Concert Notes

Beethoven and Borodin

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Guest Artist

Rachel Patrick, violin

Beethoven

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 32

There's a cliché that the basic character of each Beethoven's symphonies can be instantly gleaned by the number: the odd-numbered ones are supposed to be the heavyweight, heroic works, while the even-numbered ones complement them as relatively more "relaxed." (A variant on the old-fashioned, oddly gendered custom of ascribing "masculinity" to the first theme versus the supposedly "feminine" lyrical second theme of a stereotypical sonata form?) Add to this the commonplace assumption that Beethoven's real symphonic breakthrough, after clearing his throat with the First, really happens with the Eroica, and you can understand why the Second Symphony has been given such short shrift in the Beethoven canon. Yet when approached without these biases - and much the same holds for the Eighth, so overshadowed by the Ninth - this is a work that yields enormous pleasure. Even more, a dynamic performance underscores just what a radical composition the Second actually is.

To be sure, the Eroica rightfully claims its status as one of the great turning points in Western music. But the Second Symphony belongs to a larger constellation of works that were gestating in Beethoven's psyche at the same time, during a period of intense emotional crisis. (Beethoven likely put his finishing touches on the score while he was already preoccupied with the Eroica.) The immediate cause of that crisis was his acknowledgment of the reality of his growing deafness. The composer grew desperate in his search for healing, trying hydrotherapy, herbs, even galvanism. But eventually he abandoned all hope for a cure. And in the fall of 1802, when he was still at work on the Second, he wrote the moving "Heilgenstadt Testament," a document that records his suicidal depression and his resolve to overcome it through commitment to his art. 

It was while working through this period of crisis that Beethoven completed the Second Symphony, which he dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, one of his leading patrons and also the dedicatee of his official Opus One (the three piano trios of 1793). The Second bears some marks of his emotional turmoil despite the often exuberant and beautiful surface of its music. And it radiates the excitement of invention, of imagining new ways to articulate the Classical mechanics Beethoven had learned from his predecessors. The first movement, writes the biographer Lewis Lockwood, "leaps far beyond anything in the First Symphony, even the earlier work's excellent Menuetto, in dynamic action and dramatization of ideas." 

With a slow introduction of unusual amplitude, Beethoven already intimates his ambitious plans for this new symphonic canvas. The rhetorical power of dotted rhythms is nothing new, but notice how Beethoven concentrates this into a forceful, shocking outburst, suddenly in D minor, that uncannily foreshadows the main theme of the Ninth's first movement. The main Allegro, like the Eroica, makes astonishingly wide-ranging use of the simplest elements, outlining a triadic shape that moves upward and back for its main theme. 

Already Beethoven shows his ability to balance exciting detail on the surface with large-scale architecture - traits that become essential to implementing the "heroic" style. The whole first movement manifests a grand sense of proportions, with harmonic tensions as their lever in the usual pivotal moments: the transition from development back to reprise and the new vista provided by the coda, which is here notably extended, like the introduction. Listen closely and for a moment you'll hear a "pre-echo" of the tumultuous angst that receives fuller expression in the Eroica's funeral march. 

The Larghetto (a very unusual slow tempo indication for Beethoven) is a good reminder of the almost Italianately sensuous - or perhaps Schubertian - love of melody that crops up from time to time in his work. No wonder this radiantly beautiful music was fetishized by his contemporaries. (Reviews of the work as a whole, however, were filled with reservations about such issues as length and chided the composer for "overwriting.") Omitting trumpet and timpani from the Larghetto's sound world, Beethoven allows his lyricism to unfold in a relaxed sonata form garlanded with elaborate passages for the woodwinds. The Scherzo - and this is the first time Beethoven uses that designation in a symphony, even if the third movement of the First is a scherzo in spirit - plays off the most basic contrast between loud and soft with an almost childlike exuberance. The theme proceeds in a kind of stop-action pattern that sets up a wonderful contrast with the mellifluous Trio. 

Instead of a lightweight wrap-up, Beethoven gives us a boldly vigorous finale that Lockwood rightly notes "outdoes the first movement in energy and originality." Here already is a strategy that will become one of his most recognized signatures: from a motif that seems utterly trivial, even eccentric, Beethoven generates an irresistible momentum that carries through an entire movement. Indeed, the manic tics and trills of this idea have inspired all sorts of digestive similes, from hiccups to borborygmic distress. 

