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Program Notes: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4

September 20, 2023

Program Notes: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4

Featured Artists

Jeffrey Kahane, piano/conductor

Program Dates

Friday, September 29, 2023 at 7:30PM
Saturday, September 30, 2023 at 7:30PM
Sunday, October 1 at 1:00PM


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

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

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 4
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

  1. Lento; Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio ma non troppo
  3. Allegro

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

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, and died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna. The Piano Concerto No. 4 was begun in 1804 and completed by the summer of 1806. The public premiere of the work, played by Beethoven on December 22, 1808 at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna, followed by some time its first private performance, on March 5, 1807 at the Viennese palace of Prince Lobkowitz. The score calls for flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is about 34 minutes. The last performance by the orchestra was December 1-3, 2017, with Brett Mitchell conducting and Jeffrey Kahane on piano.

The Napoleonic juggernaut twice overran the city of Vienna. The first occupation began on November 13, 1805, less than a month after the Austrian armies had been soundly trounced by the French legions at the Battle of Ulm on October 20th. Though the entry into Vienna was peaceful, the Viennese had to pay dearly for the earlier defeat in punishing taxes, restricted freedoms and inadequate food supplies. On December 28th, following Napoleon’s fearsome victory at Austerlitz that forced the Austrian government into capitulation, the Little General left Vienna. He returned in May 1809, this time with cannon and cavalry sufficient to subdue the city by force, creating conditions that were worse than those during the previous occupation. As part of his booty and in an attempt to ally the royal houses of France and Austria, Napoleon married Marie Louise, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Austrian Emperor Franz. She became the successor to his first wife, Josephine, whom he divorced because she was unable to bear a child. It was to be five years — 1814 — before the Corsican was finally defeated and Emperor Franz returned to Vienna, riding triumphantly through the streets of the city on a huge, white Lipizzaner.

Such soul-troubling times would seem to be antithetical to the production of great art, yet for Beethoven, that ferocious libertarian, those years were the most productive of his life. Hardly had he begun one work before another appeared on his desk, and his friends recalled that he labored on several scores simultaneously during this period. Sketches for many of the works appear intertwined in his notebooks, and an exact chronology for most of the works from 1805 to 1810 is impossible. So close were the dates of completion of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, for example, that their numbers were reversed when they were given their premieres on the same giant concert as the Fourth Concerto. Between Fidelio, which was in its last week of rehearsal when Napoleon entered Vienna in 1805, and the music for Egmont, finished shortly after the second invasion, Beethoven composed the following major works: “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57; Violin Concerto; Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos; three Quartets of Op. 59; Leonore Overture No. 3; Coriolan Overture; Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; two Piano Trios (Op. 70); “Les Adieux” Sonata, Op. 81a; and many songs, smaller chamber works and piano compositions. It is a stunning record of accomplishment virtually unmatched in the history of music.

Of the nature of the Fourth Concerto, Milton Cross wrote, “[Here] the piano concerto once and for all shakes itself loose from the 18th century. Virtuosity no longer concerns Beethoven at all; his artistic aim here, as in his symphonies and quartets, is the expression of deeply poetic and introspective thoughts.” The mood is established immediately at the outset of the work by a hushed, prefatory phrase for the soloist. The form of the movement, vast yet intimate, begins to unfold with the ensuing orchestral introduction, which presents the rich thematic material: the pregnant main theme, with its small intervals and repeated notes; the secondary themes — a melancholy strain with an arch shape and a grand melody with wide leaps; and a closing theme of descending scales. The soloist re-enters and enriches the themes with elaborate figurations. The central development section is haunted by the rhythmic figuration of the main theme (three short notes and an accented note). The recapitulation returns the themes, and allows an opportunity for a cadenza (Beethoven composed two for this movement) before a glistening coda closes the movement.

The second movement starkly opposes two musical forces — the stern, unison summons of the strings and the gentle, touching replies of the piano. Franz Liszt compared this music to Orpheus taming the Furies, and the simile is warranted, since both Liszt and Beethoven traced their visions to the magnificent scene in Gluck’s Orfeo where Orpheus’ music charms the very fiends of Hell. In the Concerto, the strings are eventually subdued by the entreaties of the piano, which then gives forth a wistful little song filled with quivering trills. After only the briefest pause, a high-spirited and long-limbed rondo-finale is launched by the strings to bring the Concerto to a stirring close.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, 1873 in Oneg (near Novgorod), Russia, and died March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California. He composed the Vocalise for voice and piano in 1912, and arranged it for orchestra four years later. The score calls for two flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings. Duration is about 7 minutes. The orchestra last performed this piece January 31-February 2, 2002, and was conducted by Jeffrey Kahane.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the pre-eminent musical figures in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his friends included some of the country’s most distinguished artists. He immortalized a number of those friendships in his works, one of which was the Fourteen Songs, Op. 34 of 1912, inspired by and dedicated to the singers Leonid Sobinov, Felia Litvin and the legendary Feodor Chaliapin. The last of the Fourteen Songs was an unusual wordless melody titled simply Vocalise written for Antonina Neshdanova, a beautiful and gifted coloratura soprano of the Moscow Grand Opera. The haunting Vocalise quickly became a favorite with audiences, and soon appeared in arrangements for almost every solo instrument, including double bass. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky was enchanted with the piece, and urged Rachmaninoff to transcribe it for orchestra. He did so in 1916, and the Vocalise has remained one of his most popular orchestral miniatures. The Vocalise in its orchestral garb calls to mind the plangent lyricism of Rachmanionoff’s best symphonic slow movements. Its long theme is entrusted largely to the strings and solo violin, with woodwinds contributing fragmentary comments and counter-melodies.

