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Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 5

Jonathan Biss, director and piano
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Maurice Ravel

Le tombeau de Couperin

Modeled after the Baroque dance suite, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin pays homage, not specifically to François Couperin, but rather to eighteenth-century French music at large. Nevertheless, it does bear the imprint of Couperin, the forlane rondeau finale of whose Concert Royaux No. 4 Ravel closely studied and transcribed while preparing to compose his Tombeau.

As Ravel began work on Le Tombeau de Couperin, Europe became swept up in the First World War. This seismic event acutely affected Ravel. In a letter to his student Roland-Manuel dated October 1, 1914, the composer noted numerous works in progress, including the Piano Trio, a piano concerto, two operas, and other large-scale works. But the war hampered Ravel’s productivity: of these and other projects, he only completed the Piano Trio, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the famous symphonic work La Valse. His mind was squarely on the war during these years, and in 1916, he himself enlisted as an ambulance driver. When he finally completed Le Tombeau in 1917, Ravel attached a second commemorative significance to the work: each movement bears a dedication to a comrade who had fallen during the war.

The Prélude is dedicated “To the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot.” Prior to the war, Charlot had worked for Durand, Ravel’s publisher, and prepared a solo piano transcription of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’oye. The Prélude combines the liveliness of Couperin’s and Scarlatti’s sprightly keyboard works with Ravel’s modern harmonies.

The Forlane honors Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a friend from Ravel’s native Basque region. The movement’s piquant melodic and rhythmic profile are perhaps a nod to that area’s folk music.

The tender-hearted Menuet is dedicated “To the memory of Jean Dreyfus.” During the war, Ravel had become especially close with Dreyfus’s family when he was temporarily discharged from military service following an operation for dysentery. Ravel recuperated at the Dreyfus family home, where he completed work on Le Tombeau.

The Rigaudon bears an especially poignant dedication: it eulogizes Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, childhood friends of Ravel and brothers who were killed during the war by the same shell. The movement begins with mirthful exuberance. Ravel offsets this joie de vivre with a more introspective middle section, but the dance returns, and the work ends in high spirits. When questioned about the work’s conspicuous lack of elegiac music in commemorating the fallen, Ravel explained, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Patrick Castillo ©2014

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor

Jonathan Biss, director and piano

In the summer of 1809, Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Beethoven, unlike most of his friends and patrons, remained in the city, and he passed the miserable season with little contact with the outside world. He spent some of that time finishing the Fifth Piano Concerto, his final and most substantial work in the genre. It would be the only concerto he did not perform himself, given the deteriorated state of his hearing by the time of the 1811 premiere. Beethoven’s early symphonies and concertos built upon the classical traditions of Haydn and Mozart. The work with which Beethoven eclipsed all symphonic precedents (at least in terms of sheer size) was the Symphony No. 3 in E flat, from 1803, nicknamed “Eroica” (Italian for “heroic”). The Piano Concerto No. 5, also in the key of E flat, is in many ways a sibling to the “Eroica” Symphony; in the case of the concerto, Beethoven had no part in the nickname—“Emperor” came later from an English publisher—but both works share a monumental posture and triumphant spirit. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to the Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian emperor Franz. More than just a patron, Rudolph was a piano student of Beethoven’s, and the two maintained a warm friendship until the composer’s death.

The “Emperor” Concerto begins at a climax: the orchestra proclaims the home key with a single chord, and the piano leaps in with a virtuosic cadenza. The ensemble holds back its traditional exposition of the thematic arguments until the pianist completes three of these fanciful solo flights, the last connecting directly to the start of the movement’s primary theme. It is a remarkable structure for a concerto, with an assurance of victory, as it were, before the battle lines have been drawn. Even once the piano returns, the movement continues in a symphonic demeanor, forgoing a stand-alone cadenza in favor of solo escapades that integrate deftly into the forward progress of the form.

The slow movement enters in the luminous and unexpected key of B major with a simple theme, first stated as a chorale for muted strings. The piano plays a decorated version over pizzicato accompaniment, and woodwinds later intone the same theme, supported by piano filigree and off-beat string pulses. The transition back to the home key for the finale is brilliantly understated: The held note B drops to B-flat, providing a smooth lead-in for the piano to introduce the principal theme of the Rondo. The motive’s upward arpeggio generates extra propulsion through its unexpected climax on an accented off-beat, adding a dash of Haydnesque humor to a score that has all the power and majesty of Beethoven in his prime.

Aaron Grad ©2013

About This Program

Pianist Jonathan Biss returns to the Ordway Concert Hall for Beethoven’s final piano concerto, the mammoth Emperor Concerto. Le tombeau de Couperin, Maurice Ravel’s homage to the baroque master Francois Couperin, serves as a counterpoint to the Beethoven and features the SPCO winds performing sweeping and colorful melodies.

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