Monday, July 21, 2014

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 2 In G Minor

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his second piano concerto in 1868, ten years after writing his first piano concerto. By this time Saint-Saëns had met and worked with many of the leading composers of the time. He had been introduced to Liszt years before and the two became friends.  While Saint-Saëns was professor of piano at a French music school he caused a furor when he upset the usually conservative repertoire offered to students by including works of contemporary composers.

The reputation of musical conservative still follows Saint-Saëns, but that came about later in his long life when he became increasingly curmudgeonly towards Debussy and other younger composers. In his younger days Saint-Saëns was known as an innovator, with the second concerto being a good example.

The second piano concerto was written at the request of another one of Saint-Saëns' composer acquaintances, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was in the process of developing his reputation as a conductor. Saint-Saëns wrote the work in three weeks, and the premiere of the concerto happened so soon after completion of the work that Saint-Saëns complained that he had insufficient time to practice the work, as he was the soloist.  The concerto got a mixed reception at the premiere, but it went on to become Saint-Saëns most popular work for piano and orchestra and is still in the repertoire. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Andante sustenuto -  While Saint-Saëns first concerto kept to a classical model of a piano concerto, the second concerto shows its differences immediately as the soloist plays an extended cadenza in the very beginning of the first movement. The piano continues until the orchestra interrupts the cadenza with two loud chords and a short episode that prepares the way for the hearing of the first theme played by the solo piano.  The piano repeats the theme with orchestra accompaniment, after which orchestra and soloist engage in a dramatic dialogue, after which the music becomes more serene as the second theme is presented by piano and orchestra. The second theme expands slowly until it dissolves into a slowly building dramatic section. The piano thunders out octaves and the first theme returns.  The soloist introduces new material in another cadenza until material from the opening of the movement returns in hushed tones. The tension and drama change suddenly as the soloist plays forte, the orchestra repeats the loud chords from the beginning, and orchestra and piano join in as the movement ends.

II. Allegro scherzando - In an extreme example of contrast between movements, the second movement begins with a quiet rhythmic figure on the timpani. The soloist and orchestra take turns in a Mendelssohnian scherzo, with the first theme seeing the soloist playing fleet of finger figures with a light and rhythmic accompaniment. The second theme is first played by orchestra while the piano accompanies. The music remains light and delicate while themes come and go, until the woodwinds and timpani enter into a short dialogue based on the rhythmic motive of the opening. Everything winds down to a quiet ending.

III. Presto - Saint-Saëns returns to G minor for the last movement, a tarantella of great speed and passion. The main theme is repeated between episodes of other material, but as with the previous two movement Saint-Saëns made something different of the form. The tarantella eventually takes over as the piano frantically scrambles towards the end of the work with the orchestra running alongside until the thundering chords of the orchestra and running notes of the piano end the work.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Haydn - Keyboard Concerto No. 11 In D Major

Over his long life Joseph Haydn composed over 1,000 works in all genres. One of the smallest outputs in anygenre was the solo concerto, of which there are less than fifty.  His concertos for keyboard contain some of his most popular music, but many are somewhat of a mystery. For one thing, there is disagreement as to how many he wrote, from eleven to as many as twenty five are attributed to him. But there is no question about the Keyboard Concerto In D Major. It has been one of Haydn's most popular pieces since its premiere in Paris in 1784, the success of which caused it to be published shortly after.

Most of the Haydn concertos can be played on harpsichord, organ or piano. Haydn wrote the work at a time where the piano had not yet beat out the harpsichord as the keyboard of choice for concertos, and Haydn himself would rename concertos he originally wrote for harpsichord as being playable by either instrument. This was a way to encourage performances of the works, which in turn led to better music sales, something publishers as well as composers were interested in.

