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: 10

Franz-Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Cello Concerto No 1 in C, Hob VIIb/1 (1761-5)

i Moderato (Cadenza by Joe Pritchard)
ii Adagio
iii Allegro Molto

Haydn’s role in developing both the symphony and the string quartet to a level of perfection which would be superseded in this era only by the still greater genius of Mozart (whom he mentored) and Beethoven (whom he tutored), is well-known and universally acknowledged.

His contribution to the concerto form, however, is, except for a small handful of works, somewhat underrated, even neglected. There are concertos for keyboards even as early as the mid-1750s, then for violin, horn, flute, oboe, and even double bass, to complement those which are in more regular use to this day, notably the trumpet concerto of 1796 and the cello concertos in C and D. Development of the concerto form over the second half of the eighteenth century, when Haydn was writing, largely fell to Mozart and the new breed of virtuoso-composers such as Clementi (piano) and Vietti (violin), and by the end of the century the form had evolved into a larger scale, usually with a sonata­ form first movement with perhaps an opportunity for virtuoso display within a free cadenza, and possibly a Rondo final movement. Haydn contributed to this evolution, but his major gift to the genre was his trumpet concerto, the first using the keyed trumpet invented by Anton Weidinger and therefore a huge step forward in virtuosity, and his cello concertos, which transcended Vivaldi’s model andintroduced the cello as an agile instrument just as capable of virtuoso display as the violin.

It is interesting to turn to the classic book Concerto, detailing the history and development of the genre by Percy M Young, written in 1957, and to find him, when writing about Haydn, referring only to the D major cello concerto. At this stage there was evidence of a C major concerto since Haydn had included its main theme in his own personal catalogue of works, but the work itself was missing. Then to the delight and gratitude of all cellists, the musicologist Oldrich Puckert, while delving in the Prague National Museum in 1961, discovered the score of what became identified as the missing concerto,almost exactly 200 years after its composition between the years 1761 and 1765.

The concerto is indeed an invaluable addition to the genre, and, having been written some 20 years before the D major,turns out to be a real trailblazer, its very size and the complexity of the solo part raising it to a completely new level. Its authenticity  is now acknowledged  thanks to Haydn’s conscientiousness  in making a record of each new work, although its disappearance for two centuries remains a mystery.

At the time of its composition Haydn was in the early stages of his long tenure as Court Composer for Count Nikolaus Esterhazy in Hungary, a hugely enlightened patron, and the concerto will have been written for the Court cellist Joseph Franz Weigl. Following its rediscovery the work was premiered by the Czech cellist Milos Sadlo and the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, on 19 May 1962, and caused a sensation. Since then it has been recorded by the greatest cellists of the later 201h century from Rostropovich downwards.

The first movement begins with a substantial orchestral exposition, which contrasts military dotted rhythms and fanfares with a more lyrical second subject. The cello enters flamboyantly with the opening theme but then sails elegantly over the orchestra for the second . The development is based largely on that second theme, with occasional dynamic passagework from the soloist . All through the movement the cello rises aristocratically above the orchestra, and a cadenza (tonight’s composed by Joe Pritchard himself) towards the end of the movement confirms the instrument’s coming-of-age as a large-scale solo instrument.

The Adagio is hugely expressive, with a romantic tenor which seems ahead of its time – bearing in mind that when the work was completed Mozart was not yet ten years old, and it would be another ten years or so before he would tread similar ground in the lyrical slow movements of his violin concertos.

The Allegro molto  positively fizzesalong  – once again it begins with an orchestral introduction to a sonata-form movement, and the scintillating perpetuum mobile virtuosity of the solo part is a complete revelation.

Hits: 20

Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)  Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847}

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844}

  1. Allegro molto appassionato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro mo/to vivace

One of the greatest prodigies in composing history, Mendelssohn at the age of only 16 had penned his Op 20 Octet for strings, one of the very greatest chamber works in the entire canon, and followed this up with Op 21, the truly magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, aged 17. It has always been fashionable to say that, following this precocity, Mendelssohn never quite made the most of his potential, but the masterworks written within a few years of his early death aged 38, including the wonderful Italian Symphony {1842) and Violin Concerto (1844), completely belie this.

Visits to Scotland and to Italy  whilst on his European Grand Tour had produced memorably characteristic works, but it was his friendship with the violinist Ferdinand David which inspired his finest concerto, one of the greatest and best-loved of all violin concertos, which combines in its three movements the elegant virility  of the Italian Symphony, the tenderness of many of his Songs Without Words and the elfin delicacy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. 

As a teenager Mendelssohn had written a violin concerto in D minor which is now seldom heard, but when, as Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (still today one of the world’s leading orchestras), he appointed David Konzertmeister (Leader) in 1838 he was so impressed that he promised the violinist a concerto. Since he did not have practical experience as a violinist himself he sought David’s advice many times during the composition of the work which, despite the finished product’s apparently effortless flow and elegance, actually took him some six years; in promising David the concerto he wrote ‘I have one in E minor running through my head….and the beginning does not leave me in peace.’ Eventually the work was premiered by David on 13 March 1845 in the Gewandhaus, although it was conducted not by the composer but by the Danish composer I conductor Niels Gade, and Mendelssohn continued tweaking it almost until the moment the first rehearsal began. Far from being the product of a faded genius who had forgotten how to be original, the E minor reaches into the heart of the instrument, putting it in the same class as the concerto of Beethoven and subsequently those of Max Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms amongst 19th century works for the instrument. No self-respecting soloist can afford to be without it in his or her repertoire, and it remains one of the most-recorded concertos of all.

