Friday, April 3, 2020

Dvořák - Cello Concerto

 In 19th century musical life, the region of Germany and Austria reigned supreme.  For those ambitious enough to want international recognition as a composer, the best way was to be acknowledged in Germany. All of the master composers of the 19th century had connections with Germany, if not by birth by other connections such as studying there, living there, or knowing the right people there.

Fortunately for many composers, there were famous men of the time that helped otherwise unknown composers get their foot in the door. Perhaps the most magnanimous was Liszt, who met, encouraged and promoted many younger composers of his time. Liszt used his fame (and in many cases his fortune) to help many composers, the most famous being Wagner.  One name that is not thought of as a promoter of another composer's works is Johannes Brahms.

The most prevalent impression of Brahms is an acerbic bachelor that had little use for any of his contemporaries, especially the leaders and followers of the 'New Music' movement led by Liszt and Wagner. Even when Brahms had something good to say about someone else, as a contemporary once said of him, "His compliments sting like salt in the eyes." Brahms once visited an acquaintance that was a minor composer. Brahms got there and saw the man playing outside with his children. His wife apologized, saying that her husband composed so much that he had little time to stop. Brahms replied, "Thank God, it should happen more often."

Brahms could be a cantankerous personality, and there's been much speculation about his childhood and early adulthood and how it formed his personality. But the truth is that Brahms actually did acknowledge the genius of Wagner and thought that his opera 'The Mastersingers Of Nuremburg' as a high point in German art. That he disliked what he thought was the undue influence of these composers with younger composers is to be expected, given Brahms conservative nature.

But Brahms could be a devoted friend, and there is at least one example of his giving his help to an up and coming composer. Brahms was on a panel that was to select a gifted composer in the Hapsburg Empire to grant a stipend to help them keep composing. It was then that Brahms was amazed at the huge volume of music Dvořák entered in the competition. Brahms was instrumental in seeing that the stipend was awarded Dvořák not only that year, but the next two years also. Brahms sent letters to his publisher Simrock about Dvořák's music and even worked as a copyist and editor of the music to help speed up its publication. That Dvořák was appreciative is an understatement. They remained very good friends until Brahms death.

Dvořák wrote the Cello Concerto near the end of his time in New York City in 1894-1895.  It had its premiere in 1896 in London, England, which was conducted by Dvořák.

I. Allegro - The first movement begins quietly with clarinets and low strings. The orchestra reaches fortissimo and the theme continues in a robust manner. The orchestra gradually calms until the gentle and lyrical second theme is played by the horns. A rousing third theme rounds out the orchestral part of the exposition. Dvořák labels the cello entry with its version of the first theme quasi improvisando, like an improvisation. The cello’s version is punctuated by triple stops. A long section of trills by the soloist lead to a quickening of the first theme that leads to the cello’s version of the second lyrical theme.

The development section begins with a section for orchestra that expands the first theme until the cello plays a more lyrical version of it. The music quickens as the cello plays accompanying figures in sixteenth notes as the woodwinds continue to develop themes. The cello becomes more animated and complex with rapid double stops, and a climax is reached when the cello plays in chromatic octaves until the second lyrical theme is played in a louder version. The cello soon takes it back up and returns it to its gentleness. The cello plays rapid arpeggios and leads to the first theme once again, which after an increase in tempo brings the movement to an end in B major.  

The last piece of music of Dvořák’s that Brahms worked on was the Cello Concerto. He corrected the proofs and played the piano reduction of the orchestra with a cellist and is reported as saying, "If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!" No doubt this vast, virtuosic, and complex movement had a lot to do with that comment.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - Dvořák’s sister-in-law who he was very fond of inspired the second movement. He was in love with her but it didn't work out so he ended up marrying her sister. In the movement Dvořák quotes one of his own compositions, a song that he wrote that was one of his sister-in-law's favorites.  She had been taken ill while Dvořák was composing the score. The woodwinds begin the movement, and the cello enters with a theme in G major.  A more spirited middle section leads to the return of the initial theme with a version played and elaborated by the horns before the cello plays a solo that involves playing with the bow while accompanying itself with pizzicato notes on an open string. The movement gently ends as it begins.

