Thursday, April 23, 2015

Symphony Preview: Big Piano, Part Zwei, with Emanuel Ax

April has been Big Piano Concerto Month at the St. Louis Symphony. Last week we had Rachmaninoff's daunting "Piano Concerto No. 3" . This week it's the equally intimidating "Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major," Op. 83, written in 1881 by Brahms.

Johannes Brahms
The reasons why the two concerti are difficult are somewhat different, though. With the Rachmaninoff, it's mostly a matter of sheer technique. The composer was a virtuoso of the first water who wrote the piece for his use during an American tour, and even though it's now largely part of the standard repertoire, it's still not the sort of thing a performer takes on lightly.

With the Brahms it's partly a matter of sheer endurance. With four movements (as opposed to the usual three) and a running time of around fifty minutes the piece was, at the time, the longest piano concerto ever written. Now that honor probably goes to Ferrucio Busoni's 1904 Piano Concerto (five movements, seventy minutes), which includes a part for male chorus. But it's still the pianistic equivalent of running a marathon and not everybody has the endurance.

The real challenge, though, is artistic. As French pianist Phillippe Bianconi observed in a 2013 interview, the Brahms Second is "not really a concerto – it is really a symphony with principal piano...everything about it — the structure, the texture, the way the piano is integrated into the orchestral fabric, it's very symphonic. And that is what I love about it: I have the feeling I'm playing in a Brahms symphony!... The sheer beauty of this music is simply overwhelming. And I don't know many concertos that have such a great range of moods and emotions...The concerto is like a fabulous journey." At the work's November 1881 premiere in Stuttgart, in fact, the prominent critic (and Brahms partisan) Eduard Hanslick labeled it "a symphony with piano obbligato."

That means the soloist has to have not only technique and endurance but also a grasp of symphonic form—which is not guaranteed, even among some of the world's most prominent players. "The fact that its supreme complexity requires a surpassing executant," wrote Brockway and Weinstock in the 1967 edition of their provocative "Men of Music," "has not helped the B flat, for it is all too often attempted by pianists who find it quite beyond their competence. Even the greatest of ensemble players, Artur Schnabel, though none of it is beyond him, cannot give interest to the unwieldy work for its entire length."

The composer realized that he had written something monumental, in fact, and was not sure how successful it might be. In a letter to Elizabeth von Herzogenberg from Pressbaum on July 7, 1881, Brahms, with tongue firmly in bearded cheek, announced that "I have written a tiny, tiny pianoforte concerto with a tiny wisp of a scherzo. It is in B flat, and I have reason to fear that I have worked this udder, which has yielded good milk before, too often and too vigorously."

He need not have worried. "He was surely vindicated, if unsurprised," writes René Spencer Saller in the SLSO program notes, "when his Second Piano Concerto elicited rapturous applause everywhere except in Leipzig, that die-hard Wagner town." Its popularity continues to this day, when it's seen as one of the core Romantic piano concerti. Indeed, pianist Stephen Hough (who has both Brahms concerti in his repertoire) has said that the Brahms Second is one of his favorites. "For all the grandeur and excitement of the first concerto's youthful flare," he wrote in The Guardian's music blog last January, "the second's older vintage seemed wiser, more fascinatingly complex as I revisited and re-recorded both pieces last year. Its musical arguments seemed more nuanced, more open to exploration, more a search for common ground where, as in life, the sun can shine brightest ... and warmest."

At the keyboard this weekend is Emanuel Ax, a pianist with a long and distinguished career in both the concert and chamber music worlds and an impressively large catalog of recordings (he has been a Sony classical artist since 1987).  He knows the Brahms Second intimately and has performed it four times with the SLSO, including twice with David Robertson. This weekend will mark his 40th anniversary of his first appearance with the orchestra.

Edward Elgar, circa 1900
The concerts will open with a work of more modest proportions: Edward Elgar's 1905 "Introduction and Allegro," op. 47, scored for string orchestra with a solo string quartet, much in the manner of the Baroque concerto grosso. It was was written on commission to show off the strings of the newly-established London Symphony Orchestra and contains some wonderful stuff, especially for the solo quartet. "It's really beautiful, and kind of strange," says viola soloist Morris Jacob in an interview in the program. "It's Elgar at his best. He writes so well for strings, with beautiful, intimate moments, some of which are just majestic."

Elgar prefaced the score with the following lines from Act IV, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's oddball tragicomedy "Cymbeline" describing the decidedly mixed emotions displayed by one of the key characters:
Nobly he yokes
A smiling with a sigh, as if the sigh
Was that it was, for not being such a smile; The smile mocking the sigh, that it would fly From so divine a temple, to commix
With winds that sailors rail at.
"Shakespeare reveled in paradox," writes Ms. Saller, "the conjoining of apparent antitheses. Elgar did too, but in a different idiom." The Introduction begins wistfully in G minor but soon waxes lyrical with a tune that Elgar said was inspired by a song he heard sung by a distant voice during a vacation in Wales. The Allegro concludes with an energetic fugue. "The work," concludes Ms. Saller, "is at once Romantic and Baroque, ecstatic and exact. Like the Bard of Avon, Elgar loved the mongrels best."

Between the Elgar and the Brahms is the St. Louis premiere of "Frenesia" ("Frenzy") by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Composed on commission to celebrate the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss (of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" fame), the piece was inspired by Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life").

Detlev Glanert
"Ein Heldenleben," for the benefit of those of you who came in late, is a supreme example of musical egotism. Despite the composer's disclaimer that the work was only party autobiographical and that it was intended to be "a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism," there's not much doubt that Strauss' hero was Strauss. The work is chock full of quotes from Strauss' music and its portrayal of music critics by a gaggle of chattering woodwinds provoked the expected outrage from the composer's detractors.

That sort of thing would be easy to parody, but Mr. Glanert isn't interested in satire. "Although Glanert admires Strauss's last great tone poem too much to mock it," reports Ms. Saller, "he recognizes that it was a product of its time. Frenesia is the ‘anti-Heldenleben,' he explains, "because the piece is against the traditional Romantic view of grand heroism, which I think is no longer possible after historic events leading to 1945.'"

"Frenesia" was given its world premiere by Xian Zhang and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra last January—a performance that was recently made available on YouTube. It's a piece marked by strong contrasts in which loud, aggressive orchestral outbursts that sound like science fiction film music abruptly give way to passages of surprising delicacy. About two-thirds of the way through, the music begins a slow build to a massive final climax before slowly dying away, like "Neptune" from Holst's "The Planets," into silence. Overall, I'm left the impression that Mr. Glanert sees "grand heroism" as being mostly sound and fury, signifying nothing.

"Frenesia" will, in any case, make serious demands on the members of the orchestra. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

Mr. Glanert is no stranger to the "old wine in new bottles" thing, by the way. Last October he uncorked a re-distillation of some vintage Brahms at Powell Hell in his "Vier Präludien und ernste Gesänge" ("Four Preludes and Serious Songs"), an arrangement of Brahms's op. 121 "Four Serious Songs" for baritone and orchestra. You can see my colleague Gary Liam Scott's review of that concert (which I missed because I was on stage elsewhere) at the KDHX web site.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 25 and 26. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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