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Beethoven & Rachmaninoff Program Notes

Mar 8 2019

Ludwig van Beethoven

Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. The history of this concerto’s composition and first performance is a matter of conjecture: at present it seems to have been composed in 1790 and possibly played in Vienna that year; it was revised several times and likely performed in Vienna in 1795. It was again revised before its publication in 1801. The score calls for solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings.

*****

Beethoven wrote piano concertos for his own use. (That is until his Fifth and last, which he knew he had no chance of performing successfully without being able to hear.) In an age when copyrights didn’t exist but unscrupulous publishers did, composers such as Beethoven would withhold publication of their works until they had wrung as many performances out of them as they could. In some cases Beethoven even refrained from writing out the solo parts until he decided to publish: no one could steal what was safely stashed away in his head.

This has had an untidy result—those familiar opus numbers we rely upon don’t necessarily tell us when a given piece was written, only when it was published. And this concerto is a case in point: it is actually the first piano concerto Beethoven composed, not the second. (We’re discounting a youthful effort at age fourteen.) Beethoven waited a long time to publish his first two concertos and when he did he decided to make the C major concerto—which he considered more impressive—his Concerto No. 1.

The B-flat concerto is by all outward appearances conventional, and you can tell Beethoven knew (and loved) his Mozart. Yet it is in the details that we see that Beethoven was already his own man. The first theme in the opening Allegro con brio is as we expect—for the moment, at least. Beethoven prepares us for the expected second theme in F, but instead delivers us to D-flat major—to paraphrase Stravinsky, this is like getting salt when we’re expecting sugar. When the piano enters it plays a variant of a secondary theme, then of course it brings us back to—oh, wait. It doesn’t give us the themes of the exposition, it plays something entirely new! That’s early Beethoven: create expectations and then deny them as audaciously as possible. There’s a lot more where this came from; the musical hijinks continue, including a return visit to the strange land of D-flat that assures us the first one wasn’t a mistake.

Of the second movement little can be said, and nothing to do it justice. From its gorgeous opening strings to the arioso of the piano, how their dialog vaults from tender to impassioned, how the cadenza seems so natural yet is so completely unconventional—by the end we realize we have utterly forgotten the world outside the music.

The Finale is a rondo that immediately causes us to wonder: is the first note a downbeat, or is it a pick-up to the downbeat? Beethoven spends much of the time in the recurring sections promising us that it does indeed fall on the downbeat while in the contrasting episodes—and especially before the last statement of the theme—his rhythmic shenanigans make us think we’ve had it backwards all along! The soloist then bows out quietly, with a twinkle in his eye.

*****

Sergei Rachmaninov

The Bells, Op. 35

Sergei Rachmaninov was born in 1873 in Oneg, Russia and died in 1943 in Beverly Hills, California. He composed this work in 1913 and led the first performance in Moscow the following year. He revised the work in 1936. The score calls for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, mixed chorus, 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, celeste, piano, timpani, percussion, and strings.

*****

“The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know—Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow,” wrote Rachmaninov. “They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian.”

When spending some time in Rome—having cleared his busy touring schedule to make time to compose—Rachmaninov received an anonymous letter, enclosing Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Bells and suggesting that it cried out to be set to music. (We now know that it was Maria Danilova, a cello student at the Moscow Conservatory whom Rachmaninov had never met, who sent the letter.) As Rachmaninov examined the poem, in a very free translation by Konstantin Balmont, he found that he agreed. “In the drowsy quiet of a Roman afternoon, with Poe’s verses before me,” he wrote, “I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.”

Poe wrote The Bells in four verses, each setting his subject in a different context: the first verse gives us the merriment of sleigh bells, the second the glow of wedding bells, the third the clangorous sound of alarm bells, and the last the tolling of funeral bells. The design suggested a choral symphony to Rachmaninov, and further suggested not just the “varying shades of human experience,” but the stages of life itself.

