Elgar’s nobly expressive Symphony No. 1—a favorite in England, but not often played on this side of the Atlantic—is at the heart of this evening’s concert. Before intermission, Ronald Brautigam plays Beethoven’s sublime Piano Concerto No. 4—at once lyrical and witty. The prescient D minor chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture get the program off to a sonorous start.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born 27 January 1756, Salzburg, Austria; Died 5 December 5 1791, Vienna)
First Performance: 29 October 1787; Prague, Czech Republic
Last MSO Performance: March 1989; Lukas Foss, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 7 minutes
Prague loved Mozart and afforded him the operatic success that Vienna—with its preference for Italian composers—never did. When The Marriage of Figaro was produced there, it became the talk of the town, its tunes whistled on every street corner. So when Mozart was invited to compose a new opera specifically for Prague, he leapt at the chance. He employed the same librettist (Lorenzo da Ponte, 1749-1838), largely the same cast of singers, and the same mixture of comedy and drama that made Figaro such a well-received piece of theatre. For his subject, Mozart chose the universal figure of the insatiable lover Don Juan and termed the opera a dramma giocoso (playful drama).
Legend has it that Mozart completed the overture to Don Giovanni just hours before the opera’s premiere, nursing a hangover as he sat in the courtyard at Villa Bertramka. We now know that it was completed early on 28 October 1787, the morning of the dress rehearsal. The first performance at the Estates Theatre the following day was a brilliant triumph.
The overture begins with ominous D minor chords, the same music that will return near the end of the opera when the statue of the murdered Commendatore beseeches Don Giovanni to repent his reprobate ways. The music soon transitions to a happier D major Allegro, but we can never quite forget the foreboding atmosphere of the opening sonorities.
Recommended Recording: Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 6 March 1807; palace of Prince Lobkowitz, Vienna (private); 22 December 1808; Vienna, Austria (public)
Last MSO Performance: November 2014; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 34 minutes
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 dates from around the same time as the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Triple Concerto, Op. 56, the Three String Quartets, Op. 59 (“Razumovsky”), and the Violin Concerto, Op. 61. The composer dedicated the work to his friend, patron, and pupil Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Its first public performance took place on a four-hour marathon concert that also included the first performances of Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6, the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, the soprano concert aria Ah, perfido!, and portions of the Mass in C, Op. 86. At the still-young age of 38, it was the last time Beethoven would appear as a concerto soloist, due to his increasing deafness.
In his landmark book The Classical Style (1972), Charles Rosen wryly observes that “the most important fact about the concerto form is that the audience waits for the soloist to enter.” In the exquisitely lyrical opening phrases of the G major piano concerto, Beethoven offers a gentle rebuff to Rosen’s axiom, beginning with the piano alone. The orchestra enters four bars later, quietly echoing the soloist’s motif, but in the strikingly distant key of B major. Only after several pages does the texture grow into a full tutti and a true conversation between the piano and orchestra begin.
The compelling E minor Andante con moto—a literal dialogue between piano and strings—in the 19th century was said to depict Orpheus (soloist) taming the Furies (strings). Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood posits an equally intriguing notion, equating the second movement to an operatic scena in which “entreaty is met at first by obdurate refusal… The rhetorical character of the movement, like no other in Beethoven, invites association with tradition, and one of these may well have been that of the expressive aria with string from Mozart’s late Italian works.”
Any remaining oppositions are reconciled in the sprightly rondo-finale. It begins softly, with a lively motif in the strings. Then, for the first time in the concerto, the trumpets and timpani make their entrance. The fleet, energetic piano is afforded ample opportunity for virtuoso display as Beethoven’s soulful and captivating Op. 58 dashes to its conclusion.
Recommended Recording: Ronald Brautigam; Andrew Parrott, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra (BIS)
(Born 2 June 1857, Broadheath, England; Died 23 February 1934, Worcester, England)
Premiere: 3 December 1908; Manchester, England
Last MSO Performance: April 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum), 2 harps, strings
Approximate Duration: 50 minutes
After the success of his ever-popular Enigma Variations (1899), Edward Elgar’s compatriots had hoped he might be the one to pen the “great British symphony,” a work that would pose a challenge to the continental composers who had dominated the field for a long time. In 1903, he had a great success with the premiere of his oratorio The Apostles. However, it did little to relieve the pressure Elgar felt to write a true symphony, the one he knew his nation expected. He was 50 years old before he began to write what would become Symphony No. 1, but in fact it was not his first attempt at writing a symphony: In 1898, he had begun, then abandoned, a programmatic symphony based on the life of the English military hero General Charles George Gordon.
Though other composers of his generation expressed a certain ambivalence regarding the viability of continuing to write symphonies—they thought its day had passed—Elgar remained convinced that the form was not obsolete. In a lecture at Birmingham University in 1905, he opined:
It seems to me that because the greatest genius of our days, Richard Strauss, recognizes the symphonic poem as a fit vehicle for his splendid achievements, some writers are inclined to be positive that the symphony is dead… but when the looked-for genius comes, it may be absolutely revived.
Two years later, when Elgar himself assumed the role of the “looked-for genius,” he produced a noble work that was an astonishing instant triumph. In the year following its 1908 premiere, Op. 55 had over 100 performances in England, continental Europe, and America.
Set in A-flat major, an unusual key for a symphony, the work opens with a nobilmente theme, one that will return in the finale for a complete grandioso statement following assorted transformations during the course of the work. Elgar wrote that this “is intended to be simple and, in intention, noble and elevating… the sort of ideal call—in the sense of persuasion, not coercion or command—and something above every day and sordid things.” Following a tutti statement of this theme, there’s an impetuous switch to D minor, a tritone away from the home key. The Allegro is in traditional sonata form, and ends quietly.
The Allegro molto (in F-sharp minor, another distant key) is highly agitated—malevolent, almost. A gentler middle section in B-flat major provides a stark contrast, where diaphanous strings, flute, and harp intone bucolic phrases that Elgar instructed to be played “like something you hear down by the river.” The moto perpetuo music is heard again, but gradually slows, becoming the main theme of the Adagio—note for note. Surely some of the most affecting music Elgar ever penned, the third movement was likened to Beethoven’s adagios both by Hans Richter, who conducted the first performance, and by August Jaeger, Elgar’s friend and the subject of the Enigma’s “Nimrod” variation. Divided strings add to its harmonic richness.
A Lento (slow) rendering of one of the first movement’s subsidiary themes opens the finale. The unruly Allegro, with a succession of themes that includes an impetuous march rhythm, builds to its climax, then turns into a sumptuous, singing melody. The work’s opening nobilmente theme returns, sounded out triumphantly above salvos from brass and percussion.
Recommended Recording: Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics)