Violin Concerto in D Major

Violin Concerto in D Major

Brahms composed his violin concerto in the last half 1878, close on the heels of his second symphony. He worked on it closely with the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (in fact, Joachim also wrote the cadenza most often heard in contemporary performances).

While originally conceived in four movements, this concerto has three — an opening Allego non troppo, a middle movement Adagio, and the final Allegro giocoso. It is practically symphonic in scope, with alternating passages by the orchestra and soloist designed to fully explore the rich thematic material.

The first movement opens with a lengthy orchestral exposition which contains most of the thematic material used by both the soloist and orchestra — a calm rising and falling triad (faintly reminiscent of the second symphony); an intense rising chromatic passage played in unison; a mysterious and soft descending three-note pattern; and an agitated and jagged dotted-note passage setting up the first entrance of the solo violin. The violin picks up on these themes and expands them, both in fiery passagework and lush melodies. The lengthy cadenza is a masterwork by Joachim, a tour-de-force of virtuosity and melody.

The second movement Adagio begins with a hushed wind choir, featuring a notable oboe solo, which is echoed by the solo violin. After an impassioned development, the opening theme returns with a violin obbligato on top of the original wind theme. The last movement is a gypsy-like rondo, ending with the theme restated as a march.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major

The premiere of the concerto was given in Budapest on November 9, 1881, with Brahms as soloist, and was an immediate success. He proceeded to perform the piece in many cities across Europe.

Here’s a favorite rendition of the second-movement scherzo.

Konzertstück for 4 Horns

Konzertstück for 4 Horns

Schumann composed this masterpiece for four French horns and orchestra in 1849, one of his most productive musical years. Rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation and difficulty, the Konzertstück is rich in inventiveness and lyricism. While titled a “concertpiece,” it is essentially a concerto for four horn soloists.

There are three interlinked movements, played without a break. The initial “Lebhaft” opens with two strong orchestra chords, immediately followed by rising horn arpeggios heralding the main theme. The slow “Romanze” movement features a tender theme in the oboes, solo ‘cello and violas, picked up in turn by the horns; a flowing chorale movement appears in the middle of the movement. The lively last movement is full of horn figurations. It features brisk dialogue between the orchestra and soloists, and a short chorale interlude based on the middle movement, before drawing to a bravura ending.

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

A sunny, exciting and powerful masterpiece, this symphony is dedicated to the great Hans von Bülow in gratitude for that conductor’s championing of Dvořák’s orchestral works. Dvořák composed this symphony in just six weeks in 1875, at a fairly early stage in his musical life.

He had just applied for and received an Austrian Empire state grant; members of the judging committee awarding him the grant included his later mentor Johannes Brahms and the famed music critic Eduard Hanslick. Energized by the recognition, Dvořák embarked on a frenzy of composition, including a number of well-known chamber works as well as this symphony.

Although composed in 1875, it was only premiered in 1879 and published considerably later (1888), with a high opus number chosen by his music publisher. That said, this masterful symphony bears all of Dvořák’s hallmarks — rich lyricism, lush melodies, masterful development. The opening Allegro ma non troppo opens with a cheerful pastoral clarinet theme, taken up by winds and strings in turn; it is complemented by an introspective second theme introduced by the violins and oboe.

The slow second movement is soulful with a hint of melancholy, with sudden powerful outbursts from massed strings, winds and brass.

The lively third movement follows with almost no break. At first keeping the same mood of the slow movement, it transitions abruptly to a cheerful folk-like tune, with a lilting trio. The dramatic last movement opens with a powerful eruption from the lower strings, picked up in turn by winds and brass. Its harmonic tension is most unusual. It open in the key of A minor, and stays there for over 50 measures until the main theme makes its emphatic appearance in the main key of F major. A soaring second theme is introduced by the clarinet and second violin; both themes are developed extensively. The first movement theme reappears at the end, first in the high winds and horn, then stirringly in the trombone, before the symphony draws to its triumphant close.

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

The work was written in the summer of 1883 at Wiesbaden, nearly six years after he completed his Second Symphony. In the interim Brahms had written some of his greatest works, including the Violin Concerto, two overtures (Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture), and the Second Piano Concerto (which will be heard at our Fall, 2016 concert). (Wikipedia)

Cello Concerto in B Minor

Cello Concerto in B Minor

This is Dvořák’s last concerto, largely written in 1894-5 during his time in New York. Dvorak had come to the United States in 1892 in response to an invitation to become the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and stayed here until 1895. Dvorak composed a number of his best-know works during his American interlude, including his 9th (“New World”) Symphony, the “American” String Quartet (Op. 96), and the ‘cello concerto. He was not initially inclined to write a concerto featuring the ‘cello; he changed his mind after attending a concert in New York of a ‘cello concerto by Victor Herbert, which inspired him to write his own.

