Beethoven and Vaughan Williams are the anchors of this concert from the NAC Orchestra archives, from February 2019.
Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, here performed by the inimitable pianist Yefim Bronfman, is innovative and radical, full of lively dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra.
The tranquil, radiant Fifth Symphony by the towering British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, was first performed in 1943, amidst great turmoil. The critic Frank Howe described it as “the most successful attempt since Beethoven to use music as a direct penetration of the mystery of life.”
Our performance of the Fifth Symphony was, surprisingly, the first for the NAC Orchestra of any of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies. Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds was the perfect collaborator for our orchestra in this music, creating an atmosphere that draws out much of the “Sibelian” aspects of music, with its beautiful, long lines. Here, John brings out what this orchestra does best, with lush sound, pristine intonation in the winds, and a certain delicacy.
Our orchestra members are involved in the selection of the concerts we share with you through Home Delivery. In considering this program, NAC Orchestra cellist Leah Wyber, wrote, “the Vaughan Williams Symphony, I think, is an especially good choice. It strikes the right tone for what’s going on in the world now; the music is serious and powerful, heart-wrenching, hopeful, contemplative… maybe even comforting.”
On December 17th 2020 we celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Throughout this year millions of musicians and music lovers around the world will play, sing, listen to, dance to and generally delight in the music of this German man, who lived in an era utterly different from our own (the population of earth was around a tenth of the size it is now - 600 million in 1770 vs. 7.5 billion now - and Napoleon’s conquests were ravaging Europe).
How can it be that we still connect with this music after so long? How can this simple man, born into a modest home, speak to us across the ages and inspire millions to celebrate his birthday?
This concerto was written at a time in his life when he was becoming profoundly deaf, indeed the premiere, in which he played the solo part, was his last public appearance as a performer. Just a few years previously he had written one of the saddest quasi-suicide notes in history, called the Heiligenstadt Testament. Fortunately for us all he lived for many more years.
In this desperately difficult stage of life, he still manages, in all the music he writes, to evoke beauty, joy, optimism and melancholy, frequently with utterly simple means. He demonstrates all of these skills in this piano concerto.
At this point in music history, a concerto would always begin with the orchestra playing an extended introduction, to set the scene, so to speak. Beethoven dispenses with this and has the piano play the first notes alone, no orchestra, no fuss. Just some simple chords with a simple rhythm and delicate melody. He starts in the key of G-major (which is the tonality of the Concerto) and resolves to D-major (which is very natural and expected). Listeners at the time must have been astonished - where is the orchestra?! Why is Beethoven playing quietly and on his own?! What’s going on?!
And then the orchestra starts… and not with some grand gesture, but rather with an answer to the piano’s first phrase, plus a little extension. Extraordinary is the key that the orchestra begins its answer with: B-major. Now that might not look very exciting when I write it, but listen to how it sounds. It is as if the piano describes looking at a beautiful flower and the orchestra suddenly invokes all the sensations of smelling it. It is a bold and beautiful opening, which we can all too easily take for granted, as so many composers who came after Beethoven imitated a similar idea.
This encapsulates Beethoven’s artistry: simple, direct, human and yet somehow also transcendent.
After this initial exchange we move into a first movement that is full of great exchanges between orchestra and soloist. He wrote this piece while constructing his 5th Symphony and a fun game is to listen out for that most famous of motifs (da-da-da-duh) from the beginning of the symphony as it appears here in this concerto - it is strewn around everywhere for you to follow!
The second movement would have also utterly surprised listeners at the premiere and to this day it remains striking: the piano and the orchestra are completely separated. Just as at the beginning of the 1st movement, the piano makes a statement and then the orchestra responds. However, this time it is the orchestra that begins - with a violent, angry theme, as if urging the piano to react. Instead the solo voice remains utterly serene, as if in a trance. It is like two parts of a psyche splitting apart. It is tranquil and disturbed, all in one.
And following this extraordinary slow movement, Beethoven takes us on a fun, light, bright, rollicking journey in the last movement. Continuing the harmonic game that he played with that B-major at the beginning of the first movement, Beethoven starts this movement in what is, formally, the wrong key (C major instead of G Major). Innocuous to our ears, but very cheeky indeed for the time! Musicologically Beethoven opened doors of opportunity to composers who would follow him with these formal adventures, to listeners he created music that was both earthly and heavenly in one. He believed feverishly in the unity of humankind and wished, through his music, to speak to each and every one of us.