JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43 (1901-2)

i. Allegretto – Poco allegro 

ii. Tempo andante, ma rubato – Poco allegro

iii. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave

iv. Finale: Allegro moderato – Moderato assai 

 It’s only just over sixty years since the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.

His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, luckily for us unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Composition rapidly became his chief interest, and in 1892 he achieved success and popularity with one of his very first compositions, the large-scale choral and orchestral work Kullervo, based on legends from a Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, which was to continue to inspire him. A stream of overtly nationalist compositions followed, including the Karelia Suite, Finlandia, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based, once again, on the Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Despite the fact that he resented the hegemony Russia held over Finland at the time, Sibelius’s early compositional influences were the Russian masters; there was more than a whiff of Tchaikovsky and Borodin in the First Symphony, but the plain fact is that within his first decade as a composer Sibelius’s voice had already become uniquely his own. A number of mature tone poems followed, including The Oceanides, an atmospheric seascape, and the Suite: Pelleas and Melisande, of which the first movement has been familiar since the fifties as the theme music of Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. In 1905 he completed the final revision of his Violin Concerto, which has taken its place amongst the half-dozen greatest of all violin concertos. Throughout this time the symphony cycle developed through the popular Second and Fifth, the trenchant Third, and the esoteric Fourth and Sixth towards the wonderfully compact Seventh (1924), which has even been described by more than one commentator as the finest 20th-century symphony. Nothing remains of work on a rumoured Eighth Symphony.

In 1926 perhaps his finest tone poem, Tapiola, arrived, and then – silence. Rather like Rossini before him, for the last thirty years of his life until his death aged 91 in 1957 he wrote virtually nothing, living with his wife Aino on their estate, Ainola, in Finland, watching his reputation ebb and flow and occasionally involving himself in recordings of his works, particularly those made by his finest exponents at the time, Robert Kajanus, Serge Koussevitsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Photographs of the composer range from the dashing good looks and flamboyant moustache of his early career to one taken only days before his death portraying suitably granitic features.

Stimulus for the Second Symphony seems to have begun in the late autumn of 1900 when a friend recommended that Sibelius take his family to Italy for a change of scene, and provided the money too. The friend was one Baron Axel Carpelan, who reminded Sibelius of the inspiration both Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss had found in Italy. The family took a mountain villa in Rapallo and Sibelius found the location a haven of peace; here he sketched some of the material of the symphony, including the main theme of the slow movement, and the Andante’s second theme came to him while he was visiting Florence, suggested by the legend of Don Juan / Don Giovanni. Indeed for a while he considered making what we know as the second movement of the symphony into a tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In the event, he set to work on the symphony in earnest when the family returned to Finland; it was finished in early 1902 and premiered to great acclaim by the Helsinki Philharmonic in March, the composer himself conducting. Where the First Symphony had evoked the wintry landscapes of Finland, the Second was bathed with a touch of Italian warmth; although some saw it as another burst of Finnish nationalism, Sibelius denied this – he felt that he had poured his soul into the symphony. Always given to revising his work, Sibelius tinkered a little with the Second, and the final version was given first in Stockholm in November 1903. The reception was again very enthusiastic.

The work begins memorably, with strings expressively intoning a phrase based on a three-note ascending motif, shortly accompanying a perky oboe tune which turns the three-note motif on its head, horns replying, as they do many times in the work, with noble restraint. The second subject again utilises the descending three-note motif, this time still more romantically. The motif appears in numerous guises, in fact, all through the symphony. The development takes us into dramatic territory, sometimes mysterious, sometimes menacing, sometimes more overtly tempestuous, then the recap and coda bring us full circle, the opening theme disappearing into calm.

Sinister timps introduce basses and then cellos, who begin the Tempo Andante with an extended passage of mysterious pizzicato, from which the bassoons emerge in octaves to take us into more grotesque territory, their material once again beginning with the ascending motif. Events take a more urgent turn, signalling the arrival of the strings, and shortly we are propelled into trenchant, almost tragic territory. The second subject feels on the face of it to be more peaceful – indeed Sibelius here wrote ‘Christus’ in the original score – but there is huge regret there, which quickens into rage, the coda only partly assuaging.

