Programme Notes October 2013

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major Johannes Brahms

1 Allegro non troppo

2 Allegro appassionato

3 Andante

4 Allegretto grazioso

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) was born in Hamburg and died in his adopted home of Vienna. Although one of the great Romantic composers he is often seen as a classicist, and an upholder of tradition, with his first symphony hailed as “Beethoven’s tenth”. Starting his career as a concert pianist, after meeting the great violinist Joachim he was introduced to Clara and Robert Schumman who championed his work and became his lifelong friends. Brahms has remained a popular composer and with his best known composition “Wiegenlied”, better known as “Brahms’ Lullaby” or “Cradle Song”, his music is among the very first many of us will have heard.

The second piano concerto was premiered to great acclaim in Budapest in 1881 with Brahms himself as soloist. In the 22 years since his first piano concerto, not only had Brahms matured as a composer, but the piano itself had developed into a something close to the modern concert instrument. German makers had incorporated some of the superior features of English instruments to make pianos which were far bigger and more sonorous. In this concerto Brahms really shows what this new instrument can do and the original audience would probably have been surprised to hear higher notes than played by any piano before. With four rather ran the usual three movements this is a concerto of symphonic proportions, and, although acknowledged as among the most difficult in the repertoire, a highly lyrical and structured composition rather than a mere showcase for the soloist’s virtuosity.

The first movement begins with a horn solo, then duetting with the piano before an early cadenza. Rather than a slow second movement we have an allegro appassionato in lively triple time.The third movement is a slow andante featuring solo cello on equal terms with the piano. The sparkling final movement is in five definable sections. In the first two different themes are each introduced by the piano before being taken up by the orchestra. A number of different themes are presented before the final coda where the original theme returns but in triple time.

Recent BPO performance of other works by Brahms include the Second Symphony and Tragic Overture in 2011, the double concerto for violin and cello in 2010 and the first symphony in 2009.

Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments Richard Strauss

Our wind players are delighted to add an extra unadvertised item into tonight's concert. This short serenade is an early work by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), written when he was 17 or 18 and has become frequently performed. The leading conductor of the day, Hans von Bulow, had previously dismissed the young composer's works but was impressed by this one and went on to encourage him and help the young Strauss in his career. It is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and tuba.

Symphony No 1 in E minor Jean Sibelius

1 Andante, ma non troppo - Allegro energico

2 Andante (ma non troppo lento)

3 Scherzo: Allegro - Lento (ma non troppo) - Tempo primo

4 Finale (Quasi una fantasia): Andante- Allegro molto

Jean Sibelius (1885-1957) was born into a Swedish speaking family in Finland at a time when the country was part of the Russian empire. He trained at the Helsinki Music Institute, since renamed after him; and aspired to be a violinist. Realizing that, at 16, he had started learning the instrument too late to achieve this ambition, he concentrated on composing, continuing his studies in Berlin and Vienna. During his time at Helsinki Sibelius had fallen in love with his future wife, the Finnish speaking Aino Järnefelt, who inspired his enthusiasm for Finnish language and culture. Sibelius immersed himself in the Finnish epic of folk poetry: the Kavala. The Kavala provided not only the subject matter for some of his music but was the source of much of his distinctly Finnish style.

The first symphony was greatly applauded at its 1899 premier in Helsinki but overshadowed by the composer’s highly political but now obscure Song of the Athenians. Following Tsar Nicholas II’s accession to the throne in 1898 Finnish freedoms were curtailed and nationalist feeling ran high. Some critics have viewed it ironical that the first symphony was assumed to be equally political, pointing to its Russian Chaikovskian influence. However it is easy to hear Sibelius’ Finnish voice in the symphony, particular the slower melodies which often mirror the Kavala’s poetic device of Trochaic Tetrameter; a pattern where longer stressed syllables are followed by a number of shorter syllables. Sibelius had made his mark. Finlandia, composed the same year, was banned by the Russian authorities although ingenuously still performed played under alternative titles.

The opening Andante ma non troppo begins with a haunting clarinet solo, which after the pedal point of a sustained drum roll quickens with the dramatic entry of the strings. The second movement features an intense central climax followed by a return of its opening melody. The scherzo is in classic sonata form but interrupted by a slow trio. The Finale, marked “Quasi una fantasia”, beginning with the open movement’s clarinet theme given to the strings, features an expansive Romantic melody over a repeated bass line echoing the pedal point device of the first movement and building relentlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

Sibelius went on to compose a further six symphonies, one of the major violin concertos in the repertoire, and a range of descriptive music celebrating his beloved Finnish landscape. Rather than conform to the fashions of twentieth century music Sibelius was able to continue to develop his own Finnish Romantic style and in some ways pioneered minimalism. Living in his rural retreat Ainola and given a state pension, Sibelius wrote little in his later years and burned the unfinished manuscript of his 8th symphony.

The use of his name for the industry standard software for musical composition is no coincidence. Highly regarded by other composers, particular throughout the English speaking world, in his own country his birthday is a national holiday and his face has adorned bank notes.

Recent BPO performances of other works by Sibelius include the 2nd Symphony in 2012 and the Karelia Suite in 2009.