Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Czech Suite, Op 39 (1879)
Preludium (Pastorale): Allegro moderato
Polka: Allegretto grazioso
Sousedska (Minuetto): Allegro giusto
Romanza: Andante con moto
Finale (Furiant): Presto
Dvořák, like his father and grandfather before him, might have become a village butcher. Instead, thanks to his conspicuous musicality, he became a viola player in the orchestra of the Prague National Theatre. What he learned in the pit - with Wagner and Smetana among his conductors - served him in good stead as a composer who merged the folk idioms of his homeland with the symphonic music of Vienna and elsewhere. Music flowed from him with a fecundity soon to be rivalled by that of the young Richard Strauss, and the first of his two serenades, the E major, Op 22, for strings, brims with glowing viola tone.
After the major-key sweetness of that work and minor-key pungency of the succeeding wind serenade, Op 44, Dvořák contemplated a third serenade, scored for wind and strings, which would complete an intended triptych. Failing to make headway on it, he produced instead his Czech Suite in D major, a potpourri of orchestral dances and other movements with a misleadingly early opus number, culminating in a swinging, ambitiously symphonic Furiant.
More varied in colouring than its predecessors, the Czech Suite contains material - notably in the central minuet - from the abandoned third serenade, but otherwise goes its own leisurely and idiosyncratic way, incorporating rustic bagpipe imitations as part of the pastoralism of the prelude. The succeeding polka possesses a faintly melancholy Dvorakian charm and the minuet, which he preferred to call a sousedska, is a Czech “neighbours’ dance,” of a sort reputedly aimed at elderly villagers for whom other Czech dances were deemed too lively.
The romantic fourth movement, with its atmospheric woodwind interplay, evokes the soft moonlit radiance of Rusalka, the water-nymph opera Dvorak wrote two decades later,. Finally the suite is exhilaratingly energised by a Furiant, a type of Czech dance famed for its furious syncopations, filled with rhythmic tension, minor-key leanings, and abruptly braying horns.
Though heard less frequently than the two popular serenades, the music represents Dvořák at his most thoroughly nationalistic. The work established itself in the SCO’s repertoire in the 1970s, when it was vivaciously championed by the orchestra’s earliest conductor Roderick Brydon.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466
It is not difficult to understand why the nineteenth century kept Mozart’s D minor piano concerto on the concert platform while ignoring many of his other works, for it is quintessentially Romantic in nature.
Mozart’s D minor concerto is dark and surprising in its outer movements while cradling a central slow movement of such tender lyricism that it would take a heart of steel not to succumb to its blandishments. The turbulence of the opening movement is offset by a Rondo finale that is full of irregularities – it even harks back to the tempestuous first movement. The unusual (for Mozart) addition of two trumpets and timpani to the orchestra for this concerto also contributes to the drama. But when all is said and done, Mozart cannot resist providing us with a ‘happy ending’ by concluding his masterpiece triumphantly in D major.
Given the unsettling parry and thrust of this concerto, it is astonishing to learn that the copyists were still busy writing out the orchestral parts the day before the concert. The orchestral musicians must have been the very best in Vienna, for the ever-critical Leopold Mozart (who arrived just in time to hear his son give the first performance of the concerto in Vienna in February 1785) noted how wonderfully the entire subscription concert had been performed – and the orchestral parts are no mere trifling accompaniment. The writing for both soloist and orchestra is powerful and dramatic, with the orchestra playing an equally important part in the musical development of the work. It is not hard to hear why Beethoven, who performed this concerto frequently, should have been so attracted to this magnificent specimen of Mozart’s art – but then, so are we all.
K466 has always been a regular visitor to the concert platform, and will continue to be so as long as we have ears! It is a perfect example of why music can so deeply touch human emotions while mere words can only hope to scratch the surface. But then, that is why Mozart is one of the immortals – his music goes straight to the heart.
© David Gardner
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 36 (1802)
Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Artists are fiery by nature and do not ‘weep’, declared Beethoven around the time he composed the second of his nine symphonies. And there is much fire, and little weeping, in this remarkable work, which shows no dwindling of inspiration, no loss of nerve, after the impact made by the early Symphony No 1 in C. Indeed, for all the lyrical sweetness of its slow movement, it is music quite startlingly progressive and idiosyncratic, often volcanic in energy and humour, a true stepping-stone to the 'Eroica' and an absolutely assured, brilliantly devised masterpiece in its own right.
