Promenade Concert No.375

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, op.61

Ⅰ Allegro ma non troppo
Ⅱ Larghetto
Ⅲ Rondo: Allegro

Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

Violin concertos had been written for nearly a century before Beethoven turned to the genre, but his only contribution to this repertory proved to be a landmark. Not only was it longer and more complex than any previous work of its kind, but in symphonic thought and expansiveness it eclipsed all predecessors. It is still considered one of the most exalted of all concertos for any instrument; its only peer in the pantheon of violin concertos is the Brahms concerto (also in D major).

Beethoven wrote the concerto in late 1806, the year he worked on or completed such other masterpieces as the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three Rasumovsky Quartets, the first revision of Fidelio and the 32 Variations in C minor for piano. As was common in that era, Beethoven wrote for a specific soloist, the virtuoso Franz Clement (1780-1842). Clement was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted musicians in all Vienna, with a musical memory that rivaled Mozart’ s. His stellar career began when he was still a child, performing at the Imperial Opera House in Vienna and under the direction of Haydn in London. In his adult years he became concertmaster and conductor of the Vienna Opera. Beethoven’ s concerto resulted from a request from Clement for a concerto to play at his benefit concert scheduled for December 23, 1806 at the Theater an der Wien. The deeply lyrical quality of this concerto, the finesse of its phrases and its poetry all reflect the attributes of Clement’ s playing, which according to contemporary accounts was marked by perfect intonation, suppleness of bow control, “gracefulness and tenderness of expression” and “indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance.”

Five soft beats on the timpani usher in the concerto. These even, repeated notes become one of the movement’ s great unifying devices, ccurring in many contexts and moods. The inner tension of this movement is heightened by the contrast of this five-beat throb and the gracious lyricism of its melodies. The two principal themes are both, as it happens, introduced by a woodwind group, both are built exclusively on scale patterns of D major, and both are sublimely lyrical and reposed in spirit.

The soloist finally enters in an entirely original and imaginative way, with a quasi-cadenza passage that sustains the music in a single harmonic region (the dominant), as if time had stopped. Eventually the soloist lands on the principal theme in the uppermost range of the instrument where intonation is most difficult to control. This is but one example of the customized writing Beethoven conceived for his first soloist, Clement, as well as a further indication of the leisurely unfolding of the long movement.

The Larghetto is one of Beethoven’ s most sublimely beautiful, hymn-like slow movements. Little “happens” here in the raditional sense; a mood of deep peace, contemplation and introspection prevails while three themes, all in G major, weave their way through a series of free-form variations.

A brief cadenza leads directly into the rollicking Finale - a rondo with a memorable recurring principal theme, numerous horn lourishes suggestive of the hunt, and many humorous touches.

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op.43

Ⅰ Allegretto
Ⅱ Tempo Andante, ma rubato
Ⅲ Vivacissimo
Ⅳ Finale: Allegro moderato

Jean Sibelius: Born in Hämeenlinna (formerly Tavastehus), Finland, December 8, 1865; died in Järvenpää, near Helsinki, September 20, 1957

So many people have read so many things into Sibelius’ Second Symphony that its purely musical argument sometimes gets lost. To Finns searching for nationalistic connotations in anything their compatriots wrote, the Second Symphony, with its broad scale and heroic gestures, provided a perfect vehicle. The composer’ s own avowal that “I am a poet of Nature. I love the mysterious sounds of the fields and forests …” has been used to detect nature imagery in the Symphony, but composition of the work preceded this statement. Folk material? Some of Sibelius’ themes may sound like popular tunes, but the composer himself asserted that “I have never used a theme that was not of my own invention.” And what about geographical implications - those darkly brooding Finnish forests, silent lakes and wintery landscapes? The Second Symphony was composed mostly in warm, sunny Italy during the spring of 1901. The first performance took place a year later in Helsinki, with Sibelius conducting.

The success and popularity of this work - the most frequently performed of Sibelius’ seven symphonies and the longest as well by a good margin - have not depended on the imaginative minds that devised the foregoing theories. As a structure in sound, the symphony stands on its own as one of the most magnificent creations in the orchestral repertory. In the tensions arising from opposing elements of the score, the contrasts of mood, the continuous control of pace, the fusion of its component parts into an organic whole, and the vast sweep of its trajectory from humble beginnings to mighty apotheosis, the Second Symphony embraces a true symphonic world of towering strength.

The first movement opens with softly throbbing chords in the lower strings. This and several motifs heard in rapid succession make up the first theme group. Sibelius is concerned not so much with long, broadly-arched themes as he is with arranging small fragments into a coherent whole as the movement unfolds. A second, contrasting group begins with an oboe solo consisting of a sustained note followed by a flourish at the end. The commentaries of numerous distinguished musical analysts differ widely in their interpretation of this movement’ s form; perhaps it is best simply to let Sibelius’ own comment serve to work on a subliminal level. He once described the symphonic process as follows: “It is as if the Almighty had thrown down pieces of a mosaic from Heaven’ s floor and asked me to put them together.” The listener might also consider how often the three-note rising figure of the very opening motif is integrated, in both the ascending and descending forms, into most of the other motifs as well.

The second movement is drawn in somber colors. A chant-like theme given initially to two bassoons in octaves over a pizzicato bass ccompaniment is answered by a complementary theme for oboes and clarinets. Among the many themes and fragments Sibelius uses in this movement is a highly characteristic effect consisting of a loud chord (often in the brass) which diminishes in strength and ends with a mighty crescendo to even greater volume than before.

The Scherzo might best be described as a whirling blizzard of sound. The central Trio section provides the greatest possible contrast in its idyllic, pastoral melody sung by the oboe. The furious Scherzo is then repeated in modified form, followed by a return of the Trio, now shortened, which acts as an extended bridge passage to the Finale. As in Beethoven’ s Fifth, the third and fourth movements are directly connected, with the Finale’ s majestic, chorale-like first theme arising from transitional material connecting the movements. Sibelius covers much emotional territory in this movement. In contrast to the optimistic, affirmative opening, a distinct mood of gloomy turbulence is created at several points by darkly swirling ostinatos in the lower strings. Resolution, triumph and glory inform the massive final pages of the symphony as the brass intone the magnificent chorale theme for the last time.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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