III.  Allegro moderato - Andante - Allegro vivo - A theme that seems related to the first movement first theme is played by the horns. The music turns ever more rhythmic with a call and response section for cello and orchestra. A new theme enters and is developed. The opening theme returns and leads to another episode a few times. Themes from the first and second movements reappear. After Dvořák came back to his homeland from New York, his sis-in-law died, and he added this slow, quiet section to the concerto as a tribute. After this is played through, the orchestra ends the movement with a flourish in B major.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat

The 2nd piano concerto by Johannes Brahms stands in marked contrast to his first piano concerto, written 22 years previously, not least of all because while the first piano concerto was not received very well (it had even been hissed at some of the first performances) the second was an immediate success.  Hans von Bülow, von Bülow and the orchestra at Meiningin. Von Bülow praised the work to Franz Liszt, who requested a score and wrote to Brahms saying:

“At first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, come gradually to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony.

Brahms went on tour with the concerto after the premiere in Budapest in 1881 as soloist in 12 different European cities to great acclaim.

I. Allegro non troppo - The concerto begins with a theme for solo horn, which is answered by the piano. The horn continues the theme, and the piano answers this time with a cadenza, after which the exposition begins with the horn theme played by the full orchestra. The themes pour forth from the orchestra in an embarrassment of riches, and to list them all would take a very detailed analysis, but the artistry and skill of Brahms never lets the music become episodic. Every theme has a natural flow into the next.  The development section begins with an impassioned restatement of the horn theme, whereupon the music subsides to a calmer version of it. The recapitulation has the return of themes as well as the addition of a few more as it makes its way to a grand ending to the movement with a version of the horn theme.

II. Allegro appasionato - It is this movement that is the most unique of the concerto, and although Brahms called it ‘a little wisp of a scherzo’ it is anything but.  It is the only movement of the concerto not written in B-flat major, but in D minor. Unlike traditional scherzo form of scherzo-trio-scherzo, it is in sonata form with what is normally the trio section being part of the development of the movement.  The scherzo is stated by the piano and orchestra and then it is developed in stormy music until the trio D major section is inserted. The trio is repeated and the development continues until the scherzo reappears. This leads to a brilliant coda and the music comes to a noisy close.

III. Andante - A solo cello begins the movement by stating the main theme in B-flat major.  The orchestra takes the theme over before the cello returns. After a short dialogue between the solo cello and oboe, the piano enters with a gentle theme of its own.  This theme turns impassioned as pieces of the initial theme are heard. Chains of trills are played by the piano that leads to an appearance of the main theme in a minor key. Then, clarinets accompany a simple piano part, which leads to strings accompanying the soloist in quiet repose before the main theme appears again in the cello. The piano, cello and oboe slowly lead to the closing of the movement.

IV. Allegretto grazioso - Un poco più presto - A movement that is deceptively lighthearted in feeling. Once again there are themes galore, and Brahms once again blends them with a perfect sense of individuality but not at the expense of the whole.  The concerto ends in a happy mood in B-flat major. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor

Beethoven's sketchbooks show that he was a very self-critical composer.  Ideas came readily to him,but he was never satisfied with the first blush of inspiration. He would think about, tinker with, write, write and rewrite to try and get the best out of his initial ideas. This critical musical mind also applied to most other composers, especially his contemporaries. Three composers that Beethoven held in great regard were Bach, Handel and Mozart.  Surprisingly, out of those three Beethoven thought Handel was the greatest, because he could write such profound music using simple means.  And in this concerto we see how Handel's influence molded one of Beethoven's musical ideas.

The concerto was composed in 1800 and premiered in 1803 with Beethoven as soloist. As usual with Beethoven, he had no time to write down the solo part so he wrote a few scribbles on music paper to help him remember the music and played it mostly from memory.  On the day of the concert he rose from his bed at five in the morning to copy out the parts for trombone and then made a hasty trip to the concert hall for rehearsals. The concert also had his 2nd symphony and his oratorio Christ On The Mount Of Olives on the program as well as a repeat of his 1st Symphony heard at a previous concert.  This was a very busy time for the thirty-year old composer who was fresh from his studies.

I. Allegro con brio - The opening theme of the third piano concerto is in C minor, positively drenched in C minor. The string section plays the C minor triad ascending, and the C minor triad (plus a few passing notes all in the C minor tonality) descending.

The entire first movement is built on these few notes of C minor, a tribute to Handel and his inventiveness and frugality of notes.  But Beethoven also admired and championed the music of his older contemporary Mozart. He had heard Mozart play and had played for him in preparation to try and be his student. But Beethoven had to leave Vienna in a hurry because of his mother's fatal illness, and by the time he returned to Vienna Mozart was dead.  One of Beethoven's favorite pieces by Mozart was the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, played by Beethoven in public concerts.  Mozart's concerto also begins with the three notes of the C minor triad, but the two works are very different past that.

