Performance Friday, October 28, 2011 | 7:30 PM

Budapest Festival Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
András Schiff kicks off his season-long focus on Bartók with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer, who together perform not one but two of the composer’s piano concertos. One is part of a group of pieces Bartók wrote in the mid-1920s to expand his piano repertoire; the other was completed shortly before he died in 1945 for his pianist wife.
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The Program

Overture to Die Zauberharfe

Revolving Overtures

One of music’s most confusing identity mix-ups, Schubert’s Overture to Die Zauberharfe is identical to the overture to Rosamunde. Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) was a failed melodrama from 1820, but Schubert saved the overture for another day. Three years later, Rosamunde appeared with another aborted Schubert overture (to Alfonso und Estrella, an unperformed opera), but subsequent manifestations of Rosamunde—which also flopped—began with the original Die Zauberharfe Overture.

Schubert with a Dash of Rossini

This promiscuous attitude toward overtures, where they were hooked up with works other than their proper mates, may seem odd today, but an overture was viewed as a curtain opener as much as an introduction to an opera’s motifs. In any case, this one works well as a stand-alone concert piece. A stern minor-key opening (one appropriate for a melodrama) leads to a lyrical Schubertian tune and a series of galloping ideas with rousing crescendos that show Schubert catching the “Rossini fever” of his era. The surprising modulations in the coda are very much Schubert’s own.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Concerto No. 1

Primal Force

In its fury and force, Bartók’s First Piano Concerto feels more like a cataclysm than a “neo-Baroque” concerto. It matters not a bit that Bartók uses sonata form, Baroque polyphony, and his usual tight construction, where a few basic scraps form the nucleus for everything; this piece unleashes a primal emotionality, a liberation from the cool “objectivism” fashionable during the 1920s. One critic at an early performance accused the pianist of smiting his instrument as if he had a private vengeance against it—a fair description, and one that could apply to the percussion section as well.

Contemporary audiences tend to be thrilled rather than repelled by the “barbarism” of Bartók’s more uncompromising early works—that is, when they get to hear them. This piece and others like it from the 1920s—such as the Piano Sonata and Out of Doors suite—are often relegated to Hungarian evenings just as they were once segregated into “modern music” fests. This music is strongly dissonant, but hotly expressive, never coldly cerebral. Bartók always cared about his audience even as he challenged it.

Still, he knew this piece was a hard sell. Putting the matter delicately, he admitted it would be “up to a point difficult, perhaps even very difficult for the orchestra and the public.” The 1927 American premiere (following Wilhelm Furtwangler’s unveiling in Frankfurt), featuring Bartók as soloist, was postponed by Willem Mengelberg because of insufficient rehearsal time with the New York Philharmonic. A year later, the piece finally got an American premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Bartók as soloist and Fritz Reiner conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Bartók, himself a great pianist (with an “almost painfully beautiful tone,” said Otto Klemperer), wrote this concerto for his tours. Other pianists quickly picked up on its sonic possibilities, where the piano fulfills its potential as a powerful percussion instrument. Rudolf Serkin championed it early on, and pianists ranging in sensibility from Maurizio Pollini to Vladimir Ashkenazy have tackled it since.

Bartók and Folk Music

Like so much of Bartók’s music, the concerto manipulates Hungarian folk motifs, but unlike the lyrical Third Piano Concerto and Hungarian Peasant Songs, they appear in surreal, distorted fragments. This does not mean they lose their elemental quality; the main theme of the finale, for example, pounds out the same note 15 times, a compelling example of the concerto’s uncompromising “primitivism.”

A Closer Listen

The concerto opens with dark repeated notes in the piano surrounded by snarling brass, setting a sinister mood sharpened by biting wit from the winds. The soloist is rarely given relief from the pounding ostinatos, complex fugatos, and huge clusters. Even the whispering development section builds to a climax of nail-biting tension. Just before the headlong coda, the brass opens up into a fanfare of stirring grandeur.

The second movement is more novel yet. Bartók kicks out the strings, leaving the soloist to join the percussion in an austere discourse, one of the earliest and most atmospheric of his celebrated so-called nachtmusik (“night music”) slow movements. The woodwinds gradually join in for a crescendo over a mesmerizing waltz thump in the piano’s bass. A ghostly diminuendo is suddenly shattered by growling trombones into the finale, a movement even more smoldering than the first.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Concerto No. 3

A Mellowing

Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, which came 20 years after the First, is far mellower. The piano sings rather than thunders, its song floating over a shimmering orchestral backdrop. Yet Bartók’s circumstances could not have been more grim. Exiled in the United States from his beloved homeland (he lived on 57th Street near Carnegie Hall), he suffered from near-poverty and the ravages of what turned out to be leukemia. But little of this hardship is reflected in his final masterpieces. This concerto, the Viola Concerto, and especially the Concerto for Orchestra are moving affirmations of the human spirit.

Struggles in the Shadow of Death

During his final struggle with illness in the summer of 1945, Bartók worked steadily on the Third Concerto, but died in September before the final bars were orchestrated. Tibor Serly, his devoted student, completed the final touches (and did much more with the less complete Viola Concerto). Bartók never got to hear this piece, which was premiered by Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra five months later, with György Sándor, another Bartók protégé, as soloist.

Many speculate that the lyrical, relatively unproblematic piano writing was conceived with his wife, Ditta Pásztory, in mind. She too was a pianist, and Bartók was concerned about her livelihood after his passing. Others say that the concerto represents a general softening, a movement toward a new humanism. But Bartók was a humanist from the beginning. What did develop was a new soulfulness, spontaneity, and nostalgia that characterize a great deal of New World music by Old World composers who emigrated or had long sojourns in America, including Dvořák, Delius, and Hindemith

About the Music

The limpid idea that opens the piece and the chorale that begins the slow movement are among the most memorably simple things Bartók ever wrote. The former moves gracefully through the sonata format of the first movement, while in the second movement the latter alternates with hymnlike strings in what has been called an homage to late Beethoven. The insect and birdcalls in the middle of the slow movement are in Bartók’s nachtmusik mode, but the mood is serene rather than sinister.

The lively finale, like that of the Viola Concerto, is a final affirmation in the shadow of debilitating sickness. Bartók’s beloved Hungarian dance syncopations swing in a final time, a swan song without regrets. Like the Concerto for Orchestra, another masterpiece that seems to stick its finger in the eye of the grim reaper, the piece ends with a triumphant upward sweep.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485


This beguiling work is frequently called the “most Mozartian” of the Schubert symphonies. Its lack of trumpets and drums, its amiability, and its chamber-like lightness all conspire to give it this label. The problem is that many of Mozart’s major works are melancholy or tragic. As for the early Mozart symphonies, which really are light and cheery, they don’t resemble this or any Schubert symphony at all.

About the Music

The truth is that the “Mozartian” label is a holdover from a previous age that regarded Mozart as an un-troubling, decorative composer. And with the exception of parts of the Menuetto, this symphony, like other early Schubert works, bears only a formal resemblance to Mozart (more, actually, to Haydn, as the hint of a drone bass in the Menuetto suggests): The first and last movements are in sonata form, the Adagio and Andante in A-B-A formats.

The melodic world of this supremely lyrical work, as the sighing Andante and soulful trio in the Menuetto tell us, is that of Schubert’s own songs. In contrast is the remainder of the Menuetto, which has a gravity characteristic of Schubert’s sterner dances and a modulation that does sound like a specific Mozart work (the melancholy Symphony No. 40). As for the lilting tune that opens the piece and the scintillating scraps of melody in the finale, they are 18th-century in spirit, but again sound like tunes only Schubert could have written.

An Inauspicious Premiere

One of the saddest aspects of Schubert’s remarkable story is that he probably never heard a single adequate performance of his orchestral works. After his Sixth Symphony, he never heard any performed at all, and the others, including No. 5, were thrown together by Otto Hatwig, a violinist in the Burgtheater orchestra whose concerts were offshoots of string-quartet evenings organized at the home of Schubert’s father. It was at such an inauspicious occasion that the 19-year-old Schubert heard his Fifth Symphony premiered in the fall of 1816.

Nothing New About Indifference

Americans did not get to hear the symphony until 1883 when the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the US premiere, and the New York premiere did not occur until 1902—almost a century after its composition. When this scintillating music finally was heard, it was attacked by critics and musicologists for “stiffness,” lack of counterpoint, and “lack of form.”

When we hear about “indifference” or “hostility” to the music of the 20th century, we should remind ourselves that this is nothing new. The major works of Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and others were in the standard repertory long before many of the sonatas and symphonies of Schubert, not to mention the late quartets of Beethoven.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff

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