Performance Tuesday, October 25, 2011 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Today, we think of Beethoven as a solitary genius striving for perfection as his hearing fails. But as a young man, he was also a fiery virtuoso whose skills astounded aristocrats in the salons of Vienna, the musical capital of Europe in the late 18th century. Join us as one of today’s dynamic pianists performs the concerto that the youthful Beethoven used to broaden his fame among the Viennese public. Also on the program is a symphony from Shostakovich that reflects the cultural thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953.
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The Program

Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50

Gabriel Fauré’s gradual ascent from rural roots to becoming a leading figure in French musical life began at age nine, when he moved to Paris. After a rigorous education, counting Camille Saint-Saëns as a mentor, he was well prepared to teach, serve as an organist, and work as a music critic. Time to compose was relatively limited, and he did most of it during the summer months. Fauré was not prolific and produced relatively few large-scale compositions (the great Requiem took more than 20 years to write). He nonetheless succeeded in all of his endeavors, becoming chief organist at Madeleine, director of the Paris Conservatory, a critic for Le Figaro, president of various musical associations, and the creator of compositions that have remained firmly in the repertoire. The handsome composer likewise enjoyed social and romantic successes, frequenting Parisian salons. Both the man and his music inspired parts of Remembrance of Things Past by his friend Marcel Proust.

The genesis of Fauré’s brief Pavane in F-sharp Minor is associated with the glittering social milieu of late–19th-century Paris. Among his patrons was Countess Greffulhe, to whom the work is dedicated. Fauré initially composed the Pavane in the late summer of 1887 at Le Vésinet, in the western suburbs of Paris where he frequently summered. He intended it for concerts presented by Jules Danbé, conductor at the Opéra-Comique, which had burned down in the spring. Danbé appears not to have conducted the piece, which was premiered in April 1888 when it was led by Charles Lamoureux.

A couple of years later, Fauré decided to add a choral part, setting an inconsequential pastoral text by Countess Greffulhe’s cousin, Robert de Montesquiou. The composer wrote to the Countess that he had

the great fortune to meet [Montesquiou] in Paris, [and he] has most kindly accepted the egregiously thankless and difficult task of setting to this music, which is already complete, words that will make our Pavane fit to be both danced and sung. He has given it a delightful text: sly coquetries by the female dancers, and great sighs by the male dancers that will singularly enhance the music. If the whole marvelous thing with a lovely dance in fine costumes and an invisible chorus and orchestra could be performed, what a treat it would be!

The Countess arranged a performance of this version with invisible chorus, and that also included dance and pantomime, at a garden party she gave on an island in the Bois de Boulogne in July 1891. On tonight’s concert, we hear Fauré’s more effective original orchestral version. The intimately scored piece begins quietly and at a leisurely tempo (Andante molto moderato) with a haunting flute melody played over plucked strings, all of which evoke the Renaissance court dance that gives the work its title. A louder and more agitated middle section, featuring solo French horn, ultimately yields to a varied return of the opening material.

Fauré’s Pavane had influential resonances and adaptations. After the Countess’s nocturnal party in the Bois de Boulogne, the work was staged in 1895 as part of a program of ancient dances at the Paris Opéra. More than 20 years later, it was taken up by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes under the title Las Meninas and choreographed by Léonide Massine. The leading composers of the younger Impressionist generation were inspired by the work. Debussy wrote his Passepied (in the same key and originally called Pavane) as part of the Suite bergamasque, while Ravel composed his famous Pavane for a Dead Princess during the time he was studying with Fauré.

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2011. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19

While Mozart did not invent the piano concerto, he was the one to bring it to prominence and create enduring musical monuments. He served as an inspiring model for the young Beethoven, who at age 12 was already being compared to him. An important music journal announced that the prodigy “would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.” At age 16, Beethoven went to Vienna in the hopes of studying with his idol. He is said to have played for Mozart and to have earned the approving remark, “Keep your eyes on him; someday he will give the world something to talk about.”

