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Program Notes: October 24, 2009

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, S. 125

Adagio sostenuto assai; allegro agitato assai
Allegro moderato
Allegro deciso; marziale, un poco meno allegro; allegro animato

Franz Liszt

(born Raiding, Hungary, 1811; died Bayreuth, Germany, 1886)

The lush, poetic theme that opens Liszt’s second piano concerto is a most extraordinary slice of music, and it’s the soil from which all of the piece’s musical variations will grow. The first two chords are the most surprising — A major followed by a remote F7 — a progression that you would never hear from Beethoven. Liszt’s second chord invites us into harmonic and psychological places of which a “properly” progressed chord could not have dreamt. And these are only the first two chords. What follows is one of the most intriguing works of the Romantic era, a concerto that has enchanted audiences ever since its 1863 premiere.

In 1839, only 12 years after Beethoven’s death, Liszt sketched out his first and second piano concertos (although both went through many years of revision). He based each work on a single theme, in one long, uninterrupted movement. He was influenced by Franz Schubert, who had pioneered a “unifying theme” in his ground-breaking 1822 Wanderer Fantasy. Schubert built this mighty piano sonata around one theme, which he continually transformed through a series of unbroken movements. Liszt was also influenced by Hector Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique, which introduced the idée fixe — one theme that unified all five movements.

Using the idea of a “unified whole,” Liszt developed the symphonic poem, a one-movement piece that illustrates a story, painting, or other non-musical source. Perhaps his most famous symphonic poem is Les Preludes. This form, in turn, influenced the leitmotif (a recurring theme linked to a person, place, or idea) that unifies Richard Wagner’s operas, and then Richard Strauss’s works like Also Sprach Zarathustra. Within this musical lineage, Liszt’s two piano concertos play pivotal roles with their early forays into “thematic metamorphosis.”

After its first two extraordinary chords, the poetic opening to the Piano Concerto No 2 continues softly in the winds. As innovative as this harmonic moment may be, its brilliance is that it sounds so natural. The whole phrase-theme is more about mood and color than melody. Although it’s impossible to say what the music is expressing, Liszt seems to be raising some deep philosophical queries. Given his deep Catholic faith, which in his later life led him to take religious vows, one might presume that he is posing eternal questions. For certain, the theme is full of soft hues and mysterious backlighting. After an almost bluesy clarinet solo, the strings and a restrained piano share a slight variation on the unifying theme. Then comes a brief forte piano solo, with a handful of strings, playing another variation of the “theme,” this time surpassing its original poetry and approaching a near-spiritual ecstasy.

These first three phrases give us the blueprint for the concerto: essentially a theme and variations, with the piano most often acting as merely another instrument in the orchestra. Liszt — perhaps the world’s greatest virtuoso pianist ever — was certainly capable of composing a bring-down-the-house piano piece, as he had done with his first piano concerto, but here he has chosen to keep his own instrument out of the spotlight.

As the concerto continues, even the sections that require pianistic virtuosity blend the keyboard and orchestra almost seamlessly. When the last “movement” — or thematic transformation — arrives, the questions posed in the beginning of the concerto are answered triumphantly, as Liszt morphs the theme into an exciting finale march.

This concerto requires the listener to pay close attention, to catch every brilliant but fleeting masterstroke. Liszt gives us so many that surprises always await the next listening.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 42

Andante, ma rubato
Allegro moderato

Jean Sibelius

(born Tavestehus [Hämeenlinna], Finland, 1865; died Järvenpää, Finland, 1957)

Within the sprawl of Helsinki, before the city streets give way to the wild, vast landscapes of Finland, there is an extraordinary monument to Jean Sibelius called Passio musicae (Passion for Music). A 30-ton stainless steel sculpture, couched in a small park, and curiously unimposing at first, entices passersby for a closer look. Different lengths and widths of rough-hewn pipes are set vertically, slightly above the ground, and arranged like a forest filled with the impenetrable trunks of a million trees. This steel woods beckons the visitor toward a dark but magical doorway into the great wilds of Nature. It’s a perfect tribute, for as much as Nature is identified with Finland, so is Sibelius with both, as perhaps Finland’s most revered national hero. The monument represents Sibelius’ music, certainly his second symphony, which beckons his listeners into his own musical landscapes.

The symphony begins with a repeated rising string figure that serves as a launching point for later themes, especially in the Finale. A folksy, falling theme in the woodwinds adds to the idyllic feel. The horns balance the other voices with an elongated version of the wind melody. But soon something remarkable happens: Unison strings play a stark, stretched-out tune, punctuated with snatches of angular jumps. Not only is the balance upset, but Sibelius has brought us into an entirely different universe, one full of foreboding and danger. The music changes cataclysmically: The gentle string opening is sped up, and soon motifs and melodies are colliding with one another. Despite the seeming chaos, Sibelius keeps to a tight classical sonata form, some of the last use of sonata form in the 20th Century. The development section features many of Sibelius’ compositional hallmarks: brass chorales that seem to barge into the musical fabric like heavy machines; a long, stretched-out note ending in a flurry of changing pitches; and timpani rolls used as sonic anchoring points.

The second movement, Andante ma rubato, opens with the timpani setting a rather ominous tone, which is taken up by an almost menacing “walking” pizzicato string bass part. Eventually, over this incessancy, a lonesome bassoon melody sounds, plaintive and almost “out of time” with the pizzicato. Again, Sibelius speeds up the action almost imperceptibly, until the music reaches a crushing climactic section for brass. The climax is almost cruel in its obliteration. What follows is the most tragic music in the entire work, written for pianissimo strings. But the moment is fleeting. Sibelius is a master at transformation. Suddenly that resignation seems to have attained some dignity. Near the end of the movement, when the plaintive bassoon melody returns, now in the strings, hopeful strains emerge — fleetingly. But the mood and colors continually change, like the Aurora borealis, the visions always interrupted.

The third movement gives us something to fasten our psyche to. It’s a traditional scherzo with a luscious romantic “trio.” The recapitulation of the vivacissimo opening builds to a climax and then flashes without a break into the last movement.

Over an ostinato (repeating figure) soars a noble string melody crafted from the symphony’s opening string motif, sharing phrases with fanfaring high brass. Although Sibelius develops his themes in this finale, he has really composed a long lead-up to the powerful last bars. Every time we think we’ve reached the coda, he pulls the music back, starting another buildup and then another, each one more protracted than the last. When Sibelius finally releases the built-up tension, the emotional impact is as liberating, triumphant, and moving as any symphonic finale ever created.

— Max Derrickson