LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat (Emperor) (1809)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat (Emperor) (1809)

i.Allegro

ii.Adagio un poco mosso

iii.Allegro

Beethoven’s reaction to Napoleon’s self-anointment as Emperor of France in 1804 was unequivocal; he scratched out the dedication he had intended for his epoch-making Third Symphony, saying ‘So – he is human after all,’ and changed it to ‘Eroica’ (‘Heroic Symphony’) – in memory of a Great Man’. One can easily imagine, in that case, what his reaction would have been if he had known that his final, and grandest, piano concerto would posthumously be known as the Emperor. The nickname probably stuck after the piano-maker and composer JB Cramer (1771-1858) described the work as ‘an emperor among concertos’, admittedly a fitting tag for such an aristocratic work.

 

There was nevertheless an imperial connection, since in mid-1809 while Beethoven was in Vienna the city surrendered to Napoleon’s forces, and the work was written during the French occupation of the city and dedicated to his patron Archduke Rudolph. However, having struggled increasingly to perform his own works for piano and orchestra, Beethoven reluctantly realised when the premiere of the E flat Concerto was imminent that his deafness was now far too advanced for him adequately to present the complexities of the ensembleafter this he would write no more for concertante forces, preferring to trail-blaze in the solo piano and chamber repertoire. The concerto was premiered in Leipzig on 28 November 1811 by Friedrich Schneider, and its Vienna premiere would be given the following spring by the celebrated virtuoso and teacher Carl Czerny. 

Having created a unique soft opening to the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven begins the Fifth with another masterstroke;  three regal chords, in the home key of E flat, then the subdominant (A flat)  and then the dominant (B flat), each provide a springboard for the piano to announce its presence with massive cadenza-like split-chords, before finally propelling the orchestra into the exposition of the main themes, the first virile, the second quietly military. The piano’s re-entry is almost self-effacing – a lyrical version of the muscular first subject – but its stature increases until a second exposition arrives with the piano an equal partner. The development is based almost exclusively around the first subject, in particular the fragment of dotted rhythm. With the recap of the exposition there comes the expectation of a cadenza for the soloist, but this does not materialise. Instead there is a thoroughly majestic coda, the soloist riding above the military dotted rhythms with glittering arpeggio figures.

The slow movement is in the remote key of B major, its initial mood not unlike that of Mozart’s Concerto No 21 in C, K467. Strings then added woodwind create a dream-like atmosphere, which the piano continues in ruminative triplets, shortly developing into similarly thoughtful semiquavers. As in K467 time seems to stand still, and even at its height the movement remains restrained. Eventually a sustained B in the orchestra is gently nudged down to a Bb by the horns, returning us to the key of E flat, and the piano quietly explores what, moments later, bursts into life as the dynamic Rondo theme of the finale. Between incarnations of the theme the episodes visit sometimes more lyrical territory, but the movement as a whole is some of the most genial and effervescent music Beethoven wrote. Eventually the piano subsides accompanied by timpani, before setting off on waves of mercurial semiquavers which rush the orchestra into the exultant last few bars. 

Hits: 1

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony No 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished) (1822)

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony No 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished) (1822)

 i.    Allegro moderato

ii.    Andante con moto

Schubert was the son of a Viennese suburban schoolmaster who was poor but enlightened, so although the composer’s early life was deprived in terms of a comfortable home, by the age of 11 he was a chorister in the Imperial Chapel and receiving a sound training from Beethoven’s teacher, none other than the composer who had been Mozart’s great rival, Antonio Salieri. Even at this early age the creative fires burned within Schubert particularly in the field of setting poetry, and although his first official works date from the age of 15, sketches for songs have been found from his time in the Chapel which fed into mature compositions. By the age of 18 he had already written nearly a quarter of his eventual nine hundred-plus works, including dozens of Lieder (Art-songs) and five delectable, Mozart-inspired symphonies, but life remained difficult, however, partly because he found it hard to make money from his talent. The only performances of his works which he was able to obtain were by local amateur artists, which earned him little or nothing; in addition his health was poor and he had to be supported financially by friends, which caused him severe depression. He also failed to establish what might have been at least some regular income since he had a complete aversion to teaching music, although he had been a schoolteacher for a while as a teenager.