Not long after his arrival, however, Beethoven was called home to tend to his gravely ill mother; he remained in Bonn for the next five years. In 1792, financially assisted by the Elector Maximilian Franz and Count Waldstein, Beethoven won the chance to return to Vienna. With Mozart now dead, Haydn would be his teacher. Waldstein informed Beethoven, “With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” After studies with Haydn and others, Beethoven began to mold his public career. As Mozart had found some two decades earlier, piano concertos offered the ideal vehicle to display both performing and composing gifts, including those of improvisation in the unaccompanied cadenza sections heard near the end of certain movements.

Really a First Concerto

As is often remarked, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto is chronologically really the first of the famous five that he composed. Yet the issue is even a bit more complicated because Beethoven at age 13, while still living in Bonn, had in fact composed what we might call a Piano Concerto “No. 0” in E-flat Major. Although only the piano part survives with some instrumental cues, an orchestration has been reconstructed; a few available recordings of this curiosity give a good idea of how the young composer sought to emulate Mozart.

The exact chronology of Beethoven’s first three mature piano concertos is not altogether clear. The genesis of the Second Concerto is the most protracted of them. The earliest version was apparently written while Beethoven was still in his late teens and living in Bonn. He revised the work in Vienna and included a different rondo finale than the one we know today. The concerto went through other revisions, leading to performances in Prague in 1798 and final ones before its publication in 1801. This evolving, changing life of the work over the course of more than a decade shows yet again how Beethoven considered his early concertos vehicles for his own concert use. He was still learning what worked best and to what audiences most responded. Throughout this long process, however, Beethoven retained the essential Classical dimensions for the concerto, his shortest and the one deploying the smallest orchestra (it is the composer’s only mature orchestral work without clarinets).

A Closer Listen

The Allegro con brio begins with an energetic orchestral introduction that presents a variety of themes before the soloist enters with a florid, more reserved melody. The cadenza of this movement juxtaposes music Beethoven wrote around 1809 with the concerto’s original material, which dates back as far as 20 years. The cadenza begins as a fugato exploring the opening material and displays powerful, boldly harmonic, dynamically diverse writing.

The Adagio contrasts a soft, string-dominated opening with a full orchestral statement to which the soloist responds with lush chords. The final Molto allegro presents a syncopated theme for piano alone that is taken up by the full orchestra. Beethoven wittily experiments with the theme, later presenting it in the wrong key and without the characteristic syncopations until the orchestra brings the soloist back on track.

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2011. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

In order to appreciate something of the context in which Shostakovich wrote his Tenth Symphony, and to understand how Soviet authorities, critics, and audiences first viewed the work, we might consider the dramatic public unveilings of his earlier symphonies. The First, premiered when the composer was just 19, made him famous overnight and extended his renown far beyond the Soviet Union as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, and other leading conductors championed the youthful work. (Leopold Stokowski gave the American premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1928.) The Second Symphony came the next year and was entitled “To October—A Symphonic Dedication.” It includes a chorus praising the revolution and Lenin. The Third Symphony, entitled “The First of May,” was another choral and political statement. By the time of his Fourth in 1936, the 29-year-old Shostakovich had run into serious difficulties with the Soviet government. Stalin’s displeasure at his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had resulted in a scathing reprimand in the official newspaper Pravda. Shostakovich was forced to withdraw the symphony, a grand Mahlerian work that waited 25 years for its premiere once Stalin was safely buried. (The Philadelphians gave the first American performance in 1963.)

The Fifth Symphony officially redeemed Shostakovich in 1937 and became his most popular and admired work, an instant “classic.” And though the Sixth (1939) did not fare quite as well, the Seventh, written during the Second World War and performed to great acclaim in Russia and the West in 1942, secured his position as the leading Soviet composer. It landed Shostakovich on the cover of TIME. Expectations were great about what he would do next, and the Eighth (1943) generally disappointed in its pessimistic tone. Worse, the Ninth, composed in 1945 when Russia’s victory was to be celebrated, proved a modest and witty affair. The number “nine” has weighed heavily on symphonists, not just because of Beethoven’s imposing model, but also because of the superstitions that so many composers seem to die after writing a Ninth (or trying to do so).

