Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Coriolan Overture, Op 62
Allegro con brio
Like Beethoven's overtures to Egmont, Leonore and The Ruins of Athens, the Coriolan Overture was originally written for the theatre. It was composed in 1807 for a performance, not of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, but of Heinrich von Collin's Coriolan. Collin was a minor official in the Austrian government, and his play appears to have had sufficient merit to enjoy sporadic appearances in Vienna during the early years of the century. Whether his friend Beethoven saw any of these productions, or merely read the play, is unknown. What is certain is that the composer wrote this overture five years after the play's premiere, and that there is only one recorded instance of the overture being presented in connection with a production of the play: at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 24 April 1807.
The historical Coriolanus was a rebellious Roman general who lived in the fifth century BC. According to Plutarch, Coriolanus, during a time of famine, argued that grain should not be distributed to the plebian masses unless they abolished their newly-established Tribune. For this, he and his family were banished from Rome and took refuge among the Volsci - whom Coriolanus eventually aided in their war with the Romans. His mother, Volumnia, and wife, Virgilia, pleaded with him to spare the city of his birth. This he did, but was killed by the Volsci for his treachery.
Coriolanus's frustrated rage, and the conflicts he confronts, are fully explored in the overture, and give rise to some of the most explosive and violent music Beethoven ever wrote. The opening loud chords represent Coriolanus's brash and unbending defiance, and the rising theme which follows, in the significant, tragic key of C minor (the key of the Fifth Symphony), shows his struggle with destiny. In contrast, the plaintive second theme is in the key of E flat major, the heroic key of the Eroica Symphony. Its descending structure and more lyrical quality would seem to represent Volumina as she pleads with her son to spare Rome. The interplay between these two diametrically opposed themes creates a tension that finds its resolution only in Coriolanus's inevitable downfall. Three final fading pizzicato notes mirror the overture's triumphant opening.
© Stephen Strugnell
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op 19 (1785-1801)
Allegro con brio
Finale: Molto allegro
Tradition declares Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto to be in reality his first. In fact it is his only piano concerto to be correctly numbered. Though believed to date from around 1795, by which time he had left his native Bonn and settled in Vienna, it was probably sketched in his hometown ten years earlier. There it had been preceded in 1783 by an even more junior piano concerto, written in E flat major (the future key of the Emperor concerto) upon which no number has been bestowed, but which still receives an occasional performance, particularly in Germany.
The impressive concerto in C major, complete with trumpets and drums and long established as No 1, is in fact his third, just as his third is his fourth, and so on. Whether this evening’s work in B flat major, which we identify as No 2, really requires a number is disputable, since it is as much a piece of juvenilia as the rest of his early Bonn output. But it is keenly etched and full of invention brilliant enough to suggest that, had he never moved to Vienna, Beethoven would still have become a composer of consequence. Though it was not a work he claimed to be proud of, he was sufficiently interested in it to perform it in Prague in 1798 and to go on revising it up to 1801.
The start of the first movement, more lightly scored than that of the C major concerto, succinctly provides the feel of the music, for in the space of a couple of phrases it supplies a brisk orchestral call to attention and a graceful answer from the violins. When the soloist enters it is not with one of the themes already heard but with an entirely new one – an idea Beethoven appropriated from Mozart, whose concertos he revered. But the movement also points the way to Beethoven’s more audacious symphonic style, not least through its abrupt and surprising modulations. The forward-looking cadenza, which Beethoven added some years later, is even more surprising in attitude.
The Adagio, hailed by Beethoven’s pupil Czerny as a “dramatic vocal scene”, is broad and expressive, with a main theme played first by the strings before being taken up by the soloist, who then proceeds to a graceful tributary theme loaded with decorations. But the most striking moment is to come, when the piano breaks free from the orchestra to play a remarkable recitative-like passage in bare, single notes, marked con gran espressione. The orchestra steals back with atmospheric references to the main theme, and the movement ends quietly.
The finale is a spirited rondo, with a bumpy main theme bounced out by the soloist. An episode involving a cycle of broken octaves on the piano leads to a new, forward-looking, rather Schumannesque tune, and then to a grinding, syncopated passage taken through several minor keys. After a last return to the main theme, the concerto ends with a rippling decrescendo on the piano, followed by five affirmative bars for the orchestra.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No 41 in C major, K551, Jupiter (1788)
C major is Mozart’s Olympian key, nowhere more so than in the last and most dazzling of his symphonies, K551, traditionally known as the Jupiter. Though the title was not Mozart’s – the astute Johann Salomon, Haydn’s London impresario, is said to have thought of it – it is thoroughly in keeping with a work which progresses from a seemingly simple opening flourish to a finale which is an unsurpassed example of sustained polyphonic panache.
During the summer of 1788, when it was written, all was not well with Mozart. For financial reasons, he had moved house to the Viennese suburbs, though he could still, as he said, afford a cab into town. However, in spite of what he called "black thoughts," inspiration was running high. The superb symphonic triptych of which the Jupiter forms the completion was composed - for no obvious reason - between June and August, though some of the music was probably already in his head, along with the great C minor Adagio and Fugue for strings and two of his finest piano trios.
But if the use of conventional eighteenth-century odds and ends in the Jupiter Symphony – the first movement’s initial call to attention and the four notes which launch and propel the finale – suggest that it was written in haste, what Mozart does with these sounds anything but rushed. Everything, indeed, seems fashioned with the utmost poise, and with the most precise sense of timing. The way the first movement’s opening phrase returns, after a mere twenty bars, in counterpoint with a chirpy woodwind overlay and a glowing horn part is an example of how classical formality in this symphony becomes witty and sublime. Even the insertion, at one point in the movement, of what sounds like a merry little afterthought of a melody - it was written earlier that year for a baritone friend (the first Viennese Don Giovanni) to sing in different composer’s opera - is transformed into a stroke of genius.
The nocturnal slow movement, with its atmospherically muted strings, exquisite wind parts, and moods gradually less calm than they seem to begin with, maintains the inspiration. Even the silky opening theme proves subject to disruption. The idiosyncratic minuet, too, has something unstable about its stomping dance-beat, puncturing the suavity of the violin line. The central trio section is notable for its preliminary use of the four-note motif which will serve as the finale's launching-pad. But it is in the finale itself - a contrapuntal juggling act in which more and more balls are tossed into the air and effortlessly spun - that the symphony conspicuously reaches its exhilaratingly relentless apotheosis.
© Conrad Wilson
A real treat for lovers of piano music: Fleisher, a living legend of the keyboard, is now in his 80s but still shines as pianist, conductor, mentor and teacher. For this, his SCO debut, he conducts while his pupil Angelich plays Beethoven’s youthful concerto.