PAYARE LEADS BRAHMS’ SYMPHONY NO. 1
The exquisitely romantic Second Piano Concerto by Liszt is performed by the great Lisztian, Marc-André Hamelin, whom the New York Times hailed as “A performer of near-superhuman technical prowess.” Music Director Rafael Payare leads the Orchestra in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, featuring one of the most famous openings in Romantic music, with the deep throbbing bass like a heartbeat, and a great arc of melody rising and falling — it seems so inevitable, so strong a way to begin this symphony.
Richard Wagner: Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
There are pieces of music about Revolution. And then there are pieces of music, a very few, which cause a revolution in the art of music itself, pieces which change the way composers compose, the way music sounds, and the way we listen to it, and even what we expect music to make us feel.
The list of such pieces is small: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; a scattering of others; and, from approximately halfway between the Beethoven (1808) and the Stravinsky (1917), Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859).
Tristan changed many things in music, most famously the language of harmony. But something else it changed, equally important though perhaps less often remembered in the history books, is the sound of the orchestra. Because this piece is a large-scale opera, we remember the characters and the story, a ship on the ocean, a love scene in the middle of the night, and the bittersweet tragedy of the ending. And we remember the voices of the singers. But Wagner himself was clear that the key to all of this was the orchestra. In a famous passage, he described the orchestra as the ship in which the composer sails across the world of the imagination:
The musician voyages across that ocean. On its breast, time and time again, he has been near to sinking, and its deeps and storms and strange-shaped monsters have filled him half with terror, half with joy. But he has sailed those open seas upon a ship, a trusty ship, the conqueror of these oceans, these endless floods of harmony... the Orchestra!
All the great orchestral composers who followed after – Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel – all were influenced by Wagner’s astounding revolution in orchestral sound and color. And orchestral musicians themselves began to play in a different way.
Nowhere do we hear this better than in the pairing together of the orchestral beginning and end of Tristan und Isolde. In the famous Prelude, Wagner conjures up that ocean he describes, and the ship of the human imagination surging gently forwards on the waves. And in the closing pages of the opera, which Wagner himself called the Verklärung (the Transfiguration) – it was his friend and father-in-law Liszt who called it the Liebestod (the Death-in-Love), by which name it is better known today – he imagines his ecstatic heroine Isolde lifted up by the intensity of her love from this world into eternity to join the already dead Tristan.
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Wagner’s father-in-law Franz Liszt, one of the greatest pianists who ever lived and one of the most influential composers of the 19th century, spanned in his long life an epoch of musical change, from the time of the classical composers, through the long years of romanticism to the very beginning of the modern era. As a 12-year-old child, growing up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he performed for Beethoven. He played an important part in the lives and careers of his contemporaries Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner and many others. And at the end of his life, he met and encouraged the young Debussy.
Liszt’s two piano concerti date from relatively early on this journey. He was still a teenager when he began sketching the first one, and in his late 20s when he began this Second Piano Concerto. But these simple facts belie the long time that it took the composer to finish both these pieces. In the case of this second concerto, for example, it was more than 20 years of work before he was satisfied with the shape and detail of the piece.
Apart from his completely new technique of playing the piano, Liszt is perhaps admired most of all nowadays for the originality of the forms – the shapes – of his music. So, in this concerto, the whole piece is cast as a single movement, one span of music, but within that we can hear ghosts of the contrasted movements of earlier styles of composition. At different points the music becomes like the scherzo of a symphony, the slow movement of a sonata, or – towards the end – a kind of operatic military march. Nothing is exactly where it would have been in a more classical piece, and every new idea evolves seamlessly out of what came before, often without clear beginnings or endings. The overall effect is like watching the growth of something organic, a tropical plant may be, or perhaps the natural flow of water down a hillside.
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Famously, it took Johannes Brahms many years of work before he finally felt able to compose a symphony. He was clear about why it took him so long: for him, any composer writing after Beethoven was going to have a problem writing symphonies, because the shadow of Beethoven was too immense, too long for most composers to be able to contribute to this form without simply repeating what someone much greater than them had already done before.
And when Brahms did finally launch himself on his First Symphony, he went slowly. It took him, he later claimed, 21 years from first sketches to completion.
Not that you would know that, listening to this piece. This is a symphony which abounds in astonishing ideas. The lush song-melodies in the second movement and the gently dancing rhythms in the third seem (when we first hear them) to be almost effortless. But as the music becomes more familiar, we begin to notice how phenomenally disciplined is every detail. Nothing happens in this music that is not very carefully considered, and very precise, like the inner workings of a carefully calculated machine. Brahms was one of the great craftsmen of Western music and an assiduous student of Bach and the ancient masters. The very opening, one of the most famous openings in romantic music, with the deep throbbing bass like a heart-beat, and a great arc of melody rising and falling over the top of it, seems so inevitable, so strong a way to begin this symphony, that it is a surprise to discover that it was actually one of the very last sections of the symphony to be composed, well after the rest of the piece had been completed.
And then there is the haunting evocation near the beginning of the last movement of an alphorn, the ancient instrument that Swiss mountain farmers and shepherds were supposed to have used to summon home their cattle in the evening. From at least the 18th century, these alphorns and their various calls were considered a kind of emblem of Switzerland’s long history of freedom from oppression by kings and emperors, and many composers used such tunes in their music, including Beethoven, Rossini, Wagner, Mahler and many others. But the call of Brahms’s alphorn is somehow different, and it is claimed – perhaps romantically – that this is because it was based on a real alphorn call that Brahms heard while hiking in the high mountains above Lake Lucerne.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY
- Jacobs Masterworks
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|Venue||California Center for the Arts, Escondido|
Our soloist Marc-André Hamelin is a great Lisztian of our time. Enjoy listening to him playing this concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Here is an unusual (but rewarding) version of the Brahms First Symphony: Leonard Bernstein conducting live with the Israel Philharmonic in 1973.
Here’s a famous version of the Prelude and Liebestod from Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the 1990s.