II. Largo - Beethoven breaks with convention by putting this movement in the key of E major, a key with 4 sharps that is far removed from C minor, which has 3 flats.

III. Rondo: Allegro - The piano begins the movement with a weak beat accented theme that reappears throughout the movement. There are touches of Beethoven’s humor and drama in the movement. After the cadenza, the music switches the mood and key to C major and the concerto ends brightly in that key. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 23 In A Major K.488

Mozart wrote 23 original works for piano and orchestra, and the usual number of 27 includes the first 4 concertos that were arrangements by him of other composer’s music.  Mozart’s later concertos show how he overcame the problem of balancing a soloist’s material with an orchestra, and in the process he changed the genre and became the creator of a new type of concerto.

The years 1784-1786 saw Mozart gaining most of his living through performances of his music, especially the piano concertos. During this three-year period, he wrote 12 piano concertos, with the 23rd being written in 1786. That is amazing enough, but he also kept on writing other works as well as preparing the premiere of his opera La Nozze di Figaro.

The concerts that featured the concertos were held in various locations around Vienna, with larger areas being preferred (more ticket sales).  The orchestration of the concertos reflects how Mozart took into consideration the size of the venue. The 23rd concerto shows a reduction in forces, possibly for a smaller concert site:  one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, soloist and strings.  It is the first major orchestral work that omits oboes entirely and replaces them with clarinets. No timpani or trumpets add to the lighter texture of the orchestra.

I. Allegro - As is customary in most of the Mozart concertos, a double exposition begins the movement with the first theme stated by the strings, and then by the woodwinds. The full orchestra plays a short development of this theme until a second theme enters. The second theme is graceful, and moves gently downward.  The winds take up the theme, and afterwards there is a tense section in a minor key that leads this somewhat brief first part of the exposition to the entrance of the soloist.

The soloist begins the second half of the double exposition by taking up the first theme, and expanding and decorating it while the orchestra accompanies.  The second theme is treated likewise until a third theme not heard in the beginning is played in the strings. The piano plays a decorated version of this theme.

The development section deals with the third theme with tonalities in major as well as minor. The development section is relatively short, and the recapitulation begins with the first theme in the home key.  The second theme is restated, and after the third theme makes an appearance the orchestra come to a pause for the soloist’s cadenza, written by Mozart and included in the score.   After the brilliant cadenza, the orchestra gently chugs to a close in the home key.

II. Adagio - Written in the key of F-sharp minor, this movement is unique to all the concertos as it is the only one written in that key. The piano begins by playing a gently rocking, melancholy theme. The orchestra comments upon it, and then the soloist expands on it. A short exchange with the orchestra and soloist switches keys from E major to B major, before a middle section emerges in the key of A major. This gives slight relief of the sadness as the piano resumes the main theme. The orchestra and piano slowly move through the secondary material until a coda is reached. With violas and basses playing pizzicato and the violins filling in off the beat, the piano plays a simple addition until the movement quietly ends in F-sharp minor. 

III. Allegro assai - Whatever sadness afflicts the 2nd movement is swept away with the finale. The piano enters with a bouncy theme, just one of the many episodes in this movement that are exchanged between piano and orchestra.  An episode of mention has the piano play up the A major scale and triad as the 1st and 2nd violins along with the violas play chords pizzicato. The orchestra ends the movement in the home key and a concerto filled with Mozartean tunes and themes.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 20 In D Minor K. 466

The world of modern classical music can never know how it was years ago when there was less of a distinction in public music. To be sure, there were innovations and fads as well as each era having its own ‘hits’ in the arts. Mozart himself was a popular performer and composer, at least in the realm of Vienna. His operas were popular, with arias from them becoming popular even with people that did not attend the opera, for a good tune then was just as appealing as it is now. He composed piano music, and chamber music for the playing enjoyment of amateur musicians as well. But it was the piano concerto that Mozart used for showcasing his own performing skills. 

The first 4 of the numbered 27 concertos are arrangements for orchestra and keyboard of other composer’s works. These as well as the next 6 concertos were written while he was in Salzburg. When he moved to Vienna, the writing and performing of his piano concertos contributed much to his making his living as a freelance musician. He commented upon his the first three concertos he wrote in Vienna in a letter to his father in 1782: 
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.... In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.
 Clearly the concertos were written first and foremost to be pleasing to the public, and they were. Mozart held subscription concerts where he played them. As he was busy with other things as well, sometimes the music was written down at the last moment, at least the orchestral parts. Mozart saved time by not writing down the solo part, and played it from memory. For these concerts, Mozart sold the tickets, hired the musicians for the orchestra, and even had his piano moved from his apartment to the concert venue. There was time for only a hasty rehearsal, if there was one at all, and Mozart conducted from the keyboard. Musicologists believe that he must have filled in the harmonies at the keyboard when he was otherwise not playing to make up for any deficiencies in the orchestra due to lack of rehearsal or personnel. 

