration, Nielsen chose the ancient Greek myth of Pan and Syrinx, in which a nymph named Syrinx flees the advances of the Arcadian god Pan—half-goat, halfman— who pursues her violently. With capture imminent, Syrinx rushes into the river Ladon and prays to be turned into a reed. The gods grant her wish, and from that reed Pan cuts the pipes on which he plays (hence, “Pan-pipes”). However odd this choice of story may be for a wedding gift to one’s daughter, it was not a commentary on her choice of husband: Telmányi was an excellent violinist who worked hard to promote his father-in-law’s music.

Listeners might best approach Pan and Syrinx as a miniature tone poem: in it Nielsen generates a striking range of instrumental color. Early reviewers felt its subtle palette of colors reflected the influence of Debussy, who also wrote a piece inspired by this topic. For his part, Nielsen referred to this work simply as a “Pastoral Scene for Orchestra.”

The fine sense of color is evident from the first measures, where the flute and cello have solos; along the way such percussion instruments as tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, ratchet and triangle tint the music’s exotic atmosphere. It is not difficult to make out the rough stamping of the satyr in the powerful passages for full orchestra, or the nymph’s terror and flight in the woodwind solos, particularly the many passages for English horn.

At the end, Syrinx makes her self-sacrificial escape, and Nielsen concludes with a wonderful chord: high strings convey a sense of space and calm, while the story’s brutality is reflected in quiet dissonances.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, snare drum, cymbals, ratchet, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius
Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna (formerly Tavastehus), Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää (near Helsinki)

Symphony No. 3 in C major, Opus 52

Of Sibelius’ seven symphonies, the Third may be the least played and least known—the composer himself referred to it as his beloved and least fortunate child. It has many subtle beauties, an indisputable strength of purpose and ideas that are developed in imaginative ways. But these are rendered less than obvious by Sibelius’ use of lean orchestral textures, air of classical restraint (in contrast to the heroic mold of the First and Second Symphonies) and economy rather than expansiveness in overall layout, as well as the absence of memorable, expansive themes.

Sibelius’ Third must have seemed quaintly anachronistic when it came out—around the same time as works like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Glière’s Third, Strauss’ Salome and Scriabin’s Divine Poem, all conceived on a grand scale for oversized orchestra and filled with hyperemotional trauma.

But to Sibelius, there was something almost sacred about writing a symphony. He believed in the purity of the genre, and he believed that all symphonies since Beethoven, with the exception of those of Brahms, had been perverted into symphonic poems. “Music begins where words leave off,” he wrote. “A symphony should be music first and last…the essence of a symphony [lies in] severity of style and the profound logic that creates an inner connection among all the motifs.” As the late musicologist Michael Steinberg so deliciously said of this work, “there is no imagery and no drama for you to lose yourself in except that of the musical events themselves. This is like Haydn: you can’t do anything with it except listen to it, and it is meant for people who really listen.”

The composer conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony with the Helsinki Philharmonic on September 26, 1907.

allegro moderato. The first movement is in traditional sonata form, with two contrasting themes in the exposition, a development section and recapitulation. The opening measures bring us the first of those themes, a quiet processional in the lower strings followed a few moments later by a jaunty whistle in the woodwinds. The second theme arrives in the cellos in the key of B minor—a long, forlorn subject marked by syncopations and restless energy. The development section concerns itself almost exclusively with a rhythmic figure that formed a prominent component of the first theme—a grouping of four even 16th-notes, which Sibelius now turns into a continuous flow. The development grows inexorably in strength until it reaches a grand climax where the opening processional theme returns gloriously, now once again in the home key of C major.

andantino con moto, quasi allegretto. The rarely used key of G-sharp minor was Sibelius’ choice for the second movement, which consists of a single wistful theme of pastoral character heard in successive entries by pairs of woodwinds (flutes, clarinets) or in the violins. Two episodes interrupt the proceedings, the first a brief woodwind chorale, the second somewhat fitful in its stop-and-go movement and frequent changes of timbres. When the principal theme returns, it is now more richly and subtly colored.

moderato – allegro, ma non tanto. The “finale” is peculiar in that it is actually two movements in one—not two separate movements connected by a bridge passage, but a single movement whose second half grows organically out of the first. The first half contains wisps and tendrils of motifs (“a flickering phantasmagoria of elusive scraps,” in the words of Jack Diether) thrown out in seemingly fragmentary form. These eventually coalesce into a broad, majestic theme with a distinctive rhythmic pattern of long-long-short-short-long, on which the symphony rides boldly to its grand, C-major conclusion.

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

Program note by Robert Markow.

Carl Nielsen

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

Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 83

Like German poets, painters and musicians before him, including Dürer and Goethe, Brahms found solace and inspiration in crossing the Alps to Italy. He was 44 when he indulged in his first Italian sojourn, touring as far south as Sicily, and during these travels he drafted his initial ideas for a second piano concerto. Three years had passed when, after a second Italian journey, Brahms applied himself to the work in earnest, and within two months it was finished. He himself was soloist at the premiere, on November 9, 1881, in Budapest.

To master the B-flat Concerto, the pianist must have at his or her command powerful chords, a wide span of the hands, and the technical prowess to contend with challenging passages in octaves, thirds and sixths, as well as with Brahms’ complex and subtle rhythms. Such a vehicle tests the greatest pianists of each succeeding generation. Since Brahms’ Second was first performed with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1926 by the noted Russian pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch (the son-in-law of Mark Twain), guest artists performing it with this Orchestra have included Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin and Emanuel Ax.

the music

allegro non troppo. The dreamy phrase with which the horns inaugurate the concerto hints at far more than will be delivered at so early a stage in the work. Immediately the piano responds with quiet, plush chords, and not further along than the sixth bar, the winds interject their own response, which is destined to play a major role in the course of the spacious sonata design. Once the piano has burst forth with a big statement all its own, the orchestra confirms the idea in its full sonority, and the movement shifts into high gear.

allegro appassionato. This radiant and lyric concerto was so “harmless”—to borrow one of the composer’s sly adjectives—that he was impelled to insert a jolting and tempestuous scherzo. Announced by the keyboard, the surging figure rolls in like a great tidal wave. Latent violence is contained by a contrasting strain, tranquil in the upper strings, and offset by a heroic trio section in D major. But the sweeping force of Brahms’ subject is only briefly deflected, and once again it engulfs the scherzo.

andante. An outpouring of solo cello song unlocks the Andante, melancholy and nocturnal in mood; for the moment the piano is silent as the melody unfolds over a rocking 6/4 pulse. When the soloist at last begins to ruminate upon the theme, the subject is never quite stated in full, though its character is preserved throughout the rhapsodic figurations.

Eventually the placid scene dissolves, and the music grows turbulent with menacing trills and high voltage arpeggiations—gestures that seem wild, yet they are a variant of the lyric cello theme. The storm soon passes, and in one of the most affecting moments of the concerto, the keyboard serves as accompanist to the exalted strain flowing quietly from a pair of clarinets, the tempo even slower than before.

allegretto grazioso. After the high drama of the slow movement, the finale is at risk of seeming anti-climactic, especially since its very heading suggests charm and gracefulness, and its topic is a lilting refrain. But in substituting grace for grandeur, Brahms has created music that turns out to be thoroughly disarming. Structurally, this conclusion is an airy rondo, light of heart and agile in movement. Such well-bred merriment has antecedents in the eighteenth-century, which suddenly does not seem so remote from this Romantic concerto.

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

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

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