Yet the yes-saying quality of the Second Symphony, every note of which expresses the power of positive thinking, was quite at odds with the state of Beethoven’s mind at the time he wrote it. The quotation at the start of this programme-note was no idle statement but part of what has come to be known as Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, the famous and harrowing letter in which, at the age of 32, he admitted that he was going deaf. The music, for all its robustness of outlook, thus dates from the most troubled period in a troubled life, when the composer confessed himself to be contemplating suicide but produced this gloriously sunny and unbuttoned work instead.
Though often described as ‘early’ Beethoven, and though rooted unmistakably in Haydn and Mozart, the Second Symphony needs to be heard in the context of Beethoven’s own Third Piano Concerto and Moonlight sonata, two other works of the period by an avant-garde composer advancing into a new century. The scale of writing – conspicuously larger than that of the First Symphony – shows how aware the young Beethoven already was that symphonic form was capable of unprecedented expansion.
Yet there is also a terseness, particularly in the third movement, of a sort to which Beethoven was to return in some of his last string quartets and piano sonatas. The whole work, indeed, is dynamically forward-looking, even if it is content to employ the classical-sized orchestra of the First Symphony, and to make use of recognisably traditional structures – through which, however, thunderbolts are hurled. Again and again, Beethoven here used conventional procedures in a quite novel way, each fragment of the scherzo, for instance, being projected by different instruments in a manner prophetic of something Schoenberg later devised a name for – he called it Klangfarbenmelodie – and coloured, as Berlioz astutely observed, with a thousand different tints.
But the work’s originality of utterance is heard in its very opening notes, an orchestral call to attention initially suggestive of Haydn, though soon to prove grander and more emotional as it proceeds towards the rock-face of a hammered-out D minor arpeggio that anticipates the opening of the Ninth Symphony. Trills and triplets sustain the tension until, without a pause, the violins plunge into the seething energy of the main allegro con brio portion of the movement. The first subject would sound Mozartian were it not so explosive; the second subject is a quick march in Beethoven’s most pungently militaristic vein. The grand sonorous swell of the coda, with its fierce fortissimi and emphatically offbeat sforzandi, shows Beethoven pushing symphonic music into a new age.
To have attended the famous Beethoven benefit concert at the Theater an der Wien in 1803, when this work has its first performance alongside that of the oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, and the Third Piano Concerto, with the composer himself as soloist, would have been exhilarating, however scrappy it must have sounded. The First Symphony was also played, and Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s pupil and early biographer, has left details of a day that started when he was summoned at five o’clock in the morning to find Beethoven in bed busy with new brass parts. The rehearsal began three hours later. By 2.20 everyone had become cross and impatient, but Prince Lichnowsky, the composer’s benefactor, sent for hampers of bread and butter, cold meat and wine. Then the rehearsal resumed and the concert began at six.
The slow movement, to its first hearers, must have seemed dumbfoundingly large in scale. Edinburgh University's great essayist, Sir Donald Tovey, called it "one of the most luxurious slow movements in the world" and if it sometimes sounds Schubertian, that is because Schubert plundered it when he came to write his Grand Duo twenty years later. The music progresses unhurriedly, in sonata-form, through a lavish succession of themes and repetitions, but the slow, flowing, clarinet-soaked momentum never falters, and makes the scherzo, when finally unleashed, sound all the more concise. This, too, is a movement that later composers plundered (notably Brahms). The rondo finale – with a main theme that crackles like a jumping-jack beneath one’s feet – manages to cap everything that has gone before. Sir George Grove, in his study of Beethoven’s symphonies, exclaimed that No.2 was” not so safe as No.1”. As the finale careers to its close, via an array of tantalising false endings, one sees exactly what he meant.
© Conrad Wilson
An evening in the key of D! Mozart’s turbulent concerto touches on veins of dark drama and poignant song. For Dvořák, drawing deep on his national folk heritage of dances and romances, there is lyrical warmth and charm to be found. For Beethoven, D is the key of humour and grand brassy gestures – but the complexity of this symphony dumbfounded many of his contemporaries.