The concerto is scored for pairs of oboes and horns (the first concerto he composed with wind instruments included) as well as the usual compliment of strings.  Modern performances are usually with the piano as the solo instrument. It is in three movements:

I. Vivace - The first movement is in sonata form and as usual practice for the era the orchestra introduces the themes of the movement before the soloist enters. When the soloist enters, the themes are not only played again but are elaborated on. Thus the second part of the exposition is longer than the first part. The development section concentrates on the first theme. The recapitulation repeats the first theme and gives a brief reference to other material from the exposition. Room for a cadenza by the soloist is provided, after which the movement is brought to a close by the orchestra.

II. Un poco adagio -  The strings of the orchestra begins the second movement, the soloist soon enters with a melancholy theme. The strings offer up a subtle accompaniment to the keyboard's aria. There is a cadenza for the soloist, and the strings with woodwinds gently end the movement.

III. Rondo all'Ungarese - Allegro assai -  The movement for which this concerto is most famous, as well as being some of Haydn's most recognizable music. Although the tempo indication calls it Hungarian, Haydn uses a Croation dance tune (there's still; plenty of disagreement about what was the actual area of origin of the tune) as the theme of the rondo. As music of any type of exotic feel (exotic being defined as any music with origins east of Vienna) was a fad at the time, it didn't much matter the source of the theme, but how it was used. It wasn't the first time Haydn used a folk tune in a composition, but it is one of his most successful. After a few repeats of the rondo alternating with episodes of other material, the orchestra and soloist take turns in repeating a fragment of the rondo theme and the movement comes to a close.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Weber - Concertino For Horn In E Minor

Carl Maria von Weber was an early Romantic composer that had a tremendous influence on other musicians in the 19th century.  He was primarily an opera composer, but he wrote works in other forms as well,  particularly solo concertos for piano and other instruments.

Weber wrote a total of 15 concertos, with 7 for wind instruments, some of which are still in the repertoire and are studied by wind instrument students. One of his more curious solo concertos is the Concertino For Horn In E Minor. Weber was fond of the horn and used it to good effect in his operas, but as with many composers he consulted experienced horn players when he was writing the concertino in 1806. He revised the concertino for a different player in 1816.

Horn virtuosos of the day performed the work on the natural horn which consists of a tube over twenty feet long that had a bell at one end and a mouthpiece at the other.  Changes in pitch were accomplished with lip tension and by the insertion of a hand in the bell. Extra pieces of tubing called crooks had to be added or removed from the instrument to allow it to play in different keys, something that composers had to account for in their scores as any time a horn was to change the key in which it played there had to be sufficient time to change the crook.  Valves began to be used on horns around 1818 but it took some time for them to be accepted by older players and composers. Weber's concertino is now played on the modern valved horn, but it is still a very difficult piece to bring off. The concertino is in 4 sections:

I. Adagio - The orchestra begins by playing two chords, after which the soloist enters. This short section acts as an introduction to the work. The soloist plunges to the bottom of the instruments register that leads the music directly to the next section.

II. Andante con moto - The horn plays a theme that is also taken up by the orchestra. This section is a set of variations on this theme. The first variation is a slightly decorated version of the theme. After each variation by the horn the orchestra plays a short version. The second variation has the soloist making great leaps and arpeggios. The third variation increases the decoration of the theme with faster notes and more arpeggios.  The difficulties for the horn player increase yet again in the fourth variation. The orchestra leads directly to the next section.

III. Recitative - adagio - Weber treats the horn as a vocalist in one of his operas as it plays sad, sometimes dramatic material while the orchestra punctuates the soloist. Towards the end of the third section, the horn plays unaccompanied, at least by any other instrument. After some notes that are at the very bottom of the range of the horn, Weber instructs the soloist to hum a note as another note is played. This gives the effect of the horn playing a chord, a four-note chord is notated in the score. A note played on the horn is held while alternating notes are hummed into the instrument. A quiet timpani roll brings the strange sounds of a horn accompanying itself to a close and leads to the final section.

IV. Alla polacca -  The horn plays a polonaise, a Polish dance that was something of a craze of the times.  The horn and orchestra take turns the polonaise between short interludes of other themes. The horn part continues on its virtuosic way, until it plays a string of trills (notoriously difficult on the natural horn). With one last trill for the soloist. the orchestra brings Weber's tour de force for the horn to a close.

