Concerto for orchestra
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Jaap van Zweden began his musical career as a 19-year-old with one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world: the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam – not as a conductor but as first concertmaster. In 1996 he swapped his violin for a baton and launched an international career as a conductor. With these concerts, Jaap van Zweden, currently music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, standing in for the indisposed Mariss Jansons.
Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók are the eveningʼs composers. Brahms struggled with his First Symphony for 14 years before completing it in 1876: the example of Beethoven seemed overpowering. Nevertheless, Brahms masterfully found his own way. In his symphony, there are references to Beethoven but also a pioneering structural concept – with an introduction that already contains the germ of all the symphonyʼs thematic material.
Béla Bartók, whose Concerto for Orchestra we also hear in these concerts, was an admirer of Brahms. Commissioned by the American Koussevitzky Foundation, Bartók wrote the work in 1943. The title is explained by the concertante solo treatment of individual instrument groups. When Bartók composed this work, he was already terminally ill and – in terms of his recognition as a composer – he was totally disillusioned. Nevertheless, he succeeded in creating a work which, from its sombre opening, finds its way to a life-affirming finale.
Béla Bartóks Concerto for Orchestra and Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony can both be considered milestones – particularly distinctive, pioneering compositions by their individual creators, but also in the development of music. After a long struggle Brahms arrived at the symphonic form with his Symphony in C minor op. 68 and immediately brought off a great success. With the Concerto for Orchestra Bartók wrote a key work of the 20th century, looking back on the tradition of symphonic and concert composition while so doing.
The Concerto for Orchestra was composed in the difficult last years of the composer’s life, characterised by emigration, economic hardship and fatal illness (leukaemia). In 1940 Bartók left Hungary, which had turned fascist, and went to the USA. Here he did not encounter the recognition he had hoped, neither as pianist nor as composer, and he was virtually ignored.
Between the years 1940 and 1942 Bartók did not compose anything. The tide turned when Sergei Koussevitzky, the Russian-American conductor who headed the Boston Symphony Orchestra, requested a larger orchestral work from Bartók in the spring of 1943. In August Bartók began working at Saranac Lake, New York; he completed the Concerto for Orchestra in October. After the Boston premiere on 1 December 1944 conducted by Koussevitzky, the composer wrote a second ending that is generally played today. In an introduction written for the premiere, Bartók gave indications of the content of the work: “The general mood of the composition can – with the exception of the playful second movement – be seen as a gradual transition from the gravity of the first movement and the elegy of the third to an affirmation of life in the final movement.” The title, the composer wrote, of “this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments and instrument groups in a ‘concertant’ or soloistic manner.” Its cyclical form is symphonic. Two scherzi and two fast movements are grouped symmetrically around the slow third movement.
The opening movement Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace begins with a mysterious introduction. Above a motif in the low strings and tremoli in the high strings, the flute plays a theme that will play an important role in the third movement. The Allegro is dominated by an energetic, almost fanfare-like theme. – The second movement, an Allegretto scherzando, bears the title Giuoco delle coppie (Game of the Couples). Each couple has its own theme and “dance steps” of its own that are characterised by certain intervals: sixths in the bassoons, thirds in the oboes, sevenths in the clarinets, parallel fifths in the flutes, seconds in the trumpets. The themes are combined in the recapitulation. The movement begins and ends with a striking solo on the snare drum.
The composer considered the middle movement, an Andante non troppo in the style of a nocturne entitled Elegia, a “sorrowful dirge”. It is structured like a chain: three themes appear successively and “constitute the core of the movement, which is enframed by a misty texture of rudimentary shapeless motives” (Bartók). The harp glissandi and woodwind passages at its beginning and end are reminiscent of the lake of tears episode in Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle. – The titel Intermezzo interrotto for the fourth movement is to be taken literally. After starting in a friendly manner (flute and oboe in dialogue and a lyrical string theme), the mood abruptly changes in the middle part, turning ominous. At the end the movement returns to the friendly mood of the beginning.
