Concert Notes

Beethoven and Bruckner, with Bramwell Tovey

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / baptized December 17, 1770; 
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is widely held to be the greatest piece of its kind, not simply because it is a fine concerto, but because it is a masterly composition, period.

In its gentleness and unassuming confidence, it resembles several other works, including the Fourth Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 4, which he composed during the intensely creative period of 1805 to 1806.

An incomplete torso is all that remains of a violin concerto dating from the early 1790s. The spark to compose a full concerto came from twenty-six year old Franz Clement. This child prodigy had risen to the status of acclaimed soloist, and also served as concertmaster and conductor of the pit orchestra in Vienna’s prestigious Theatre an der Wien for a full decade. According to a contemporary report, his style “is not the robust, powerful playing of the school of Viotti, but is indescribably graceful, dainty, elegant.” Naturally, Beethoven reflected these qualities in the concerto Clement commissioned from him. Although by no means an easy piece technically, its principal challenges lie in expressiveness, spirituality, and because of its broad dimensions, in sheer physical stamina.

Clement set a specific date for the première: December 23, 1806. Due to the foot-dragging casualness with which Beethoven regularly completed commissioned works, the first performance turned out to be virtually a read-through at sight. Clement’s interpretation of the concerto drew raves from the press, but the piece itself received at best a lukewarm reception.

Clement took the concerto on tour, but audiences everywhere greeted it with no more than polite acceptance. Enjoyment required a shift in listening, away from the virtuoso stunts that audiences preferred, towards Beethoven’s conception of soloist and orchestra as equal partners in the presentation of substantial, fully symphonic musical arguments and developments. It was only in 1844, when 13-year-old soloist Joseph Joachim demonstrated the concerto’s manifold excellences through his performances in London under Felix Mendelssohn’s direction, that it began to establish itself. The expansive first movement bears a relaxed, leisurely countenance. From time to time, moments of drama provide contrast. The slow movement, a set of variations on a lyrical theme, glows with Olympian warmth. The gracefully dancing final rondo, which follows on without a break, brings the concerto firmly and joyfully back to earth. 

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
1. Allegro, ma non troppo
2. Larghetto...
3. Rondo  

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
Anton Bruckner
b. Ansfelden, Austria / September 4, 1824;
d. Vienna, Austria / October 11, 1896

There were two sharply contrasted sides to Bruckner: on one hand, the timid, unsophisticated man from the countryside; on the other, the composer of symphonies and masses of exalting breadth and grandeur. This vast gap is bridged by one, uncomplicated fact: his deep and abiding faith in God. It kept him naïve and self effacing, at the same time as it helped him compose a unique and magnificent set of symphonies. Bruckner’s faith also gave him the inner strength to persevere in the face of lengthy, widespread misunderstanding and critical disfavour, through to his eventual acceptance as one of the last great representatives of the Austro German school of symphonic composition.

Bruckner drew upon a range of models in his quest to expand the scope and meaning of the symphony. In terms of its previous history, his primary inspirations were the broadly-scaled, emotionally rich Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert. The operas of Wagner were another source. Their influence, on a composer who had absolutely no interest in writing for the theatre, has been misunderstood or at least exaggerated. He did not seek to duplicate them in symphonic terms, but rather to incorporate their depth of emotion and sound into a symphonic context.

Bruckner began Symphony No. 9 in 1887. Seven years later he had still not completed it, largely because his attention had been diverted to revising several earlier pieces. “I have done my duty on earth,” he told a visitor in 1894. “I have accomplished what I could, and my only wish is to be allowed to finish my Ninth Symphony. Three movements are complete; there remains only the finale. I trust death will not deprive me of my pen.”

Death, alas, did just that. Even though Bruckner had done extensive work on the finale – some 200 pages of sketches are extant, over which he laboured for two years – he no longer possessed sufficient powers of concentration to put them into finished form. Had he completed the symphony, it would have been the longest of all his works. Yet even as it stands it is a deeply impressive piece, a great creator’s summation of, and farewell to, his life’s experiences, skills and beliefs. He dedicated it “to God the beloved.”

Given the absence of a finale, the second movement scherzo becomes an especially crucial interlude. Its raging torrent of sound and feeling effectively separates and balances the compelling, at times agonized quests for spiritual fulfillment that Bruckner undertook in the first and third movements. Far removed from the jovial country dances of earlier Bruckner scherzos, it bears sufficient weight to justify its presence. Long known for the particular beauty and profundity of his slow movements, Bruckner surpassed himself in his final example, the third movement of this symphony. Following the wrenching catastrophe of the last climax, the music at last finds some measure of peace.

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
1. Feierlich, Misterioso
2. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft
3. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich


Programme Notes © 2018 Don Anderson

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