The first movement opens with a quiet statement of the theme in the woodwinds, gradually rising to a boisterous rendition by the full orchestra. The wistful second theme is introduced by the horn. Both themes are featured in the solo ‘cello, the first theme now reappearing as a heraldic restatement. There is a constant interweaving and interplay of soloist and orchestra, punctuated by solo pyrotechnics that grow out of the thematic material. A number of “grandioso” passages by the orchestra also feature the first theme in heroic fashion.

The introspective second movement begins softly with clarinets; the lyrical melody is picked up in turn by the soloist. The middle of the movement is based on a theme from a Czech song (“Leave me Alone”), written as an homage to his beloved sister-inlaw Josefina, who was in failing health. A solo cadenza is accompanied by flute and other woodwinds; a hushed passage featuring ‘cello harmonics brings the movement to a close.

The third movement is based on a robust theme introduced by the winds, then picked up by the soloist and orchestra in turn. The end of the movement also features another section of the song “Leave me Alone,” this time in the solo violin accompanying the ‘cello. The movement gradually winds down into a sighing whisper; a short rousing conclusion brings the concerto to a triumphant close.

Overture and March from “Turandot”

Overture and March from “Turandot”

This short overture and its accompanying march have an unusual history. The theme, first introduced by the piccolo, is based on a Chinese tune first noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de Musique in 1768. Described as an “Air Chinois,” the tune was brought to France from China in the 18th century by a French missionary.

The Turandot story itself was derived from Central Asian/Persian sources; it involves a prince who travels to China, falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter, solves deadly riddles to win her, and (after much travail) weds her in the end. The story has been used by (among others) Carlo Gozzi, an Italian 18th-century playwright, and most famously, Puccini in his 20th century opera.

In 1804 the noted German author Schiller translated Gozzi’s text into German. For the 1809 premiere, Weber wrote an overture and six related pieces as incidental music, with a unifying theme based on the “Air Chinois.” The overture develops the basic theme by exploring different harmonic and orchestral combinations, and features all sections of the orchestra.

 

Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Driving rhythms characterize this joyous symphony, described by none other than Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Premiered in Vienna 1813, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony received enthusiastic reviews, with the audience even demanding an encore of the second movement! Outside Vienna, reaction was not as favorable (the noted composer Carl Maria von Weber said that “Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse;” Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father, called it “the work of a drunkard”). Little did they know; over time these critics were proved wrong, and this magnificent, powerful symphony has become one of Beethoven’s most enduring and well-loved works.

Each of its four movements is built around a specific rhythmic motif. After a contemplative introduction (almost a movement in itself), the opening Allegro’s three-note theme is introduced by the woodwinds, taken up by the strings in turn, and traded back and forth among strings, woodwinds and brass.

      Beethoven_7th_Mvt_1

The famous second movement Allegretto is a somber march built around a five-note motif (long-short-short-long-long) starting in the lower strings, with a subtle singing countermelody taken up in turn by the rest of the orchestra. A lyrical interlude featuring clarinet and bassoon offers a warm ray of sunshine in the middle of the movement.

The third movement Presto is based on a relentless three-note motif, interspersed with a sonorous trio section featuring winds and brass. This combination is repeated several times (with surprise variations).

The energetic last movement has been described as “elemental fury unleashed.” It features driving 16th-note runs, offbeat accents, brass/wind fanfares and exclamation points, and a long coda culminating in a marking of “triple forte” (fff) — the first use of that marking in a Beethoven score. Accelerating driving passages bring this symphony to its triumphant conclusion.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major

Symphony No. 2 in D Major

The piece was written quite quickly during the summer of 1877. While Brahms had struggled for nearly two decades to complete his first symphony, his sunny, happy, second symphony was written within just a few months while he was on summer holiday in the quaint Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee.

The entire symphony is based upon a three-note motive first stated in the ‘cellos and basses in the very first bar of the piece (D-C#-D). You will hear this motive again and again throughout the entire work; it is almost like one of those “where’s Waldo?” puzzles. As you listen see if you can catch it in all of Brahms’ different settings, inversions, and changes of instrumentation.

The first movement captures the beauty of summer by the lake. After playing through the piece for the first time, one of Brahms’ colleagues wrote: “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach.”

The second movement is a little darker and brooding in texture. It is thoughtful and reflective, and in the middle becomes more dramatic as it spins out the melody in triplets before returning to its opening theme. The third movement is light and has the character of a serenade. It is interrupted twice by an impatient musical motive that makes you want to tap your feet and dance a little.

The Finale is joyous and exciting. The ‘cello and bass parts are extremely difficult to play well (and tend to show up on all audition lists). The rich second melody makes us remember all those wonderful folk tunes that one often hears in the countryside. And, of course, if you listen carefully you will hear the first movement’s three-note motive moving in and out of the melodies. Brahms ends the piece triumphantly with a brilliant fanfare flourish of trumpets and horns.

—Diane Wittry


Video performance by the Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Conducted by Mariss Jansons

https://youtu.be/OHUDavQsc90