Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Overture in the Italian Style in D major, D589 (1817)
Schubert’s pair of overtures 'in the Italian style' - the first in D major, the second in C - were among the outcomes of the Rossini frenzy that swept Vienna in 1816 when the touring Italian Opera Company arrived with the tragic Tancredi, the comic L’inganno felice, and other recent works by the swan of Pesaro. The success was sustained, even increased, in succeeding years and crowned by the arrival of Rossini himself during the 1822-23 season. Young Schubert, regularly in the audience, reputedly loved The Barber of Seville but reserved his deepest admiration for the last act of Otello. Meanwhile his own operatic career, which had begun as early as 1814, was proving more humdrum, with an emphasis on German singspiel rather than Italian fizz. Not even his Italian overtures - their titles opportunely supplied by someone else - seemed particularly Rossinian, though they certainly sounded delectably Viennese and well worth hearing as the concert pieces Schubert intended them to be.
The premiere of the D major overture, given in the city’s Roman Emperor Hotel, was a hit, so much so that it was reviewed as far afield as Dresden, and Schubert later pilfered portions of it for use in other works. Thus a passage from the slow introduction, filled with magically Schubertian modulations, was destined to reappear in the more famous Rosamunde overture, which today introduces many a popular Viennese night, and the bouncing coda found a more distinguished place in the Great C major symphony where, in a grander version, it swings the first movement towards its sensational close.
Between the introduction and coda, the central allegro section brims with the vitality of a quick Viennese march, with foretastes perhaps of the future Strauss family. Yet Rossinian effervescence, and the sparkle of Rossinian woodwind, are not wholly absent, and even a touch of Tancredi may be spotted by listeners with acute ears.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in A major, K488 (1786)
There was a time - not much more than half a century ago - when K488 was one of the few Mozart piano concertos regularly played in Britain. Today it remains a special favourite, adored for the poise and beauty of its first movement, the forlorn expressiveness of its adagio, the inspired prattle of its finale. Composed in tandem with The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, it is the product of one of Mozart’s greatest Viennese years, during which he wrote two other piano concertos, the ‘Prague’ symphony, much fine chamber music and, for a celebration at the palace of Schonbrunn, his pithy operatic send-up entitled The Impresario.
Innovatively, the concerto’s orchestration, though lightweight, included a pair of clarinets, instruments Mozart associated with Vienna and his friend Anton Stadler and had employed in only one previous concerto. Apprehensive that orchestras might not have clarinets available, he interestingly suggested that a solo violin and viola could substitute for them. Yet much of the mellifluous sweetness of the music is dependent upon their presence and on the absence here of more nasal oboe tone. Sweetness, however, does not preclude sadness, which sometimes darkens the pearly melodic interplay between soloist and orchestra in the first movement.
On the other hand, the stark simplicity of the adagio, Mozart’s last of its kind in a minor key (not, it must be said, that he wrote many such), sounds like uninterrupted tragedy. The pulse is that of a very slow siciliano, the Sicilian rhythm of a gently rocking boat, much used in baroque operas and concertos, but greatly savoured by Mozart also, especially in this work. Yet the music looks forward, as well as backwards, anticipating Pamina’s lament in The Magic Flute, though containing none of that aria’s elaborate decorations. Whether or not the soloist chooses to insert any of his or her own, or to leave Mozart’s bare lines and huge, slow leaps to speak for themselves, the music has an operatic intensity highlighted by the closing bars, with their softly insistent, curiously disturbing pizzicato strings.
To this mood of desolation, the mercurial wit and audacious modulations of the finale are the perfect antidote. The scale passages here are no ordinary scale passages, but Mozartian comedy at its most sublimely zany and merrily audacious. At the same time, the entire work has a strangely spectral quality. In the words of one observer, it is a fragile structure of glass, through which the piano itself is often heard only faintly.
© Conrad Wilson
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Grosse Fuge for strings, Op 133 (1825)
There was a time when Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, like his Missa Solemnis and the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony, was deemed too daunting for human performance. If the worst came to the worst the symphony could end, as sometimes happened in Britain, with its slow movement. To circumvent the problems of the ‘great fugue’, on the other hand, Beethoven supplied his own solution. Persuaded by his publisher that the fugue was too incomprehensible to form the finale of his big B-flat String Quartet, Op 130, he wrote something shorter and wittier instead, allowing the fugue to stand alone as Op 133.
