Jeremy Denk Plays Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto


Johann Sebastian Bach

Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Chamber Symphony (after String Quartet No. 3), Opus 73a (arr. Barshai)

Shostakovich had his first run-in with Stalin in 1936, when the young composer was blasted for producing “Muddle Instead of Music,” to quote the title of a scathing editorial. Stalin’s tight control over Soviet artists relaxed slightly during World War II, and Shostakovich bounced back with his Seventh Symphony—a tribute to the besieged city of Leningrad—but the risks intensified again after the war. Given the criticism Shostakovich faced in 1945 for his Ninth Symphony, a charming little work that was a far cry from the expected ode to victory, he knew to tread carefully. He completed only one composition in 1946, the String Quartet No. 3 written for the Beethoven Quartet, his longtime collaborators who premiered all but the first and last of his 15 string quartets. His caution, it turned out, was well founded: he was among the composers singled out for condemnation in 1948, a very dangerous time to be on the wrong side of Stalin.

For the 1946 premiere, Shostakovich provided the Third Quartet with subtitles for each movement corresponding to the arc of war, starting with “Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm” to characterize the first movement. Shostakovich soon disavowed the subtitles, and it seems likely that they only existed to insulate the quartet from criticism of its ideological stance (or lack thereof). In reality, this quartet—or its twin sibling heard here, the Chamber Symphony arranged from the quartet by Rudolf Barshai—contains many layers of nuanced meaning that transcend any implied narrative. That description of “Blithe ignorance” for the first movement may have provided cover for music that is unabashedly playful, but it hardly captures the thrust of this finely wrought movement in the Classical tradition of Haydn and Beethoven (with traces of Bach, as heard in the formal counterpoint).

The next movement, at a tempo marked Moderato con moto, originally sported the label, “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation.” This unsettled music in a forward-leaning, three-beat meter substitutes for a customary slow movement. The following section is even more assertive, taking the form of a hard-charging march that came with the subtitle, “Forces of war unleashed.” The work’s only slow movement is the brief Adagio (“In memory of the dead”) that functions as a somber introduction to the finale. This fifth movement is the longest and most hermetic portion of the work, and it resonates far beyond Shostakovich’s supposed war narrative as it asks “The eternal question: Why? And for what?”

Aaron Grad ©2015

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 4

Jeremy Denk, director and 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

About This Program

Artistic Partner and pianist Jeremy Denk joins the SPCO for two weeks of performances, the first beginning with selected preludes and fugues for solo piano by Bach. This concert also includes an arrangement of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony written under intense scrutiny of Communist censorship. The concert concludes with one of the core works in piano concerto literature, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

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