June 30, 2021 update on live performances and events at the NAC.
Jan Lisiecki ©Christoph Köstlin
NACO Home Delivery

Jan Lisiecki Plays Chopin

Tonight’s Home Delivery brings concert recordings from both our 2016/17 and 2018/19 seasons, with music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Salieri.

25-year old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has been a cherished guest of the Orchestra for well over a decade, having performed for young audiences when he was just a child himself, then growing into a masterful collaborator on our main series and on Canadian and international tours.  We feature Jan here in a brilliant concert recording of Chopin’s lush Piano Concerto No. 1. from April 2017. Premiered by Chopin himself at age 21, the concerto is virtuosic, eloquent, and richly coloured. Chopin described the delicate second movement as “a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring night”.

Salieri’s massive opera repertoire is often overlooked (thanks to Pushkin’s plot that he poisoned Mozart). Cublai, gran kan de’ Tartari, written between 1786-1788, poked fun at certain aspects of the Russian court.  Therefore, when an Austrian-Russian alliance formed in 1788, this opera was banned. The first known production was in 1998; and our archive recording of this exciting four-minute overture may well have been the Canadian premiere.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is at times grave and sombre, and yet also wild (almost bacchanal), in its culminating dance-like frenzy.  To be sure, it contains gravitas as well as mirth - the famous second movement was notably used in the movie The King’s Speech. The third and fourth movements kick the dance into overdrive, at whirlwind speeds, with rhythmic intensity and complexity. There is a visceral quality to this music, the musicians are playing almost as though their lives depend on it, and it touches us – the listeners – deeply, as the Symphony comes to a blazing finish.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony: Alexander Shelley's Listening Guide

In 1811, three years after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, and only a year after Napoleon’s successful invasion of his hometown of Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven’s health deteriorated dramatically. His most important sense - that of hearing - was already waning severely, and on the advice of his doctor, he retreated to the spa of Teplitz to recover from headaches and high fever, the continuation of a litany of ailments that had dogged him his entire life.

Over the next two years, he would return several times to that idyllic (now) Czech town for rest and recuperation. It was there in 1812 - the year of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion and retreat from Russia - that he would write both his infamous love-letter to an unidentified and, apparently, unrequited ‘Immortal Beloved’, as well as the bulk of what would become his Seventh Symphony.

Returning to Vienna in 1813 to news of an Allied victory over Napoleon’s forces at the battle of Vitoria, Beethoven composed ‘Wellington’s Victory’, a madcap work that would be premiered alongside his Seventh Symphony on December 8th of the same year in a concert benefitting Austria’s war wounded.

Contemporary descriptions of Beethoven, who had by this time all but withdrawn from social life, describe him as being shockingly presented - tatty clothes and shoes - and also imply that he had followed in his father’s footsteps and was now a functional alcoholic.

None of which would have helped when it came to rehearsals. To this day, there are aspects of the symphony that remain fiendishly difficult to play and, to the musicians at the premiere, parts of the work indeed seemed unplayable. Their refusal to perform the passages in question elicited an admonishment from Beethoven and the request that they should go and practice. Come the concert, all was well.

And some concert it must have been, for at the premiere in Vienna’s University Hall, the orchestra contained some of the greatest names in music: composers Antonio Salieri (yes, of Amadeus fame), Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Louis Spohr, bassist Domenico Dragonetti and famed orchestral leader Ignaz Schuppanzigh all there, following Beethoven’s legendarily passionate, if unclear, gestures.

The premiere was one of the great successes of Beethoven’s career.

Having trodden new ground with each of his symphonies, the question for musicians and listeners alike was this: where would Beethoven take us next?

The answer, in Wagner’s words, is that the symphony constitutes ‘the apotheosis of dance’. Or perhaps, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford describes it, a ‘Bacchic Trance’.

After the longest introduction in any of his symphonies (62 teasing, twisting bars that outline all of the keys that will be explored in the work), Beethoven introduces a rhythmic exchange on a single note - as if improvising and riffing on an idea before our very eyes - from strings to woodwinds and back, that ultimately evolves into a jocular, insistent rhythm that drives forward the whole rest of the movement.

Perhaps inspired by the arrangements of folk tunes that he had set over the previous months and years in order to pay the rent, this insistent rhythm is that of a gigue, augmented by jovial scotch snaps in the woodwinds. It truly is a movement to dance to.

The next movement, a set of variations often interpreted slowly, is in fact an Allegretto, evoking an unremitting funeral march. It is extraordinarily moving and accessible, so much so that the audience demanded an immediate repeat performance at the premiere before the musicians were allowed to continue (so much for not clapping between movements!). Listen for the palindromic effect of the movement, beginning and ending with an A-minor chord in the woodwinds, building to a climax in the middle.

The third movement is a frenetic Presto described, rather disingenuously, by British conductor (and master of the bon mot) Sir Thomas Beecham as being like “a lot of yaks jumping about”. It is a brilliantly virtuosic scherzo, its contours defined by precipitous leaps from the softest of dynamics to the loudest, its mood infused by the bagpipe drones of folk music.

And the freneticism continues into the almost painfully unrelenting finale, a movement so rhythmic and driven that performing it can (and perhaps should) feel like entering into some wild rapture. It is as explosive and indeed joyous as anything that Beethoven ever wrote and a testament to the fact that beneath the disheveled, sickly exterior of this social pariah, the heart of one of humankind’s most beautiful geniuses continued to beat with fervour.

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