July 30, 2023: Schumann’s Piano Concerto

May 26, 2023

Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (1974)

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), often regarded as the most significant Finnish composer since Jean Sibelius, charted a long and shape-shifting compositional career. He was always a free spirit, drawn to images of angels and apparitions, while producing a steady stream of symphonies, concertos, operas, choral and instrumental works. His most popular success came in 1972 with the Cantus Arcticus, also known as the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra.

This warmly impressionistic score features the sounds of birdsong that Rautavaara captured on magnetic tape, both in the bogs of Northern Finland and the more remote climes near the Arctic Circle. With these recorded (and subtly manipulated) sounds, he sets up a dialogue with orchestral instruments, even suggesting that nature can be persuaded to imitate art.

The first movement, “The Marsh,” opens with a flute duet that is gradually enriched by other woodwinds and then, the warbling of marsh birds in the spring. The strings build on this suspended atmosphere with an expansive melody that the composer associated with a peaceful walk in nature. The flute duet returns in the final measures.

In the second movement, “Melancholy,” Rautavaara presents a slowed-down recording of a shore lark, creating what he called a “ghost bird.” A peaceful melody unfolds in the strings before the movement ends as it began, with the shore lark.

The final movement, “Swans Migrating,” is a large crescendo for orchestra, produced by the superimposed cries of whooper swans. These are joined with bird imitations in the woodwinds and string tremolos (offering a nod to Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela). After a magnificent climax, the orchestra and birdsong gradually fade into the distance over the gentle sounds of harp and percussion.

Cantus Arcticus was a commission from the University of Oulu, in Finland, for its first doctoral degree ceremony in 1972. Though hardly a conventional statement of pomp and celebration, it surely must have made for a memorable sendoff to the graduates.

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

For Robert Schumann, having a muse in Clara Schumann could only take him so far. Shortly after the couple married on September 12, 1840, Robert left an entry in the couple’s marriage diary: “My next symphony will be called ‘Clara’ and in it I will paint her portrait with flutes, oboes and harps.” The “Clara” Symphony never materialized. But in the following weeks he composed a one-movement Fantasy in which the oboes and flutes play dominant roles, as does the piano, the instrument most associated with his wife.

The Fantasy for piano and orchestra, however, proved a tough sell. Clara was the soloist in an August 1841 reading with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Yet neither publishers nor other orchestras expressed interest. Robert even made several attempts to get it published under different titles, including Allegro affettuoso and Concert Allegro, but eventually put it aside. In 1845, at the height of Clara’s fame, Robert found a solution: He added two more movements, an intermezzo, and a finale, transforming the Fantasy into the full-blown Piano Concerto in A minor. Clara declared that she was as “happy as a king” at the thought of having “a great bravura piece” from her husband.

Clara did not receive a pyrotechnic display vehicle from Robert, at least not by the standards of Liszt or Tchaikovsky. Liszt snidely called Schumann’s work “a concerto without piano,” and Robert, anticipating bad reviews, declared he was unable to write a virtuoso piece. Still, the concerto is a thoroughly eloquent score, a reminder that the piano was Robert’s most personal means of expression. Much of its thematic material stems from the plaintive opening theme, introduced by the oboe and taken up by the pianist. The roles of the soloist and orchestra are tightly interwoven throughout, and the many sudden fluctuations of mood carry the music on to its triumphal finish.

Symphony No. 96 in D Major, “The Miracle”

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

An incident involving a falling chandelier in a London theater gives this symphony its nickname — however incorrectly.

In 1790, at the age of 58, Haydn’s career took a dramatic turn when his service to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy ended after the aristocrat passed away. Hardly had the composer put out feelers for work when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon made him a lucrative offer in London. Despite not speaking a word of English, and being of supposedly advanced age, Haydn accepted. Arriving in London in January 1791, he was no longer a high-class servant, but a burgeoning celebrity, his fortunes in the hands of the ticket-buying public. The composer’s 18-month stay yielded numerous works including a half-dozen symphonies, among them the Symphony No. 96.

One outcome of Haydn’s fame was the incident which gives this symphony its nickname, “The Miracle.” As the composer took his place at the keyboard during one of Solomon’s concerts, the audience, eager to get a closer view, rushed toward the orchestra. At that moment, a massive chandelier came crashing down, possibly triggered by the commotion itself. But since the spectators had moved to the front of the room, clearing the center seats, nobody was hurt. Realizing that they had been spared injury or a worse fate, the audience members cried out, “Miracle! Miracle!”

The incident, which was reported in a London newspaper, actually happened during the premiere of another work, Haydn’s Symphony, No. 102. How the two symphonies got confused has never been clarified, but the miraculous tale has been something of a publicity boon for the Symphony No. 96.

Compared with some of Haydn’s other D-Major London symphonies (Nos. 93, 101 and 104), No. 96 is a work of often subtle brilliance. The slow, 17-measure introduction is more melodic than declamatory and sets up a first movement built on a graceful violin melody and full of witty key shifts. The Andante second movement is delicately chamber-like, featuring many striking pauses, while the vigorous Minuet contains a charming central trio evocative of an Austrian ländler, a country dance. The finale is a whirlwind comedy — what the late musicologist Edward Downes called “a ‘teasing’ rondo,” thanks to its delightful, whispered refrain.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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