PROGRAM NOTES: Finale with James Conlon & Gil Shaham
Piano Sonata in B Minor, S.178
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Schubert composed his Fifth Symphony in September and October 1816 under very particular conditions, and those conditions did much to shape how this music sounds. Schubert wrote the symphony for a tiny informal orchestra that played in the homes of a group of music lovers in Vienna. That orchestra had begun as the Schubert family string quartet, to which a few winds and extra string players were added, and the modest scoring of the Fifth reflects this: one flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings. Schubert omits clarinets, trumpets, and timpani, and their absence gives the music an unusually gentle character and makes for a very particular sonority, almost chamber-like in its textures. Schubert often sets the two violin sections in octaves (further contributing to the transparency of textures) and writes with great clarity for solo winds. In particular, the glowing, silvery sound of the single flute gives this symphony much of its clear, pure sound, a sonority quite appropriate to a piece of music conceived for performance in a living room rather than a 3000-seat concert hall.
The intimacy of the Fifth Symphony may come from a further reason as well: earlier that same year, under the strong influence of Beethoven, Schubert had written his Fourth Symphony, which he gave the somewhat inflated nickname “Tragic.” But several months later Schubert had come to feel that Beethoven’s style–however right it may have been for Beethoven–was not right for him, and now he turned away sharply from that dramatic manner. Perhaps in the effort to cleanse his palate of that taste, he went back to an earlier style for his model: the spirit of Mozart hovers over this gentle symphony.
At first glance, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony certainly seems to be of Mozartean proportion and manner: it is built on the outlines of the classical symphony, which are here wed to Schubert’s lyric gift and sometimes to his penchant for unexpected harmonic shifts. A four-bar introduction, full of glowing woodwind sound and scurrying violins, alights gracefully on the buoyant, dancing main idea in the violins, which also have the sprightly second subject. This sonata-form movement, full of youthful energy and bright spirits, proceeds normally until near the end, where the 19-year-old composer is willing to break the rules and start that recapitulation in the “wrong” key of E-flat major instead of the home key of B-flat. The Andante con moto sings throughout, from its melting opening violin phrase through the broader, chorale-like second subject. Schubert almost certainly turned to Mozart for his model in the minuet: its key-structure and theme-shape come directly from the third movement of Mozart’s great Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Schubert wears these influences lightly, and this movement does not sound nearly so implacable as its predecessor; both composers move to sunny G major for the trio section. Schubert defies expectations slightly in the finale, offering another sonataform movement instead of the customary rondo (the model may again have been the Mozart Symphony No. 40). Here Schubert offers a series of irresistible tunes, of which the flowing second is a real beauty.
A teenaged composer could do worse than choose Mozart as his model, but one of the great pleasures of the Fifth Symphony is that–despite the model–it sounds like Schubert in every bar. The young man who wrote this symphony– and who was still feeling his way with symphonic form– was already a sophisticated composer of lieder. In fact, at exactly the same time he wrote this symphony Schubert composed a series of magnificent songs on texts by Goethe: Sehnsucht and the three Harfenspieler songs on texts from Wilhelm Meister. If the Fifth Symphony does not reach the same heights as those songs, its glowing melodies and youthful charm have nevertheless made it the popular favorite among Schubert’s early symphonies.
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 63
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
Like many other Russian musicians, Prokofiev fled to the West in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution of 1917, and he eventually made his home in Paris, where he wrote brilliant–and often abrasive–music. The young composer appeared to take delight in assaulting audiences: when one of his early premières was roundly booed, Prokofiev walked onstage, bowed deeply to the jeering audience, and sat down and played an encore of equally assaultive music. As the years went by, though, Prokofiev began to feel homesick for Russia. He made the first of many return visits in 1927, and after 1933 he kept an apartment in Moscow and divided his time between that city and Paris. Prokofiev knew that if he returned to Russia, he would have to relax his style. Socialist Realism demanded music that was lyric and attractive to a mass audience, and the Soviet government would not for an instant have tolerated some of the music he had written in the West. Perhaps Prokofiev himself was ready to relax his style, but as the composer made the decision to return to Russia (which he did in 1936), his music grew more lyric and accessible: among the first works he wrote after his return were Peter and the Wolf and the ballet Romeo and Juliet.
