Performance Saturday, October 29, 2011 | 8 PM

Budapest Festival Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
András Schiff completes the cycle of Bartók’s three piano concertos that he began two nights before. These two concerts are a sort of reunion: Schiff was born in Budapest and attended school there with conductor Iván Fischer, and in 1997 they recorded Bartók’s concertos together. Those performances were widely acclaimed, and you can hear them together again with the Budapest Festival Orchestra here at Carnegie Hall.
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The Program

Hungarian Peasant Songs

An Electric Heartbeat

In Bartók, the folk element is not an exotic special effect, but rather the electric heartbeat of the music. Folk-song suites—such as the Hungarian Peasant Songs—reveal Bartók’s normally complex aesthetic pared down to its essentials, much as Viennese folk songs are at the core of Schubert. The intoxicating rhythms, chants, and modal harmonies of this centuries-old music appear in their clearest outlines, whereas in works like the Piano Concerto No. 2 (which was premiered in 1933, the same year as this suite), they are abstracted and reinvented without losing their essential piquancy.

Relatively obscure in America, the Hungarian Peasant Songs are not played as frequently as other Bartók pieces in this genre (such as the Hungarian Sketches and Romanian Folk Dances). They were originally piano pieces Bartók used as encores in his recitals; the orchestrations are highly imaginative, especially the woodwind coloring, but not heavy or hyped, and the moods vary considerably—from the eloquent sternness of the opening song to the chirpy airiness of the penultimate dance and the joyful openness of the bagpipe sounds in the finale. 

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Concerto No. 2

The Total Bartók

In more than mere chronology, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 falls directly in the middle of the three piano concertos. Neither as expressionistically “difficult” as the First Concerto nor as lyrically accessible as the Third, it offers both sides of Bartók’s musical personality: the experimental modernist as well as the full-throated lyricist—plus a sonic world uniquely its own.

New Worlds of Sound

Sound worlds—plural—might be more accurate, for each movement has a different ensemble. The first eschews strings, emphasizing instead the pungent sonorities of winds, brass, and percussion; the Adagio portion of the second brings in the strings for the first time, muted and mysterious, supported by typical Bartókian timpani glissandos; the scherzo, which erupts in the middle of the same movement, adds a group of wind and percussion instruments; and the finale, for the first time, brings in the full orchestra.

A Different Kind of Concerto

This careful attention to orchestral sonority is consistent with Bartók’s extensive, meticulous program note on the concerto that appeared in 1937 in Lausanne, Switzerland’s La Radio, in which he stated that “neither of my two piano concertos is written for piano with accompaniment from an orchestra, but for piano and orchestra. In both works I wish to realize absolute equality between solo instrument and orchestra.”

Never mind that Bartók was himself a great concert pianist, one who frequently premiered his own works; the whole 19th-century notion of a concerto as a virtuoso display piece for the soloist did not interest him.

About the Music

The structural intricacy of the concerto is also typical of Bartók. The finale is really a series of variations on the first movement (a technique Bartók also used in his Second Violin Concerto)—not only thematically, but architecturally: Both movements have inverted themes in their recapitulations, and both play the opening themes backward in their codas. The remarkable second movement—a dreamlike slow section interrupted in the middle by a scherzo that sounds almost like electronic music—fits into a similar scheme since the listener experiences it as a structure in which the last part is a variation on the first.

A Closer Listen

None of these ingenious technicalities (and there are many more) interferes with the vitality, poetry, and visceral power of this concerto. The first movement, with its brilliant brass fanfares (reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Petrushka) and relentlessly active piano writing, offers nonstop excitement from the first swooping glissando in the piano to the final one in the orchestra. The second movement, with its haunting muted string sonorities and dizzy piano scamperings in the scherzo, is Bartókian “night music” impressionism at its most exquisite; the finale, with its thunderous use of the piano’s percussiveness, is an exhilarating example of Bartók’s folk-inspired primitivism.

A Plea for Acceptance

The concerto is thus an amalgam of Bartók’s different mature styles, each presented with maximum expressiveness. Still, it is odd to read Bartók’s proclamation that this concerto is more “agreeable,” “more conventional and simpler,” than his usual. Certainly it is more accessible than the aggressively modern First Concerto, but it is still a complex, demanding work—in no sense “easy listening.” What Bartók’s remarks really communicate is a poignant plea for acceptance, a need to reach out to a larger audience after years of indifference and hostility.

