Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Symphony Preview: My favorite Beethoven

Christian Macelaru
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This weekend (October 21 - 23, 2016) a pianist popular with local audiences, Orli Shaham, returns to perform my favorite Beethoven piano concerto with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program that begins and ends with Russian music. Philadelphia-based conductor Cristian Macelaru is at the podium.

The concerto in question is Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, composed in 1806 and first performed in March 1807 at a private concert of the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. The public got its first exposure to it at a concert on December 22nd of the following year at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, with the composer as both soloist and conductor.

The hall was freezing cold, the musicians poorly prepared, and program a four-hour monster, including the premieres of not only the fourth concerto but also the Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra (a work often seen as a kind of "first draft" for the finale of his Symphony No. 9), the Symphony No. 5, and Symphony No. 6 (the "Pastorale"). Still, as audience member Johann Friedrich Reichardt (cited in program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic reported, the concerto made quite an impression: “[Beethoven] played with astounding cleverness and skill and at the fastest possible tempi. The Adagio [sic], a masterly movement of beautifully developed song, he sang on the instrument with a profound, thrilling melancholy.”

Orli Shaham
The Fourth is my favorite in part because it's so concise. I don't think there's a spare note in the entire work and everything is perfectly proportioned. It's also remarkably innovative for its time-beginning with the unusual opening, in which a short declaration by the solo piano is then taken up by the orchestra. Normal procedure would have been to have the orchestra state all the major themes before the piano made its first entrance. Instead, the movement seems to grow out of a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra.

The second movement is a dialogue between the soloist and the band as well, but this time it's in the form of a call and response, in which dramatic pronouncements by the orchestra are met, at least initially, with more subdued and lyrical material by the soloist.

As Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes for these concerts, this unusual structure has given birth to "a tradition that equates the music with the mythic scene of Orpheus taming the Furies of the underworld with his song" (a notion first advanced by Beethoven's biographer Adolph Bernhard Marx in 1859). When I first heard this movement, though, I had a very different response to it. To my ears it's an argument (or maybe a debate), with the aggressive stance of the orchestra met, at first, with attempts at calm reason, then with agitation, and finally with a kind of resignation. It's as if, after trying in vain to calm and placate its orchestral partner, the piano finally sighs and say, "OK, OK, you win. Let's just drop it."

Anyone who has ever gotten into a political firefight on Facebook will recognize the progression.

It's hard to say what Beethoven actually had in mind. The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein once described the movement as having been “written by a man in mortal fear.” And Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny (cited in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony) said that "in this movement (which, like the entire concerto, belongs to the finest and most poetical of Beethoven's creations) one cannot help thinking of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages.” The bottom line is that when it comes to its tragic conclusion, I have always felt a need to exhale slowly to prepare myself for the jolly, Haydnesque Rondo finale.

Serge Rachmaninoff, circa 1936
After intermission, we get a work that's also tinged with a kind of calm resignation: Serge Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances from 1941.

When I first heard this piece (a 1961 LP recording by Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the work's world premiere), I was immediately struck by the “late night” feel of the music-and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. I was not surprised to learn, then, that Rachmaninoff had originally titled the three sections “Noon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight”. This was the composer's last completed work (he died two years after its premiere), and there's a sense throughout of a life approaching its conclusion.

The composer dropped the titles, preferring the let the music speak for itself, and it does so eloquently. The work is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff's genius as an orchestrator, with elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds (including a short but poignant solo for alto sax), and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery. This is dramatic music that is nevertheless steeped in fall melancholy-very appropriate given that we passed the autumn equinox a month ago.

This weekend's concerts will open with a work that will probably be unfamiliar to you unless, like me, you're a big fan of late 19th century virtuoso piano works. It's Islamey, an "Oriental Fantasy" written in 1869 and then revised in 1902 by Mily Balakirev. We'll be hearing the orchestral arrangement by Sergey Lyapunov, but the piano original is widely viewed as one of the most technically difficult works ever written for that instrument. "It is a score that demands the fanciest of finger work," observes Tim Page in his liner notes for the spectacular 1998 recording by Yefim Bronfman, "as well as an extraordinary range of tone color and a certain intensity of conviction to hold it all together." Check out Bronfman's recording on YouTube to hear what he means.

The orchestral version is pretty colorful as well, building over the course of nine minutes to what Mr. Schiavo accurately describes as an "animated coda that concludes the piece with a display of virtuoso orchestral fireworks." It's lively, fun stuff and an excellent way to open a concert.

Balakirev, by the way, was part of a group of Russian composers commonly referred to as the "Mighty Handful" (a.k.a. the "Russian Five") who were important in the formation of the Russian nationalist school of composition; C├ęsar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin were the other four. Balakirev, unfortunately, was far less prolific than his compatriots and less comfortable as a composer, although we're told he was a pretty spectacular pianist. These days Islamey is the only one of his works that gets any attention, but in his time he was remarkably influential. Here's how the Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes his legacy:
"It has been said that it was Balakirev, even more than Glinka, who set the course for Russian orchestral music and lyrical song during the second half of the 19th century. He developed an idiom and technique that he imposed on his disciples (above all on Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, and to some extent on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) not only by example but by constant autocratic supervision of their own earlier works. His music is superbly colourful and imaginative, but his creative personality was arrested in its development after 1871, and his later work is couched in the idiom of his youth."
The Essentials: Cristian Macelaru conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with piano soloist Orli Shaham, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. October 21 - 23. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio.

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