Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet III: MASTERWORKS VII
Parker Plays Grieg
April 22, 2017
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is best known for his hyper-romantic extravagance, both in terms of the size of the orchestras he demands (the Requiem calls for 50 brass players as well as 19 percussionists) and in terms of the brilliant and often startling colors he ripped out of them. But he was more wide-ranging than that, and tonight’s concert shows him at his most classically poised. Poised, but hardly restrained: for all the leanness of its orchestration, for all the clarity of its musical argument, the Overture to his 1862 opera Beatrice and Benedict, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, is a brilliant representation of a tart, sophisticated, and fast-moving battle of wits. From the opening—a whimsical three measure gesture followed by a surprising bar of silence that throws you off balance—the music is full of rhythmic invention, dotted with brilliant fanfares and attractive tunes that, once things get going, don’t get much chance to linger. If you’re looking for 19th-century musical equivalent of champagne, this is it.
Despite its apparently youthful spirit, Beatrice and Benedict is actually an imitation of youthfulness. Written toward the end of Berlioz’s life, it was his last completed composition, followed by years of silence, illness, and depression. The 1869 Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is, in contrast, a truly youthful work. It was polished and re-polished often over Grieg’s lifetime; but in its basic outline and spirit, it remains the work of the twenty-something composer whom Liszt praised, in a letter he wrote to Grieg at the time, for his “vigorous, reflective, and creative talent.”
It’s a commonplace that while this substantial and virtuosic Concerto has long been Grieg’s most popular work, it’s actually an anomaly in his output, since Grieg generally preferred to write more intimate pieces in shorter forms (the delicately scored second movement of the Concerto hints at that tendency). But perhaps the scale of its outer movements should not be surprising. It was written at the height of happiness during a summer at Søllerød, Denmark, with his wife Nina and their new child; and like the Schumann Piano Concerto that was such a strong influence, it can be read as an effusive, even overflowing declaration of love—a very public one, intended for the whole world to hear. The Concerto is full of opportunities for technical display (the first movement cadenza is a knockout), but it’s also filled with lyrical outpourings, the most striking of which comes in the finale. The movement begins as a heavily accented, almost coarse, dance; it’s interrupted, however, by a gentle theme on the flute that seems to come from a different world. The dance returns, but at the end of the piece that contrasting melody comes back in a new and more self-assured guise, building to a heart-wrenching climax.
The Grieg Concerto is very much a product of its time. So is the Symphony No. 5 (1944) by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), although the difference in the times results in radically different kinds of art. Grieg, on a summer vacation with his new family, could indulge himself by writing very personal music. Prokofiev, living in Moscow during the Second World War, did not have that luxury.
Prokofiev chose to return to the Soviet Union at the height of Stalinism in 1936. In so doing, he willingly backed off from his earlier edgy style, instead committing himself to writing accessible music that could be understood by a broad public. He found the circumstances in Russia less congenial than he had hoped (in fact, he was to be excoriated by the powers-that-be in 1948 for excessive modernism). Nonetheless, many of his most popular compositions (including Peter and the Wolf, Alexander Nevsky, and Romeo and Juliet—all performed within the last few years by Symphoria) were written under those harsh circumstances.
Two years before Prokofiev’s Fifth, Shostakovich—Prokofiev’s rival as the Great Soviet Composer—had composed his massive Seventh Symphony during the German siege of Leningrad. As with all of Shostakovich’s music, there’s some doubt about its inner meanings, but it certainly served as a musical symbol of resistance and resilience, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, where it was taken up immediately by conductors like Stokowski and Toscanini. By the time Prokofiev got around to his Fifth—his first attempt at a symphony in 16 years—the tide of the war had changed. Indeed, by a happy coincidence, the premiere, the last time the composer conducted, took place at almost the exact moment that the Red Army pushed across the Vistula into Germany. No surprise that the work overwhelmed its first audience, who saw in it a kind of transcendence. The great pianist Sviatoslav Richter described Prokofiev waiting on the podium for distant artillery salvoes to die down, bathed in a mysterious “light [that] poured down on him from on high.”
Lots of works that are connected to specific occasions, of course, are quickly forgotten once the occasion has passed—but Prokofiev’s Fifth has continued to inspire audiences for nearly 75 years, standing with Beethoven’s Fifth as one of the great victory symphonies. It has survived, I think, because it does more than simply celebrate victory—in a sense, it enacts it. Structurally, the symphony relies on traditional forms that are fairly well marked; and each of the four movements begins fairly simply. Each, however, finds its path obstructed. The two main themes of the opening Andante, for instance, are flavored with the honey that characterizes Prokofiev’s most lyrical music—but almost before we’ve gotten accustomed to them, each theme is attacked by acid, leading to an especially tense development. And while the tension eventually resolves in what conductor Larry Loh calls “an incredible extended coda” (with crushing percussion), for much of the movement we are on the edge of our seats wondering whether the music will end in a whimper or in triumph.
There’s a similar disruption in the second movement. It begins in a jaunty way, with an almost jazzy feel, and the opening section leads to a contrasting section that makes clear we are in a standard ABA form. But there’s plenty of disorientation in that B section, and when the A section returns, it’s almost nightmarish in its mechanistic advance. So it goes. As a result, by the time we reach the closing pages of the finale—a movement marked by what Larry calls “incredible, propulsive excitement,” where the conductor has to encourage the players to “unleash” during their “gigantic feats of virtuosity”—we feel the thrill of a truly hard-won victory.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org