Thursday, October 27, 2016

Symphony Preview: Back to the future

It's a mix of the old and new at the St. Louis Symphony this weekend (Friday and Saturday, October 28 and 29) as Jun Märkl returns to conduct the orchestra and soloist Jeremy Denk in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488), Liszt's Prometheus, and the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25, as arranged by Arnold Schoenberg.

Franz Liszt in 1858
Photo by Franz Hanfstaengl
Prometheus, which opens the concerts, is old because it was first performed in 1855. But it's also new because this is its first appearance with the SLSO.

Prometheus was already something new at its first performance, even though the composer conducted an earlier version for chorus and orchestra in Weimar in 1850. That's because this revised version was one of the first examples of the symphonic poem, a.k.a tone poem, a genre that Liszt effectively invented.

Many composers have written works labeled "symphonic poem" since then (Liszt himself wrote a total of thirteen), and what they all have in common is a reliance on some external, non-musical source for their inspiration. That source could be almost anything, including a novel (Albert Roussel's Resurrection), a poem (Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht), a painting (Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead), a place (Respighi's Pines of Rome), or a historical event (Smetana's Sárka). Or, in the case of Prometheus, a story out of mythology.

We all know the story of the Greek god Prometheus, punished for giving mankind the gift of fire by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle, only to have it grow back overnight (talk about your extraordinary rendition…). For Liszt, it was a story of pain, redemption, and triumph, with a grand fugue and a triumphant ending.

The piece was regarded as radical "new music" at the time and got, as a result, its share of negative press (the infamous Eduard Hanslick, who gave Wagner such grief, called it "an interestingly orchestrated instrument of torture"). These days it's just great musical drama.

The Mozart piano concerto is likely to be the most familiar piece on the program but here, too, there are surprises. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra is a close one, with lots of give and take between the two, and the piano part looks both backward towards Bach with complex contrapuntal passages and forward to the Romantic era with harmonies that would probably have sounded a bit radical to the composer's Viennese audiences. That's most apparent in the first movement cadenza (which, contrary to his usual practice, Mozart actually wrote down) as well as in the touching Adagio second movement.

In a 2013 interview for San Francisco Classical Voice this weekend's soloist, Jeremy Denk, observed that "a very important part of playing a Mozart concerto is the wonder of each moment." So take the time to enjoy those moments when you see him on stage this weekend.

The concerts conclude with music that's old and new simultaneously: Arnold Schoenberg's 1937 orchestral transcription of Brahms's 1861 Piano Quartet in G minor. That might seem like an odd combination, given the kind of music for which Schoenberg is best known, but in his essay "Brahms the Progressive" Schoenberg claimed that the earlier composer was actually "a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive.”

It's an argument that has been met with some skepticism but there's not much doubt that Schoenberg was a great admirer of Brahms, and his orchestral expansion of the 1861 piano quartet-it's far too elaborate to be described as straightforward orchestration-sounds like both a homage to and a radical re-thinking of the original.

Arnold Schoenberg
By Man Ray, CC BY-SA 2.0
You can hear that in dramatic opening of the first movement. The notes are all Brahms, but the music feels Wagnerian in its intensity. As René Spencer Saller points out in her SLSO program notes, the orchestration is also very different from the sound world of Brahms, with instruments that the earlier composer would never have used such as the xylophone, bass clarinet, and E-flat clarinet.

In a 1939 note to San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein, Schoenberg said that his intention was "to remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today" and "to watch carefully all the laws which Brahms obeyed and not to violate them, which are only known to musicians educated in his environment." I'm not convinced that he actually did that, but what he did accomplish was to pour some old musical wine into new bottles without damaging the vintage in any way. This is the mid-19th century seen through the lens of the early 20th, and if accepted on its own terms it's very rewarding.

The Essentials: Jun Märkl conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Jeremy Denk in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus, and an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., October 28 and 29 at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis public radio.

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