Saturday June 20, 2015 at 7:30 PM (and Friday June 19, 2015 at 11:00 am) QPAC Concert Hall
Conductor Edvard Tchivzhel
Piano Nikolai Demidenko
Organ Christopher Wrench
Brahms Piano Concerto No.2
Saint-Saëns Symphony No.3 Organ
The musical genius of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, brought to an adoring world at large in the movie Babe. And Brahms’ ‘little piano concerto with a teeny-weeny wisp of a scherzo’, which is in fact a monster beyond the range of all but elite international soloists like Demidenko – witness the Piano Concerto No.2.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Allegro non troppo
Allegretto grazioso – Un poco più presto
Nikolai Demidenko, Piano
Brahms wrote the bulk of his Second Piano Concerto during visits to Italy in 1878 and 1881. While there is nothing essentially ‘Italian’ about this concerto, there is no doubt that when Brahms returned to Vienna with the completed score, he was still very much in holiday humour. To Elisabet von Herzogenberg he talked of ‘a little piano concerto with a teeny-weeny wisp of a scherzo’. To the public at large, he presented the work as it truly was: an immense, quasisymphonic, four-movement concerto filled with massive chords and wide stretches in the piano part – Brahms was famous for the size of his hands – and an orchestration filled with richness and variety.
Given the failure of the First Piano Concerto at its premiere in Leipzig some 20 years earlier, Brahms might have felt some trepidation in writing a second. By this time, however, he had finally conquered the two major instrumental forms which had always given him trouble; the string quartet and the symphony. With the Violin Concerto and German Requiem also behind him, it was time to revisit the piano concerto genre.
Indeed the Second Piano Concerto seems to employ the style of these other forms from time to time. While the four-movement form without cadenzas is clearly symphonic, the scherzo (Allegro appassionato) is actually based on a movement intended originally for the Violin Concerto. And the instrumental textures sometimes have a chamber-music feel to them.
Following rehearsals with Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Court Orchestra, the public premiere, with Brahms himself as soloist, occurred in Budapest in November 1881. The concerto was dedicated to Eduard Marxsen, Brahms’ teacher.
The expansive first movement begins romantically with a horn call reminiscent of that in Weber’s Oberon Overture. The piano enters immediately, embroidering the melody and soon indulging in the closest thing to a cadenza to be found in the concerto. From here an orchestral tutti introduces the main thematic material. Rather than restating the main themes, the piano enters into a free, organically-developing dialogue with the orchestra, often becoming impassioned and occasionally visiting distant keys like B minor.
As self-deprecating as ever, Brahms described the first movement as ‘innocuous’, which is why, he said, he took the bold step of inserting the fiery, scherzo-like Allegro appassionato as the second of the four movements. Here the drama is increased still further in a D minor movement originally intended for the Violin Concerto, but also bearing some resemblance to the equivalent movement in the Op.11 Serenade.
The tonic key of B flat is re-established at the beginning of the slow movement, where a solo cello introduces one of Brahms’ most sublime melodies.
Throughout this Andante, the textures are intimate, almost like chamber music, and the soloist and orchestra participate as equal partners in one of Brahms’ most glorious slow movements.
The mood lightens in the final rondo, where the spirit of Mozart is invoked. At the opening, the tripping Hungarianstyle tune sets the prevailing mood, then in quick succession new ideas emerge. There are no trumpets and drums in this movement, and the soloist is left to shine through some extraordinarily difficult and surprisingly elaborate passages, even, at the transition to the coda in a section marked Un poco più presto (a little faster). Nothing can hold back the sway of the gypsy dance rhythms and the music drives on to its emphatic conclusion.
Abridged from an annotation by Martin Buzacott, Symphony Australia © 2001
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 (Organ Symphony)
I Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio
II Allegro moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro
Christopher Wrench, Organ
In 1887, Charles Gounod heard the Parisian premiere of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Symphony No.3 in C minor, with Organ and Two Pianos’ and famously gushed, ‘There goes the French Beethoven’. Hyperbole, of course, but the work has remained hugely popular ever since. The reasons for its continued currency are easy to find: Saint-Saëns believed that ‘the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation’ and his orchestration is masterly, with a dramatic range of sounds from the diaphanous to the massive. The Organ Symphony is, moreover, replete with memorable tunes and intricate counterpoint, traversing an emotional landscape from deepest melancholy to sheer joy.
It was commissioned and first performed under the composer’s baton by the London Philharmonic Society in 1886. During the composition, Saint-Saëns’ old friend Liszt visited him and admired the score; sadly, Liszt died weeks before the premiere, inspiring Saint-Saëns to dedicate the symphony to his memory. Liszt had been a great mentor ever since 1857 when, hearing Saint-Saëns improvising at the organ of the Madeleine Church, he had declared the young Frenchman to be ‘the finest organist in the world’. Saint-Saëns for his part fought for the due recognition of the older man as composer as well as pianist
Perhaps, though, there is more than just hyperbole to the Beethoven comparison. Like many a symphony of Beethoven’s, especially the Fifth, the Organ Symphony begins in darkness and turbulence and only toward the end does it reach the bright affirmation of C major. And like Beethoven in the Fifth, Saint-Saëns is remarkably economical with his thematic material; it is possible to trace almost all those melodies back to the motifs heard in the work’s introduction and the opening of the followingAllegro moderato. How the composer elaborates these into such a contrasting abundance of melodies is by the principle of thematic transformation developed by Liszt.
In his program note for the first performance, Saint-Saëns wrote that ‘this symphony is divided into two parts. Nevertheless, it embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first is altered in its development to serve as the introduction to the Poco adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale’. In other words, the four movements are grouped in pairs, with the main dramatic weight carried by the second of each.
The opening Adagio is deliberately vague in direction, containing almost inconsequential motifs that become transformed in the course of the work. The static nature of the introduction enhances the release of energy in the Allegro moderato whose febrile theme begins with the same notes as the plainchant for the Dies irae. This fast music, however, seems to peter out, subsiding into the beautifully sombre and emotionally searching Poco adagio. It is here that the organ makes an appearance, providing a velvet backdrop for the questing second theme of the movement.
Part II opens with a turbulent scherzo punctuated by timpani. It too builds in sound and fury but mysteriously winds down to a quiet, simple texture built on another chantlike motif. Only now does Saint-Saëns unleash the full power of the organ. A shattering C major chord opens onto a world of sparkling piano figurations, chorale melodies and an overpoweringly joyful final peroration.
Gordon Kerry © 2009