 

Nevertheless music poured from him almost as if he knew all along that his time on earth would be limited, and he graced almost every genre from chamber music and song to religious music and even opera, together with symphonic orchestral music – although wouldn’t it have been wonderful, given his exalted gift for melody, to have had a Schubert concerto or two?

 

In 1821 he made extensive sketches for a 7th Symphony, in E major, but failed to complete it – so in fact there are two Schubert Unfinished symphonies. There have been a number of completions of No 7, although some editors have actually numbered the B minor symphony as No 7we know the B minor as No 8 from the original version of the most comprehensive catalogue of Schubert’s works, that by the scholar Otto Deutsch, published in England as recently as 1951, but revisions of Deutsch are suggesting now that No 8 really should be No 7 – old habits die hard however! Incidentally, Deutsch’s chief challenge was that only about a hundred of the composer’s works were actually published in his lifetime. In fact we owe the discovery of many of his works to musical detectives such as Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms and our own Sir Arthur Sullivan, who on a trip to Vienna in 1867 unearthed no less than six of the nine symphonies and a number of other works. The Great C Major symphony, No 9, had been found mouldering in a drawer by Robert Schumann in 1838 ten years after Schubert’s death.

 

So, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Some eighteen years after Beethoven’s Eroica had broken the symphonic mould, now came Schubert’s B minor in a new mould all of its own, in its way an elemental experience just as potent as the Eroica. The scarcely-relieved tragedy of the first movement and the bleak lyricism of the second offer a complete emotional experience, heralding the burgeoning Romantic movement. Its apparent structural incompleteness has always been an enigma, however, particularly since Schubert lived for a further six years after its composition. Theories abound. Was he just too busy to complete it? Was the onset of the syphilis from which he was to suffer for those last years of his life a debilitating force just at the wrong time as he worked on the latter movements? It seems the theory that he came to feel that the work was perfect in only two movements does not hold water – for one thing it ends in the wrong key, E major, only part-way through what might have been projected as a symphonic key-structure – so it seems most likely that the work remains incomplete by accident.

Reinforcing this theory is the fact that, having dedicated the work to the Graz Musical Society, Schubert somewhat ill-advisedly gave the score as it stood to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a member of the Society, but Hüttenbrenner failed to pass the score on and only revealed that he had it 43 years later in 1865 when he was 76 and, perhaps, realised that he ought not to reach the end of his life without revealing his secret, in case the work proved to be a masterpiece. His confidant was the conductor Johann von Herbeck, a staunch advocate of Schubert, who would conduct the premiere in December 1865, but even he refused to acknowledge the lack of subsequent movements and apparently added the hopelessly inappropriate finale of the D major Third Symphony.

 

It seems that the score entrusted to Hüttenbrenner comprised the two movements we know, together with some sketches for a third movement, the first two pages in full score and the remainder in short score, missing most of the Trio section. It seems also that these pages were torn from the main body of the score and found separately. In fact in 2003 the MSO gave the first British performance of a completion of the Scherzo and Trio by Laurence Wright, a former teaching colleague of MSO principal trumpet Bob Steele. Sketches possibly for a last movement were, it is thought, pressed into service instead for his opera Rosamunde. There have been many completions of the latter two movementsbut the overwhelming majority of performances present the two movements alone as an organic whole, the first orchestral evidence of Schubert’s very own, hugely powerful voice.

 

Allegro moderato: Cellos and basses intone a darkly tragic prelude to the bleak first subject, which is sung by oboe and clarinet accompanied by muttering strings. Drama simmers close to the surface, but as a crisis finally materialises, made still more powerful with the addition of trumpets, trombones and timpani, the horns and bassoons offer some solace, introducing the lyrical second subject, first in the cellos. Peace reigns only briefly, however, and after the exposition repeat the development takes us into desolation and anguish. Following the recap of the main themes the coda finishes the movement almost in nihilism.

 

The Andante once again offers some comfort at the start, horns and bassoons introducing the consolatory first theme against a lyrical counter-melody in the cellos, but the mood changes rapidly into anger, and then becomes bleaker as the first violins are left alone to herald anxious syncopation as a bed for questioning woodwind, and soon conflict rules.  Finally the work ends in cold-comfort, perhaps revealing the composer’s sense of impending doom.

