Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Sextet from Capriccio (1941)
The string sextet from Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, is in fact its overture, played before the curtain rises and extended after it has risen. It is the only operatic overture of its kind, a piece of pure chamber music for strings which also contributes to the action of the story.
What it tells us – though we need to be informed of the fact, since the music is not self-explanatory – is that we are sitting in the drawing-room of the Countess Madeleine’s rococo palace near Paris in the springtime of the year 1777, listening to music specially written for her birthday by the young composer Flamand. He is in love with her, as also is his rival, the poet Olivier. What follows is an entrancing Straussian conversation piece about whether words or music form the more important contribution to opera.
The composer and poet, then, are symbolic, but they are thoroughly human. Once the curtain is up, we see them observing the Countess as she listens to the sextet with closed eyes. How long will it take her to decide between them? The impresario La Roche, also present, has been enjoying the music simply for its soporific qualities. His eyes, too, are closed. In the end, the outcome remains apparently unresolved. Or does it? Strauss’s orchestral accompaniment, meltingly played during the Countess’s speculative final monologue, gives us the answer.
The work is the idyllic, romantic, Mozartian obverse of Elektra, in which, in 1909, Strauss had steered the art of dissonance to the edge of the abyss, but had stepped back in order to write Der Rosenkavalier. From then on, his music became more and more radiant until, in 1941 and while the Second World War was waging around him, he produced this final exquisite distillation of his operatic ideas.
Though he regarded it as a private entertainment for his own pleasure, Strauss was not averse to the Bavarian State Opera staging it in October 1942, with the great Viorica Ursuleac as the Countess, Horst Taubmann as the Composer, and the young Hans Hotter as the Poet. Five months earlier, members of the Vienna Philharmonic had unveiled the gently intertwining lines of the introductory string sextet at a private concert in the Viennese home of Baldur von Schirach, who was subsequently – though not for this reason – given twenty years’ imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials. The music, in any case, was lovely enough to survive such a stigma.
© Conrad Wilson
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon (1792)
Allegro con spirito
As an offshoot of the twelve great London symphonies commissioned by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon in the 1790s, Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major has never consistently enjoyed the acclaim it deserves. Essentially a symphony which behaves like a concerto, it was devised at least partly as a vehicle for the versatile Salomon himself, in his guise as solo violinist. Initially, Haydn labelled the work simply ‘Concertante’, meaning that it was written in a concerted manner. By adding the word ‘sinfonia’, he stressed that it also had symphonic aspirations.
These, it might be thought, were what mattered more to him. Unlike Mozart, Haydn cared little for the art of the concerto, though he was better at it than posterity has made him out to be. But in London in 1792, honoured guest though he was, he had suddenly found himself faced with competition. Ignaz Pleyel, his erstwhile pupil, had arrived from Paris with a new sinfonia concertante which, when performed, proved an instant hit. Rising to the challenge, and under pressure no doubt from Salomon, Haydn hastily composed a sinfonia concertante of his own, complaining of eye-strain while doing so. The result, though it lacked the passionate seriousness of Mozart’s archetypal sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, had no trouble outshining the sweet nothings of Pleyel, who later turned his attention to the manufacture of pianos. Its concertante elements - like those of the Symphony No 98, which Haydn had directed in London the previous week - show his flair for timbre, and for the play of one vivacious instrument against another.
In the first movement, a leisurely allegro, the four soloists stand out from the orchestra in beguiling relief until, in their multiple cadenza, they break free entirely. The andante, with its exquisite oboe part, is a serenade in Haydn’s most tender vein, reminiscent of his exquisite series of nocturnes for the King of Naples. As for the racy finale, it begins with a musical joke - involving a sudden reduction in speed and the imitation of an operatic recitative on the solo violin - to match any in the London symphonies themselves.
© Conrad Wilson
Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Five Movements for string orchestra, Op 5 (1909, revised 1929)
In zarter Bewegung
The Five Movements, Op 5, Six Pieces, Op 6, and Five Pieces, Op 10, form the kernel, or one of the kernels, of Anton Webern’s output - which, on paper, looks substantial enough to be called copious but which, in its entirety, fits with ease upon three compact discs. Yet for all its precisely calculated smallness of scale, this is the music of one of the twentieth century’s acknowledged masters. Everything he wrote, as one authority has explained, has the dimensions and lyrical intensity of a song, though it is a song in which contrapuntal techniques play a vital part. What he offered his listeners, as his teacher Arnold Schoenberg preferred to put it, was “a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath.” Not everything, it must be said, was joyous, but the gestures were invariably eloquent.
Born in the year of Wagner’s death, the Viennese-born Webern was in many ways the obverse of his great German forebear. Though his epigrammatic themes consist very often of no more than two or three fragile notes, what he did with those notes amounted to music drama. His Symphony, Op 21, says as much in its nine-minute span as does a big romantic symphony in an hour. One of his Five Pieces, Op 10, famously lasts all of thirty seconds. The first of his Five Movements, Op 5, springs abrasively from a rising minor ninth, which serves as first subject. It’s an arresting opening to a terse and classically structured movement which grows more hectic, and peppered with pizzicati, as it proceeds.
Webern composed the work - originally for string quartet - in 1909 in memory of his mother, whose death in 1906 had moved him deeply, and he revised it twenty years later for string orchestra. Everything he wrote, or so he said, was related to her loss, until he fell in love with his cousin and married her in 1911. “Like highly compressed Bartok” is an established description of the music which continues to be voiced. But the music’s own voice - and how he used it - is Webern’s, like its tiny wisps of melody and flecks of colour, even if some of the tonal effects are Bartokian.
Despite their brevity, the thirteen bars of the “very slow” second movement, with its shafts of viola tone, are gloomily elegiac. The third movement is even shorter - a punchy half-minute scherzo, the centrepiece of the work, which brings back the agitated pizzicati. The fourth serves as a slow, tenderly melancholy footnote to the second, with little hints of Mahler pared almost into non-existence, before the finale begins its fragmented progress towards its stealthy dissolution.
© Conrad Wilson
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
In the enviable position of writing most of his music for musicians that he knew well, Haydn peppered his work with wonderful solos – his Sinfonia Concertante is awash in them, offering select principals of the SCO a chance to shine. Janiczek has built a fascinating programme around it, with two short piece from the 20th century; Strauss’ moonlit sextet is as expansive as Webern’s Five Pieces are tiny and dense. To close, a grand finale: the second symphony of Haydn’s own troublesome pupil.