Under its own name it proved no easier to play, but performers gradually accepted the challenge. Though Beethoven himself had declined to attend its original premiere, exclaiming “cattle!” and “asses!” when told that the audience had failed to demand an encore, his willingness to provide a substitute movement suggests that he was aware how formidable the fugue actually was. Yet a sense of strain was, and still is, a vital element of the music. Not even Hans von Bulow’s solution, which was to get a string orchestra to give the music some ballast, could wholly conceal its difficulties.
Today, most performers can take it in their stride, frequently restoring it to its original place as the finale of Op 130, yet its modernity remains startling. Based on a four-note motif with which Beethoven became obsessed while writing his last quartets, it is almost a fifteen-minute quartet, or set of variations, in itself, in which four recognisable movements are packed into one. So there is an ‘Overture’ - really five miniature, disjointed overtures - out of which the fugue springs with a relentlessly violent, jerky counter-subject. The succeeding slow section is more flowing, but nervous energy erupts again in a sort of scherzo where the motif is heard in a context of trills, employed as a source of power rather than decoration. From here the music becomes increasingly fragmented, and quicker in its changes of mood as it moves towards its close.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in C major, K503 (1786)
Of all Mozart’s piano concertos, this is the biggest, grandest, most sonorous. Separating itself from the tragic manner of its immediate predecessor in C minor, K491, it represents the C major summit of the 30-year-old composer's Viennese style. The two piano concertos that were still to come sound in comparison more like transitional works leading who knows where. All that can be said of them is that the so-called Coronation Concerto, K537, contains ornate and glittering foretastes of Chopin and that the poignant, intimate B flat major, K595, predicts a new purification of his style.
If the great C major concerto - the last of four in that key - anticipates anybody, it is usually said to be Beethoven, particularly the Beethoven of the C major and C minor (Nos 1 and 3) piano concertos, which employ similar march rhythms, punchy chords, sharp contrasts between major and minor. Yet to perform Mozart’s concerto as if it were Beethoven would be a serious mistake. The music is Mozart through and through, in spite of its use (not for the first time) of martial trumpets and drums, and, in the first movement, blocks of chords rather than flowing lines. Perhaps the sheer scale of the music has slightly acted against its popularity. Eric Blom damaged the cause of this concerto by calling it "‘frigid and unoriginal" in his long-established Master Musician study of the composer. Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, on the other hand, deemed it worthy of the deepest, most appreciative analysis.
It is a masterpiece not only magisterial but moving – broad and splendid, yet keenly detailed, in the first movement; touchingly chaste in the operatic sweetness of the slow movement, with its huge, expressively vocal leaps in the solo part; and filled with gleams and shadows in the animated gavotte-like finale. Yet this is not, on the whole, one of Mozart's most obviously operatic concertos. Its Beethovenian anticipations are quite conspicuous. Even the predominant four-note rhythm of the first movement was to be employed by Beethoven in the first movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and, more strenuously, in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony.
It is in the final rondo, however, that we encounter the work's most magical moment, for here, amid all the Mozartian wit, the music is suddenly filled for a page or two with a wistful sense of life's fragile beauty and transitoriness. It’s a passage which, once identified by the listener, always stands out. First, after a few brisk chords from the orchestra, the piano quite unemphatically plays a flowing phrase, answered by the woodwind. Then the piano extends the phrase, and the woodwind extend the repetition. That is all. There is no more to it than that. The phrase never returns. But Mozart wrote nothing better, lovelier, or more piercing in its combination of joy and sadness than this brief aside, confirming things - the tiny sighs amid the big declamations of the first movement, the melancholy behind the descending notes of the andante - that have been only hinted at earlier in the concerto.
© Conrad Wilson
Witness the ultimate in multi-tasking: playing the piano and directing an orchestra at the same time. Anderszewski manages it effortlessly and has given many wonderful Mozart performances with the SCO, both in Scotland and on their many international tours. It is really something special. Complementing these marvellous pieces, a youthful spree from Schubert, and one of the most astonishing pieces in all music: Grosse Fuge is late Beethoven at its most visionary.