Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Vivace

An audience in the early nineteenth century needed stamina; the concert at which Beethoven first presented his fourth piano concerto to the public in 1808 also included the premieres of his fifth and sixth symphonies, his Choral Fantasia, and parts of his Mass in C major. This gargantuan concert was the fruit of an astonishingly productive few years in Beethoven's life: after his unhappy experiences writing and staging his only opera Fidelio he threw himself back into the creation of instrumental music, and during 1806 produced one major work almost per month. The Fourth Piano Concerto was the first of this slew of pieces to be written, although sketches for it exist from several years previously - it was not uncommon for Beethoven to mull over ideas for many years before he finally committed them to a final form. This performance featured the composer himself at the piano, an occasion which proved to be his last appearance as a concerto soloist, although he continued to play the piano in public until 1814, when his deafness finally forced him to abandon performing altogether.

Although one of Mozart's concertos is occasionally mentioned, there really is no precedent for the opening of this concerto, in which the piano begins immediately, without any orchestral tutti to precede. This remarkable gesture sets the tone for a work which continually flouts the conventions of how a concerto was supposed to work at the start of the nineteenth century. Although a distant echo of the Fifth Symphony can be heard in the main theme, the concerto achieves its originality without the barnstorming heroics of that work and the others that are contemporaneous to it, but cloaks it in a warmth and vulnerability which is perhaps the closest Beethoven ever came to emulating Mozart's sublime humanity.

Liszt is only the most prominent musician who has drawn attention to the close similarities between the slow movement of the concerto and the scene between Orpheus and the Furies in Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Beethoven was not averse to including hidden programmatic elements in his music, but no knowledge of Greek myth is necessary to appreciate the archetypal concept of the movement, as the fierce, stark string declamations are gradually subdued by the piano's gentle pleading.

Out of this profound stillness emerges a kittenish theme, which begins in the "wrong" key of C before finding its way to the home key of G major. The mood is one of unbuttoned playfulness, and the trumpets and drums that appear transcend their military connotations to provide a sunny and vivacious conclusion to what is quite simply one of the very finest concertos by Beethoven or anyone else.

Martinů: Symphony No.6

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No.6)

1. Lento - Andante moderato
2. Poco allegro
3. Lento

Like Stravinsky, Martinu was made an exile by war and revolution; first, forced to leave his native Czechoslovakia for America by the outbreak of the second world war, then, just as he was due to return in 1946 to take up a teaching post in Prague, stranded in the West as the Iron Curtain descended across Eastern Europe.

Martinu's first five symphonies were all written between 1942 and 1946, and like Dvořák's New World Symphony, they betray a nostalgic longing for the composer's homeland. Martinu was suspicious of the conventions of symphonic form, however, regarding the greater freedom offered by opera to be more suited to his temperament as a composer. When he came to start work on a new large-scale orchestral work in 1951, therefore, he took a new approach to the task, producing a sequence of 3 movements that, while closely argued, take a freewheeling approach to musical structure, concerned as much with creating a mosaic of textures as with the development of musical ideas. Martinu himself described it as being "without form", and spoke of his desire to escape the "geometrical relation to composition."

Fantaisies Symphoniques, largely composed in New York but completed in Paris in 1953, was written partly as a result of Martinu's desire to compose something for the conductor Charles Munch (an old friend of his from college days), but also from a deep-seated inner compulsion. What precisely this "story for Charles" beneath the suface is is not certain, but the fact that Martinu's original title for the work was "New Fantastic Symphony" suggests that, like Berlioz, he had deeply personal matters in mind. The suggestion of a hidden programme is boosted by the motif presented by a solo cello shortly after the beginning of the first movement, which derives from Dvořák's Requiem and forms the basis for most of the symphony.

Martinu also quotes himself; in the mercurial second movement there is a phrase from his Field Mass, associated with the idea of homecoming, while the finale features both the ancient Bohemian "St. Wenceslas Chorale" and a fourteen bar sequence from his opera Julietta, whose plot is a complex and surreal meditation on love, fantasy, and the relationship of reality and the imagination, the sort of tale one could easily imagine Terry Gilliam filming. The music in question comes from the scene in which the two protagonists, Julietta and Michel, first meet, and Julietta startles Michel by her insistence that the two are having an affair. The contrast between Julietta's fantasy and Michel's perception of reality forms the heart of the opera, and is further complicated by the suggestion that Julietta herself may be a product of Michel's imagination.

Martinu wrote that the reason for including this music was that "thinking that I shall never hear my opera again, I would listen once more to these few bars", but his admission in letters to close friends that there were deeply personal and private concerns hidden in the Fantaisies suggests there may be a greater significance. He never revealed precisely what these undertows were, and so it is left to the imagination of the listener to decide what is happening when Julietta's dream-music is gradually overtaken by the Requiem motif, and a final frenzied climax builds and is suddenly cut off, leaving a coda of quiet resignation.

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Among the pieces written in response to Henry Prunière's call for contributions to a supplement to the Revue Musicale in 1920 to commemorate Debussy, who had died in 1918, one stuck out: where most of the contributing composers (including Falla, Bartók and Ravel) responded with conventionally threnodic or wistful miniatures, Igor Stravinsky offered a cool, austere chorale, bearing the title: "Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy".

The complete work, to which this fragment forms the conclusion, in fact has its origins in sketches Stravinsky had made in 1919, while the opening motif was noted down on March 26th, 1918, just after he had learned of the death of Debussy the day before. Most of these sketches indicate that Stravinsky's original intention was to score this music for strings and harmonium, and it seems that they did not find their final form as wind music until much later on, the unrefusable request for a memorial to Debussy providing the final push Stravinsky needed to realise the work's definitive form. As the pluralisation implies, "Symphonies" is not used to denote anything like a conventional classical symphony, but rather harks back to the word's earlier meaning as a generic term for ensemble music (from the Greek "syn" [together] and "phone" [sound]).

The dedication is at least partly ironic; while Stravinsky and Debussy were friends, their relationship was characterised by a certain friction, attributable on Debussy's part to jealousy at the greater fame Stravinsky had achieved, and on Stravinsky's side to resentment at the older composer's occasionally condescending attitude. Debussy did not approve of the more cosmopolitan style that the Russian had been experimenting with, writing to him in 1915 to say;" Cher Stravinsky, you are a great artist! Be, with all your energy, a great Russian artist! It is a good thing to be from one's country, to be attached to the earth like the humblest peasant!"

Stravinsky, however, was by the time of Debussy's death determined to put as much space as possible between himself and his roots. Any hopes he may have entertained about returning to Russia were destroyed after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, after which his modernist style made him persona non grata with the new regime, and it is surely not coincidental that within 2 years he composed Pulcinella, the work which effected a seismic shift in his career, rejecting the Russian folkloristic style that had characterised his greatest successes (not least the Rite of Spring) in favour of the ironic, distanced world of what would become known as neo-classicism. The Symphonies of Winds therefore stands as the last recognisably "Russian" work he produced until the Requiem Canticles some 50 years later - shortly after he visited Russia for the first time since the First World War.

This all goes deeper than mere stylistic turns, though. The structure of the Symphonies, hailed in its early years as something radical, in fact is related very closely to the Russian Orthodox burial service, to the point that one can virtually superimpose the prayers of the service onto the melodic lines that weave their way through the work's short, but intense path. It may be that this work is intended as a burial, not only of Debussy, but also of Stravinsky's own identity as a Russian composer.