CityMusic Cleveland: Brahms & Schumann

Photo by Julien Mignot
Photo by Julien Mignot
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In the first concert series of their 2015-16 season, CityMusic Cleveland and Music Director Avner Dorman welcomed violinist Sayaka Shoji. On the program was the Violin Concerto in D major by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B flat. 

Here are the program notes from the concert, written by Yvonne Frindle:

IN THE MASTER’S FOOTSTEP

Brahms’s Violin Concerto

One of Brahms’s staunchest supporters was the violinist Joseph Joachim. He was a passionate and persuasive advocate, and as a young man he’d single-handedly established Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the repertoire. The Beethoven concerto had been written for a particular violinist, Franz Clement; Mendelssohn’s concerto was written for Ferdinand David. And when Brahms came to write his own violin concerto he had Joachim in mind. More than that, he and Joachim worked closely together on the concerto.

Brahms was a composer with a deep respect for the past, and especially for the legacy of Beethoven. It’s not surprising that he begins his own violin concerto with a gesture similar to the beginning of Beethoven’s violin concerto: elaborate and wide-ranging music that introduces the violinist as virtuoso. Both concertos are in D major – a ‘good’ key for the violin – but Brahms does something sneaky: he introduces his soloist in D minor, giving the music a melancholy twist.

Both Beethoven and Brahms leave it to the soloist to improvise a cadenza, that moment in the first movement where soloists had traditionally displayed their musicality and skill. For Brahms this was a very Classical, very old-fashioned thing to do: by 1878 (and this had begun with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto) composers had long been writing out their cadenzas, removing all opportunity for improvisation. Unsurprisingly, Joachim’s own cadenza has become the most popular among modern soloists.

Originally, Brahms had planned the concerto in four movements, but early on he decided that the middle movements were ‘failures.’ In his typically self-effacing way, he told Joachim: ‘I have written a feeble Adagio instead.’ But there is nothing feeble about it at all! In fact, the Adagio includes some of the most heartfelt and moving music in the whole concerto, as well as a beautiful solo for the first oboe, which the soloist then transforms into an astonishing violinistic rhapsody.

The third movement of the concerto reveals one of Brahms’s musical enthusiasms: gypsy music. This inventive and energetic finale is also a tribute to Joachim, who was half Hungarian. But above all, it brings the concerto to an exhilarating conclusion.

LONGING FOR SPRING

Schumann’s Symphony No.1

This symphony was written rapidly – in a manic burst during the months of January and February 1841 – and with what Schumann described as a ‘vernal passion.’ He went on to say: ‘Description and painting were not part of my intention, but I do believe that the season in which this symphony was born influenced its structure and helped make it what it is.’ Even though Schumann ultimately removed the subtitle ‘Spring’ from the symphony, and even though he decided not to give titles to the individual movements as he’d originally planned, he nonetheless thought of it as his ‘Spring’ symphony and this music – composed in the middle of a cold, grey Leipzig winter – is filled with a longing for the warmer months.

After he’d completed the symphony, Schumann began noticing little pictorial details: the way the trumpet’s first entry sounds from on high ‘like a call to awaken’, and how, during the slow introduction (‘at a walking pace and very majestic’), the world turns green, ‘perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air’, and finally, as the music of the first movement quickens (‘fast and very lively’), the world comes to life.

The ‘call to awaken’ motif provides the main thematic material for the first movement, but it also caused some embarrassment at the first rehearsal for the premiere (conducted by Felix Mendelssohn). Schumann had written the note B flat for the horns as well as trumpets, forgetting that the orchestra was using old-style valveless instruments and that the horns would sound ‘as though they had caught a violent head cold’ while the trumpets couldn’t play the note at all! Mendelssohn solved the problem by changing the phrase so it began on D instead of B flat and that’s how the symphony was published. Long after Schumann’s death Mahler restored the original opening and this has been adopted by many modern conductors, including Avner Dorman in this concert.

The second movement (Larghetto, or slow and broad) evokes the mood of ‘Evening’ with graceful, singing music. Towards its end the trombones enter and the music is transformed, moving without a pause directly into the energetic Scherzo movement (marked ‘very lively’). Initially, at least, Schumann had thought of this third movement as ‘Merry Playmates’ and it has a boisterous and often capricious character to match. The projected title for the finale was ‘Spring at its Height’ but in the end Schumann was content to mark this majestic movement Allegro animato e grazioso: fast, animated and graceful.

Yvonne Frindle © 2015

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