Hits: 1

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Overture: The Fair Melusine (1833-5)

The Fair Melusine is one of Mendelssohn’s less well-known works, but it does help to illustrate the fact that if only the composer had been in a position to designate this and similar works, such as The Hebrides, as Symphonic Poems rather than merely Concert Overtures he would have been thought a pioneer of the genre. Of course The Hebrides ranks with the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a work of complete genius, but Melusine, subtitled The Mermaid and the Knight, has undoubted virtue in conveying a more peaceful seascape and the melodrama of a narrative derived from legend.

 

The work was commissioned in November of 1832 by the Philharmonic Society of London, which had nurtured a special relationship with Mendelssohn; in fact under the terms of the commission three works were requested for a fee of a hundred guineas, but such was the warmth with which Mendelssohn reciprocated that four were provided, the other major work in the four being the Italian Symphony. Melusine was designed as an overture to an opera by Conradin Kreutzera project which had been rejected by Beethoven; unsurprisingly the opera has disappeared without trace.

 

The plot concerns Melusine, a mermaid, who has the gift of becoming human for most of every week, desiring to taste the pleasures of human life, and marries Knight Raimund on condition that he does not seek her out on a Saturday, the day she reserves for aquatic activity. Eventually, of course, her secret is discovered and Raimund loses her back to the seain the original legend the two are reunited in death.

 

The overture was finished by November 1833 and first performed in London in April 1834, but the response was lukewarm and Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, also a gifted musician and whose opinion he relied on implicitly, suggested that he could make improvements. By November 1835 he had completed a revision, which is the version in which the work has been heard ever sinceMendelssohn asked the Philharmonic Society to destroy the first version, but this was never accomplished. The new version met with much greater success, the composer Robert Schumann praising Mendelssohn for his ‘characteristic poetic grasp’ and his ‘alluring’ portrait of Melusine. The work as a whole epitomises Mendelssohn’s elegance without perhaps distilling the last degree of his genius to the same extent as those works mentioned above.

 

 

In fact musicologists have been of the opinion that the opening seascape, with rippling wind and strings, influenced Wagner’s portrait of the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens in the first instalment of his Ring cycle, The Rhinegold. Greater drama ensues with dynamic rhythms portraying the tempestuous relationship, before a more elegant secondary theme sheds a more romantic light. Midway Melusine returns to the sea for her Saturday sojourndrama returns, rising to a stirring climax as Melusine’s identity is revealed. Sadly she slips back into her watery home. 

Hits: 1

RICHARD RODGERS (1902-1979) arr. ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT (1894-1981) Symphonic Picture: Oklahoma! (1943 / 1955)

Robert Russell Bennett was a distinguished Broadway and Hollywood orchestrator and arranger, whose theatrical and film legacy alone amounts to over three hundred productions, working with many of the biggest names including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. Bennett would be given sketches in varying detail by the composers for orchestration; Gershwin, for example, would give him a two-piano score with suggestions for instrumentation, while Richard Rodgers would merely write out the tune and then give Bennett very much a free hand.

Having orchestrated all these productions Bennett was given licence to arrange many of them into Symphonic Pictures, including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, perhaps his best known, Irving Berlin’s Showboat, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (which MSO played in the 2017 Prom), and a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows
including South Pacific and The Sound of Music together with Oklahoma!. It is difficult to imagine better arrangements, and one feels at the end that one has virtually seen the show.

Oklahoma! was a groundbreaking musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 11 in 1943, and based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs. Set in the mid-west in 1906 its context is the formation of the state of Oklahoma, but its plot centres round Laurey Williams, a farm girl in love with the somewhat feckless cowboy Curly McLain but coveted by her evil farm hand Jud Fry. The sub-plot concerns the flighty Ado Annie and her beau Will Parker, their romance threatened by the scheming peddler Ali Hakim. The show won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and has remained one of the most-produced shows of all; the integration of plot, dialogue, song and dance pointed the way for many subsequent musicals, not least the further collaborations of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oklahoma! was filmed in 1955 starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and won Bennett an Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

