St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Program Notes

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858)

by Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 – Vienna, 1897)

I have always thought that some day, one would be bound suddenly to appear, one called to articulate in ideal form the spirit of his time, one whose mastery would not reveal itself to us step by step, but who, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Zeus.  And he is come, a young man over whose cradle graces and heroes have stood watch.  His name is Johannes Brahms…and he bears even outwardly those signs that proclaim:  here is one of the elect. – Robert Schumann

These prophetic words were written by Robert Schumann, in an article titled ‟New Paths” that was to end almost twenty years of his activities as a music critic (including quite a few as the main editor) of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Germany’s most important music journal.  The date was October 28, 1853.  Brahms was barely twenty years old, and had not composed anything but piano music and songs, although these already included the three big piano sonatas.  In addition, his piano playing was unusually expressive.  A single visit by Brahms at the Schumanns’ in Düsseldorf was enough to convince the older composer that ‟here was one of the elect.”

Sadly, with this article Schumann was not only welcoming a major new talent; he was also passing on the torch.  For only four months later, on February 26, 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, and was subsequently taken to a mental asylum where he died two years later.  Brahms was deeply shaken by these tragic events.  Upon hearing the news of Schumann’s illness, he rushed to Düsseldorf to provide support for Clara Schumann, who was expecting her seventh child at the time.  He fell passionately in love with Clara, fourteen years his senior, who was one of the greatest pianists of her day, and a woman of exceptional culture, intelligence, and charm.  He was torn between his feelings of loyalty to his friend and mentor and his love for his friend’s wife, a love probably not unreturned, despite Clara’s devotion to her husband.  After Schumann’s death, however, Brahms and Clara pulled apart, later settling into a warm friendship that was to last until Clara’s death in 1896.  (Brahms himself died the following year.)

This emotional turmoil was further aggravated by a professional crisis for the young Brahms.  The high expectations raised by Schumann’s glowing article weighed heavily on him.  He received some valuable introductions as a result of that article, and got his first works published by the prestigious Leipzig publisher, Breitkopf&Härtel.  Nevertheless, he felt that he had yet to prove himself, had yet to write the Great Work that would establish him as the new genius whose advent Schumann had prophesied.  He made sketch after sketch, filled notebook after notebook, but was dissatisfied with everything he wrote.  Two of the large-scale compositions started during this time were finished only 20 years later:  the Piano Quartet in C minor (1875), and the First Symphony (1876), also in C minor.  The third one, and the first to reach completion, was what eventually became the D-minor Piano Concerto.

In 1854, Brahms was reportedly working on a symphony, now lost.  It has been suggested that these sketches already contained some of the music for the Concerto, but this cannot be proven as Brahms destroyed his sketches.  By February 1855, he had decided on a concerto, but the work still caused him much trouble and worry.  The music was sent back and forth between Brahms and his best friend, violinst-composer Joseph Joachim, whose advice Brahms trusted more than anyone else’s.  The composer often despaired of ever being able to set right the ‟disastrous first movement, which cannot be born.”  Joachim was generous with his advice, freely criticizing what he did not like and working closely with Brahms on many details over a period of two years.  In December 1857, Brahms lamented, ‟Nothing sensible will ever come of it.”  By the next spring, however, he finished the concerto, and Joachim started rehearsing it with his orchestra in Hanover.

A performance had been planned for the spring of 1858, but that did not materialize.  The premiere finally took place on January 22, 1859, in Hanover.  Joachim conducted, and Brahms himself played the piano part.  It was well received, if without any particular enthusiasm.  In contrast, the second performance five days later, at the famous Gewandhaus in Leipzig, turned out to be the greatest fiasco of Brahms’s entire life.  There the orchestra was led by a musician who did not know Brahms very well, one Julius Rietz.  Brahms wrote to Joachim after the concert:

I played considerably better than in Hanover, and the orchestra was excellent…. The first and second movements were heard without the slightest motion.  At the close, three pairs of hands attempted slowly to strike against one another, whereupon a perfectly unequivocal hissing from all sides forbade such demonstrations.  Nothing further to report about that event, for nobody has yet said a word about the piece to me, with the exception of [concertmaster] Ferdinand David, who was very friendly….I believe this is the best thing that could happen to one; it forces one to pull one’s thoughts together and stimulates one’s courage.  After all, I am only experimenting and feeling my way as yet.  But the hissing was too much, wasn’t it? – Johannes Brahms

One might wonder about the causes of this failure.  After all, Brahms could hardly have been decried as one of those ‟incomprehensible modernists.”  The world of German music at the time had begun to polarize into two camps.  The traditionals, who wrote the name of Schumann on their banner, were opposed by those who rallied around Liszt and his so-called ‟New German School.”  There was no doubt that Brahms belonged to the first of these camps.  Yet the unusually heightened dramatic quality of the concerto posed a challenge that few listeners were prepared to meet.  Ironically, the intensity of the gesture in the concerto’s first few bars is somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E-flat, premiered only a few years earlier in 1855.  The two works, of course, later progress in entirely different directions, yet both begin in ways that contemporaries could not help perceiving as outrageously modern.

Even today, when Brahms isn’t ‟modern” in the same way any more, a sensitive listener will be struck (in the strong sense of the word) by the timpani roll, followed by a melody that startles with its violent accents, interspersed with tension-filled pauses, and a tonal ambiguity resulting from the fact that the first cadence in D minor (the home key of the piece) does not arrive until measure 66.  An extended passage in the home key is not heard until the piano makes its first entrance with a soft, lyrical melody.  Until then, the music constantly modulates, and it often remains unclear for several measures what the key is.  At the very beginning, the notes of the B-flat-major triad over a continuing drumroll on D produce a very unsettling effect, compounded by the repeated appearance of A-flat (emphasized by trills and accents), which produces a strong dissonance with the bass.  The repeat of the same music a half-step lower is an even stronger surprise.

Eventually, the movement settles into a fairly regular sonata form, with exposition, development, and recapitulation.  But its dimensions are enormous, and the contrasts between the numerous themes are extreme.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (also in D minor), which Brahms heard for the first time during his years of struggle with the concerto, was a decisive influence.  Among the many unforgettable moments in the first movement are the extended, hymn-like piano solo in a slower tempo and the haunting horn solo following shortly.  The periodic returns of the dramatic initial theme retain their power and energy to the end.

The second-movement Adagio is one of Brahms’s most intimate musical statements.  In the original manuscript, the movement bore a quotation from the Latin Mass:  Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (‟Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”).  The expressive theme, played by strings (violins muted) and bassoons, is taken over by the piano, which embellishes it with ornaments and figurations.  The clarinets introduce a second theme, which leads to a brief forte exclamation.  The first theme soon returns and, after a short and dream-like cadenza, the movement ends with the sudden entrance of the timpani, silent until this point in the Adagio.  The fact that the timpani does not play D (the pitch of the home key) but its dominant A, results in a strange suspense at the movement’s end.

In the last movement, Brahms seems to pay tribute simultaneously to Bach and Beethoven.  The polyphonic textures and vigorous syncopations of the main theme recall Bach’s Concerto in D minor, while Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3, in C minor, was a model in other respects.  The central fugato, or section in imitative counterpoint, was certainly inspired by a similar passage in the Beethoven.  If the first movement lacked a cadenza, the finale has two.  The first, marked ‟quasi Fantasia,” is a series of figurations over a sustained pedal that is sometimes in the low, and sometimes in the middle or high register.  This is followed by the modulation from gloomy and dramatic D minor to festive and serene D major, a change that gives the Rondo theme an entirely new character.  We barely recognize the theme when the bassoons and oboes intone it with a dolce (‟sweet”) sound quality.  This variation on the theme leads into a brief orchestral fortissimo and then into the second cadenza (this one also based on a sustained pedal, but more melodic than figurative in character).  After this second cadenza, there is only a short, jubilant coda left to close the work.

At age 25, Brahms felt he had accomplished the Great Work he had aspired to write, but the response he had hoped for failed to appear.  Although subsequent performances were more successful than the disastrous Leipzig premiere, the composer was deeply wounded, and this may explain in part why he waited almost 20 years before completing his First Symphony.