Lockwood turns to electricity: "Essential to the conception is that the finale should open in high tension and then extend and hold the hot current in motion right to the end" - where, again, we find yet another extended coda. Of the overall radical character of the Second, Lockwood writes: "The symphony crosses new boundaries, moving into a range of dramatic expression in which the strongest possible contrasts occur in unexpected immediacy... This symphony signaled that from now on in Beethoven's works power and lyricism in extreme forms were to be unleashed as never before...and that contemporaries, ready or not, would have to reshape their expectations to keep up with him." 

(Thomas May)

 

Kevin Puts

Violin Concerto
Rachel Patrick, Violin

Winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera Silent Night, Kevin Puts’s works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading ensembles, and soloists throughout the world, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Kahane, Dame Evelyn Glennie, the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester (Zurich), the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Miro Quartet, and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Minnesota. His newest orchestral work, The City, was co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of its 125th anniversary. He is currently a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute and the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. 

Puts describes his Violin Concerto as a two-movement work, with a long first movement and a short second—“initially conceived as a piece with its own built-in encore.” Says the composer, “the first movement, Meditation, begins with a contemplative rising four-note motive in the strings and harp that grounds the entire piece, like a pendulum regularly swinging back and forth. Over this ever-present pulse the soloist plays a sweet, lyrical melody answered by the orchestral violins in two-voice counterpoint. The soloist answers in turn, and the alternation eventually leads to greater activity, all the while anchored by the regular pulsing. Slowly, steadily the movement builds to a virtuoso climax before ending quietly.” 

In contrast to the inward-looking tranquility of the first movement, says Puts, “the second movement, Caprice, is a nonstop, fast, virtuoso showcase for the violin. The orchestral accompaniment is very light, simply providing color and unobtrusive support. The tour-de-force writing for the violin leaves the soloist no time to catch a breath and blazes to a furious conclusion.” 

 

Borodin

Symphony No. 2, in B minor, “Heroic Symphony”

When the Soviet government finally got around to erecting a monument to Alexander Borodin, it was not to honor his contributions to music but rather those that he made to science and medicine. During his lifetime, Borodin was known less as a musician than as an eminent chemist who invented the nitrometer and as the distinguished physician who helped to found the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg. His busy schedule left him little time for writing music, and he dubbed himself a “Sunday composer.” Other than vacations and an occasional weekend, Borodin could only compose when he was too ill to leave home. Given the often-frail state of his constitution, those days were quite frequent and not unwelcome, and his musical friends actually wished him sickness rather than health so that could devote himself to his creative work. The Second Symphony was completed while Borodin was confined to bed with an inflamed leg. 

Borodin had taken up the cudgel of forging a national musical identity for his native land in 1862, when he became associated with his friend Modeste Mussorgsky and three others in the group of Russian composers known as “The Five.” In 1869, Borodin told Vladimir Stasov, a musicologist and the chief journalistic champion of The Five, that he was interested in composing an opera on a Russian historical topic, and the writer drew up a scenario based on the ancient tales about Prince Igor. Some of the early sketches for Prince Igor, to which Borodin returned throughout his life but never completed, were borrowed for the Second Symphony. Indeed, so much of the mood and matter of the opera found their way into the Symphony that Stasov wrote, “Borodin was haunted when he wrote this Symphony by the picture of feudal Russia, and he tried to paint it in his music.” Stasov reported that Borodin had specific images in mind when composing this work: the first movement was purportedly inspired by a vision of a gathering of 11th-century warriors; the third by a legendary Slavic minstrel; the finale, featuring approximations of the sounds of ancient instruments, by a hero’s banquet. 

The first movement of the Symphony creates a characteristically Russian quality through several techniques: its melodic and harmonic modalism, which evokes a certain oriental or even primitive mood; the vivid brilliance of its scoring, often dominated by the brasses (Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov had undertaken extensive studies of the military band, and believed that the brass instruments were capable of more virtuosity than had hitherto been required of them); and the elemental rhythmic energy that accumulates around the many repetitions of its craggy opening motive. There are several lyrical episodes in this sonata-form movement, but the music’s dominant impression is one of ferocious and enduring strength. The second movement is a winged Scherzo that, according to Gerald Abraham, “suggests the gleam of sunlight upon the helmets of Slavic warriors.” The limpid central trio employs an arched melody that resembles an Italian barcarolle in its warm lyricism. The slow third movement recalls an ancient bardic strain, perhaps an epic about fearsome struggles against sinister enemies. The finale is a festival of blazing orchestral color that combines vigorous dance themes, striding melodies and forceful dramatic gestures. 

(Dr. Richard E. Rodda)