Celebrating Christian Zacharias: Chopin's Second Piano Concerto
- May 13, 2016
- May 14, 2016
Grażyna Bacewicz ranks among Poland’s leading twentieth-century musical figures. An artist of diverse talents, she served as concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra from 1936 to 1938 and was active as a concert violinist into the mid-1950s; she was additionally a pianist of formidable skill, equal to the demands of her own Second Piano Sonata. She was also an accomplished novelist and short storywriter.
But it was as a composer that Bacewicz made her most lasting contributions. Her achievements in this arena have steadily attracted greater recognition in the decades following her death. That she made her career as a woman in postwar Europe is not insignificant. On hearing the premiere of her Concerto for Strings in 1950, the Polish writer and composer Stefan Kisielewski noted:
"[T]he dignity of Polish composers was saved by a woman… [Bacewicz’s] Concerto for Strings, written with gusto and energy, brimming with fluid inventiveness and excellent instrumentation ideas, has finally woken us up from lethargy. … Here we have at last tasted a ‘red-blooded piece’ of healthy and tasty music written with male-like creative power."
The American critic Milton Berliner praised the Concerto in equally outdated parlance, finding “nothing feminine about Miss Bacewicz’s piece. It was vigorous, even virile, with… a pulsing, throbbing rhythm and bold thematic material.” Well-intentioned though they may be, these problematic accolades illustrate another important facet of Bacewicz’s legacy: as a model for subsequent generations of Polish women composers.
The Concerto for Strings reflects Bacewicz’s artistic maturity, in which, writes scholar Adrian Thomas, her music “became increasingly personal, casting off any remaining Parisian chic”—Bacewicz had studied for two years with Nadia Boulanger—“and becoming distinctively resilient.” The Allegro begins with an insistent urgency. Following a brief dialogue between solo violin and cello, an ebullient six-note figure appears. This motif recurs throughout the movement, ultimately arriving at a reprise of the urgent introduction. Along the way, we encounter sharp pizzicati, evocative tremolandi, a rumor of folk music.
An emotive ambiguity permeates this movement—is it playfulness, or agitation? Likewise, the Andante is tender and morose in equal measure. Here, Bacewicz displays her textural inventiveness, setting an enigmatic cello solo against muted violins, half playing sul ponticello. The effervescent finale offers further textural variety: surging tutti runs, glimmering trills, and solo lines buoyed by rolling waves of sound, peppered by piquant ricochets. This is vigorous, virile music indeed, demanding greater attention to one of the most original, and under-recognized, musical voices of her generation.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
Haydn composed his Symphonies Nos. 82–87 between 1785 and 1786 on a commission for the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a Parisian musical society (hence their grouping as the “Paris” Symphonies). They premiered in 1786 to great success; Haydn’s Parisian publisher captured their favorable reception in his sales advertisement: “These symphonies… cannot fail to be eagerly sought by those who have the good fortune to hear them, and also for those who do not know them. The name of Haydn answers for their extraordinary merit.”
Though the Symphony in C, nicknamed “The Bear,” was the last to be composed, it appeared as the first of the set upon publication. It is scored for flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns, timpani, and strings. (Trumpets sometimes replace horns in the first, third, and fourth movements.) The Olympique moreover offered Haydn an unusually large string complement, comprising a combined band of amateurs and professionals; the violins alone numbered 40, in contrast to the twenty-five total musicians at Haydn’s disposal at Eszterháza.
Haydn capitalizes on these lavish instrumental forces immediately in the opening Vivace. The robust orchestration of the Symphony’s first gesture—an ascending, fortissimo C major arpeggio, voiced full-throated by the full orchestra and propelled by an inexorable rush of sixteenth notes in the strings—establishes the movement’s bright, outgoing energy right from the starting gun.
The Symphony lacks a true slow movement. The Allegretto second movement is a theme and variations in F major, a key traditionally associated with pastoral settings. Haydn’s music is duly bucolic. The movement’s gentle opening, set in strings alone, might evoke Haydn’s quartets—an essential Classical genre that would come to be defined, like the symphony, by Haydn’s innovations. The first variation adds winds, expanding the movement’s color palette. The third variation, in F minor and marked by rumbling low strings, conjures a turbulent storm. But the clouds part as abruptly as they came, and the movement returns to idyllic F major. Timpani, forgone in the Allegretto, are reintroduced in the regal minuet.
The Symphony takes its nickname from the finale. Haydn sets a countrified melody atop a cartoonish drone in the bassoons; this music evoked, for early listeners, the bagpipes that accompanied dancing bears at village fairs. What ensues, however, would suggest a remarkably fleet-footed bear indeed, as Haydn spins a sprightly Vivace to match the first movement’s zest.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
Chopin was not yet twenty when he completed his Piano Concerto in F Minor. Though it was the first of his two piano concerti, it was published second and thus designated his Piano Concerto No. 2. (Chopin set to work on his Concerto “No. 1” in E Minor shortly following the F Minor’s premiere.)
Both concerti, merely by virtue of their existence, inevitably invite comparison to the piano concerti of Mozart and Beethoven, at that time the genre’s definitive works. Measured by that standard, Chopin’s concerti routinely fail to satisfy—but this is a misguided criterion. Chopin’s concerti do not strive to create the cogent musical drama of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, with their Jungian archetypal soloists navigating a rich cosmos manifested by the orchestra. Chopin’s F Minor Concerto (and likewise its E Minor sibling) is a piano concerto in the most truly Romantic sense: it is a soloist vehicle, an unabashed celebration of pianistic virtuosity. The stile brillante of Hummel, Weber, and others offers a more accurate lens on Chopin’s concerti—viewed through which, even these youthful works must be regarded among the finest of their kind. (Robert Schumann surmised that “if a genius such as Mozart were to appear today, he would write Chopin concertos rather than Mozart ones.”)
The Concerto comprises three movements. The opening Maestoso is a heady portrait of nineteenth-century Sturm und Drang. A Larghetto of breathtaking loveliness follows. In each of these, Chopin places the piano prominently in the foreground, but particularly in the slow movement, where the orchestra often provides little more than a translucent halo around the soloist’s ecstatic flourishes. This heartfelt rhapsody was inspired by a young singer, Constantia Gladkowska, who had charmed Chopin. “I have … found my ideal,” the composer wrote to a friend, “whom I worship faithfully and sincerely. … But in the six months since I first saw her I have not exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night, she who was in my mind when I composed [the Larghetto].” Notwithstanding the ardor of the slow movement, Chopin saves arguably his most personal statement for the finale, a brilliant Allegretto vivace whose rhythmic character draws from the mazurka, a folk dance from the composer’s native Poland.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
SPECIAL PRE-CONCERT PERFORMANCE BY THE 2016 SPCO YOUTH CHAMBER MUSIC COMPETITION WINNERS ON MAY 13
The winners of the 2016 SPCO Youth Chamber Music Competition, the Vesper Quartet, will perform in the Marzitelli Foyer of the Ordway Center during Fanfare preceding the Friday, May 13 performance of Celebrating Christian Zacharias: Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. The members of the quartet are Vivian Murphy (violin), Addison Nichols (violin), John-Paul Shoemaker (viola), and Kajsa Johansson (cello). They will be performing the first movement of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major: Allegro Sostenuto.
The annual competition is sponsored and coordinated by the Friends of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the volunteer organization that supports The SPCO through educational, social and fundraising activities. Partnering with them are MNSOTA (Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Association), and MacPhail Center for Music. To learn more about the competition and to hear the rest of this year's winners, visit www.spco-ycmc.org.