The Scherzo bursts into life like a machine gun, then seethes its way towards climax after climax, the three-note motif still in evidence. A pastoral trio section led by the woodwind with horns and bassoons accompaning calms the mood, but then the scherzo blazes again. As it burns itself out the trio returns, but this time tumultuously makes its way directly into the glorious D major opening theme of the finale – and there is the motif again. Brass, timpani and double basses growl in sinister fashion underneath and horns comment nobly.

Shortly the second theme opens out the textures and lets us nurse a degree of optimism, but then violas and cellos set out on a bleak F sharp minor ostinato, softly accompanying a world-weary woodwind figure above them; the change to major will be majestic next time. We gradually return to the opening grandiosity, but back comes the viola/cello figure which rumbles away for many bars, now in D minor, this time gradually adding woodwind and basses, with desolate strings and later trumpets above. Horns intone an insistent syncopation and timpani a different one, while trombones gradually add a dotted, fanfare-like figure, the whole building through a huge crescendo towards the final conclusive change to D major. At long last the sun bathes the closing bars, with the entire orchestra at full tilt in a blaze of glory. As Robert Kajanus wrote: The last movement develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future – at present a much-needed sentiment!

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828) Symphony No 5 in Bb, D485 (1816)

i Allegro
ii Andante con moto
iii Menuetto; allegro molto
iV Allegro vivace

Schubert was born in a suburb of Vienna a matter of months before Napoleon the Treaty of Campo Formio transferring several Austrian territories to France. Musically the 27-year-old Beethoven was beginning to carry all Vienna before him, writing the C major Piano Concerto that very year. By the time Napoleon had met his Waterloo and the Treaty of Vienna had brought European peace in 1815 Schubert was already a prolific composer over halfway through his tragically short life, and in that annus mirabilis alone, although still ostensibly a part-time composer, he completed no less than 200 of his eventual 900-plus works (including 140 songs) and served notice to an albeit rather indifferent public that the Romantic era was well-established.

1816 began with Schubert actually as a full-time schoolteacher, having taken the post aged 15 when he was forced by the sad death of his mother to leave his choral scholarship in order to earn for the family, but during the year he was prevailed upon to become a full-time composer,  completing his  Fifth Symphony later in the year; although it still proclaims his veneration for Mozart the melodic and harmonic gifts which so distinguish his work in lieder and piano music, to mention just two genres which he graced, are very much in evidence.

Like Mozart, but very much unlike Beethoven, Schubert was a rapid worker, and the Fifth Symphony was written within a month in September / October 1816. Mozart was .indeed very much his idol, and on 13 June, shortly before he started the symphony, he wrote in his diary: 0 Mozart! Immortal Mozart! What countless impressions of a brighter, better life have you stamped upon our souls! The scoring is similar to that of Mozart’s Symphony No 40, and the work is the only one of Schubert’s  symphonies which doesn’t  employ clarinets, trumpets or timpani; it is also his first to date which doesn’t start with a slow introduction. Indeed its complete freshness – the antithesis of the tragic Mozart 40 – and the natural ease of its melodies have made it one of Schubert’s most popular symphonies.

Since he was not able to enjoy the same patronage and comfort that Haydn, example, had received from the Esterhazys, Schubert could only expect to have these works performed by local amateur groups with which he was associated. Indeed it is thought that he himself and his brother Ferdinand played viola and violin respectively in the first performance of Schubert was born in a suburb of Vienna a matter of months before Napoleon Bonaparte brought an end to the first phase of the French Revolutionary Wars, the B flat symphony shortly after its completion together with a collection of music officials, merchants and men from various professions, led by a professional leader/concertmaster, Otto Hatwig, who  played at the Vienna  Burgtheater.

Schubert was very poor all his life at promoting himself and making money from his talent, and so the Fifth Symphony, like many other of his compositions, remained a relatively parochial affair until well after his death – indeed the London premiere would not take place till 1873.

The first movement opens in fact with a sunny four-bar introductory phrase in woodwind and strings which leads into the first main theme, a cheeky rising-arpeggio figure which will also colour the developm nt. The second subject proceeds elegantly, also with a touch of dottedness. Unusually the recap begins not in the home key but in the subdominant, E flat.

