Orchestral Works by John Adams, Béla Bartók and Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Breathtaking and captivating: Two orchestral compositions by John Adams
John Adams, born in 1947 and – with Steve Reich and Philip Glass – one of the leading exponents of “minimalism”, is the orchestra’s composer-in-residence this season. In mid-September he conducted two evenings of his own music. Now Alan Gilbert and the Berliner Philharmoniker present two of his short compositions: Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) exhibits the characteristic features of minimalist music: steady pulse, repeated patterns and consonant harmony. The exuberant, brilliantly scored work begins delirando. Over the relentless rhythm of woodblocks (Adams uses the word “sadistic”!) the brass play a syncopated figure. Woodwind and strings enter in uneven rhythms, also syncopated. The middle section is lighter, more transparent, but the work ends as wildly as it began. As to its title, the composer explains: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”
Adams composed Lollapalooza in 1995 as a 40th-birthday present for Simon Rattle. The exact meaning and etymology of the word are uncertain. It probably first appeared around the turn of the 20th century and signifies something extraordinarily impressive. For Adams, it “suggests something large, outlandish, oversized, not unduly refined”. Its vagueness, he writes, may account for its popularity as an archetypical American word.
In a brief note, Adams has written how his piece is derived from the internal rhythm of the word“lollapalooza”, da-da-da-DAAH-da: “In my piece, the word is spelled out in the trombones and tubas, C-C-C-E flat-C (emphasis on the E flat) as a kind of ideé fixe. The “lollapalooza” motive is only one of a profusion of other motives, all appearing and evolving in a repetitive chain of events that moves this dancing behemoth along until it ends in a final shout by the horns and trombones and a terminal thwack on timpani and bass drum.”
Lyricism and full-blooded tone: Béla Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto
Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 had a long and complicated genesis. In autumn 1936 the composer asked his publisher for the scores of various violin concertos, whereupon Universal Edition sent him specimens by Kurt Weill, Karol Szymanowski and Alban Berg. Shortly afterwards he was asked for a concerto by the violinist Zoltán Székely. Bartók apparently began writing his work in the spring of 1937 but failed to make much progress. In June he notified his publishers that he would break off composition if they did not agree to grant Székely his concerto’s exclusive performing rights. Though the publishers did consent, the work initially still hung fire and so Bartók turned to composing the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Thereafter he was able to concentrate on the new concerto, completing it in autumn 1938. Before orchestrating it late that summer, he also wrote Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano. In November he accepted a further commission from Paul Sacher, which in summer 1939 resulted in the Divertimento for string orchestra. The Violin Concerto had its premiere on 23 March 1939 in Amsterdam, with Székely as soloist accompanied by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.
Full-toned lyricism predominates from the outset in this concerto. The first movement, introduced by harp and pizzicato violins, is laid out in sonata form. Its songful theme, in 4/4 time and set in the rhythm of the Hungarian dance verbunkos, returns in the finale, but now in 3/4, dancelike and “con spirito”. In the opening movement’s solo cadenza, Bartók breaks free from restrictive tonality, experimenting with quarter-tones and, in the passage marked Calmo (bar 73ff), with what he described as a “sort of twelve-note theme, but with distinct tonality”. The slow movement is the sole large variation movement in Bartók’s oeuvre. In the first variation he uses the timpani as a melody instrument, playing in unison with plucked double basses. In Variation 2 the theme is fragmented but then experiences a sort of coalescence in the harp, woodwind and celesta parts. No. 3 is rhythmic in character; in No. 4 the theme has moved from the soloist down to the lower strings, the violin decorating it with trills and other ornaments. The fifth variation (Allegro scherzando) is brilliantly coloured by harp glissandi and interjections from the piccolo, side drum and triangle; the sixth is more dancelike. In rondo form, the finale is freer and rhapsodic in character, dominated by rhythmic vitality and momentum. This movement does not so much paraphrase the first as amplify it. Bartók composed two versions of the final bars: the first is almost exclusively for orchestra; the second – at the request of Székely – is soloistically brilliant and makes a powerful effect. It is heard in these concerts.
Homage to his dearest friend: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony
In 1877, Tchaikovsky made the acquaintance of Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Baltic German railway industrialist – a remarkable relationship lasting a decade and a half in which both protagonists communicated only by letter and avoided personal contact. The correspondence between Tchaikovsky and his patron is more than just a biographical document. It also contains details of his plans and work on his compositions as well as his explanatory notes and comments on them.
In his correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky called the Fourth “our symphony”. It is, moreover, the only one of his works whose content the composer himself characterized in words. The opening bars of the first movement represent “Fate”: “This is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal... It is an invincible force that can never be overcome – merely endured, hopelessly.” The second theme leads to dreamlike bliss as “at last a sweet and tender vision appears” to the composer, “some blissful, radiant human image”. But once again menacing Fate intervenes: “Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.” A completely different mood prevails in the following Andantino in modo di canzona, “the melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when one sits alone, tired from work, having picked up a book but let it fall from one’s hands. A whole host of memories appears.” The third movement sidesteps any specific emotion and seems to be entirely playful in character. The work ends affirmatively: “Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.” Fate may still threaten but it no longer gains the upper hand. Tchaikovsky’s remarks are contradictory. He himself admitted they were unclear, stressing the tendency of instrumental music to defy (verbal) analysis. He considered the symphony the most lyrical of musical forms and posed the question: “Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed?”