Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

i.   Allegro non troppo

ii.  Adagio non troppo

iii. Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) — Presto ma non assai —Tempo 1

iv.  Allegro con spirito

There is unquestionably a feeling of release in Brahms’s D major Symphony. After having laboured with the First Symphony for some fifteen years encumbered by the burden of being perceived as Beethoven’s successor, he completed the Second only a year later, almost as if floodgates had been opened. The D major is consequently a wonderful complement to the First in C minor; where that great work ends having achieved a blaze of light after its dark striving, rather in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth, the Second opens in a glow of autumnal sunshine. Indeed the work was begun on his summer holiday in 1877 at Portschach on Lake Worth, one of his favourite and most inspirational locations — the Violin Concerto Op 77 and the G major Violin Sonata Op 78 were to emerge from there in 1878, both in similar vein to Op 73 — and, excepting the more tormented moments of the slow movement, it sounds like the work of one at ease with himself at long last. In fact the journey from conception to first performance took only some four months, the first performance taking place at the Musikverein in Vienna on 30 December under Hans Richter, one of the composer’s most dedicated advocates. Not one normally much given to having fun, Brahms was so consumed with euphoria at having completed such a good-humoured work so easily that he teased his friends; his publisher Simrock was told that the symphony was ‘so melancholy you won’t be able to listen to it’, and after its first performance he told a friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, who had not been able to attend: ‘The musicians play my music with black armbands because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.’

During Brahms’s lifetime the size of orchestral string sections increased considerably, gradually developing the tradition of large-size Brahms performances, whilst woodwind and brass sections retained one player to a part; many magnificent performances on this scale have been given, even with double woodwind, sometimes occasioning criticism of Brahms’s ‘thick’ scoring, but the composer’s own instinct was for smaller forces. Although he himself was constrained to conduct the Second Symphony in 1878 with no less than twenty five first violins, given the choice he opted for much smaller sections, his favourite orchestra, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, having a string section of only 9, 9, 4, 4, 4 (firsts to basses). The M50 is pleased therefore to be giving its performance tonight in relatively authentic scale. Indeed the luminosity of much of the scoring in the Second Symphony is enhanced by the use of smaller sections.

The first movement opens serenely with a three-note figure (D, C#, D) in the cellos and basses which will pervade the work in various guises, and is explored in depth in the first movement development section; at the very opening it is answered by poised horns then the flute, then upper strings, before the first violins introduce a beautiful cantabile (singing) melody based on the initial motif. This leads into more strident, angular material with ascending leaps and Brahms’s characteristically muscular syncopation, sometimes as part of the melody, sometimes driving underneath. As always in Brahms the middle parts, violin II, viola, clarinet, horns and others, are often given great importance as the propulsive force. The second subject, sung by cellos and violas, is one of Brahms’s most serene inspirations. The crisis in the development sets the three notes of the motif in insistent syncopation within the ¾ time signature, and there is also a fugal passage based on the flute’s answering phrase from earlier. There is strident work for trombones, much more fully used in this work than in the First. The recap, when it comes, leads to a genial coda with playful staccato (strings pizzicato) answered by the horns recalling their very first entry earlier.

The darker Adagio is in the key of B major, and fails to fall into an accepted structure; its complexity makes it much harder work than the first movement. The opening echoes to a degree the First Symphony’s tortured Introduction, but reversed; the top line begins with cellos striving downwards, whilst the two bassoons’ counter—subject underneath aspires upwards to meet them. This section continues lyrically, but there is always an undercurrent of tension. Moving imperceptibly into 12/8 instead of 4/4 Brahms fosters a more gently lilting and somewhat wistful atmosphere with the woodwind, but each time the 4/4 returns the mood blackens, the first episode descending into true sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’ — a concept explored by composers such as Haydn in the late eighteenth century). As the movement progresses subject and counter—subject are used with the utmost skill. Eventually after its difficult journey the movement ends in peace.

The third movement, in G, lightens both the mood and the scoring. The pastoral opening theme, again with the initial semitones seminal, is introduced by oboe above plucked cellos, but once again there is a change of metre, one beat of the opening 3/4 ingeniously changing into a whole bar of 2/4, and the oboe’s melody transformed into a chattering motif for strings, then woodwind as a variant. Back in 3 the pastoral oboe theme becomes more luscious, but this is swept away by the final variant, Presto in 3/8, in which the theme represented in the backwards, quaver/crotchet rhythm actually inverts the shape of the oboe’s original phrase. The movement ends in pastoral stillness.

The finale, beginning with the D, C#, D motif again, proceeds in a tingling pianissimo for many bars until it springs to joyous life, eventually leading to a suavely noble theme not unlike that of the last movement of the First Symphony. Muscularity increases and a complete surprise ensues — Brahms turns into a Scotsman, introducing a passage of Scotch Snaps almost as if he were writing a Strathspey. During the development the initial motif is transformed into a triplet figure in a mood of temporary languor; this returns later, gradually transmuting into syncopations which propel us into the triumphant coda, with thrilling brass, bringing the work to a conclusion as joyful as Brahms was ever to write.

Notes by HDJ

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Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; world—famous as a composer after just five birthdays, he retired from composing before his tenth birthday and subsequently became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos Rossini. You will have guessed, of course, that he was born on 29 February, and that his fame actually arrived when he was in his early twenties. By the age of 38 he had written thirty-eight operas, but in 1829 he put down his pen and wrote little thereafter except the odd private chamber work until his death nearly forty years later.