The second movement shows Schubert completely at ease with himself. The main theme is a heartfelt song, and the only cloud on the horizon is a characteristic sideslip into a slightly darker key, C flat, as the development starts.

The Menuetto is not of the genteel species but full of energy in minor mode, beginning in G minor and surprisingly chromatic. The Trio section is gentler, sunny and completely in major mode, beginning in G major.

The final Allegro molto is busy and full of tingling energy, with a more elegant second subject . Each half ends with a cadence figure in scampering triplets, bringing to a close a completely delightful work guaranteed to usher in the joys of Spring!

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

  1. Poco sostenuto Vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto
  4. Allegro con brio

In 1811, some three years on from his 1807-8 triumphs  with the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies Beethoven was feeling weighed down by his usual ill­ health and decided to visit the spa town of Teplitz, in what is now the Czech Republic, for a boost. It was obviously extremely effective, since he began work on what was to be one of his most dynamic works, the A major Symphony, which Wagner was famously to describe as ‘the Apotheosis of the Dance’. Its galvanizing and unremitting energy leaves no room for a slow movement, the Allegretto scarcely allowing any relaxation.

Another factor in the creative process for the work may well have been the fact that at this point Beethoven, often infatuated.with unattainable females, was even more sorely afflicted than usual by a lady who has become known as the ‘Immortal Beloved’. Indeed while he was in Teplitz Beethoven wrote the mystery woman a long, heartfelt love-letter, although he seems not to have posted it – it is conjectured that the two had a passionate but short­ lived affair in Prague immediately before the composer set off for Teplitz, but also that there were barriers to their permanent relationship in terms of relative social standing.

Completed in late 1812, the work was premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813 (some seven months after the first performance of The Italian Girl) at a charity concert – promoted by Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome – for soldiers wounded in the victorious Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven himself conducting, despite his deafness; suitably, the evening also included Beethoven’s Battle Symphony: Wellington’s Victory. The concert coincided with the turning of the tide in the war against Napoleon; the Emperor’s flight from Moscow in 1812 had been followed by further defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In  June, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, hence the Battle Symphony; in short, there was celebration in the air in anticipation of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, and the Seventh Symphony certainly taps into this.

The orchestra for the premiere included some of the finest musicians of the day – violinist Louis Spohr, composers Johann Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Antonio Salieri, and the Italian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven himself described as playing “with great fire and expressive power”. The piece was very well received, and the Allegretto had to be encored. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum: ‘As a sforzando occurred’, Spohr wrote, ‘he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air.’ Beethoven himself described the work as ‘one of the happiest products of my poor  talents.’

The opening Poco sostenuto is on a huge scale – in fact it was the largest symphonic introduction to  date. Both grand and portentous, its ideas are arresting, but scarcely related to what follows. A tentative dialogue between woodwind and strings signals the transition into the buoyant, almost rustic first subject of the Vivace. The angular dotted rhythmic and melodic shapes are all-pervading – the only moments of repose come, unusually, in the development section. The coda is extraordinarily exciting, horns blazing.

The  Allegretto,  instantly  popular  in  December  1813,  is  based  round  its opening, purposeful rhythm, over which a rather bleak, melancholic melody is sung, first by the viols and half of the cellos. More lyrical woodwind and horns lighten the mood, accompanied by filigree strings, the biggest climax reached towards the end.

The Presto scherzo is a mercurial, swirling tour-de-force, like the first movement irrepressible in its dancing energy. The Trio section presents an Austrian Pilgrims’ hymn, initially presented by woodwind over tranquil strings. Shortly the full orchestra makes it a triumphant paean. The movement overrides the conventional form of Scherzo -Trio Scherzo, the Trio returning for a second outing later in the structure.

As if enough energy has not yet been expended, the Allegro con brio bursts into life with Bacchanalian fervour, insistent semiquavers and off-beat accents giving a relentless but exhilarating progress through sonata-form – exposition of two main themes (the second returning to obsessive dotted rhythms), development, recap and a viscerally exciting coda, once again with heroic brass.

The work is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with two trumpets, unusually only two horns, and timpani, plus strings.

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Joseph Haydn  (1732-1809) Symphony No 99 in E flat (1793-4)

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Symphony No 99 in E flat (1793-4)

i   Adagio - Vivace assai             ii Adagio

iii Menuetto – Allegretto and Trio    iv Finale – Vivace

In 1790 Haydn’s tenure as Kapellmeister at the Court of Esterhazy became looser with the succession of a new Count, and at long last he was able to capitalise on his fame and visit the remainder of Europe. In particular his music had become well-loved in London, and when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon called upon him at his home in Vienna to invite him to visit London personally to compose six special symphonies, he leapt at the chance, despite his trepidation at the thought of a fortnight’s journey through Europe culminating in a perilous channel-crossing. Before he left he and Mozart met to bid each other farewell; the younger composer expressed his fear that he would not see his mentor again, but by the saddest irony it would be Mozart rather than the relatively aged Haydn who would be dead within two years.

Haydn was to stay in London on this first visit for a year and a half, directing the successive premieres of his symphonies Nos 93 to 98 from the fortepiano (forerunner, of course, of the pianoforte), with Salomon playing in the orchestra. Having returned home for Esterhazy commitments in 1792 he found himself commissioned by Salomon to write six more symphonies for a further extended visit to London. No 99 in E flat was completed in Vienna in late 1793, together with the Minuets of Nos 100 and 101, but the remainder of the six were written following Haydn’s return to London in early 1794. Since it was complete already No 99 was premiered on 10 February 1794 at a Salomon concert in Hanover Square Rooms, and the first movement was encored. Haydn was to remain in London until mid-1795, the last of the new symphonies, No 104, given in early May.

Four of the final six London Symphonies have subsequently been given nicknames, the Military (No 100), the Clock (No 101), the Drum Roll, (No 103), and the London (No 104),  but Nos 99 and 102 escaped that slightly doubtful honour. Despite the fact that Haydn was to continue composing until shortly before his death fourteen years later, No 104 was his very last symphony; safely settled back in Austria he was to move towards oratorio, producing, amongst others, the groundbreaking Creation in 1798, The Seasons in 1801 and the Harmoniemesse in 1802.

The twelve Salomon or London symphonies continue the development of the form, progressing, for example, towards making the clarinet an ever-present member of the symphony orchestra where Mozart had used it sparingly – No 99 is Haydn’s first to use clarinets – and introducing trumpets and timpani in some slow movements. In the final six symphonies his wit and invention reach new heights, each symphony a total joy, cementing his acknowledged status as ‘Father of the Symphony’.

As regards style, present performance practice in Haydn and Mozart tends towards leanness, with smallish string sections, but Salomon’s orchestra, it appears, consisted of at least sixty players. London’s love-affair with Haydn remained undiminished, and reviews both of the composer and the orchestra were consistently in the ‘rave’ category; of No 103 the Morning Chronicle wrote:  Another new symphony by the fertile and enchanting Haydn was performed, which, as usual, had continual strokes of genius, both in air and harmony, and following the premiere of No 104 the same paper had: This wonderful man never fails; and the various powers of his inventive and impassioned mind have seldom been conceived with more accuracy by the Band, or listened to with greater rapture by the hearers, than they were on this evening.  At this point Haydn was sixty three years old.

As was his habit in these London Symphonies Haydn begins No 99 with a slow introduction, but whereas in some, such as in the vibrant Clock symphony, he leads the listener into expecting seriousness which then turns into music which makes the listener smile, here there is elegance with only a moment or two of minor-key unrest in the introduction; the first subject of the Vivace is both dramatic and celebratory, then the second theme, first violins and clarinet, brings the expected injection of charm. The development draws heavily on the second theme with injections of drama before the recap leads to a triumphant coda.

The Adagio, slightly surprisingly in G major, begins delectably, its two related themes becoming a little more decorated as the movement proceeds, trumpet and timpani reinforcing the climaxes. As is often the case, the slow movement is the heart of the symphony.

The E flat Minuet initially thrives on contrast between piano and forte question-and-answer, then in its second half briefly explores canonical development in which sections chase each other. The Trio, in C major, again sets aside drama for charm.

Finally, the finale sweeps along in a sonata form which marries genial energy, sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’, which featured in many of Haydn’s middle period symphonies) and exhilaration, the development including parts moving in canon, contrary motion and inversion  in a typically modest show of complete virtuosity.

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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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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