BEETHOVEN’S EMPEROR CONCERTO
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LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 5 in E-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 73, EMPEROR
The evolution of Beethoven’s creative genius makes for one of the more intriguing biographies of any artist. Plagued by financial troubles most of his life, deafness by age 30, a variety of illnesses, and a paradoxical relationship with those around him, Beethoven could easily have given into what he called his “unfavorable fate.’’ Instead, he persisted, and his stubbornness – his most resilient trait – literally changed 19th century musical thought and action.
An example of this persistence can be heard and felt in his Piano Concerto No. 5, the famed Emperor, written when deafness forced him to compose in the “absence’’ of sound and rely on conversation books to communicate. His resolve, however, overcame his liability, evident in a work of unprecedented depth and expression.
Cast in the majestic key of E-flat major, the concerto is a dialog among equals – soloist and orchestra carry the same assertive weight throughout – although the piano is the hero of this story. Its warlike rhythms, pointed melodies and bold character led the musicologist Alfred Einstein to call it the “apotheosis of the military concept’’ in Beethoven’s creative output.
Unlike most concertos up to this time (1809), Beethoven introduces the soloist at the onset, overturning the tradition of a lengthy orchestral exposition. The piano enters like a wave crashing on shore as it unleashes a wash of notes in all directions. Yes, Beethoven also begins his Piano Concerto No. 4 with the soloist in the driver’s seat, but not on such a dramatic path.
The intensity of the opening allegro shows Beethoven pushing the boundaries of the keyboard “closer and closer to our modern instrument,’’ says Natasha Paremski, the featured soloist in this weekend’s concerts and who performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with TFO in January.
“It’s impossible to feel stagnant playing this piece, as it’s such an incredible showcase for the orchestra,’’ she says. “And every orchestra plays differently, so I very much look forward to coming together with The Florida Orchestra.’’
Beethoven’s popularity rests in part on his power – the full-throttled energy of so many of his orchestral and chamber works. But the Emperor reveals something else: a tenderness and lyricism that serve to deepen the surrounding struggle. Imagine the opening and closing movements of his Ninth Symphony unmoored from the central adagio that brings them to life. The Emperor is no different.
“The second movement is undoubtedly sublime,’’ Paremski adds. “And what makes it special is the simplicity with which Beethoven delivers his message.’’
The adagio is Beethoven on a spiritual high, the piano’s delicate, ascending melody set against muted strings in what sounds like a hymn. Leonard Bernstein was so enamored by this music that he borrowed its initial theme for the song Somewhere in his musical West Side Story.
Then, emerging from a few suggestive chords, the concerto concludes with a burst, the keyboard’s offbeat tune riding atop insistent rhythms from the orchestra, a bluster of brass, and bold strokes by the kettledrums. After a moment of reflection, the work ends as exuberantly as it began.
An early 19th-century review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung summed up the Emperor as the “most original, most inventive, most effective, most difficult of all concertos.’’ But it also would symbolize – as it does more than two centuries after its premiere – a longing for the infinite, which is the essence of Romanticism.
“The concerto encapsulates the heroic struggle of the individual, and how one determined soul can influence the world around him to a magnificent degree,’’ says TFO Music Director Michael Francis.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
SYMPHONY NO. 3 in A MINOR, OP. 56, SCOTTISH
Mendelssohn was a gifted watercolor painter and captured with a keen eye the impressions of his travels to Italy, France, Switzerland, the British Isles and around his German homeland. His musical canvases, however, are far more than postcards, and show a genius for highly imaginative sonic landscapes.
During a trip to Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn visited Edinburgh’s ancient Holyrood Palace and its crumbling chapel. He scribbled some notes on paper, then wrote a letter to his family: “In the deep twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived. … Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken alter where Mary was crowned. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginnings of my Scotch Symphony.’’
It would be three years before he completed what he called his Symphony in A Minor, which ironically was finished during a trip to Italy. Chronologically, the symphony is listed as the composer’s third, but it actually was his fifth – and last. Earlier this season, TFO performed Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” which was the second to be composed. Throw in a dozen youthful string symphonies, and Mendelssohn’s playbook becomes a muddle.
No matter. The Scottish is a mature work by one of music’s incomparable talents. Set in four connected movements to be played without breaks (or at least very short ones), it evolves through themes and ideas that transform from one section to the next, creating an organic unity.
A brooding first movement sets an atmosphere that some have said reflects the mindset of the Scots, although Mendelssohn dismissed any literal connection to the land or its people. A brief and jovial scherzo follows, then leads into an arioso-like adagio. The finale begins with a warlike march that jumps into the listener’s lap, then interlaces four themes before returning to the dour mood that launched the symphony. But it doesn’t end in darkness. Mendelssohn wraps things up with an unexpected coda: a stirring, chorale-like passage in the sunny key of A major.
The power of the Beethoven concerto and the rousing end of the Mendelssohn make ideal companions for this season finale program, adds Francis: “These two masterworks seemed a fitting bookend to this unprecedented season.’’
Program notes by Kurt Loft, former music critic for the Tampa Tribune who has covered the area’s arts scene for 40 years.