Along with a video of a soloist playing the piece on a modern horn, beneath it there is a video of the same concertino being played on a natural horn.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Flute Concerto In D Minor Wq. 22

Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach spent thirty yeas in the employ of Frederick The Great, king of Prussia. His duties were not over taxing, (he played continuo for the King's nightly playing of flute sonatas and concertos) so he had ample time to devote to composition. It was while he was employed at the court in Berlin that he wrote copiously for keyboard, including two sets of published sonatas.

It was while Bach was in Berlin that he also wrote the Concerto In D Minor For Flute, perhaps as early as 1747.  There is evidence that the same music was used in an arrangement for a keyboard concerto, but there is some disagreement among musicologists as to which version was the original and which was the arrangement.  In either case, the flute version probably gave his Royal Highness fits trying to play it.  The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The orchestra begins by playing the themes of the movement. The soloist enters and gives its own more decorated renditions of the themes. The orchestra repeats the themes before the flute develops them with added ornamentation and key changes.  The main rhythmic theme is alternated with the soloist's statements as Bach keeps the momentum going to the end of the movement.

II. Un poco andante - A movement of smooth elegance that is not without sections of subdued drama for the soloist. Bach gives the soloist an opportunity for a cadenza shortly before the movement ends.

III. Allegro di molto - The movement begins in a whirl of rapidity that is maintained throughout. The music is a harbinger of the Sturm und Drang style of music  that would come into fashion later in the 18th century.  The opening theme returns throughout the movement and leads the soloist to run to keep up with the orchestra in music of great virtuosity and drama. The orchestra has the last word with a final statement of the main theme followed by an abrupt ending.

Bach took up the position of Cantor and Director of Music at Hamburg in 1768, and in his autobiography of 1777 he expressed his disappointment and frustration during his time in Berlin. Bach had gained the reputation of one of the great keyboard players in Europe early on, but it was his compositions that probably held him back from being more appreciated at court. As Annette Richards, organist, musicologist and authority on 17th and 18th century music has written:
Outside music, the cultural references of JS Bach were more or less exclusively theological. But with CPE Bach, things are completely different. Engaged with poets, painters, philosophers, his music is a reflection of the burgeoning secular discourse of his time.  Even among his contemporaries you get a sense that CPE Bach is an acquired taste. His music – or the music he considered representative of his talents – is miles away from the elegance and balance we associate with this period. Timelines are crisscrossed, he is endlessly stopping and starting, wrong-footing the listener and causing his audience to reconsider its relation to the music. In that sense, it's very postmodern, a kind of meta-music.
The composer himself had something to say about his style and originality in his autobiography:
Because I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restrained in them than in the few pieces that I have written merely for myself. At times I even have had to follow ridiculous instructions, although it could be that such not exactly pleasant conditions have led my talents to certain discoveries that I might not otherwise have come upon. Since I have never liked excessive uniformity in composition and taste, since I have heard such a quantity and variety of good [things], since I have always been of the opinion that one could derive some good, whatever it may be even if it is only a matter of minute details in a piece, probably from such [considerations] and my natural, God-given ability arises the variety that has been observed in my works…..Among all my works, especially for keyboard, there are only a few trios, solos, and concertos that I have composed in complete freedom and for my particular use.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 2 In A Major

Franz Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto was published in 1863, but sketches for the work went back as far as 1839 when he was still touring Europe as a piano virtuoso.  During the intervening years between the initial ideas for the concerto and the final version, Liszt had retired from the concert platform and accepted the  directorship of music at the Wiemar court where he gained experience not only as a composer, but as an orchestral conductor.

A comparison between the 1st Piano Concerto In E-flat Major  and the 2nd Concerto Piano Concerto In A Major show how Liszt had changed as a composer and an artist. While the solo part for the 1st Piano Concerto is overtly virtuosic, the difficulties in the solo part of the 2nd Concerto are not as obvious. While both concertos are played without a break, the first nonetheless falls into four distinct sections, while the seams are not quite so obvious in the 2nd concerto. Liszt attempted to integrate piano and orchestra even more in the 2nd than the 1st concerto, and used the Concerto Symphonique compositions of Henry Litolff as models.  Liszt was well acquainted with Litolff's works for piano and orchestra, and also knew Litolff personally. Liszt dedicated the 1st Piano Concerto to Litolff, and wrote Concerto Symphonique on the manuscript of the 2nd Piano Concerto.

The late music critic Michael Steinberg summed up the difference between the 1st and 2nd piano concertos when he wrote :
The Concerto No. 1 is an octaves-and-glitter piece with small poetic ambition. The Concerto No. 2 is another matter. Liszt is sparing with devices guaranteed to bring down the house...even more important is the pervasiveness of a manner, a tone, that asks listeners for concentrated attention and delicacy of response. An expert keyboard athlete can make a go of the First Concerto. The Second Concerto is for poets...
The 2nd Piano Concerto is in one continuous movement that contains six sections:

I. Adagio sostenuto assai - The primary theme of the entire work is heard directly from the woodwinds in a quiet progression of chords. After the clarinet plays the theme, the piano accompanies the strings in presenting the theme. Liszt immediately begins to embellish and transform the theme in the solo part, as other secondary themes appear, sometimes in the piano, sometimes in the orchestra. The piano makes a run to the depths of the piano's range in a short solo that leads to another variant of the main theme. The give and take between piano and orchestra continues and leads directly to the next section.

II. Allegro agitato assai - A scherzo that has Liszt going far away from the home key of A major. A variant of the main theme leads to the next section.

III. Allegro moderato -  The main theme is taken up by the cello with piano accompaniment in this lyrical section. The piano trades off with the cello woodwinds in music that sings in a mellow mood.

IV. Allegro deciso - The transformation of the main theme continues, and other secondary themes reappear, also in different guises. A short transition leads the way to the next section

V. Marziale un poco meno allegro -  The main theme is transformed into a march. The strongly rhythmic variant serves to bring the music back to the home key of A major. After the march the transformations continue and lead to the final section.

VI. Allegro animato - A coda to the concerto, the piano and orchestra continue their partnership as the music changes in mood and character. Glissandos in the solo part punctuate the unbuttoned joy of the final comments on the main theme and a few secondary ones. The orchestra and soloist play passages that lead to the final chords.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Handel - Organ Concerto In D Minor Opus 7, No. 4 HWV 309

George Handel's Opus 7 set of six organ concertos was published after Handel's death by his publisher John Walsh of London.  Whether Handel intended to publish them isn't known, but Walsh wanted to capitalize on Handel's reputation as soon as he could, for in those times music was a commodity that had a very short shelf life. Audiences not only expected but demanded new music, and a lot of it. The fickle public could turn its back on a composer soon enough when they were still alive, even sooner after their death.  Music publishers of the time could be notorious in their efforts to turn a quick profit on a composer's works. There was no copyright laws, and publishers thought nothing of printing editions of music that they never paid the composer for.

Walsh may have pieced together some of the concertos from Handel's other compositions, but Handel himself did this as well, as did many composers of the time. The music used in the six concertos was written roughly between 1738 and 1751.

Handel wrote the concertos for a specific purpose; as entertainment for the audiences of his operas and oratorios during intermissions. These concertos were used as drawing cards, kind of an extra bonus to entice listeners to attend the opera or oratorio.  An advertisement for a Handel oratorio concert that ran in the London Daily Post on the 5th of March 1735 made mention of the performance of two concertos:
At the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, this present Wednesday .... will be perform’d an Oratorio, call’d Aesther. With several New Additional Songs; likewise two new Concertos on the Organ.
Handel was a virtuoso organist, and his powers of improvisation were put to good use, as he would sketch out the orchestral parts in score and improvise much of the organ part. The concerto is in the form of a sonata chiesa and has four movements:

