Concert Notes

The Music of Brahms and Sibelius

The Noon Witch, Op. 108
Antonín Dvořák
b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841;
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

Dvořák’s late compositions included several operas (including Rusalka, his one internationally successful stage work) and five symphonic poems. He composed the latter pieces in 1896 and 1897. The plots are rather gruesome, centering on the antics of evil spirits, witches and other nasty creatures. Portraying the stories in close detail, Dvořák illustrated them in melodious, atmospheric, and immensely colourful fashion. The opening section of The Noon Witch portrays a domestic scene: a mother prepares the noon meal and a child plays happily. Bored with its games, the child cries out restlessly. Increasingly annoyed, the mother eventually threatens it with a visit from the legendary midday witch, “a little shrivelled spectral woman leaning on a crooked stick.” Much to the family’s horror, the witch appears, accompanied by appropriately sinister music. Claiming the child for her own, she pursues her victims in a nightmarish scherzo. At the climax, the noon bell sounds, the witch disappears and the mother faints, the child clasped tightly in her arms. When father arrives later in the day, he is able to revive the mother but the child is dead. The witch’s theme rings out in hellish triumph.

Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Jean Sibelius          
b. Hämeenlinna, Finland / December 8, 1865;
d. Järvenpää, Finland / September 20, 1957

Sibelius’s early desire had been for a career as a violin soloist, but his talent as a performer wasn’t equal to the task. On the other hand, these circumstances ensured that he had no need to consult a professional soloist when he set to a work on this concerto in September 1902. The acclaimed soloist Willy Burmester had made repeated requests for him to do so, and Sibelius now felt prepared to fulfill the commission. 

The premiere was given at a hastily-organized concert in Helsinki on February 8, 1904. Burmester being unavailable on short notice, the solo part was played by the relatively inexperienced Viktor Nováček, and the composer conducted. The concerto failed miserably. Sibelius revised it during the summer of 1905. Richard Strauss conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the second debut on October 19, with the orchestra’s Concertmaster, Carl Halir, as soloist. That version achieved everything that the first had not.

The solo violin emerges out of a murmuring bed of strings, with a long, yearning theme of ever-growing intensity. The second subject is highly expressive, almost passionate. A substantial, turbulent solo cadenza appears at the midway point. The first half of the second movement is quite restrained. The emotional temperature rises towards the middle, first through orchestral surges then increasingly so as the soloist joins in, leading to a powerful climax. Typically for Sibelius, the finale isn’t a jolly, dancing romp, but an exciting, insistently rhythmic rondo. It contains the concerto’s highest share of technical demands, and builds up a considerable head of steam en route to the dynamic conclusion. 

Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio di molto
3. Allegro, ma non tanto

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Johannes Brahms
b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833;
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

Brahms needed an unusually long time to develop an individual style. Much of the difficulty sprang from his awe of Beethoven, even though many of his supporters and colleagues saw him as the earlier composer’s true symphonic heir. “I shall never write a symphony,” he told conductor Hermann Levi. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him (Beethoven) behind us.” 

Time and experience eventually convinced him to renounce that vow. Some 20 years passed after he began work on his first symphony before he felt it was ready to be played in public. The great success that this powerfully dramatic work earned at its première in 1876 confirmed that he possessed the necessary skills to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps as a great composer of symphonic music. The much more relaxed and genial Symphony No. 2 followed just one year later.

He composed Symphony No. 3 in 1883. It is a more individual symphony than its two predecessors. In its striking mixture of passion and pessimism, of restlessness and serenity, Brahms offers a compelling, highly revealing musical self portrait. “What harmonious mood pervades the whole!” his close friend, Clara Schumann, wrote to him after playing through the symphony at the piano. “All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart, each one a jewel.”

One of its most striking features is that all four movements end quietly. Such an unusually reserved practice reveals the degree of confidence that Brahms had attained by this point in his career, and also perhaps a growing pessimism.

The opening movement is rich with incident and feeling. Surges of emotion, positive and doubting alike, roll across its richly textured surface. The following two movements are peaceful interludes. Only at the climax of the second section does its overall atmosphere of almost rustic gentleness give way to a more heated style of utterance. The third movement is a dance: slow, melancholy, hauntingly beautiful. The symphony’s emotional conflicts are resumed in the finale, only to dissipate, unresolved, as the music winds down to a resigned, almost exhausted coda.

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco Allegretto
4. Allegro


Programme Notes © 2018 Don Anderson

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