STEPHEN HOUGH PLAYS BEETHOVEN

Maison symphonique de Montréal
Ticket Prices
$42* to $200*
Concert dates
Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 8:00 PM Done
Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 8:00 PM Done
Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 8:00 PM Done
Artists
David Zinman, conductorchef d’orchestre
Stephen Hough, pianopiano

Presentation of the concert

Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73, “Emperor” (approx. 38 min.)

R. Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra (approx. 33min.)

 

British pianist and Beethoven specialist Stephen Hough performs “Emperor,” Beethoven’s brilliant work. On the same program, David Zinman conducts Also sprach Zarathustra, the iconic symphonic poem that serves as a backdrop to the now-classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A dramatic, imposing work that brings Zinman’s talents to life for OSM audiences.


Preconcert talk

January 19 - 7:00 p.m.

January 20 - 7:00 p.m.

January 21 - 7:00 p.m.

Ours cheeses, privileged partner of talks and organ preconcerts

For those of us without perfect pitch, the key in which a piece is written may seem like secondary information. But, for certain composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss, the key of a work contributed to essential aspects of its character. For Beethoven, E-flat major was an important tonality to denote qualities of nobility and heroism, as evidenced not only in the "Emperor" Concerto on tonight's programme, but also the “Eroica” Symphony and the “Lebewohl” Sonata op. 81a, dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf of Austria. For Strauss, C major represented unblemished nature – the natural order of things, – while B major (physically close, but tonally unrelated) represented the realm of humans. The conflict between these keys constitutes the primary material in his tour de force tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770 – Died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73, “Emperor”

Napoleon Bonaparte was the last person to whom Beethoven would have wanted to dedicate a piano concerto in 1809. Besieged and bombarded by the French on a daily basis, the Viennese lived in fear and disillusionment of their self-appointed Emperor and the ideals he had originally espoused. Beethoven had famously rescinded a dedication of his Third Symphony to Napoleon only three years prior, and the true dedicatee of the Fifth Piano Concerto, Archduke Rudolf, had fled the city in fear for his material safety. The nickname “Emperor,” like so many others in the composer’s catalogue, came not from his own pen, but that of a zealous publisher hoping to capitalise on the perceived qualities of the work. He wasn’t far off the mark – the grandiose orchestral chords and powerfully sweeping arpeggiations in the piano are nothing if not noble – even imperialistic – in character.

Nearly completely deaf by the time of the work’s completion in 1811, Beethoven was unable to perform the premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, instead trusting the task to the church organist Friedrich Schneider. Unusually, Beethoven specified in the score that the performer was not to improvise the customary cadenza, but may choose from a selection of predetermined passages – a safeguard against the inevitability of poor taste. This exercise of authorial control was rare at the time, but would increasingly become the norm as printing press technology allowed for the spread of musical works all over the known world.

Ironic that the practice of improvisation in classical music should be dealt one of its first deathblows from the man who was famously unrivalled in the craft, but the improvisatory aesthetic was still alive and well in Beethoven’s musical style. The opening toccata-like arpeggiations in the piano recall the Baroque practice of “warming up” the keyboard with a made-up series of passages; and the long trills that mark structural points throughout the first movement suggest spontaneous moments of indecision, brimming with possibility. The self-assured first theme in the orchestra is anything but indecisive: rhythmic and assertive, it presents a formidable companion to the virtuosic piano, which, thanks to continual improvements in manufacturing techniques, had recently gained the needed strength and projection to truly become an integrated part of the orchestral texture.

The second movement is striking for its simplicity. The calm and reflective melody, played for the most part in the orchestra, nonetheless expresses a quiet strength and resolve in its upwards striving. The meandering piano melody moves mostly stepwise along the keyboard, as if spontaneously discovering harmonies along the way. The final movement rondo follows immediately from the second, the exhilarating main theme bursting out from a harmless sounding improvisatory figuration. The rising motive that dominates the returning main theme suggests boundless energy – an affect that persists throughout the movement. A false ending of the utmost softness and delicacy confounds, until a virtuoso flourish and a decisive orchestral cadence brings the work to its rightfully triumphant close.

RICHARD STRAUSS
Born in Munich, June 11, 1864 – Died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany), September 8, 1949
Also sprach Zarathustra

“God is dead.” Or so said the prophet in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus spake Zarathustra. God wasn’t dead, of course – or rather, Nietzsche didn’t mean it literally. The allegorical story from which this most famous of quotes is drawn expresses the late 19th century existential struggle to find a natural code for moral principles outside the absolutism of religion. Did this code reside within man himself, or could it be gleaned from the world without? Richard Strauss’ epic 1896 tone poem of the same name grapples with this philosophical question over a vast orchestral canvass of nine continuous movements in which the struggle between the natural world and the human is expressed as an opposition between C and B major. Each movement is named for a chapter of Nietzsche’s novel, each exploring a different facet of his philosophical investigation.

“Sunrise” begins with the rumbling of the earth. The clarion call of unison trumpets in C, slowly rising in open intervals, sets up a sonic landscape of vast proportions. Repeating three times, each one builds in intensity to the point where the glorious cadence that emerges is both inevitable and impossibly satisfying. “Of Those in the Backworlds” is foreboding in character at first. Brass instruments referencing fragments from the melody of the Credo chant either signify Strauss’ scepticism or uncertainty of monotheistic belief. “Of the Great Longing” and “Of Joys and Passions” are much more chromatic and sensual in nature, rising to a heady climax. “Of Science and Learning” parodies a learned style with a fugue of overblown proportions, using all 12 of the tones in the chromatic scale. As the fugue reaches its great apex it gives way to “The Convalescent,” in which the opposition between C and B major can be most keenly felt. “The Dance Song” expresses a certain irony, recalling major themes from past movements but morphed into the form of a Viennese waltz featuring a virtuosic solo violin. The final movement, “Song of the Nightwanderer,” is hardly conclusive. Strauss leaves us unsettled, as the final moments fail to reach culmination. Sustained B major flute chords are underscored by ominous low Cs in strings, and therefore denied any sense of finality. The low-register strings recall the work’s opening, expressing cyclicality, or Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence of the same.”

© Marc Wieser

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