Adagio - The first movement begins with the orchestra playing a slow, noble theme. The soloist enters and comments on the theme with the strings providing a light, occassional accompaniment.
Allegro -  Handel follows the pattern of a sonata chiesa as the next movement is quicker of tempo and lighter in mood.
Adagio (Organo ad libitum) - Handel did not notate any music for this movement, but left the entire third movement to improvisations from the organist, which would have been Handel himself when these concertos were first played.
Allegro - A favorite of Handel's for he first used the tune in a concerto for violin over twenty years prior.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beethoven - Triple Concerto In C Major

The tradition of the Baroque concerto grosso, a form where a small group of soloists were juxtaposed with the orchestra, was carried on into the Classical era by composers, most notably Mozart. He wrote works for more than one soloist and orchestra and called them Sinfonia Concertante.  These works were considered a sort of hybrid between a symphony and concerto, but the main difference was that the Baroque concerto grosso had some movements written in ritornello form while the sinfonia concertante used sonata form. Beethoven's Triple Concerto (also known as Concerto For Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra) was written in 1803 (also the year in which he composed the Third Symphony).

Anton Schindler, Beethoven's first biographer, secretary and acquaintance, claimed that the Triple Concerto was written for Beethoven's young royal pupil Archduke Rudolf (the same Archduke that Beethoven dedicated his Piano Trio In B-flat Major, Opus 97 to). The piano part of the concerto does not equal the difficulty of the other soloists, a fact that has lead some to agree with Schindler, as the Ardchduke was a young teenager when the concerto was written and would not have had the technique for anything more difficult.  But Beethoven scholars have shown over the years that Schindler was a man whose words needed to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no evidence that the Archduke ever played the work (which is not to say that he didn't) which had its first public performance in 1808. When it was published, the concerto had a dedication to someone else, another one of Beethoven's royal patrons, Prince Lobkowitz, but Beethoven could be fickle (not to mention absentminded) about such things. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro -  The concerto begins quietly and gradually builds in volume.  There are three main themes introduced by the orchestra alone. The cello is the first soloist to enter with the first theme. Violin and cello expand upon the first theme, and the piano enters with the theme.  Each of the soloists has a turn with the three themes, or parts of them. The development gives the trio of soloists further opportunity to dialogue with each other.  The orchestra asserts itself a few times but for the most part remains in the background.  The recapitulation has the soloists review the themes, which leads to a coda that quickens the tempo and while the orchestra plays full chords the soloists bring the movement to a close.

II. Largo -  The orchestra begins this movement (in the key of A-flat major) in a solemn, quiet mood. The cello enters with the theme of the movement, the piano embellishes it. The violin and cello play the theme in a duet as the piano gently accompanies. A short, dark section for orchestra leads to the soloists playing fragments of other themes, which leads to the last movement without pause.

III.  Rondo alla polacca -  As with the first two movements, the cello is the first soloist to play the main theme of this movement which is in the style of a polonaise, a Polish dance. Themes abound in this movement, all of them rhythmically in keeping with the 'polacca' designation. The music takes a minor key turn as the soloists take turns playing thematic material and accompaniment while the orchestra adds color. The polonaise returns, has its say until the tempo quickens.  The soloists play together without the orchestra, and then the soloists wind up the movement by playing rapid figures as the orchestra supplies the punctuation until the end.

Writing for three soloists offered Beethoven many challenges, not least of which was how to have each soloist shine without making the work too long or undermining form. Compared to the 'Waldstein' and 'Appassionata' piano sonatas  and the Third Symphony that he was composing at about the same time, the Triple Concerto may appear small potatoes to some.  But the Triple Concerto has to be looked at (and heard) in a different way. Beethoven did more than extend the concerto grosso and sinfonia concertante traditions with this work. There is a kind of synthesis between concerto, symphony and chamber music (specifically in  the form of the piano trio). This is a quite remarkable achievement, a showcase of Beethoven's huge talent and craftsmanship that's hardly small potatoes.



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