It also embodies what at the time was a unique structure. 19th century accepted concerto form involved a substantial orchestral introduction to the first movement, usually exposing the themes which the solo part subsequently develops, but in the Mendelssohn the opening theme is announced immediately by the soloist following only a moment of restless atmosphere-setting. The positioning of the cadenza is also unique for its time; this was usually an opportunity for the soloist to extemporise on the themes of the first movement just before the final coda, but here the cadenza arrives midway through the movement at the end of the development and leads into the recap. It is written out completely by the composer and no alternative has ever  successfully  been  substituted;  Tchaikovsky’s  violin  concerto  would  use this model later in the century, while the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms would place the cadenza later in the movement and offer more freedom to the soloist. Later, at the first movement’s conclusion, Mendelssohn asks the bassoon to hold a long B, which leads seamlessly into the Andante. This too is ground-breaking, and possibly shows Mendelssohn mischievously putting paid to audiences’ propensity to applaud between movements (a habit which has returned more recently!). Finally, there is a brief Allegretto which offers a bridge between the second and third movements; once again this retains the rapt continuity of the work for the listener.

  1. The themes of the sonata-form first  movement  will  no  doubt  be  familiar, from the burnished passion  of the  soloist’s  opening  E-string melody, through the beautiful interplay between solo and woodwind within the second subject and the quicksilver passagework of the development and the cadenza, to the scintillating coda. The Andante’ s outer sections sing  with  heartfelt  lyricism while the soloist’s shimmering  double-stops in the central section take us into more uneasy mood. Finally, following the Allegretto bridge, the finale dances with the same light-footed brilliance as Mendelssohn had found  in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the E major key exploiting  the  brightest resonances within the  solo  instrument  and the  orchestral  counter-melody  to the soloist’s effervescence  a matter of sheer joy.

Hits: 35

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

  1. Allegro moderato Andante on moto         iii . Rondo (vivace)

 Theatr an der Wien, Vienna, 22 December 1808 – one of the most momentous evenings in the entire history of music. The weather was freezing, but Beethoven, increasingly and cataclysmically deaf, seized the opportunity to premiere no less than three of the greatest works ever committed to paper before or since, an, not satisfied with that, introduced several other works which were scarcely less eminent. During the four hours’ duration of the concert the shivering audience was privileged to witness the world premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano concerto, together with those of the Choral Fantasia and a number of songs. The concert was also hugely important as the very last occasion on which Beethoven, scarcely able to hear anything, performed as a concerto soloist, also presenting the solo piano part in the Choral Fantasia, although given the conditions, it was a wonder that any of the musicians could play at all.

The first two of Beethoven’s piano concertos had appeared some years before whillst he was still in possession of his full aural capacity, the Second in B flat, written first but published second, and the First in C major carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory. The Third Concerto, in C minor, had appeared in 1803 during the gestation period for that titan of symphonies, the Eroica when Beethoven had scarcely recovered from the desperation he had experienced when he realised his hearing was beginning to fail, and that concerto explored a degree of angst common to many of his works 1 C minor, notably the Pathetique Piano Sonata, the Eroica‘s funeral march, the Cariolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The G Major Concerto however, is still more miraculous. The opening, intoned quietly and seriously by the piano alone, to be answered just as seriously by the strings of the orchestra as they set off the opening exposition, remains virtually unique in the piano concerto canon, and presages a concerto in which there is just as much serenity .as there is torment. Compared with the grandiosity of the Emperor Concerto which would appear in 1811 the Fourth is inward-looking and cerebral, but completely engaging.

The first movement exposition proceeds with a restrained romanticism, which the solo then begins gilding with glittering passage work. The second subject once aga1.n sees the piano decorating the melodic line. Shortly the development sees dyna 1c arpeggios in the solo set against swirling orchestration carrying us through a myriad of keys before the recap again takes into the slightly more remote territory of the opening exposition. After the massive, improvisatory cadenza (Beethoven’s own), the coda when it comes muses for a moment, then rounds off the movement with almost military precision, a pre-echo of the Emperor concerto.

The brief Andante con moto explores unique ground again; the strings offer a terse challenge to the soloist in angular dotted rhythms, whereupon the piano, completely alone, responds quietly and thoughtfully as if seeking to calm the orchestra. Further cycles of this dialogue follow, until the piano finally succeeds and the strings’ mood changes to one of anticipation, which leads straight into the quietly military but also light-hearted beginning of the final Rondo. The piano gives its own gloss on the rondo theme, then the orchestra bursts with a much louder version. The episodes explore many moods with the piano and orchestra often in equal partnership. Eventually the final solo cadenza leads to the coda, at first reflective, then impish, then finally triumphant.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

Hits: 67

Mozart (1756 – 1791) Horn Concerto No 3 in E flat, K447 (1783)

Mozart (1756 – 1791) Horn Concerto No 3 in E flat, K447 (1783)

i.  Allegro   ii.  Romanze (Larghetto)  iii.  Rondo (Allegro)

We are fortunate that the tradition of composers being inspired by and writing for soloists continues to this day; twentieth century examples include violin concertos written for David Oistrakh by a vast range of composers including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a similar collection of cello concertos for Mstislav Rostropovich. The late former conductor of the MSO John Wilbraham had a number of trumpet concertos dedicated to him, including that of Malcolm Arnold, and Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings for possibly the finest-ever exponent of the Mozart horn concertos, Dennis Brain, whose cadenzas will be played tonight.

Continue reading

Hits: 468

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

Hits: 105