The Second Violin Concerto also dates from these years and from this evolution toward a more lyric style. In 1935 friends of the French violinist Robert Soetens asked Prokofiev to write a violin concerto for him. Prokofiev had already been thinking of writing a new work for the violin when the commission arrived, and he noted how the unsettled circumstances of his life caused this music to be written in many different places: “the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid, in December 1935.” Prokofiev and Soetens then took the concerto on an exotic tour, performing it in Portugal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Prokofiev had at first not planned to write a concerto and intended instead to compose a smaller-scaled work, which he described as a “concert sonata for violin and orchestra.” As completed, though, the work is clearly a violin concerto, though one conceived on a somewhat intimate scale: Prokofiev scores it for what is essentially Mozart’s orchestra (pairs of woodwinds, horns, and trumpets, plus strings), but that classical sound is enlivened by some unusual percussion instruments, including castanets and a variety of drums.
The intimate scale and lyric nature of this concerto are evident from the first instant of the Allegro moderato, where the solo violin–all alone–lays out the opening theme. This concerto veers between extremes–it can be murmuring and muted one instant, full of steely energy the next–and such a contrast arrives with the bittersweet second subject, also announced by solo violin. The development of this sonata-form movement is extremely energetic, and the movement finally snaps into silence on abrupt pizzicatos.
Pizzicato strings also open the second movement, where they provide a pointillistic accompaniment to the violin’s long cantilena. This melody, which changes meters smoothly between 12/8 and 4/4, evolves through a series of variations until a pair of clarinets introduces the singing central episode. The opening material returns, and Prokofiev closes with an imaginative touch: he has the solo violin take over the pizzicato figure from the opening and “accompany” the orchestra to the quiet close.
Briefest of the movements, the concluding Allegro ben marcato demands virtuoso playing from both soloist and orchestra, who must solve complex problems of coordination and balance. This is the most exotic-sounding of the movements, for here Prokofiev makes distinctive use of his percussion instruments, particularly the castanets. The closing pages–which alternate measures of 7/4, 5/4, 2/2, and 3/2 with the basic pulse of 3/4–are particularly exciting.
Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K.338
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Mozart completed his Symphony No. 34 on August 29, 1780. The previous year he had returned to Salzburg from an extended–and utterly unsuccessful–effort to find a position in Mannheim or Paris, and in the following year would come his violent rupture from the Archbishop of Salzburg and his move to Vienna. But now the 24-yearold composer settled into the routine of serving as court organist to an employer he hated in a city he hated. The symphony as a form did not interest Mozart much in these years, but the key he chose for this symphony–C major–is the one he reserved for his most ceremonial music, and it may well be that this symphony was written for some grand occasion in Salzburg.
This symphony is remarkable for the sharp contrasts between its three movements–each has a quite distinct character. The Allegro vivace gets off to a brilliant beginning, ringing with the sound of trumpets and drums and martial fanfares, and this energy–borne along by trills, syncopations, and long crescendos–propels the entire movement. Alfred Einstein has shown how this movement depends for much of its power on Mozart’s use of differing keys to highlight the music’s C-major brilliance. Only in the recapitulation does the opening material return, and the movement drives to a dramatic close on the bright spirits of the very beginning.
The Andante di molto takes us into a completely different world. Gone are the festive fanfares of the opening movement, and now Mozart writes only for strings and bassoons, though he enriches the texture by dividing the violas and marking all parts sotto voce. In its endless lyricism, this movement sounds very much like an opera aria. The first violins sing the opening melody, full of graceful turns, and also have the flowing second idea, heard above chirping accompaniment from the second violins.
The Allegro vivace finale returns to the C-major tonality of the opening. It explodes to life with a great orchestral attack, and off the music goes, sparkling and dancing along on its 6/8 meter. Mozart calls for a repeat of the entire opening section before this music sails home on the infectious and propulsive energy that bursts out of each measure.