In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber.
Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the time). Berlioz referred to Weber in his influential Treatise on Instrumentation and Debussy remarked that the sound of Weber’s orchestra was “obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.” Weber’s opera Euryanthe anticipated Wagner’s Leitmotif technique, in which a short, recurring musical phrase is used to represent a character or idea. Even twentieth century composers returned to Weber’s music. (Listen to Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is based on themes by Weber).
The Oberon Overture begins with a distant horn call and slowly awakening strings. Listen to the harmony at 1:15 and you’ll be reminded of yet-to-be-written Wagner. A few moments later at 1:33, we hear the playful laughter of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And then, after this sleepy and introspective opening, the music suddenly explodes into a fireball of virtuosity. A cast of characters comes alive through the instruments of the orchestra. The overture, which began so quietly, ends in a high-flying flourish of euphoria.
Oberon was first performed at London’s Covent Garden on April 12, 1826. The three act Romantic opera’s plot dates back to a medieval French story, Huon of Bordeaux. You can hear Maria Callas sing an excerpt from the opera here.
Earlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.
We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.
Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.
Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto
Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.
Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,
I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.
He went on to offer the following description:
The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.
Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:
Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songs, written in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung(“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.
Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.
Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.
Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:
Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
A belated happy birthday to Itzhak Perlman who turned 70 on Monday.
Perlman rose to prominence during the second half of the twentieth century, displaying musical warmth, technical panache, and an unusually thick, singing tone, rich in overtones. He is one of only a handful of front rank musicians who have also achieved celebrity status. In 1964, at the age of 18, he captured public attention with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to perform on Sesame Street, on the soundtrack of the movie Schindler’s List, and at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here is a clip from a 1980s performance at the White House, and here is another from 2012. Warm, fun-loving and unpretentious, he is the perfect ambassador for classical music. In recent years, he has focused more on teaching (watch masterclass clips here and here) and conducting.
Here is Perlman playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Perlman’s recording of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas with Daniel Barenboim is still one of my favorites:
Here is Pablo Sarasate’s Zapateado with pianist Samuel Sanders:
To finish out the week, here is a particularly exciting performance of Wagner’s Overture to the 1845 opera, Tannhäuser. The clip comes from a special 2005 concert at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict. Christian Thielemann is conducting the Munich Philharmonic.
Tannhäuser is based on two German legends, one involving a singing contest at medieval Wartburg Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop 1,350 feet above the town of Eisenach. The Overture opens with a quietly noble and unassuming chorale. Just before the curtain rises, the chorale reaches a climax with a heroic statement in the trombones.
Orchestral string players associate Wagner with endless, repetitive, and often physically taxing running passages, which provide dramatic counterpoint to the other musical lines. In this clip, you’ll hear plenty of those exciting moments (listen to the flutter of energy coming from the second violins and violas around 6:10 and the violas and cellos at 9:06). Listen to the way string sequences snake around the chorale melody, beginning at 10:45. These inner voices are an essential part of the overture’s drama and intensity.
Historic Tannhäuser Recordings,Munich and Beyond
Here are a few historic recordings of the Munich Philharmonic playing the Tannhäuser Overture:
Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1940 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle- It’s hard to separate this from the troubling politics of the time and place in which it was recorded, but a great performance, nonetheless.
Daniel Barenboim’s 2002 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1975 recording.
Born in Germany, Frederick Loewe began writing songs at the age of 7 and performed as a piano soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at 13. He studied in Berlin with Ferruccio Busoni, among others. Loewe emigrated to the United States in 1924. His songs remained firmly rooted in the elegant Viennese operetta tradition.
In 1956, at the age of 19, Julie Andrews was catapulted to fame in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Here, she sings The Lusty Month of May from the first act of Camelot:
Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.
Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:
Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.
As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.
The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”
One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.
The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”
The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.
Eight Great Recordings
Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.
Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:
This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:
Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:
As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”
In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.
Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam
Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.
Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.
Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.
That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874.Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”
In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.
One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.
Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment here. Kenneth Woods has some interesting thoughts about Simon Rattle and the culture of celebrity in classical music. In the 1980s and 90s, Rattle rose to international prominence as principal conductor of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony. He has been leading the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.
The anticipation of a new Music Director is an exciting time for any orchestra. It’s a time when it’s easy to sense new possibilities, renewal and growth, and an infusion of fresh artistic energy. An incoming Music Director’s honeymoon usually follows a long period of “courtship” as a guest conductor. Both the conductor and the orchestra have to make sure the chemistry is right.
As Sir Simon Rattle prepares to return to his English roots, let’s listen to a recording from his days in Birmingham. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal “pastoral romance for orchestra,” The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy plays the violin solo: