Concert Notes

Otto Tausk Conducts Brahms and Dvořák

Roman Carnival, Op. 9
Hector Berlioz
b. La Côte-Saint-André, France / December 11, 1803;
d. Paris, France / March 8, 1869           

As soon as Berlioz read the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the spirited, unconventional sixteenth-century Italian goldsmith, artist and adventurer, he sensed such a deep personal affinity with him that he decided to compose an opera based on Cellini’s life. Its début in Paris in 1838 proved a total fiasco. Six years later, Berlioz salvaged some of the score by fashioning a concert overture from two of the principal melodies: a love song (memorably transcribed for English horn), and an example of the vigorous Italian folk dance, the saltarello (first cousin to the tarantella). He christened the result Roman Carnival, referring to the festive scene in the opera where the saltarello is performed. The overture’s success was immediate and has proven lasting, since it is one of the most dazzling and exhilarating showpieces in the orchestral repertoire.

Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Antonín Dvořák
b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841;
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

This greatest of all cello concertos was the final piece that Dvořák composed during his three-year term as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. The première took place in London on March 16, 1896, with the composer conducting and Leo Stern as soloist.

Three decades before, Dvořák had fallen in love with Josephina Čermáková, an aspiring sixteen-year-old actress to whom he gave piano lessons. Even though she rejected his romantic advances, he retained a powerful affection for her. He ended up doing as Haydn and Mozart had done, and married his beloved’s sister instead. Perhaps he considered her the closest substitute he could find.

While he was composing the second movement of this concerto, a letter from Josephina revealed that she was gravely ill. In her honour, he wove into the second movement a quotation from one of his songs, Leave Me Alone in My Fond Dream, which was a particular favourite of hers. She died in May 1895, one month after he resettled in Europe. A few weeks later, he revised the final pages of the concerto’s finale to include a second quotation from the song, this time as a memorial tribute.

The first theme of the opening movement – sombre, almost funereal – soon bursts forth into forceful expressiveness. Solo horn introduces the second theme. Dvořák said that it had cost him a great deal of effort, but that it moved him profoundly every time he heard it. Passing through much drama, the movement concludes with ringing fanfares. The slow second movement opens with a warm, tranquil theme introduced by the woodwinds. Dvořák gives the middle section a powerful launch, then takes up a soaring melody from Josephina’s favourite song. A quasi-cadenza for the soloist, with light accompaniment, precedes a return to the opening subject and a peaceful, contented coda. Strong contrasts characterize the finale, from the stern opening theme in march rhythm, through a wistful subject strongly inflected with the spirit of Czech folk music, to an expansive, elegiac reverie where themes from the previous movements reappear briefly. The concerto concludes on an exultant note.

Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 109
1. Allegro
2. Adagio, ma non troppo
3. Finale: Allegro moderato

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Johannes Brahms
b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833;
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

“I shall never write a symphony,” Brahms told conductor Hermann Levi. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” The “him” was Beethoven, and Brahms needed 20 years to create a symphony he felt was worthy of comparison with the master’s. The première in 1876 confirmed in the composer’s mind that he possessed the necessary skills to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps as a great composer of symphonic music.

The eminent conductor Hans von Bülow grouped Brahms together with Bach and Beethoven as the “Three Great B’s of Music.” Others expanded upon this by referring to Brahms’s First Symphony as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Although the composer may not have appreciated the comparison, it certain senses it is inescapable. The symphony’s ground-plan of victory through struggle, of a journey from darkness to light, for example, links it with Beethoven’s symphonic ideals, especially with those expressed in his Fifth (which is also set in the same key, C Minor).

As he would go on to do in all four of his symphonies, Brahms set forth the main weight of his arguments in the first and last movements. In No. 1, he prefaced both movements with an introduction in slow tempo. The one that begins the symphony sets the sombre, dramatic mood which also characterizes the more vigorous but equally austere first movement proper. The following movement offers a restful interlude, one with scarcely a moment of contrasting drama. Even though the third movement is hardly a scherzo, it provides a breath of fresh, lighter air to balance what has preceded it. 

Brahms begins his finale with a prelude that is nearly as stark in tone as the one that opened the first movement. Its fatalistic grumblings are dispelled by the arrival of the heartfelt chorale melody that is the principal theme of the finale’s main body. Brahms built this movement with vast architectural and emotional skill, as it unfolds towards its grandly affirmative conclusion.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
1. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Un poco Allegretto e grazioso
4. Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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