Patricia Kopatchinskaja Plays Beethoven
- November 7, 2015
Like so many of Haydn’s symphonies, this one acquired its nickname, La Passione, after the fact, and in this case, long after its initial composition during the early years of Haydn’s residency as Kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. An advertisement for a performance of the work during the Holy Week in the German city of Schwerin in 1790 is the earliest reference to this nickname, and it is not difficult to see why the title has stuck. (Publishers were wont to latch onto catchy nicknames as a way to boost sales.) The dark and brooding opening slow movement, the prevalence of the minor mode throughout, and the reckless abandon of the two fast movements are all characteristics of this symphony that hold with the idea that this work could be a reflection upon the suffering of Christ.
Symphony No. 49 achieved widespread popularity in Haydn’s time, judging from the abundant number of contemporary copies found throughout Europe. It is perhaps the finest example of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) period, in which subjectivity and the extreme emotions of the individual take precedence over the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empirical thought. Sudden and extreme shifts in dynamics, mood, and temperament pervade the work. The oboes and horns often hold plangent chords while the strings scurry back and forth or weave melancholy lines on top of halting bass notes. Only the Trio of the Minuet, with its F Major tonality, grants the listener a glimmer of sunshine.
Kyu-Young Kim ©2015
As an expressive vehicle, I have come back to the violin more than any other instrument during my life as a composer (even though my own instrument is the piano). Along with the monodra-ma, On the Threshold of Winter, the concerto continues a series of works I've written in re-sponse to the death of a dear friend, whose passing occurred now over five years ago. While time does often heal, or at least calm the immediacy of grief's presence, it has not in this case. If anything, with the passage of time I miss her more, and the sensation of a void remains acute. While composing the concerto I thought often of a bronze sculpture by the Pennsylvania sculptor Christopher Cairns, which he calls Stanchion. In addition to the sculpted figure, fragments from Thomas Hardy's poems A Commonplace Day and The Church and the Wedding provided inspiration:
The day is turning ghost ...
I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilights's stride extends, And beamless black impends ...
And when the nights moan like the wailings Of souls sore-tried,
The folk say who pass the church-palings They hear inside
Strange sounds of anger and sadness That cut the heart's core,
And shaken words bitter to madness; And then no more.
Michael Hersch ©2015
If Beethoven can be regarded as the most universally admired composer in Western music history, it is the aspiration of his music that has thus installed him. Consider that he composed nine symphonies to Haydn’s 104—but each of those nine aspires to profundity, to express the human condition in a way that Haydn, for all his genius and originality, did not. This quality of Beethoven’s music is especially salient to his celebrated “heroic” period, and the Violin Concerto dates from the height of that chapter of his career. Though it has, to be sure, stiff competition (the Eroica, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies; the Emperor Concerto; any number of sonatas, string quartets; et cetera ad infinitum), the Violin Concerto might be considered Beethoven’s quintessential work.
Certainly, it shares the broad aspirations of its siblings. (In the year 1806 alone, Beethoven completed, in addition to the Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky Quartets, Appassionata Sonata, Fourth Symphony, and Fourth Piano Concerto.) The Concerto’s first movement alone outlasts most Haydn symphonies in their entirety. Moreover, the concerto medium—virtuoso in front of the orchestra: leader of the masses, perhaps, or revolutionary, or messiah—presents an ideal manifestation of the Beethovenian concept of heroism.
But the psychological complexity of the Violin Concerto challenges the paradigm. The solo writing—which, make no mistake, ranks among the most technically demanding in the violin repertoire—does not gratify the soloist with blazing pyrotechnics. The protagonist of this heroic journey is not your standard-issue knight in shining armor; Beethoven creates a more elusive character.
The Concerto begins in famously unorthodox fashion, with the timpani presenting a five-beat rhythmic motif. This seemingly innocuous gesture is immediately revealed to be a powerfully consequential germinal cell (foreshadowing Fate knocking at the door in the Fifth Symphony). It surfaces in different manifestations in quick succession: now regal, now quickened and breathless, now lyrical.
This is Beethoven’s signature motivic developmental technique: obsession over simple motives catalyzes a sweeping sense of drama. Beethoven’s very compositional vocabulary, in the composer’s penchant for building something great from something humble, thus explicitly represents heroism.
Yet the soloist’s first entrance is startlingly unassuming; neither fearless leader nor conquering hero, but something more nuanced. Against tutti music of heroic breadth, the soloist offers unaffected stream-of-consciousness musing.
Thus does Beethoven set the scene for the remarkable journey that is this triumphant Violin Concerto. Having built the stage from a blueprint set out in the Concerto’s opening measures, based on that germinal five-note rhythmic motif, and having established the character of the soloist and its relationship to the orchestra, Beethoven subsequently uses the solo writing—in other words, masterfully exploits the very concerto medium—to three-dimensionalize his blueprint.
This is indeed music of great expressive aspiration. The Violin Concerto is also music of great insight and empathy. The arc traced from the splendid opening Allegro through the sublime Larghetto and ultimately to the ebullient finale places it alongside Beethoven’s final piano sonata, his Ninth Symphony, and others of his most deeply human utterances. It is music that expresses on the listener’s behalf something otherwise inarticulable, but unmistakably resonant and truly universal.
Patrick Castillo ©2015
Learn more about Patricia Kopatchinskaja's unique interpretation of Beethoven's Violin Concerto through this insightful essay by the musician herself.
Music in the Making with Michael Hersch and Patricia Kopatchinskaja
Wednesday | Nov 4 | 7:00pm
UBS Forum, Saint Paul
Michael Hersch and Patricia Kopatchinskaja kick off the first Music in the Making conversation of the 2015.16 season in anticipation of the premiere of Hersch’s Violin Concerto, commissioned by and for the SPCO and Kopatchinskaja. Hersch, as a leading composer of his generation and an accomplished concert pianist, and the vibrant and compelling Kopatchinskaja, a familiar face to SPCO followers, are sure to challenge and inspire both the musicians and audience of the SPCO. In this intimate and open conversation Hersch and Kopatchinskaja detail the making of the four movement work and on elaborate their collaborative and creative processes.