I. Allegro - Piano Concerto No. 20 is the first piano concerto Mozart wrote in a minor key. Beethoven admired the work, and kept it in his repertoire and wrote cadenzas for it. The romantic era went for the dramatic and passionate in music, and much of Mozart’s music was neglected. This concerto is an exception. 

It was his most popular work. And it isn’t a mystery why, as the movement begins quietly in the strings with the chord of D minor in a syncopated rhythm that adds a sense of tension. The music builds until the rapid motive that was played by the basses ascends to the violins as the 2nd violins and violas add more weight with tremolos as the winds fill out the harmony. A second theme appears in the woodwinds but is soon taken over by the initial theme. The piano enters with a solo passage that leads up to the first theme being passed from strings to piano as it is elaborated on. The second theme makes a brief appearance and leads to a new theme in F major. This theme is also elaborated upon until the piano repeats its lead in theme that signals the beginning of the development section. 

The lead-in theme plays against the opening dramatic string syncopations, and then the orchestra has a dramatic exchange that leads to the beginning of the recapitulation. The piano engages the orchestra in the change within the repeats of elements in the beginning of the movement. There are no seams that show in this movement. The various themes and motives are discernable, but blend together into a whole that not only makes musical sense, but profound musical sense.

The music gives room for the customary cadenza; the one by Beethoven is played in the performance linked. This gives an opportunity to hear one master commenting on another’s work. After the cadenza, the orchestra has the final word as the movement comes to a quietly dramatic close. 

II. Romanze - The movement begins with the solo piano playing a gracefully decorated melody in B-flat major. The music continues in a gentle and calm mood, until a middle section in G minor that gets louder and faster. After the middle section’s passionate outbursts, the music returns to the melody in B-flat major and calmly makes its way to a peaceful close. 

III. Rondo: Allegro assai - The movement begins with the piano playing an ascending figure in D minor, known as a Mannheim rocket. The music restless and makes use of the syncopated rhythm in the strings of the first movement. The movement keeps the tension from going too far by insertions of other motives and keys in more quiet music. The cadenza is reached, and then the piano gets more optimistic as it shifts to the key of D major. The concerto has gone from the darkness of D minor to the light of D major, and ends in that bright key.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 4 In C Minor

 Saint-Saëns was the first major French composer to write a piano concerto, and he treats orchestra and piano as equals, with brilliance and originality. He was devoted to forms used in the past, but that did not stop him from experimenting. He revered the modern composers of his younger years while he grew more critical of the next generation as he got older. But for his contemporaries, he was somewhat of an innovator and known for his novelty, all within the French aesthetic of ‘good taste’. 

Of the five piano concertos, No. 2 in G minor is the only one that is solidly in the repertoire, with No. 4 having an occasional performance. Both concertos are innovative in form, with No. 4 being similar in form to Symphony No. 3. Musicologist Daniel M. Fallon has written a paper that goes in depth concerning  the 4th piano concerto and its relation to early sketches for a symphony that was never written. The paper is free to download at the link and is titled:  The Genesis Of Saint-Saëns’ Piano ConcertoNo. 4. The abstract of the paper states:

Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 was based on an introduction to an unfinished symphony, which the 19-year-old composer wrote and then abandoned. Nearly every bar of the concerto evolves from this draft, providing a rare opportunity to understand Saint-Saëns' compositional craft.

I. Allegro moderato - Andante - This concerto consists of two main movements, with two distinct sections within each.  The movement begins with a chromatic theme in the strings that is soon taken up by the piano. This theme is traded off by piano and orchestra and builds in brilliance in the piano until the full orchestra repeats the theme forte.  The theme then moves into the woodwinds as the piano and pizzicato strings accompany.  Saint-Saëns shows his feeling for orchestral and pianistic color as it is essentially the same theme repeated throughout the first section, but he avoids monotony with his skill of orchestration. This section comes to a close and a bridge begins that announces the second section of the movement. 

The second section begins in the woodwinds that play a chorale theme with the piano accompanying with rapid scales. This theme is varied for the rest of the movement as the piano part becomes more florid until the music calms and begins a slow transition to the second movement.