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937)

by Dmitri Shostakovich (St. Petersburg, 1906 – Moscow, 1975)

Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Symphony in what was certainly the most difficult year of his life.  On January 28, 1936, an unsigned editorial in the Pravda, the daily paper of the Soviet Communist Party, brutally attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, denouncing it as “muddle instead of music.”  This condemnation resulted in a sharp decrease of performances of Shostakovich’s music for about a year.  What was worse, Shostakovich, whose first child was born in May 1936, had to live in constant fear of being deported to one of the infamous, deathly labor camps in Siberia.  These were the days of the ‟Great Terror” that claimed the lives of some of the country’s greatest artists such as the poet Osip Mandelshtam, the novelist Isaac Babel, and the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.  It is said that Shostakovich kept a suitcase with a change of clothes under his bed, in case they would come for him in the middle of the night.

Yet the composer was miraculously spared:  the Party decided that the country’s music life couldn’t afford to lose its greatest young talent.  Shostakovich was granted a comeback.  Less than a year after being forced to withdraw his Fourth Symphony, he heard his Fifth premiered with resounding success in Leningrad on November 21, 1937.

Could it be that the qualities in the Fifth Symphony that are so admired today were the same ones that saved the composer’s life then?  Shostakovich clearly made a major effort to write a “classical” piece here, one that would be acceptable to the authorities and was as far removed from the avant-gardistic Fourth as possible.  Whether that makes it “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Response to Just Criticism,” as it was officially designated at the time, is another question.  The work is so profound and sincere as to transcend any kind of political expediency.  The symphony was definitely a response to something, but not in the sense of a chastised schoolboy mending his ways—rather as a great artist reacting to the cruelty and insanity of the times.

The energetic dotted motif at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony is, no doubt, dramatic and ominous.  A second theme, played by the violins in a high register, is warm and lyrical but at the same time eerie and distant.  The music seems hesitant until the horns begin a march theme that leads to motivic development and a speeding up of the tempo.  It is not a funeral march, but it is not exactly triumphant either.  Reminiscent of some of Mahler’s march melodies but even grimmer, its harmonies modulate freely from key to key, giving the march an oddly sarcastic character.  At the climactic point of the march, the two earlier themes return.  The dotted rhythms from the opening are even more powerful than before, but the second lyrical theme, now played by the flute and the horn to the soothing harmonies of the harp, has lost the edge it previously had and brings the movement to a peaceful, almost otherworldly close.

The brief second-movement Scherzo brings some relief after the preceding drama.  Its Ländler-like melodies again bespeak Mahler’s influence, both in the Scherzo proper and the Trio, whose theme is played by a solo violin and then by the flute.

The third movement is an expansive Largo in which the brass is silent and the violins are divided not into two sections as usual but three.  After an espressivo melody, scored for strings only, two flutes and harp transform the first movement’s march rhythm into a lament.  The oboe, the clarinet, and the flute intone desolate solo melodies, interspersed with a near-quote from a Russian Orthodox funeral chant, played by the strings.  The tension grows and finally erupts, about two-thirds through the movement; the opening melody then returns in a passionate rendering by the cello section in a high register.  At the end, the music falls back into the lament mode of the earlier woodwind passages.

Generally accepted as the emotional high point of the symphony, the Largo was widely understood as a lament for the Soviet Army marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who fell victim to the Stalinist purges in 1937.  Tukhachevsky had been a benefactor and a personal friend of the composer’s.  At the first performance, many people wept openly during the Largo, perhaps thinking of their own loved ones who had disappeared.

The last movement finally resolves the tensions that have built up in the first three movements (or so it seems at first) by introducing a march tune that is much simpler and more straightforward than most of the symphony’s earlier themes.  Yet after an exciting development, the music suddenly stops on a set of harsh fortissimo chords, and a slower, more introspective section begins with a haunting horn solo.  Musicologist Richard Taruskin has shown that this section quotes from a song for voice and piano on a Pushkin poem (“Vozrozhdenie” or “Rebirth,” Op. 46, No.1) Shostakovich had written just before the Fifth Symphony.  (“Delusions vanish from my wearied soul, and visions arise within it of pure primeval days”—says Pushkin’s poem.)  This quiet intermezzo ends abruptly with the entrance of the timpani and snare drum, ushering in the recapitulation of the march tune, played at half its original tempo.  Merely a shadow of its former self, the melody is elaborated contrapuntally until it suddenly alights on a bright D-major chord in full orchestral splendor, which then remains unchanged for more than a minute, until the end of the symphony.

Notes by Peter Laki, Bard College Conservatory of Music

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

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