Symphoria has paid insufficient attention to Franz Schubert (1797–1828)—and we begin to make up for that by opening tonight’s concert with his Rosamunde Overture. Originally composed for incidental music to a play called The Magic Harp, it was later recycled to introduce yet another, Rosamunde. Although both plays have been forgotten, their joint overture lives on as Schubert’s most popular orchestral work aside from his last two symphonies. The reasons will be clear as you listen. Schubert tried his hand at opera a few times, without success. But —with its soulful lyricism, its splashes of high drama, its Rossinian energy, and its expert orchestration—this overture suggests that, had he lived longer, he might well have had success in that area as well.
If we’ve been remiss with respect to Schubert, however, we’ve not been inattentive to Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). In fact, tonight’s concert completes Symphoria’s multi-year cycle of his four symphonies, the first complete symphony cycle since the orchestra was founded. It might seem odd to conclude with his First Symphony (completed in 1876) rather than with the culmination of the set, the Fourth. Still, the First has long been the most beloved of the symphonies, and in its own way, it’s a culmination, too. As is often recounted, the young Brahms—quickly promoted, especially by Robert and Clara Schumann, as the heir to Beethoven—found himself struggling to live up to his reputation. Writing a symphony in the shadow of Beethoven was especially daunting, and although he began this symphony in 1862, it wasn’t until 15 years later (when he was older than Mozart, Schubert, or Mendelssohn were when they died) that he managed to finish it.
It was worth the wait: no other first symphony in the repertoire up to that point has the maturity, confidence, and gravitas of this one. Yes, there are echoes of Beethoven. In fact, the main theme of the finale has such a strong resemblance to its equivalent in the Beethoven Ninth (which will close our season on May 18) that the Brahms First was often called “the Beethoven Tenth.” As conductor Larry Loh reminds us, however, the First is “quintessentially Brahms in its tension and grandeur.” Certainly, the strikingly ominous introduction to the massive first movement (with its throbbing timpani) is unlike anything in Beethoven, and it leads to a movement whose concentrated agitation is moderated, but never fully relieved, by the lighter material that weaves in and out. The two middle movements are gentler and smaller in scale—indeed, the bucolic third would not be out of place in one of Brahms’s Serenades. But the finale (the only movement to include trombones) is the grandest of all. As Larry says, the extended introduction of the finale has a nod to Beethoven “in how much dialogue there is before the main theme”; but the music itself takes up the tension of the first movement, drawing us in inexorably to a terrific thunderclap on the timpani. This is followed up by a glorious horn call, which “brings us to a different place,” as Larry puts it, and ushers in the triumphant main theme that completes the symphony’s trajectory from darkness to light by taking us down a path of unequalled affirmation.
Between these repertoire standards, we’re offering something you probably haven’t encountered before, the Concerto for Two Pianos (1915) by Max Bruch (1838–1920). Bruch’s position in the repertoire is complex. On the one hand, he’s a familiar composer; on the other hand, beyond a few beloved pieces (the First Violin Concerto, the Scottish Fantasy, the Kol Nidre), most of his output remains virtually unknown. The Double Concerto, in fact, remained doubly unknown—not simply buried in his catalog, but physically lost. It was originally conceived as a suite for organ and orchestra; Bruch, however, adapted it as a concerto for two pianos to fulfill a request by American duo-pianist sisters Ottilie and Rose Sutro. The work was beyond their capacities, however; so before premiering it in 1916 Philadelphia, they radically rewrote the score. The original manuscript only turned up half a century later, when it was finally reconstructed by Nathan Twining and Martin Berkofsky.
The work turns out to be a splendid addition to the repertoire; as our soloists Michelle and Christina Naughton put it, “It’s one of those pieces you wish were played more often.” What’s it like? If you remember their dazzling performance of the Poulenc Double Concerto three years ago, you can prepare yourself for this one by imagining something nearly exactly the opposite. The Poulenc is marked by Gallic wit; the Bruch, as the Naughtons say, is “very not French.” The eclectic Poulenc darts among a wide variety of idioms, including some drawn from non-western music; Bruch is solidly in the Germanic tradition. In contrast to Poulenc’s cool neo-classicism and its traditional three movements (fast-slow-fast), Bruch offers an unapologetic romanticism and an odd four movement structure.
The glowering and highly contrapuntal opening Andante sostenuto is dominated by a theme Bruch heard in a funeral procession while he was in Capri. The pianos announce it straight away, and it serves as basic material for the whole movement. It may seem like a very extended introduction, since it leads directly to the second movement; but that movement, surprisingly, begins with a poignant slow introduction of its own before turning into an Allegro molto vivace that neatly interleaves the rollicking with the intimate. A beguiling slow movement follows, before the two-part finale, which opens with a reworking of the Capri theme before leading to a brilliant, virtuosic close. On the whole, the concerto is fairly serious, yet it’s far from severe. All four movements are stamped with the melodic genius that’s a Bruch trademark. Unfamiliar as it is—as the Naughtons say, “It will be a fresh experience for everyone,” including the orchestra—you may well find yourself humming it at intermission.
One thing the Bruch does share with the Poulenc (indeed, with most two-piano concertos) is a disarming interchange between the two soloists. It’s a balanced interchange, too: rather than having primary and secondary roles, the Naughtons point out, “the parts are distributed pretty equally.” With a laugh, they offer a “random speculation” about that. Many two-piano concertos (for instance, the Mozart K. 365, the Mendelssohn E-Major, and this one) are written for siblings, and they have to be constructed in such a way as to avoid sibling rivalry. Whether or not that’s true, anyone who was here for the Poulenc will know to expect that tonight’s cooperative give-and-take will be …well, unrivaled.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org