Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto
- February 2, 2018
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
When Beethoven left his hometown of Bonn for Vienna at the age of 21, his patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, sent him with this blessing: “May you receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn.” Mozart had died a year earlier, but his spirit certainly still pervaded Vienna, especially for Beethoven, who entered the freelance scene as a keyboard virtuoso, just like Mozart had a decade earlier. Beethoven did get a chance to take some lessons from Haydn (who was back in Vienna briefly between his visits to London), and in his early symphonies Beethoven used Haydn as his clear model. For piano concertos, the line of inspiration went straight to Mozart, whose 27 examples set the standard for generations to come.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat, published out of sequence as No. 2, was actually his first complete piano concerto. Fittingly, it used the same key and instrumentation as Mozart’s last piano concerto, K. 595. Beethoven began it as early as 1788 and reworked it in 1794 for a premiere the following spring, which marked his public debut in Vienna. Further revisions in 1798 and the addition of notated cadenzas around 1808 brought the work to its current form.
The concerto’s opening measures demonstrate textbook contrast and balance between the two offsetting phrases: the first is loud, rhythmically robust, scored for the whole orchestra, and in the home key of B-flat; the second is soft, rhythmically smooth, scored just for strings, and in the contrasting key of F. These motives develop through a high-energy movement of brilliant piano figurations, surprising harmonic shifts, and galloping rhythms. The cadenza’s stark counterpoint and insistent rhythmic repetitions introduce an extra note of firmness and drama, in line with the bolder strokes of Beethoven’s “middle” period.
The central Adagio, after elaborating a gentle theme, adds its most striking detail at the point when the cadenza would normally appear. Instead of inserting a virtuosic flourish, Beethoven gives the soloist a single melodic line to convey “with great expression,” alternating with comments from the orchestra as the movement draws to a close.
The Rondo finale especially benefited from the 1798 revision, which transformed the square rhythm of the original main theme to the punchy, syncopated motive we know today. Whether on purpose or as a copyist’s error, one instance of the old rhythm remains in the piano’s last solo statement of the theme.
Aaron Grad ©2015
Felix Mendelssohn was one of music’s most precocious prodigies, creating mature compositions while just a teenager. Still, at age 20, he did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour.” With extended visits to the British Isles and Italy, Mendelssohn expanded his worldview and brought home inspiration for future projects. Scotland would be memorialized in the Scottish Symphony and the Hebrides Overture, while Italy sparked an Italian Symphony. True to their origins, Mendelssohn’s Scottish works are misty and stormy, while the southern climate of Italy produced, in Mendelssohn’s words, “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of the Italian Symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and completed the work in 1833. He used the piece to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Italian Symphony (the nickname came from the composer) debuted in London in May of 1834. Besides the clear, sunny nature of the work, especially in its ebullient first movement, Mendelssohn confirmed the Italian origins with specific folk references. He dubbed the finale a saltarello — a leaping Italian folk dance — and he also incorporated elements of a tarantella, a devilishly fast dance from southern Italy to be undertaken (so the story goes) after a bite from a tarantula, until the dancer is cured or dies.
Later in 1834, Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements. He intended to revise the first movement, too, but postponed that task. Eventually, he judged that too much time had passed for him to rework the first movement in a style consistent with the rest of the piece, so he suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it actually came after the First and Fifth symphonies and was followed by the Second and Third. To further complicate the matter, the publisher worked from the original London score instead of Mendelssohn’s revised version, which itself existed in various iterations. A scholarly edition based on Mendelssohn’s revisions finally came out in 1999, but it is quite a different work than the one the public knows. Clearly, Mendelssohn’s final intentions have been misrepresented over the years, but millions of fans who love the original Italian Symphony likely would not want a single note changed. This raises an age-old question: Is the composer the ultimate arbiter of his own music? In the case of a genius such as Mendelssohn, we can probably agree that any version of his work is a treasure to have in our repertoire.
Aaron Grad ©2009