The Fifth Piano Concerto is one of the finest and most powerful expressions of one of Beethoven's essential qualities: exhilaration. In it, Beethoven the eternal optimist is at the forefront, and even in its most ruminative moments, the music communicates joy above all else. While much of this manifests as a kind of heroism, the piece's most striking moment might be the opening solos of the slow movement, where the sound of the piano must shine like the moon – an unimaginably beautiful dreamscape. Playing this work is to experience the sort of elation that only Beethoven can provide.
The NAC Orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 for the first time in 1971, under the direction of Boyd Neel, and most recently in 1992, with Hans Graf on the podium.
The music from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we are hearing tonight have been played by the NAC Orchestra at various times over the years, sometimes individually, sometimes as a suite, and as part of the full Incidental Music. Pinchas Zukerman led the Orchestra in playing these three pieces in 1999, as did Roberto Minczuk in 2009, and most recently in 2014, the complete Incidental Music with Alexander Shelley.
The NAC Orchestra has played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto many times since their first performance in 1970 with Marek Jablonski at the piano and Boris Brott on the podium. Their most recent interpretation took place in 2018 under the direction of Alexander Shelley, with Emanuel Ax as soloist. Other soloists who have played this work with the Orchestra over the years include Claudio Arrau, Anton Kuerti, Yefim Bronfman, Angela Cheng and Jonathan Biss, who performs it for us again this evening.
Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809
Died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) have inspired more music from more composers than any other single literary figure. Though his popularity declined during the eighteenth century, he made an enormous comeback during the nineteenth, the age of musical romanticism. The translation by Ludwig Tieck and A.W. Schlegel of 16 Shakespeare plays into German opened the floodgates for a veritable deluge of music based on this author. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the favourite of both Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny. Tieck himself called the play “a Romantic masterpiece.” William Hazlitt remarked that reading the play was “like wandering in a grove by moonlight.” The union of literature and music was a prevailing aspect of musical romanticism, and in Mendelssohn’s score we find one of the most successful cases in all music of the transference of one art to another.
In 1843, 17 years after writing the Overture, Mendelssohn wrote 12 additional numbers to accompany a production of the complete play in Potsdam. So perfectly does the incidental music match the Overture in spirit and style that there is not even the slightest suggestion of a chronological gap. And so perfectly also does the music fit the play that it set new standards and brought about a musical revolution in theatre productions. No one since Mendelssohn, however, has quite risen to his level of achievement, though many have tried.
The NAC Orchestra is performing tonight three of the most famous numbers from the complete incidental music. The ethereally dreamy Nocturne serves as an entr’acte between Acts III and IV. Puck has put to sleep the entire lot of hopelessly mismatched lovers with his magic flower drops. The confusion and strained relations of the day are forgotten as all the tender lyricism and beauty of a warm, dream-filled summer night are captured in this Nocturne. The Scherzo is music of diaphanous delicacy that perfectly captures the impression of a dozen tiny fairy feet dancing in the moonlight beneath tall blades of grass. This piece, with its scintillating woodwind sonorities, has virtually come to define the idea of “lightness” in music. The splendorous Wedding March celebrates a triple wedding (Hermia-Lysander, Helena-Demetrius, Theseus-Hippolyta). So famous is this march that it has become something of a cliché, mangled in countless arrangements and disarrangements; tonight we hear it in its pure, original form.
— Program notes by Robert Markow
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Born in Rohrau, Austria, March 31, 1732
Died in Vienna, May 31, 1809
On New Year’s Day, 1791, Haydn arrived in England, where he remained for the entire year and well into the next. This was the first of his two highly successful sojourns in London (he returned in 1794–1795), for each of which he wrote six symphonies. Collectively, these 12 final entries in his symphonic catalogue would become known as the “London” or “Salomon” symphonies. No. 97 received its first performance at the Hanover Square Concert Rooms probably on May 3, 1792.
The symphony opens with a slow introduction, a feature of every Haydn symphony from No. 90 onward with one exception (No. 95), either as a foil to the ensuing main part of the movement or as a seed-bed of melodic material to come. (In the case of No. 97, it is the former.) The music plunges fortissimo into the Vivace main section, a powerful unison for the full orchestra outlining the tonic chord of C major. The contrast couldn’t be greater. More startling contrasts are in store. The second subject is a simple, dainty little waltz tune with an oom-pah-pah accompaniment. This is soon dispelled by vigorous triplets for the full string section, replete with strong accents in unexpected places. The development section begins with still another surprise – a leap into a foreign key, following which comes a long solo trio for two oboes and a flute. In Haydn the surprises never cease!
The second movement consists of a theme and three variations. Each half of the theme – and of each variation – is repeated, but in most cases not exactly (another thwarting of expectation). For the third variation, when the tonality shifts back to major after an excursion in the minor, Haydn asks the violins to play sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge of the instrument, which produces a thin, glassy sound).
The Menuetto is music befitting a splen-dourous ballroom and proud dancers. Trumpets, horns and timpani prominently add their festive colours to the sound. The central Trio provides the utmost in contrast. Oboe and violins sing a delightful tune while the bassoon follows at the interval of a tenth below.
Melodic, harmonic, structural and textural surprises continue in the finale, one of Haydn’s most spirited and invigorating. It begins quietly, a favourite Haydn trick to command attention. As for the end, not one listener in ten ever guesses exactly where it comes. Good luck!
— Program notes by Robert Markow
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770
Died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Although Beethoven did not affix a subtitle to this work, it is, in its grandeur and splendour, indeed an emperor among concertos. The name, which, strangely enough, is not used in German-speaking countries, appears to have been bestowed by the pianist and publisher John Cramer, a close friend of Beethoven. Another theory has it that a French officer called out “C’est l’empereur” during a majestic passage at the first Viennese performance. In any case, Beethoven would certainly not have had in mind to honour Napoleon: the French, led by their Emperor, were once again at war with Austria, and in the spring of 1809, France occupied Vienna. “Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!” wrote Beethoven on July 26 to his publisher in Leipzig.
The spirit of heroism nonetheless infuses this music, and the Emperor Concerto, over and above its inherent musical qualities, stands as a stirring testament to humankind’s heroic will to survive in trying times. Indeed, as Maynard Solomon points out in his biography, this concerto was just one of many manifestations of Beethoven’s “Heroic Decade,” a period that also brought forth half a dozen other works in the “heroic” key of E-flat major, including the Eroica Symphony, the Variations Op. 35 for piano, the String Quartet Op. 74 and the Les Adieux Sonata Op. 81a.
The last of Beethoven’s five piano concertos was finished in October 1809, but its first performance waited for over two years, in Leipzig on November 28, 1811. (There may have been earlier performances, or private ones, but these are unconfirmed.) The first Viennese performance took place in February 1812; here the critical reception was much cooler – Beethoven was accused of “being able to obtain the support only of connoisseurs.” But in neither performance was he the soloist. He had played the premieres of his four previous concertos, but now his hearing was so far gone that a continuing career as a pianist was out of the question.
The Emperor Concerto opens in resplendent majesty: three imperious chords are sounded by the orchestra, each in turn elaborated by the soloist in “fountains and cascades” (to quote Michael Steinberg’s apt phrase) of arpeggios, trills, scales and broken octaves. Following this impressive introduction comes the first subject – a big, sonorous, richly scored theme punctuated with martial elements. The mysterious second theme occurs first in tentative tones in E-flat minor, then immediately afterwards in a flowing legato horn duet in E-flat major. When the piano finally returns, the two principal themes and other material as well are elaborated and developed in a mighty discourse between soloist and orchestra. Unusually, the standard cadenza for the soloist is omitted, this function having already been fulfilled by the opening flourishes and the return of this passage at the recapitulation.
The slow movement is one of Beethoven’s most profound. A hushed mood of sublime simplicity offers refreshing, soothing contrast to the militant grandeur and exuberance of the first movement. At its conclusion, in a transitional passage, Beethoven outlines the principal theme of the next movement, and suddenly, without a break, the jubilant finale bursts forth in full panoply. Although nominally in rondo form, there is but a single contrasting episode, a lyrical theme of regal bearing heard twice in the course of the movement, and only by the soloist. In the central portion of the movement, the galloping main theme is subjected to what amounts to a short series of variations as Beethoven re-introduces it three times, each in a different key in succession (C major, A-flat major, E major) before returning to the home key of E-flat. Eventually the theme expires, almost as if exhausted from its relentless repetitions, only to revive in one final, exuberant burst of energy.
— Program notes by Robert Markow