II. Allegro vivace -  Andante -  Allegro -  The second movement begins with a return to the material that was used as a bridge for the first and second sections of the first movement. The first section of this movement serves as a scherzo. The first theme of the first movement reappears in the strings as the piano cavorts in triplets. The theme is varied until a new energetic theme appears and alternates with the initial theme. The bridge theme reappears, as the other two themes play off each other. The music flows into the Andante section in a reminiscence of the chorale theme of the first movement that receives a fugal treatment.  The chorale continues and slowly builds in volume and intensity, which leads to the final Allegro section.

This section’s theme is actually the chorale theme played in C major in ¾ time, and it is initially heard in single notes in the right hand of the piano with a pizzicato accompaniment.  The piano and orchestra alternate playing the theme and accompaniment as Saint-Saëns continues keeping the ear of the listener interested in the theme with subtle variations on it.  The piano glitters and combines with the orchestra to bring the concerto to a brilliant close.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 5 'Egyptian'

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy composing his first piece when 4 years old. At his first public recital at the age of 10 years old, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15, along with other pieces by Bach, Handel, Hummel and others. For an encore he offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory. His precociousness did not end with music; for he learned how to read and write by the time he was three. He also studied and wrote about geology, acoustics, archeology, botany and many other scientific subjects as well as history.

 He once said of himself, "I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples." He was one of the most naturally gifted musicians that ever lived, and his seemingly easy facility for composing lead some to criticize his lack of feeling in some of his compositions. There is a natural virtuosity to a lot of his music, whether it is as lacking in emotion as some contend is a matter of taste.

 He wrote the 5th piano Concerto to commemorate his 50th anniversary of his debut in 1846. Saint-Saëns practiced diligently throughout his life to keep his keyboard technique in excellent condition, and remained a virtuoso on the piano and organ his entire life. He was the soloist in the premiere of the work on May 6, 1896.

 Allegro animato - Soft orchestral chords in the woodwinds with pizzicato accompaniment from the strings open the concerto, with the piano entering shortly after with the first theme. The strings take up the theme as the soloist plays a counter melody in the style of the pizzicato accompaniment. There was a 20-year span between the composition of Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto and the 5th, but his elegance of expression and virtuosity remained intact as the piano ripples with scales and arpeggios as the first theme returns and is developed. The music works up to the transition to the second main theme, melancholy music that stands in contrast to the first theme.

 These two themes trade off appearances in the development section, with frequent changes of key. The first theme becomes more aggressive as it appears, while the second theme retains much of its melancholy mood. The first theme seems to reappear to begin the recapitulation, as the strings state it and the soloist plays scales and gentle figures. But is it the recapitulation, or is the development section continuing? Saint-Saëns doesn’t allow a formal return to the opening music, but melds the two themes into a continuing development until a coda appears that gives one more transfiguration of the second theme, and the initial theme then leads to a quiet ending of the movement.

 Andante - The opening of this movement, traditionally the slow section of a piano concerto, breaks with convention as the movement begins with a loud chord by the orchestra, with ensuing rhythmic motives played by the strings that are underpinned by chords from the brass. The piano plays exotic runs over this accompaniment until the piano joins with the woodwinds to move to a slower section dominated by the piano and strings. The soloist plays a simple melody in the extreme treble range of the keyboard that leads to a section labeled quasi recitativo.

 A flute joins in as the piano in gentle runs up and down the keyboard. The 1st violins and cellos gently take up the theme to an accompaniment by the other strings and the piano, with the section played at a whispering pianissimo. A Nubian boat song that the composer heard on his African trips is quoted as the section winds its way through this and other exotic tunes.

 The piano and strings combine in imitation of frogs, crickets, and other creatures heard during the hot and humid nights in Egypt, the 2nd violins and violas play sul ponticello very gently while the piano plays repeated notes in each hand that are labeled quasi cadenza.

 The piano plays in the extreme treble once again, after which gentle runs up the keyboard bring the movement back to where it started with the rhythmic violins answered by the soloist. The music ends with mysterious tremolos played by the strings as the piano slowly makes its way to the top of the keyboard and quietly brings one of Saint-Saëns most imaginative pieces of music to a close.

 Molto allegro - The shortest movement of the concerto begins with the piano rumbling deep in the bass, until the exuberant first theme rushes to the forefront. The piano goes up and down the keyboard while the orchestra supports it in the background. A second mellower theme emerges, and is passed from soloist to orchestra. Saint-Saëns again shows his virtuosity as a soloist in the rapid figures heard in the piano.

 The first theme returns (along with the rumbling in the bass) and is dramatically developed. Both themes return after a shortened development section, and the concerto ends with the entire orchestra playing a fortissimo coda.