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Arnold Schoenberg

Chamber Symphony No. 2

Schoenberg began the Chamber Symphony No. 2 in 1906, just after finishing the seminal Chamber Symphony No. 1. Before he could complete the score, however, Schoenberg heeded an inner drive that pulled him away from the hyper-dense tonal language of the First Chamber Symphony, and into the unexplored realms of atonality. He revisited the second Chamber Symphony in 1911, and again in 1916, but still could not reconcile himself with his own bygone style, so the work remained incomplete during Schoenberg’s period of “free atonality” and through his development of the “twelve-tone” method of composition.

Decades later, after Schoenberg had settled into an uneasy life of exile in Los Angeles, a fallow period in his composing led him to re-examine his musical past. With some prodding by Fritz Stiedry, another Austrian expatriate, who led an orchestra in New York, Schoenberg took up the Second Chamber Symphony once more, 33 years after he began it. He wrote to Stiedry, “I have been working on the second chamber symphony for a month now. I spend most of the time trying to discover ‘What did the author mean here?’ My style has now become very consolidated and it is now effortful to unify what I wrote down back then, justifiably trusting in my feeling for form, with my current extensive requirements for ‘visible logic.’”

Schoenberg made only minor changes in the Adagio first movement, adjusting some of the accompanying textures and adding twenty new measures at the end. The peppy second movement, on the other hand, required about half new material, including a final, epilogue-like section. He began, but scrapped, a third movement, and re-orchestrated all of the music, using an ensemble with string sections instead of the individual string soloists of the First Chamber Symphony. The total effect is remarkably cohesive for a work assembled on opposite ends of Schoenberg’s incomparable evolution as a composer.

Aaron Grad ©2013

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 4

Jonathan Biss, piano

In 1803, Beethoven famously declared: “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.” The same year saw the completion of the Eroica Symphony, unofficially launching the composer’s celebrated “heroic” period. Over the following decade, Beethoven produced music of unprecedented magnitude. It was also during this time that his worsening deafness became a personal crisis. Beethoven responded with music that was epic and defiant.

The famous solo piano introduction to the Fourth Piano Concerto immediately sets it apart from other signature “heroic” statements. In contrast to the vigorous opening salvos of the Fifth Symphony, Appassionata, et al., the Concerto begins with a gentle utterance: piano, dolce, searching yet at peace. This opening gesture ends in the dominant key of D major; the orchestra replies in distant B major, presaging the harmonic nuance that colors the entire work.

Despite the serenity of the opening, a close listen reveals the four-note, “Fate knocking at the door” rhythmic motif of the Fifth Symphony embedded into this first theme, three times in succession—the peaceful yang to the Symphony’s stormy yin. But in characteristically Beethovenian fashion (in this regard, sharing the Fifth’s genetic code), the material presented in these first five measures will be mined exhaustively. Those four repeated notes course through the movement.

The piano serves as the clear protagonist throughout, but the precise nature of the journey is elusive. The hero is strong in his stillness, somehow lacking—transcending—the visceral thrust of the Fifth. Indeed, the seemingly bemused, stream-of-consciousness quality of Beethoven’s hyper-virtuosic writing, aided by the delicate shading of his orchestration, is one of the Concerto’s miracles.

The pithy Andante con moto is an equally extraordinary creation to the first movement, but of a starkly different character. It is often described as depicting Orpheus in Hades, with the piano again the mythic hero, taming the Furies at the gates of hell. The soloist, alone, presents the movement’s turbulent climax: an anguished trill above descending chromatic cries.

From here, the Concerto proceeds posthaste to the galloping refrain of the bright Rondo finale, three-dimensionalized by a series of vivid episodes. The subtle refinement of Beethoven’s harmonic sensibility is on further display: the movement begins in C major, arriving at the home key of G barely in time for the work’s conclusion. Despite what seemed, at the Concerto’s outset, an unlikely heroic journey, the emergence from the tortured slow movement to this triumphant finale fully epitomizes Beethovenian heroism.

Though critically lauded in the May 1809 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung as “the most admirable, singular, artistic, and complex Beethoven concerto ever,” Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto went largely ignored in the years following the composer’s death. Felix Mendelssohn, the same music-historical hero who rescued Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion from neglect, revived interest in the Fourth Concerto, performing it on his final concert in London in 1846.

Patrick Castillo ©2016

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