The Finale contains a fanfare theme in the horns, a presto theme in the strings in perpetuum mobile style, a dolce melody and a distinctive final idea in impressive fugal style. Motifs from southeast European folk music are woven into the whole. The ending is both brilliant and dramatic.
Classical tonality and catchy melodies – these characteristic features of the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók’s perhaps best-known and indeed most popular work, were and are criticised rather frequently: it is as if after all the experiments of his early years the composer had arrived at “harmlessness” by mellowing through age. And yet the opposite is the case: “An unbelievable variety of stylistic and expressive principles and of heterogeneous material has been brought together to an overall panorama in this work. It is looking back, bidding farewell and starting anew – all at the same time.”(Hartmut Fladt) There, however, is where you can find this work’s modernity and fascination in equal measure.
Johannes Brahms was already a respected composer for a long time before venturing to deploy the symphonic form. His initial approaches to his First Symphony can already be found in the 1850’s. Quite some time later, on 1 July 1862, Clara Schumann wrote to Joseph Joachim: “Johannes recently sent me – imagine what a surprise – a first symphony movement with the following bold beginning.” And she attached the first bars of the Allegro in the first movement. But then Brahms moved to Vienna and shelved the symphony for a while. Six years after composing the first movement, he sent Clara the famous horn melody from the finale on 12 September 1868. Yet eight additional years were to pass before the score was complete in 1876.
The symphony was premiered on 4 November 1876 by Baden’s Grand Ducal Court Orchestra, conducted by Otto Dessoff in Karlsruhe. Brahms himself presented the work in Mannheim three days later and also conducted the work in Munich. In a letter dated 22 December 1876 Hermann Levi reported to Clara Schumann: “The performance of the symphony was quite splendid. I admired Brahms once again as conductor as well, and learned quite a bit from him in the rehearsals. The last movement is probably the greatest that he has yet composed in the instrumental sphere; the next best for me is the first movement. But I do have my qualms about the two middle movements; as beautiful as they intrinsically are, they seem to me to fit better in a serenade or suite than in a symphony of such large scope.”
The work stands squarely in the tradition of classical symphony composition. The first movement is introduced by a slow section (Un poco sostenuto). The theme is built up in semitone steps above a throbbing tympani ostinato; this theme radiates a serious, dark-toned prevailing mood. In the Allegro section the themes are handled in line with the classical model of a sonata movement, but using colourful harmonies. Each of the two middle movements has a less complicated form and display to some extent features of chamber music. In the Andante sostenuto the first violins express the main theme supported by the bassoons. The middle section contains solo passages for individual brass and wind instruments, particularly for oboe and French horn. The recapitulation is introduced by a violin solo. The clarinet opens the third movement (Un poco Allegretto e grazioso), a tender intermezzo and trio, with a graceful theme. The strings and woodwinds are assigned a short, excited episode; finally the movement ends quietly. Like the first movement, the Finale begins with a dark introduction (Adagio): chromatic runs, dramatic figures in the strings, a tympani roll, followed by a signal in the French horn that drowns out any dissonances and by a chorale in the trombones. After that the friendly main theme begins in the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio: the C major cantilena in the strings which has become so famous. It is handled by Brahms using “every trick in the book”, before a triumphal coda completes the work.
Translation: Nancy Chapple
Jaap van Zweden, who has become a much sought-after conductor internationally over the past 15 years, is music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (since 2008) and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (from 2012). Previously, he was chief conductor of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in Enschede (1996 to 2000), the Residentie Orkest in The Hague (2000 to 2005) and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic (2008 to 2011). Jaap van Zweden is honorary chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, which he led from 2005 to 2011. As a guest conductor, he has appeared with many prestigious orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, the Munich Philharmonic, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, the Orchestre National de France, the Oslo Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In addition to his extensive symphonic repertoire, van Zweden also conducts operatic works, particularly in the Netherlands. Born in Amsterdam in 1960, Jaap van Zweden began his musical career as a violinist. He studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Dorothy DeLay. As early as 1979, he was concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a post he held until 1995. He was named Musical America’s Conductor of the Year 2012. Jaap van Zweden makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker with these concerts, standing in at short notice for an indisposed Mariss Jansons.