A Decade of Symphonic Silence

After the criticisms of his Eighth and Ninth, Shostakovich did not attempt another symphony for nearly a decade, during which time things just got worse for him. Together with Prokofiev and other prominent composers, Shostakovich was again denounced in 1948. His major works from these years, such as From Jewish Folk Poetry, the First Violin Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth string quartets, went unperformed, and in most cases were released only after Stalin’s death. Shostakovich was reduced to writing film scores and such patriot fare as the oratorio Song of the Forests, which celebrates the reforestation of the country after the ravages of war and drought.

While these activities helped in a second rehabilitation (as did humiliating public statements Shostakovich was forced to make, including at a conference in New York in 1949), his important compositional statements remained in the drawer, and pressure for him to write an appropriate symphony mounted. Shostakovich knew these aesthetic and cultural issues were, literally, matters of life and death. He had already seen all too many acquaintances, including some quite prominent figures, meet tragic ends. He began writing the Tenth Symphony in the summer of 1953 and completed it quickly. An important and perhaps liberating circumstance had occurred a few months earlier: Stalin died on March 5, 1953. (Prokofiev died the same day.)

An “Optimistic Tragedy”

The premiere of any Shostakovich symphony was a major event in the USSR, and interest in the Tenth was particularly intense when Evgeny Mravinsky led the work in Leningrad in December 1953. Aram Khachaturian, another composer who had been officially attacked in 1948, called the work “an optimistic tragedy, infused with a firm belief in the victory of bright, life-affirming forces.” Others were not so sure. A three-day discussion took place at the Union of Composers in which Shostakovich expressed his own dissatisfaction with his symphony, pointing to various deficiencies movement by movement, but stating, “In this work I wanted to convey human feelings and passions.” The Tenth won no official prizes, as Shostakovich’s works often did, although it has since emerged for many listeners as his greatest symphonic achievement.

We can try to guess at what the “human feelings and passions” were in the symphony. The death of Stalin must have left its mark, and there appears to have been a more personal matter. At the time of its composition, Shostakovich was enamored with a young student of his, Elmira Nazirova, a 24-year-old pianist who lived in Baku. (Shostakovich was then married to his first wife, who would die the following year.) He wrote to Elmira continuously during the gestation and composition of the Tenth, testifying to its progress and his opinions about the work. He also informed her that he was working her name into the music through a musical spelling.

A Closer Listen

The Tenth is among the more “purely musical” of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, four of which use voice and four have titles bestowed by the composer. As he had found effective in earlier works, particularly in his celebrated Fifth Symphony, the four movements are arranged in the order slow-fast-slow-fast. The vast opening Moderato begins from the depths of the lower strings. The expansiveness of the theme, almost Brucknerian in its unfolding, may refer to the similar opening of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. The following movement, Allegro, lasts only four minutes and provides a stark contrast. Mahler and his demonic marches may come to mind, although this is the movement some commentators have associated with Stalin.

The personal meaning of the Allegretto is encoded in the music. This was one of several pieces from the latter part of Shostakovich’s career in which he spelled out his name musically. D[mitri] SCH[ostakowitsch], as it is spelled in German, corresponds to the pitches D, E-flat, C, and B-natural in German. (Other composers have done similar things since as far back as the Middle Ages, Bach most notably.) Shostakovich’s initials appear at first in the upper woodwinds near the start of the movement. The motto is later taken up by the cellos and basses, which leads to a forte solo horn theme that encrypts Nazirova’s name: The pitches are E-A-E-D-A (corresponding to E-L(a)-Mi-R(e)-A). The two motifs are combined at the end of the movement.

An Andante introduction opens the finale, sustaining the general slow pace of the symphony and like the first movement growing from the lower strings. After a section for woodwinds, most prominently a lamenting oboe, there is an abrupt headlong charge into a wild Allegro. The second movement is briefly revisited, and ultimately Shostakovich’s DSCH motto reappears, pounded out repeatedly in the drums at the brilliant conclusion.

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2011. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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