His Symphonic Picture: Oklahoma! begins with a dreamy foretaste of Oh, What O Beautiful Morning, Pore Jud is Daid and People Will Say We’re In Love. The piece bursts into life with The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends from the Box Social in Act 2, leading into the vigorous title song, Oklahoma! (with exclamation mark!). Next, People Will Say We’re In Love, epitomises the tentative romance between Laurey and Curly, followed by Out of My Dreams, the second act ballet which crystallises their secret desires. Oh, What a Beautiful Morning begins the stage action, and became the most singable number from the show. Next comes Pore Jud is Daid, a humorous mock funeral dirge, in which Curly fools Jud into thinking that he will be remembered fondly (‘His fingernails have never been so clean.’). The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, in which Curly describes the carriage he’s borrowing to take Laurey to the Box Social, is surely the most delightful number, orchestrated by Bennett to include cocks crowing in saxes and clarinets. The coquettish Many a New Day, in which Laurey declares her ‘footloose and fancy-free-ness’ is followed by the soft-shoe-shuffle Kansas City, in which Will describes his trip to the city and the new world of mod-cons. The barn dance number from the Social, Farmers Dance, leads into the comic I Cain’t Say No, in which Ado Annie describes her lack of will-power when it comes to men, and finally the apotheosis-reprise of People Will Say and Beautiful Morning.

Hits: 96

GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934) St Paul’s Suite, op 29 (1912)

i.  Jig
ii.  Ostinato
iii.  Intermezzo
iv.  Finale (The Dargason)

Holst was born into a musical family of German origin in Cheltenham and his father saw to it that he had every musical advantage; he began composing at an early age, citing Richard Wagner and Arthur Sullivan as surprisingly disparate influences. Stud) at the Royal College came at the right time for Holst, for the Germanic influences which Vaughan Williams found in his training with Stanford were now beginning to be diluted, as the two main pillars of musical establishment, Stanford and Parry, began increasingly to value British musical tradition. Holst met Vaughan Williams in 1895 and the two became the greatest of friends, even appraising each other’s compositions — indeed RVW professed that Holst was a great influence on his own work. Whilst Holst was never quite as passionate about the folk tradition as RVW was, he too valued the work of the father of the English folksong revival, Cecil Sharp (1859-
1924), who had travelled the country collecting folksongs, and it was Sharp who was to inspire Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody.

Holst’s talents ran wide; he spent some time as a professional trombonist, playing under Richard Strauss and Hans Richter, but also taught music for nearly thirty years at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. His interest in astrology inspired the composition of his most famous work, The Planets (1918), a work of the highest quality. The St Paul’s Suite, one of a number of works written for the girls of the school, immediately found its place in the timeline of great 20th century British works for strings, which began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and continued later with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Holst’s work is in four movements, each strongly influenced by the folk tradition.

The opening movement is a pair of jigs, at first full-blooded but later pared down to give each section the limelight, and towards the end heralding a quickening of the tempo with a glorious upward scale sequence.

The second movement, Ostinato (a repeating accompaniment figure), sees second violins sharing the ongoing rippling figure which accompanies a folk-like melody initially introduced by a solo violin.

The Intermezzo begins desolately, introducing a melancholy, folk-based violin solo which leads into a cry of desperation in the whole orchestra. The violin solo continues, echoed by a solo viola. A rhythmic faster section dispels the gloom, but the movement eventually ends once again in sadness with a solo string quartet.

The finale is arranged from the last movement of Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band and is based on two dances from Playford’s manual of folk-dance from 1651. The main theme is known as The Dargason, an exciting jig, which is suddenly juxtaposed cleverly with Greensleeves. Eventually the texture fragments and the soloviolin ushers in the final chord.

Hits: 75

EDVARD GRIEG (1843 – 1907) Peer Gynt: Suite No 1, op 46 (1875/1888)

i.  Morning Mood
ii.  The Death of Ase
iii.  Anitra’s dance
iv.  In the Hall of the Mountain King

Strange as it may seem, Grieg was descended from a Scotsman, Alexander Greig (pronounced ‘Gregg’ of course), who settled in Bergen in the mid-18th century. He ran a fishing fleet and became well-known, but found it necessary to change the spelling to Grieg to make it easier for the Norwegians to pronounce. His great-grandson Edvard was taught by his mother and made such rapid progress that he was packed off to study in Leipzig, which he found dull and pedantic. He returned to Scandinavia to study in Copenhagen with Niels Gade, a disciple of Mendelssohn, which he found far more rewarding. Also at this time he met Rikard Nordrak, composer of the hNorwegian National anthem, who infected Grieg with his passion for Scandinavian folk music — this was to infuse Grieg’s compositions for the remainder of his career.

Grieg mostly composed on a small scale; he was generally at his best composing suites in which each movement knows its own span, such as the two Peer Gynt Suites and the Holberg Suite (first for piano, then arranged for strings), although he also tried his hand at a symphony, a set of Symphonic Variations and three exquisite violin
sonatas. With the Piano Concerto, however, he rose above his natural inclinations and intuitively produced his only undisputed larger-scale masterpiece.

