CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Monday, March 21, 2011 | 8 PM

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
In 1944, as Soviet Russia defended itself from Nazi invasion, Prokofiev wrote his Fifth Symphony as “a hymn to free and happy Man … his pure and noble spirit.” A few years later, an elderly Strauss composed his Four Last Songs, performed here by the legendary Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Hear both of these pieces, along with music by Takemitsu that pays homage to Debussy.
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TŌRU TAKEMITSU (1930–1996) Green

About the Composer

Tōru Takemitsu was one of the first Asian composers to bring Eastern and Western music together on the concert stage. (According to Seiji Ozawa, he was the first Japanese composer to write for an international audience.) The interchange comes from both sides: Takemitsu was influenced by Debussy, Messiaen, and Cage—Western composers who in turn were profoundly impacted by Eastern music.

Takemitsu’s work is consistently contemplative; it takes its time, refusing to be rushed by the demands of tension, release, and development favored by Western music. It is all about nuance, atmosphere, and the spiritual dimensions of physical sound.


About the Music

Green is an early work from 1967, the same year Takemitsu completed the piece that was his breakthrough success, November Steps. According to the composer, Green—sometimes called November Steps II—was written “from a wish to enter into the secrets of Debussy’s music.” The shifting, muted colors do sound vaguely Debussian—just as the dense, haunted wind chords toward the end resemble Messiaen—but the sound world of Green is Takemitsu’s own and could not be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Short, concentrated, and rapturous, Green is an ideal introduction to Takemitsu’s music, moving through the complex dissonance of the composer’s early period toward a forecast of the serene “pantonal” late pieces. The pensive opening becomes increasingly agitated as slithering strings blend with chiming vibraphones. Gradually, celestial strings gather over pastoral winds, fragmented brass chorales, and whispering basses, as the work fades toward a quiet bell.
Jack Sullivan © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864–1949) Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

About the Composer

Like Delius’s Songs of Farewell, Strauss’s Four Last Songs are the final creations of a composer who knew he was at the end of his life, completing the farewell gesture by actually dying. (Mahler, addicted to goodbyes, wrote more than one farewell to the world, “tempting fate,” as his wife complained.) Strauss began the last song first, basing it on the Eichendorff poem “At Sunset,” which depicts an elderly couple seeing a sunset as a harbinger of death. Next, he set three Hesse poems that also drew analogies between death and states of nature, then began a final Hesse setting he did not live to complete. The myth that Strauss wrote these songs for an idealized soprano has recently been debunked; he apparently composed them specifically for the renowned Wagnerian singer Kirsten Flagstad.


About the Music

The final standard-bearer for Austro-German late Romanticism, Strauss is known for lush, formidable orchestrations, but his final creations—Duet Concertino and Oboe Concerto, in addition to these songs—are surpassingly intimate and delicate. For better or for worse, they reflect none of the post-war troubles and traumas of the era, including Strauss’s exile in Switzerland to escape the denazification program. (For what it’s worth, he was cleared by the board.) They are also entirely removed from the serialism, primitivism, expressionism, and other modernist fashions of the century, though the concertos certainly partake of the late-1940s vogue of neoclassicism.


A Closer Listen

Knowing these songs are final testaments makes them uniquely poignant, but without their dramatic circumstances they would still be among Strauss’s most exquisite creations. Balancing serenity and melancholy with precise equilibrium, they project none of the darkness and terror found in near-death works like Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony or Verdi’s Te Deum. Like Delius, who invokes late Whitman for his last songs, Strauss faces death with equanimity, with neither bitterness nor soothing thoughts of an afterlife.

The scoring is transparent and crystalline even though it offers Strauss’s customary cushions of sensuality. The opening “Spring” features trembling high strings “drenched in light.” In “September,” a horn gently plummets, “yearning for repose.” In “Going to Sleep,” a solo violin ushers the “unfettered soul” into “night’s magic sphere.” Strauss’s final “At Sunset,” with its soaring soprano line and trilling skylarks, floats toward an orchestral quotation from Strauss’s 1889 tone poem Death and Transfiguration, the “deliverance from the world” forecast in that visionary work finally attained.
 
Jack Sullivan © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891–1953) Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100

About the Composer

Like Strauss, Prokofiev has taken considerable heat in some quarters for his nonresistance to his country’s murderous regime—and like Strauss, his popularity soars on, undaunted by ideological disputes that have continued long after the collapse of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is the most programmed of the composer’s seven symphonies, outpacing even charmers like the First and Seventh, and the blockbuster Mussorgsky-like Third. Curious explanations have been offered for this success, often by commentators hostile to the work. Some argue that the Fifth is Prokofiev’s first “real” symphony and has thus been lavished with special attention: the “Classical” Symphony No. 1, after all, is an 18th-century pastiche, and the Third and Fourth aren’t proper symphonies because they are based on material from Prokofiev’s stage works. (The Second doesn’t count at all because Prokofiev planned to revise it and never did.) But Haydn and Mozart wrote numerous works based on recycled material and gestures from earlier musical eras. Besides, the public couldn’t care less about whether a work follows musicologists’ rules for a proper symphony.

It is also claimed that the success of the Fifth has to do with its inspirational wartime scenario: The symphony was written in 1944, with victory over the Nazis clearly in sight, and with much fanfare from the composer (who conducted the Moscow premiere) about the work being representative of “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.”

But that was more than 60 years ago, and the work continues to hold its own, not only as Prokofiev’s most beloved symphony, but also as one of the most frequently played and recorded of all modern symphonies. Furthermore, only the first movement, with its heroic opening theme and thunderous coda, really carries the weight of a wartime program; with its delicate harmonies and playful woodwind tunes, this work does not have the darkness and violence of programmatic war symphonies such as Shostakovich’s Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth (symphonies that have inspired many shrill academic disputes over ideological “subtexts”).


A Closer Listen

Prokofiev’s Fifth is a hit for the same reason most warhorses are: It has memorable tunes, solid construction, vivid orchestration, and high emotional impact—the same qualities present in Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s most popular ballet score. Indeed, the symphony’s passionate Adagio movement bears more than a passing resemblance to the balcony scene in that work (especially the enchanting harp glissandos near the end of the movement), and the Allegro marcato and Allegro giocoso finale have a ballet-like spring and litheness. Prokofiev’s fondness for spine-tingling brass and percussion effects, so prominent in the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, erupt full force at the end of the symphony’s first and fourth movements.

The lyrical quality of the Fifth is characteristic of Prokofiev’s late style, especially the grand melodies in the first and third movements, some of the most lavishly expansive he ever wrote. Still, touches of Prokofiev’s earlier diablerie and sarcasm infect the carnival-like woodwind tunes in the second and fourth movements. The neoclassicism of the First Symphony is recalled as well in the 18th-century layout: a clearly delineated sonata-form first movement, a rustic scherzo, a hymn-like slow movement, and an exuberant finale introduced with a pastoral reminiscence of earlier material. There is even a dramatic re-invocation of Prokofiev’s early modernist period in the shuddery, dissonant outburst in the climax of the Adagio.

Here then is a Prokofiev symphony with everything, an aesthetic summing-up as well as a work of the moment impelled by good news from the battlefront. Given the work’s supreme confidence and power, it is not surprising that it was dashed off in less than a month.
Jack Sullivan © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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