Balmont’s translation dispenses with Poe’s meter, eliminates much of the repetition, and adds a few lines to three of the verses as well. As a result, the original poem in English cannot be fitted to Rachmaninov’s music. When the work is heard in English, it is most often with a retranslation from the Russian by Fanny S. Copeland, which abides by Rachmaninov’s rhythms. Best of all, though, is to hear it in Balmont’s original Russian.

The thought of silvery sleigh bells prompted Rachmaninov to begin his first movement with some of his most imaginative scoring and music that is full of life. The tenor soloist and chorus join in the excitement. Calmer and darker episodes give this contrast, but it sounds as if the music cannot escape its own exuberance. Alert listeners will pick up the barest hint of the Dies irae melody, a lifelong obsession with Rachmaninov and one that will grow in importance as The Bells continues.

The second movement’s wedding bells are less joyous and more solemn than we expect. But there is much passion here, too, especially as the soprano soloist sings her long-lined and emotionally-charged music, full of hope and joy. Once again, this music is tempered with the Dies irae, now less hidden but still under wraps.

The alarm bells of the third movement let Rachmaninov imagine a scherzo to his symphony, and it contains some of the wildest music he ever composed. After an innocuous opening, the terror of fire dominates the movement, along with lamentations of grief. The tension never lets up, and the movement culminates in a furious and grim climax that brings the Dies irae to the fore and then ends suddenly.

As if to mourn the conflagration’s victims, the last movement opens with a dolorous and haunting solo for the English horn, followed by the first appearance of the bass soloist. There is sorrow here, but also a sense of dissolution and, ultimately, the supernatural terror of “the ghouls.” By the end, Rachmaninov lets us escape the endless mourning with an orchestral finish containing a glimmer of hope.

Rachmaninov is best remembered for his piano concertos and, to a lesser extent, his symphonies, with his Second Piano Concerto the clear winner in the popularity contest. But to hear The Bells for the first time is to encounter a Rachmaninov that is familiar, yet with an altogether different approach to music itself. He himself considered it one of his very best works.

*****

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, Russia in 1844 and died in Lyubensk in 1908. He composed this work in 1887 and led the first performance in St. Petersburg with the Orchestra of the Imperial Opera House the same year. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

*****

Though he was renowned as a great orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov saw it differently: he was merely a proper composer, he said, who wrote every note with its orchestral color already in mind. Many composers worked that way, and many didn’t. Mahler, who was no slouch as an orchestrator, typically composed in four-stave piano score with copious indications of the scoring he wanted. Still other composers treated each task separately: first the composing, then the orchestrating. Brilliantly orchestrated scores have been produced every which way.

Yet the vivid scoring of Rimsky’s Capriccio Espagnol makes his argument for him, for it is a feast of orchestral color without peer. Rimsky first thought to employ the Spanish tunes kicking around in his head in a work for violin and orchestra, perhaps as a sequel to his Fantasy on Russian Themes, Op. 33 for the same forces. But he soon abandoned that plan in favor of a bravura showpiece for orchestra alone.

Capriccio Espagnol comprises five sections played without pause. The first is an Alborada, a kind of morning serenade traditionally played by pipes and tambor. Rimsky’s version isn’t much of a serenade, as we hear the full orchestra in a lively (and noisy) tune featuring the clarinet and the concertmaster’s violin. Next we come to a set of five variations based on a richly warm melody in the horns; each variation presents a change of color as the melody moves around the orchestra. At a trill of the flute the Alborada returns with even more excitement. A Scene and Gypsy Song begins with a tune in the brasses, followed by a succession of cadenzas for violin, flute, clarinet, and harp. At last the song itself takes over, building intensity all the way, and leads us directly into the Fandango of the Asturias, a breathless dance from northern Spain. A brief return of the Alborada caps the work in a blaze of color.

—Mark Rohr

Questions or comments?

markrohrprogramnotes@gmail.com

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