In 1867 the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, based on legend, in which the hero leaves Norway to spend many years in search of romance and adventure all over the world, including the African desert and Egypt. With a new production in prospect in 1875 Ibsen decided to invite Grieg to write extensive incidental music, and the composer wrote no less than 26 pieces, from which he later extracted two suites, No 1 in 1888 and No 2 in 1891. The suites present eight of the most attractive movements, but not in chronological order.

Suite No 1, marginally the more popular of the two, begins with one of Grieg’s most well-known short movements, usually known as Morning, but originally entitled Morning Mood, a wonderful representation of a sunrise only marginally tarnished by the knowledge that Peer is in the Moroccan desert and the stage direction runs:
Dawn. Acacias and palm trees. Peer is sitting in a tree using a wrenched-off branch to defend himself against a group of monkeys.

The Death of Åse (pronounced ‘Awsa’ apparently), describes the heartbreaking death of his mother at the end of Act 3 of the 5, before Peer leaves for more adventures. Anitra’s Dance is voluptuous and exotic, performed as Peer tries to seduce a Bedouin girl in the Moroccan desert; with this dance however, she outsmarts him, stealing his money and disappearing.

In the Hall of the Mountain King from Act 2 sees Peer in the Norwegian mountain home of the Troll King, who says that Peer may marry his daughter on condition that he become a troll himself. Luckily Peer manages to escape and his increasingly desperate flight is chronicled in this final movement of Suite 1.

Hits: 74

GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875) Suite No 1: Carmen (1875)

i.   Prélude – Aragonaise
ii.   Intermezzo
iii.  Séguedille
iv.  Les Dragons d’AlcaIa
v.  Les Toréadors

It is surely one of the greater musical tragedies that Bizet died thinking that his great work Carmen was destined to be a failure. Having been commissioned in 1872 to write an opera for the Opera-Comique to follow up other operatic ventures such as La Jolie Fille du Perth and Les Pecheurs du Perles (The Pearl Fishers), none of which had been greatly successful, Bizet chose to adapt a somewhat controversial 1846 novel by Prosper Mérimée about Carmen, a free spirit whose outrageous dalliances result in her murder by Don Jose, soldier turned smuggler. Bizet was assisted with the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, whose adaptation attempted to make Carmen’s fickleness a little more acceptable to the at-that-time somewhat reserved French public by making her unmarried, and added a foil for Carmen’s behaviour with the character of the virginal Micaela.

The opera was completed late in 1874, but the first performance, on 3 March 1875, was little short of a disaster, the subject matter perceived as worthy only of the gutter. Despite an initial run of 48 performances critical reaction was hostile, and Bizet descended into depression, dying from a heart attack exactly three months after the premiere at the age of 36. If he had only lived another year he would have seen Carmen circulate round Europe and at last find popularity in France. Brahms, who wrote nothing operatic himself, was transfixed by it and saw some twenty performances, while Tchaikovsky predicted that it would become the world’s most popular opera, and even Wagner admitted to being impressed. Bizet’s music was well-researched and offers a convincingly Spanish experience; it provides layer after layer of psychological character-development, from the teasing seductiveness of Carmen herself through the arrogance of Escamillo, the bullfighter, to the pained passion of Don Jose, who in Shakespearian terms ‘loves not wisely but too well’, via the innocence of Micaela. Two orchestral suites were drawn from the opera immediately after Bizet’s death.

The brief Prélude presents the Fate motif which recurs in the opera at crucial moments, then the Aragonaise, based on a dance from the Aragon region of Spain, paints a picture of the colourful street outside the bullfight. The Intermezzo, one of the orchestral flute’s great moments, appears before the penultimate act to describe what at long last seems to be a stable relationship between Carmen and Don Jose. The Séguedille (Seguedilla) is in the opera sung by Carmen to seduce Don Jose into releasing her from prison at the end of Act l. The Dragoons of Alcala is a mock-military march with bassoons prominent painting the shadowy mugglers’ hideout to which Don Jose has defected at the start of Act 11. Finally The Toréadors portrays the strutting arrogance of Escamillo and the other Toreadors on their way to the bullfight. It is Carmen’s desertion of the sincere but weak Don Jose for the shallow glitter of Escamillo which precipates her murder at the hands of Jose as the bullfight proceeds in the background.

