W. A. Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, KV 491 (1786)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote concertos for many of the solo instruments typical of his time - violin, flute, horn (even bassoon), but he lavished some of his most beautiful music on the 27 concertos for his own instrument, the piano. Although he wrote most of them with himself in mind as the soloist, they are not mere showpieces for the keyboard, offering instead a chamber music-like balance between solo and orchestra.
Concerto No. 24, one of only two written in a minor key, is also distinctive in that there are extensive passages for the seven woodwinds and two horns during which the soloist and strings remain silent.
The First Movement begins with a shadowy unison statement introduced by the strings. While angular in outline, it is also tonally ambiguous in that it uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in the first ten measures. Soon the theme is given out by the whole orchestra, accompanied by a descending chain of diminished seventh-chords (the most dissonant chord in the harmonic palette of the 18th century). The ensuing material unfolds deliberately as more serene musical ideas appear. Even the solo piano part begins in a style that sounds more resigned than angry, and it takes a while for it to engage in the agitated mood of the opening. Mozart apparently struggled with proportions in this movement, because he lengthened the orchestral introduction after he realized how extended the solo sections were and how much time he needed to develop the themes.
The Second Movement is a Rondo structured around multiple returns of the graceful theme heard at the beginning. It is in the contrasting episodes that the wind group is often spotlighted (interestingly, using the oboes in the minor-key sections and clarinets in the major-key sections).
The Third Movement is a set of variations on a theme first played by the orchestra. The theme has a clear two-part form (with both halves repeated), the outlines of which can be heard in most of the variations. In later variations, instead of an exact repetition of each half, the focus passes between soloist and orchestra as the theme is transformed into different guises, from quiet and lyrical to assertive and agitated. The moment at which the solo oboe suddenly introduces a major-key version is particularly striking. For the final variation, the march-like rhythm is altered into a rollicking dance and the final statements of the soloist are swept up into a swirl of rising scales in the entire orchestra.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 (1877)
Brahms’s reluctance to complete a symphony is a familiar story. Feeling the responsibility of assuming the mantle of Beethoven, he produced a number of orchestra works that were symphonic in form but called something else before finally completing his first symphony at the age of 43. After that icebreaker, his second symphony followed comparatively soon.
The gentle beginning of Symphony No. 2’s First Movement is what has caused commentators to call this symphony Brahms’s “Pastoral.” The first theme is actually two themes, a three-note melody sung quietly in the low strings over which a pair of horns emerges with a different tune. The symphony unfolds at a leisurely pace until the three-note melody appears in a triumphant statement above the full orchestra. A short transition leads to the second theme, which recalls Brahms’s earlier-composed “Wiegenlied” (known popularly as “Brahms’s Lullaby”). The rest of the movement honors the tradition of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven by treating the various themes to development, fragmentation, and finally reintegration, ending quietly as the three-note theme seems to skip cheerily into the distance.
The brooding Second Movement begins with a somber theme played by the cellos. In the second phrase the three trombones and tuba add a solemnity that will recur as the music alternates between despair and moments of repose.
The graceful Third Movement features a lilting melody in the oboe that returns several times, each recurrence after much faster contrasting music. The episodes, though in different tempos and meters, contain motivic seeds from the main theme, giving the whole an underlying coherence.
The main theme of the Fourth Movement is a quick, sinuous melody barely whispered by the string section which shortly fades to near silence, setting up the sudden joyful outburst by the full orchestra playing an extroverted version of the theme. Once again, contrasting themes are introduced, developed, and reintroduced. In the home stretch, the trombones and tuba begin propulsion that finally reaches high into the trumpets and a brilliant conclusion.
HECTOR BERLIOZ 1803 – 1869
Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23 (1838)
Berlioz was a Romantic-era firebrand whose innovations in exploiting the characteristic sounds of instruments coincided with the appearance of increasingly larger orchestras (and audiences.) His exuberant style often unpredictably lurches between one idea and the next, often with maximum contrast in style and volume.
The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini begins with a noisy outburst that gives way to a slower theme plucked by the cellos and basses. This slower music competes with recurrences of the faster music until it culminates in the contrapuntal combination (noted by the composer in the score to make sure it is appreciated) of “the theme of the Adagio combined with the second theme of the Allegro.”
ÉDOUARD LALO 1823 – 1892
Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra (1876)
Édouard Lalo was a French composer of Spanish descent who followed Berlioz by a generation. His music was criticized at first for being “too progressive and Wagnerian” but was later overshadowed by the colorful developments of later composers like Debussy and Ravel. Despite prolific production of chamber music, orchestral music, and even an opera, he is represented in modern orchestral programming mainly by his Symphonie Espagnol, which is essentially a violin concerto.
His Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra is cast in the typical three movements. The First begins with a brooding Prélude before launching into an expressive Allegro maestoso that takes advantage of the solo instrument’s ability to sing across wide pitch registers. The Second Movement begins slowly as expected, but several times it is interrupted with a lilting Allegro presto whose repeated rhythmic figures in the orchestra create a kind of minimalist background. The Third movement, like the first two, begins slowly and seriously but soon breaks into a rollicking Rondo, with contrasting sections that pave the way for the welcome return of the Rondo melody.
MODEST MUSSORGSKY 1839 – 1881
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1923)
Mussorgsky was born into a family of Russian nobles that was impoverished by the Czar Alexander’s freeing of the serfs in 1861. He fell in with “The Five,” a group of amateur composers devoted to the creation of Russian music less affected by Western European influences. In Mussorgsky’s brief 46 years he was able to create a small body of works that show a distinctive, raw talent not inhibited by discipline or reliance on tradition.
His piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition” was a tribute to his late artist friend Victor Hartmann. A number of short characteristic movements inspired by paintings and designs of Hartmann and are interspersed with “Promenade” movements which represent the exhibition-goer’s meanderings. The piano originals are vivid in the way rhythms and harmonies are used to evoke the visual images, but in Maurice Ravel’s masterful orchestration, they are made even more so. Ravel was not the first or last to orchestrate the suite, but his version is the most familiar, and the final section depicting Hartmann’s fairly modest (and unused) plan for a gate in Kiev is thrilling in its sonic magnificence.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Joan Olsson.