His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6!) and in 1817 he completed no less than three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.

Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write a piece which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately, as his story shows, he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.

Semiramide (Sem—i—ram—i—day) is one of Rossini’s finest operas. Based, like Tancredi, on a tragedy by Voltaire and set in Babylon, the work is one of a series of more serious operas (Opera Seria) inspired by the dramatic sbprano Isabella Colbran, following his line of comic operas (Opera Buffa), which had included The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerento/a). Colbran became his mistress and then his wife, and she created the principal female roles in many of his Opera Seria.

The plot concerns Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, who wishes to marry Arsace and make him King, only to discover that he is her son. Eventually Arsace does succeed to the throne reluctantly when he kills Semiramide, “mistaking her in the dark for his rival Assur.

The overture to Semiramide too is, fittingly, one of Rossini’s finest, again using material from the opera, making it un-recyclable. It begins with solo timpani followed by quietly obsessive lower strings and crescendi, then there is a beautiful horn serenade with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The Presto begins with first violins in a theme which is at once softly energetic and elegant and shortly punctuated by brilliant woodwind comments, which leads to a strident climax with flashing upward scales. The second subject, marching strings accompanying virtuosic woodwind solos, leads then to scampering first violins in Rossini’s signature crescendo towards a further climax with military brass and woodwind — not for nothing was Rossini known as ‘Il Signor Crescendo’. All this repeats in the home key before a tragic ending.

Notes by HDJ

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Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

i.  Maestoso

ii.  Larghetto

iii. Allegro Vivace

Although Chopin was born near Warsaw his father was actually French, hence the French configuration and pronunciation of the family’s surname, which they never sought to adapt. Fryderyk did however adapt his Christian names for his new location, having been christened Frederic Francois Chopin, which in Polish became Fryderyk Franciszek. His mother and father were both accomplished musicians, and his early talent was nurtured carefully; he gave his first concerts aged seven, and also began composing at this time, although his earliest surviving manuscript is a polonaise written aged eleven.

During his period of study, first for three years from the age of 13 at the Warsaw Lyceum and then at Warsaw Conservatoire from 1826 until 1829, he composed and gave recitals, including playing for the Russian Tsar Alexander I in Warsaw in 1825. He began writing for piano and orchestra as soon as he felt able and his second published work, Variations on ‘La Ci darem la mano’ (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), Op 2 (1827, published 1830), inspired one of the most famous musical tributes ever; when Schumann, an exact contemporary of Chopin and also already a major pianist and composer, first heard the work in 1831 he exclaimed: ‘Hats off gentleman — a genius!’ The two piano concertos were written in 1829—30, but the majority of his work was for solo piano, although there was one piece for cello and piano inspired by a friend, which would be followed in 1846 by a wonderful Cello Sonata.

His piano works developed a uniquely lyrical and florid style, influenced greatly by Polish national dances such as the polonaise and the mazurka, and achieved a wonderful balance between simplicity and virtuosity — he was particularly inspired by hearing the flamboyant and impossibly virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini in Warsaw in 1829, writing a set of piano variations entitled Souvenir de Paganini in tribute, and the two have much in common in terms of their exploration of the heart of their respective instruments and their melodic gift, if not in terms of performing personality.

Chopin was to write peerless sets of Etudes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Nocturnes (the latter following the model of the Irish pianist John Field), and from 1835 until 1839 he wrote a series of twenty four Preludes, Op 28, one in each key, which in turn provided models for composers such as Rachmaninov, Debussy and Shostakovich. In 1838—9 while staying in Majorca with the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known as Georges Sand, in the early days of their ten—year relationship he wrote the famous ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, Op 28 No 15, which expresses the desperation of days of rain on an isle which they had hoped would be a sunny tonic for his always-delicate health. He was to die aged 39 in 1849, probably of tuberculosis; one of the earliest—ever photographs was taken of him, looking very ill and within weeks of his death.

As with Beethoven, the Second Piano Concerto was actually the first to be written, in 1829, and, like its companion, No 1 in E minor, Op 11, (1830), it has occasioned all sorts of patronising comment about its orchestration, and, as Mahler did with Schumann’s symphonies, some have seen fit even to reorchestrate the concertos; the great musical commentator Donald Francis Tovey, writing in 1936, neatly sums up an attempt on No 2 by one Carl Klindworth, whose richer reorchestration also needed the piano part to be revised. Tovey writes: Chopin’s orchestration….is an unpretentious and correct accompaniment to his piano writing. We may be grateful to Klindworth for taking so much trouble to demonstrate this. Even today cuts are often made in some of the purely orchestral passages, but tonight we shall play the work uncut

The orchestral introduction draws us neatly into the two main themes, the first in the strings, and the second in the woodwind. The piano enters in forthright fashion, and takes charge of proceedings, its role beautifully described by Tovey as ‘the perfection of ornament’. The movement follows sonata form in a satisfying exposition – development – recap – coda structure.

The Larghetto, greatly admired by both Schumann and Liszt, bathes us in heart-easing warmth in the orchestra and filigree in the solo part, but midway a dramatic recitative over extended string tremolando takes us into a shadowy world of disquiet, before the initial material returns.

The final Allegro Vivace begins as a conversational waltz and develops into a rondo, one of the episodes drawing on Chopin’s love of mazurka, the accompaniment including strings playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). Eventually a horn call signals the scintillating coda, which brings to an end a graceful and beautiful concerto.

Notes by HDJ

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