Hits: 73

CHARLES GOUNOD (1818-1893) Petite Symphonie, Op 216 (1885)

  1. Adagio et Allegretto
  2. Andante Cantabile
  3. Scherzo
  4. Finale

Gounod was born in Paris, and studied piano from an early age with his mother, who was only too pleased to support his talent. He was to study at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1839 won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand, some half-a-century after his artist father had won in the Painting category, and nine years after Berlioz had won it at his fourth attempt.

Study of the classic Italian composers such as Palestrina resulted in a lifelong passion for sacred music and a deep faith, which at one point almost resulted in his taking holy orders.

His first great success was the St Cecilia Mass, performed in Paris on the Patron Saint of Music’s Day, 22 November 1855, but his interests were not just sacred, and during that year he also wrote two symphonies, the first providing a model for the Symphony in C written by one of his most promising students, the 17-year-old Georges Bizet. These days, following its rediscovery in 1933 after being lost since its composition, Bizet’s is far more popular than his mentor’s symphonies!

First forays into opera were less than successful, but in 1859 he wrote what would become recognised as his masterpiece, Faust, an opera based on Goethe’s play, telling in trenchant terms of the consequences of Faust selling his soul to Satan in the form of Méphistophélés. His opera Roméo et Juliette also remains in the repertoire. Apart from Faust, Gounod is perhaps best known for his Ave Maria, in which he took the keyboard Prelude No 1 in C by JS Bach and constructed above it the heartfelt melody which Bach’s harmony seems to imply.

The Petite Symphonie was written in 1885 for the flautist Paul Taffanel, and is scored for wind ensemble including two horns but only one flute part, for Taffanel himself. It is in four short movements, all attractive and beautifully written. The first movement has a slow introduction which leads into a crisp Allegretto, then the Andante cantabile was obviously designed to showcase Taffanel himself. The Scherzo is wonderfully cheerful, then the Finale brings the work to a sparkling close.

Hits: 83

FRANZ von SUPPE (1819-1895) Overture: Light Cavalry (1866)

Suppé started life with several major disadvantages. The first was that his parents, an Italian-Belgian father and an Austrian mother, saw fit to christen him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere Suppé-DemeIIi, which at least taught him almost all the letters of the alphabet from a very early age. The second was that, in common with a number of other composers, he had to contend with his parents trying to discourage him from studying music, preferring that he become a lawyer.

A move to Vienna cemented his musical training and, having simplified his name to the more Austrian Franz von Suppé, he found conducting, playing and singing opportunities in Vienna’s opera houses, at first unpaid but on the understanding that he would be invited to write for the theatre. He was to write over a hundred works for the stage in Vienna, including incidental music, farces and ballets, many of which have disappeared virtually without trace, and over 40 operettas, a small handful of which remain in the repertoire.

Best known of Suppé’s operettas are Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, and a small handful of others, Boccaccio, The Beautiful Galatea and Fatinitza, have seen the light of day briefly in recent years. The overtures to Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry are however staple repertoire.

Light Cavalry was composed to a libretto written by one Karl Costa and premiered on 21 March 1866 in the Carltheater, Vienna. The plot deals with the trials and tribulations of bringing two sets of lovers together, Kitt, the glazier, with Dorothea, and Hermann with Vilma, an orphan, the catalyst being the arrival of a troop of Hungarian Hussars, the Light Cavalry of the title.

The overture begins with trumpet fanfares and processional drama, before an Allegro in Hungarian style sweeps all before it. This leads directly into the most famous moment, a portrait of the Hussars as they gallop along in their finery, introduced by the trumpet. A full-blooded gypsy section represents the elemental passions at stake, before the return of the Hussars’ horseback ride carries us to the triumphant close.

Hits: 33

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881)

i. Allegro non troppo

ii. Allegro appassionato

iii. Andante

iv. Allegretto grazioso

Compared with some of the great masters Brahms as a composer was something of a late-developer. An accomplished pianist from a very early age and well-known in Hamburg, he nevertheless left it until 1853 to compose his first published compositions, the first two Piano Sonatas, when he was at the height of his friendship with Schumann and his secret love for Schumann’s wife Clara ( which was to remain, unrequited, until his death).

Most of his early compositions centred round the piano, written for himself of course, and the piano remained central to him for the whole of his composing life, his canon of works amounting to one of the major contributions in the history of composition.