Russian Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

Rachmaninoff composed the Symphony No. 3 in 1935-1936. It was premiered on November 6, 1936 in Philadelphia, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp and strings. Duration is about 39 minutes. The last performance by the orchestra was Nov 6-8, 2015, conducted by Andrew Litton.

Following the burst of creative activity between 1895 and 1910 that brought forth three piano concertos, two symphonies, two operas, a symphonic poem and the “choral symphony” The Bells, Sergei Rachmaninoff did not issue another work for orchestra until the Fourth Piano Concerto of 1927. After being forced from his beloved Russian homeland by the 1917 Revolution, he established a career as a pianist and conductor in Europe and the United States whose enormous success almost completely prohibited composition. (“When I am concertizing I cannot compose,” he said. “When I feel like writing music I have to concentrate on that — I cannot touch the piano. When I am conducting I can neither compose nor play concerts. Other musicians may be more fortunate in this respect; but I have to concentrate on any one thing I am doing to such a degree that it does not seem to allow me to take up anything else.”) His return to the orchestral idiom with the Fourth Concerto was poorly received (he revised the score extensively in 1941), and it took him until 1934 to gather enough courage to try again. That attempt — the splendid Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini — met with exceptional acclaim, and encouraged him to undertake a long-delayed successor to the Second Symphony of 1907. The Third Symphony was begun on June 18, 1935 at his Swiss villa, “Senar,” on Lake Lucerne, not far from “Triebschen,” the house in which Richard Wagner lived from 1866 to 1872. (“Senar” was named for SErgei and his wife, NAtalyia, Rachmaninoff.) Though he had to spend three weeks taking the waters at Baden- Baden for his rheumatism in July, he finished the first movement by August 22nd and the second movement a month later. By then, however, it was time for him to again begin his strenuous annual international tours, and the Symphony had to await its completion until June 1936. It was finished exactly three decades after the Second Symphony.

Rachmaninoff gave the honor of the Symphony’s premiere to Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom he had enjoyed an especially close association ever since making his United States debut as a conductor with that ensemble in 1909. The work was received by American and European audiences and critics with certain misgivings (“sourly” was the composer’s word), with much of the grumbling engendered by Rachmaninoff’s writing in an admittedly reactionary Romantic style at a time when Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartók and a host of other path-breaking modern composers were already long established on the musical scene. “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien,” Rachmaninoff once said. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.” Though he recognized only too well the anachronism of his Third Symphony, he continued to believe in it, and did not withdraw it, as he had the Fourth Concerto. “Personally, I am convinced that this is a good work…. Sometimes the author is wrong, [but] I maintain my opinion,” he wrote to his friend Vladimir Wilshaw on June 7, 1937. His faith has proven to be justified. The Symphony was taken into the standard orchestral repertoire during the last years of his life and remains one of his most popular large compositions.

After being driven from Russia in 1917, Rachmaninoff pined for his homeland for the rest of his life. Whether in his New York apartment or his Swiss villa, he did his best to keep the old language, food, customs and holidays alive in his own household. “But it was at best synthetic,” wrote David Ewen. “Away from Russia, which he could never hope to see again, he always felt lonely and sad, a stranger even in lands that were ready to be hospitable to him. His homesickness assumed the character of a disease as the years passed, and one symptom of that disease was an unshakable melancholy.” The Third Symphony is certainly touched by this emotion, though Rachmaninoff steadfastly denied that it was in any specific way nationalistic or pictorial. It is, however, imbued with the grand, brooding passion and epic sweep that mark Rachmaninoff’s greatest music, whatever the impetus behind the notes.

As do his two earlier works in the genre, Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony opens with a motto theme that returns in later movements. The motto, here presented immediately in unison by clarinet, muted horn and cellos, is a small-interval phrase derived from the style of ecclesiastical chant. A few measures of vigorous orchestral warming-up introduce the movement’s main theme, a doleful plaint issued by the double reeds. The second theme is a lovely, lyrical strain, initiated by the cellos, which gives testimony that Rachmaninoff retained his wonderful sense of melodic invention throughout his life. (He was 63 when he finished the score.) Following a development section of considerable ingenuity and rhythmic energy, the two principal themes are recalled in the recapitulation. The motto theme returns quietly in the trumpet and bass trombone and then in the pizzicato strings to bring the movement to a subdued close.

The second of the Symphony’s three movements combines elements of both a traditional Adagio and a Scherzo. The motto theme in a bardic setting for horn accompanied by strummed harp chords is heard to open the movement. The solo violin gives out the principal theme of the Adagio, a languid melody in triplet rhythms; the flute presents a graceful complementary idea that ends with a cadential trill. These two motives are elaborated until a sudden change of tempo and the introduction of a bustling rhythmic figure usher in the Scherzo section of the movement. An abbreviated recall of the music of the opening Adagio rounds out the movement, to which the motto theme played by pizzicato strings serves as a tiny musical benediction.

The finale is a virtuosic tour-de-force for orchestra. (The work was tailored to Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra.) The main theme, presented by violins and violas, is a motive of martial vigor; the contrasting second theme, given by the strings doubled by harp (Rachmaninoff demonstrated a remarkable skill in orchestrating for percussion, celesta and harp in this work), is chordal in shape and lyrical in style. The center of the movement is a thorough working-out of the melodic materials, beginning with a fugal treatment of the main theme. As a bridge to the recapitulation, Rachmaninoff employed the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), the ancient chant from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead that courses like a grim musical marker through the Isle of the Dead (1907), Paganini Rhapsody (1934), Second Symphony, this Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances (1940). This evocative traditional tune as well as the Symphony’s motto theme are woven into the recapitulation of the movement’s earlier motives. A brilliant coda brings the work to an exhilarating close.

©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda