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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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

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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.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

One of the greatest artistic partnerships in musical history reached the last of its great trio of operas with the composition of Cosi fan Tutte (‘Thus do all Women’) in 1790. Mozart had met Lorenzo da Ponte at the home of Baron von Wetzlar in Vienna in 1783 and the two were immediately intrigued by each other’s genius. Da Ponte was Court Poet to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna and his duties included writing operatic plays (libretti) for Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had introduced him to the Emperor; we have become familiar with a version of the rivalry between Salieri, a workaday composer who nevertheless retained the Emperor’s favour, and Mozart, the maverick genius, through Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which of course became an Oscar-winning film in 1984.

Following the huge, overtly subversive success firstly of Figaro (1786) then Don Giovanni (1787) da Ponte wrote a third Italian Opera Buffa (comic opera) libretto, probably on his own initiative rather than having been commissioned, and, it is thought, nevertheless showed it first to Court Composer Salieri, who made an attempt but gave up. Mozart took on the project in1789 and the opera was premiered on 26 January 1790 in the Burgtheater in Vienna. Unfortunately, its initial run was curtailed after only five performances by the death of the Emperor. A handful of further performances followed that summer after the period of national mourning, but after that the opera was not performed again before Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791.

Figaro and Giovanni had covered controversial subjects, and Cosi was no exception; its action concerns a scurrilous, and nowadays unacceptable, wager between Don Alfonso and two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that within a day he can prove that no woman can stay faithful to her lover. Ferrando and Guglielmo confidently challenge the bet, agreeing that they will feign being called up to war but reappear almost immediately in what they hope will be impenetrable disguise and woo their own lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They duly return disguised as full-bearded Albanians and begin the wooing; the ladies’ maid Despina is bribed into helping with the plot by Don Alfonso, and, sadly, the ladies within a short while agree to marry, unwittingly, each other’s original lover. Finally, Ferrando and Guglielmo engineer their return in part-disguise and the ladies realise how they have allowed themselves to be tricked. All is put right, with each sadder and wiser in realising that they have, in the end, at least coped with life’s vagaries.

The opera contains many musical gems, perhaps the most sublime being Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle), a vocal quintet, including Alfonso, sung as the officers leave their lovers for the ‘war’. Before the resolution of the opera the three men bitterly reiterate the Cosi fan tutte motto, which appears twice in the overture, first as the forte chords at the end of the introduction, and again just before the coda. The body of the overture comprises busy, conspiratorial material in the strings – in similar style to the opening of Coriolan – which is complemented in the woodwind and punctuated by military fanfares in the full orchestra.

One interesting sidelight: Mozart was constrained to write the role of Fiordiligi for da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, whom he disliked; apparently, according to the 20th century critic William Mann, it was her habit to drop her chin on low notes and throw back her head on high ones, so Mozart filled her showpiece aria Come scoglio (Like a rock) with constant leaps from low to high to low with the result that in singing the aria her head bobbed up and down like a chicken!                                                           

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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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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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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