Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet II: MASTERWORKS IV
From Beethoven to Brahms
January 21, 2017
Those of us who live in Central New York are used to dramatic weather shifts. If you attended Symphoria’s last concert, for instance, you had to make your way through the season’s first major snowfall; but it was a balmy seventy degrees the day before. Tonight’s concert offers a similar meteorological change in the reverse direction.
We begin with a piece appropriate for late January—the 2009 Winter Bells by young Russian composer Polina Nazaykinskaya (born just 30 years and a day before this concert). It’s a nostalgic work—perhaps doubly so. Musically, it looks fondly back to what Polina calls “the extended romantics,” composers like Mahler, Sibelius, and especially Rachmaninoff. Although the music has, in her words, a slight “modern twist,” it is nonetheless “melodic and simple, with rich harmonies”—and it draws on recollections of Russian folk music (especially the lullaby) as well. It’s also nostalgic from a programmatic point of view. Written during a return to Russia just after her homesick-filled first year in the United States as a student at Yale,
Winter Bells is inspired by the wilderness near a particular Russian village where Polina used to spend summers as a child—specifically by a formation of “three mountain peaks that, when viewed from above, appeared to form a giant goblet.” Revisiting the spot, she found herself inspired to compose, “reaching for that special place within, where everything surrenders to the whispers of nature and divine harmony.” The resulting music evokes the wanderings of a traveler, lost in a snowstorm: “A vision from the past, joyous and wondrous, materializes and disappears, as a mirage in a middle of a snowy desert”—but the ending is hauntingly ambiguous, with the fate of the traveler unknown. This was Polina’s first orchestral piece. But as a violinist, she had “grown up in an orchestra”—and the work shows a charismatic facility with instrumental sound. No wonder that it has been so widely performed.
Our closing piece could not be more different, the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)—who is, coincidentally, one of Polina’s favorite composers. Brahms’s First appeared only after years of struggle and self-doubt; the Second, in contrast, was written quickly and confidently during the summer of 1877. And the spirit of summer infuses the work. Easily the most radiant and affable of Brahms’ four symphonies, it even includes, atypically for Brahms, a fair amount of what conductor Larry Loh calls “levity.” The word “pastoral” is often used to describe it—but while that term might apply to the bucolic outer sections of the third movement (the most lightly scored of the four), it shortchanges the music by discounting its range. Larry points in particular to the theme for the cellos at the beginning of the second movement Adagio: “so yearning, so heartfelt, so deep.” Indeed, there’s a fair amount of dark turbulence as the slow movement progresses. Then there are the blazing final pages, aptly described by Larry as “heroic.” True, this unclouded conclusion—as sensational an ending as anything in Brahms’s orchestral music—skirts the sense of adversity we hear in the hard-won triumph at the end of the First and Fourth Symphonies, not to mention the quiet resignation at the end of the Third. But for all its sunshine, you’ll probably agree that it’s far from pastoral.
As with Winter Bells, there’s some nostalgia connected to the Brahms Second—although it’s nostalgia around the music, rather than in it. It was the first Brahms symphony that spoke to Larry—and his desire to perform it was so great that (using pizza as a bribe) he organized a performance by fellow students during a summer at the Aspen Music Festival.
Between these two pieces we have the Piano Concerto No. 4 (1805-06) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). If the Second is the warmest of the Brahms symphonies, the Fourth is widely considered the most poetic of Beethoven’s piano concertos—although, paradoxically, tonight’s soloist Awadagin Pratt believes it “covers the greatest amount of emotional landscape of any of the Beethoven piano concertos, from the opening material, to the heart-rending contrast of the middle movement, to the real joy and ebullience of the last movement.” It’s surely not without “drama and conflict.” In certain ways, too, it’s one of Beethoven’s more unconventional works, even though it doesn’t flaunt its radicality in the way that some of the music in the late quartets does.
The Fourth gently throws you off balance at the very beginning. Traditionally, the audience waits for the soloist while the orchestra sets out the main material. Here, in contrast, the pianist speaks first with a rhythmically unexpected five-measure statement to which the orchestra answers, as Awadagin puts it, “in a remote way, not with a direct answer.” Although this disjunction doesn’t lead to the kind of titanic conflict we hear in Beethoven’s more immediately dramatic works, it does set forth a discussion that needs to be resolved. Something similar happens in the second movement: there’s an initial disparity between piano and strings, but they eventually “come together in sentiment.” Another unusual feature of the piece is the first movement’s cadenza (Beethoven actually wrote two for the movement, but Awadagin will be playing the first): although the movement itself is in 4/4 time, the cadenza shifts to 6/8, “transforming a peaceful motive to something really agitated just by manipulation of meter.”
In the end, for all its radicality, and for all the high-spirited joviality in what Awadagin describes as the “non-sedate dance” of the finale (where drums and trumpets enter for the first time), the Fourth Concerto remains one of Beethoven’s less assertive works. It’s hard to understand how it might have made an impression at its first performance (the composer’s last public performance playing a concerto) where it was squeezed onto a program that also included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy, and more. Fortunately, in tonight’s more favorable setting, its beauties will stand out far more clearly.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org