His natural caution in terms of orchestral works, however, is well-known; conscious that he was regarded as the natural successor to Beethoven, and having flexed his muscles in 1858 with the elemental First Piano Concerto in D minor, he then, famously, took nearly twenty years, until 1876, to complete his First Symphony. The lyrical Second Symphony and Violin Concerto followed fairly rapidly, by which time he had confidently thrown off the Beethovenian yoke and matured into one of the great romantic masters, powerful yet sensitive, serious yet capable of wit and lightheartedness, all characteristics which appear in the Second Piano Concerto.  

The B flat major Piano Concerto appeared some twenty three years after the D minor, and immediately took its place as one of the greatest of all piano concertos. Although there had been concertos with four movements, including those termed Concerti Symphonique by the virtuoso pianist Henri Litolff, and there would later be other even larger works, including that by Busoni lasting over an hour, Brahms’s B flat was itself a concerto of well-and-truly symphonic proportions.

Written over a three-year period from 1878, begun on a break from composing the Violin Concerto and finished in Pressbaum, the work was dedicated affectionately to his teacher Edward Marxsen. Having initially wondered about adding a scherzo to the D minor concerto and then, even more unusually, to the violin concerto, this time he really took the plunge and added a second movement to the usual three, which combines power and mystery. He was desperately proud of the size of the finished work and having in 1877 teased his friends that the gloriously genial Second Symphony was going to be printed on black-edged paper, he now, four years later, wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg about the concerto saying: ‘I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’.

Brahms himself was the soloist at the work’s triumphant premiere in Budapest on 9 November 1881, and it rapidly became a calling-card for its composer/soloist all over Europe, except, sadly, Britain – Brahms couldn’t be persuaded to cross the English Channel. These days it seems to have become customary to say that the B flat is not a virtuoso concerto, perhaps due to the solo piano’s symphonic integration with the orchestra, but in 2006 the great American pianist Emanuel Ax, who would in 2011 give magisterial performances of both concertos on successive evenings at the BBC Proms, wrote: Like all the movements of the concerto the first movement is terrifyingly difficult….certainly none of us could ask for anything harder!’

A solo horn introduces the first theme of the opening movement, quietly suggesting the heroic nature of the movement. Strings answer suavely, then the piano announces its presence, stormily signalling the orchestral exposition of the main themes. A muscular dialogue between piano and orchestra ensues – although not without its moments of delicacy – drawn on a massive canvas lasting nearly twenty minutes and culminating in a dynamic coda. It seems amazing that Brahms could achieve such a massive concept without including trombones or tuba in this or the other three movements..

As if the power of all this were not enough, the piano immediately launches into the scherzo, the lower strings adding still greater force to the proceedings with urgent syncopation. After a short while a second theme arrives, at first mysterious and remote but later just as trenchant as the opening theme. A change of gear introduces a trio section which is full of rhetoric, before the piano calms proceedings down. The scherzo returns, once again leading to a powerful coda.

From here the work begins to reduce in scale, the Andante introducing a heartfelt solo cello to counterbalance the piano, which creates an ambience almost like chamber music. Indeed the extended cello solo begins the movement, its comforting, song-like line accompanied initially by strings and later woodwind and horns in restrained cross-rhythms. As is often the case with Brahms, the time signature, here 6/4, feels very ambiguous. The piano eases in to ruminate on the cello solo, and the movement rises to a height, the cello theme now strident, with stormy trills in the solo part. Soon the cello returns, now heightened in tenor clef, with the piano commenting, and the movement winds its way to a peaceful conclusion. It is thought that Brahms’s cello solo was influenced by a similar passage in the Romanze of the A minor Piano Concerto, Op 7, composed by Clara Schumann herself, a work which one hopes is due for a resurgence.

One now might expect a large-scale finale, but the piano sets us off by itself with the first theme which is playful and light-hearted, joined shortly by the orchestra in similar vein. Yes, the tone becomes a little more stormy, but very shortly the romantic and graceful second theme arrives, to be commented upon by the piano often in filigree textures. The piano introduces a high-spirited third theme and the orchestra joins in with a smile – is this really the Brahms who was jealous of his protégé Dvorak’s profusion of invention? At length the piano subsides into reflection for a moment before launching into the high-spirited coda, which brings the work to a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion.

Hits: 38