This larger acceptance did not come until the popular reception of the Concerto for Orchestra, written while Bartók was dying of leukemia. Nonetheless, the Second Piano Concerto, premiered by Bartók himself in 1933, has a sinewy toughness that reveals the composer’s inner integrity in the face of hardship. 

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, “Great”

Beyond Sorrow and Joy

Heralded by Schumann as the first Romantic symphony, Schubert’s “Great” C-Major combines Beethoven’s elemental power with Schubertian songfulness to create a new musical universe. In Schumann’s words, more than “merely lovely melody” or “novel intricacies” are offered in this work: “Something beyond sorrow and joy, as these emotions have been portrayed a hundred times in music, lies concealed in this symphony … we are transported to a region where we can never remember to have been before.”

A Joyful Discovery

Schumann was not only the most eloquent champion of this music, but he was also its discoverer. Schubert tried to get the work performed at Vienna’s Musikverein, but in the last of the many crushing disappointments of his career, was turned down. In 1838, a decade after Schubert’s death, Schumann found the symphony while rummaging through a heap of musty manuscripts preserved by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand: “The sight of this hoard of riches thrilled me with joy … Who knows how long the symphony might have lain buried in dust and darkness …”

A Scornful Reception

For a while, the symphony got buried again: Mendelssohn conducted the premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1839, but when he tried to program it in London in 1842, the London Philharmonic string players giggled scornfully at the repeating triplets in the finale—so much so that Mendelssohn withdrew the score. In Paris, the reaction was also disastrous, with the orchestra refusing to play more than the first movement. The newly formed Philharmonic Society of New York was daring enough to take on the entire symphony, but not until 1851.

About the Music

“How direct and simple everything is,” wrote Alfred Einstein much later of this symphony, and indeed the generation of a vast musical cosmos from basic songlike gestures does seem miraculous. The opening melody for horns is a case in point: Much of the huge first movement springs from this tune, yet the melody suggests more a simple forest pastorale than the introduction to a “grand” symphony. The surging transition to the main Allegro is described by Schumann as “wholly new … we are landed, we know not how.” 

An analysis of the work, writes Schumann, is impossible: “One would necessarily have to transcribe the entire symphony to give the faintest notion of its intense originality throughout.”  This may sound like Romantic rhetoric, but more than a few commentators have stumbled in their attempts to explain how Schubert manages to stay essentially in sonata form while spiritually being in another realm altogether.

Visitations from Another World

The slow movement is equally ineffable. A gypsy-like oboe tune alternates with a lyrical section that recalls the sublimity of another of Schubert’s final works, the E-flat–Major Mass. Near the end of this section, in Schumann’s words, “a horn call sounds from a distance that seems to have descended from another world. And every other instrument seems to listen, as if some heavenly messenger were hovering through the orchestra.” This juxtaposition of earthy folk material with otherworldly musings is characteristic of late Schubert. In addition, Schubert contrasts heaven with a moment of hell—a loud outburst of anguish toward the end.  The exuberant Scherzo also features abrupt shifts of mood. Although this movement has been compared to the gargantuan Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth, the trio is pure Schubert: Like the middle section of the slow movement in the “Farewell” B-flat–Major Piano Sonata, it sounds like a yearning extension of a Schubert song.

Even more than the first movement, the Allegro vivace finale is an unleashing of elemental rhythm. The opening fanfare contains two rhythmic figures that throb throughout the movement, and the four simple repeated notes in the second subject become, through sheer primal emphasis, an orgiastic climax near the end. Conductor Felix Weingartner once wrote that this “intoxicating” music evoked in him “the effect as of flight through ether … Nature has denied us this joy, but great works of art give it to us.”

A Heavenly Length

It is odd that this symphony, so alive in every note, should have suffered for over a century from the reputation of being too long. Even Dvořák, who found it “astounding” in its “richness and variety of coloring,” criticized it for the “the fault of diffuseness.” Yet the C-Major is no longer than Beethoven’s “Eroica” and is shorter than the Beethoven’s Ninth—not to mention the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, of which it is the progenitor. Only recently has the work come to be regarded as having an appropriately large scale. Again Schumann, citing in this case the symphony’s “heavenly length,” had the last word.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of James Thurmond Smithgall in support of the 2011-2012 season.
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Perspectives: András Schiff

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