Program Notes: German Romantics

Concert Program

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Overture, Scherzo, & Finale, op.52
I. Overture
II. Scherzo
III. Finale
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, op.77 1
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio
III. Allegro giocoso; ma non troppo vivace
Friedrich Gernsheim
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, op. 46
I. Allegro tranquillo
II. Tarantella
III. Notturno
IV. Finale

Program Notes

ROBERT SCHUMANN 

Born in Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, nr Bonn, July 29, 1856

Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52 (1841)

When Robert Schumann was young, orchestras were performing overtures from Beethoven’s opera, ballet and theatre pieces in concert performances.  Mendelssohn took the medium a stage further by writing concert overtures, with no accompanying ballet or incidental music.  In his Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Schumann went further still by writing a three-movement concert piece that falls midway between concert overture and symphony.  It is one of his most attractive orchestral works and, in many ways, one of his more innovative creations.

Schumann’s critics and the audience at the Leipzig Gewandhaus première in December 1841 didn’t know what to make of it.  Schumann himself hesitated over the title and called it at various times ‘Suite,’ ‘Symphonette,’ and even, one year after its première, ‘Second Symphony (Overture, Scherzo and Finale) for orchestra.’  “We do not know what to call it,” Clara Wieck, by now recently married to Schumann, wrote in the family diary.  But Overture, Scherzo and Finale it is, nothing more, nor less.  It is a product of Schumann’s remarkable Symphonic Year, 1841, the year that followed his no less remarkable Year of Song, when he wrote 121 of his greatest songs.  In 1841, he completed both his Spring symphony, his Fourth Symphony, in D minor, the beginning of a symphony in C minor, plus a Phantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra that was later to become the first movement of the Piano Concerto.  Although also written in 1841, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale was eventually published in 1846.  “The whole work has a light, friendly character.  I wrote it in a really happy mood,” Schumann said to his publisher.

The overture begins gently with a question, cautiously probing the possibilities of a suggested theme.  Then we enter the magical world of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture or the elfin world of Weber’s Oberon.  Like these poetic miniature tone poems, Schumann’s overture is deftly written and scored.  Nothing is overstated or overblown.  Clara wrote enthusiastically of the ‘delicate,’ ‘jolly’ and ‘bewitching’ effects in the music.  The movement is, in fact, one of Schumann’s finest concert overtures.  The buoyancy of the opening is prolonged in the short Scherzo.  Its bouncy rhythm contains a hint of a broader, more lyrical theme in the violins, which is developed further and provides variety in a brief trio section.  An evocative look backwards at music from the overture ties a bow on the Scherzo.  Then we’re into an imposing start to the Finale, where we hear the trombones for the first time.  The fugal treatment of the theme gives the movement great momentum and, indeed, symphonic drive.  The Finale builds towards an eloquent chorale based on the opening melody.  This movement is a dynamic ending to a brave experiment in orchestral writing.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1878)

The decision to invite his violinist friend Joseph Joachim to collaborate on a concerto was central to Brahms’s concept of his only violin concerto.  Virtuosity is not grafted onto the music; it grows from within the music which is of symphonic breadth and character.  The Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski wrote it off as unplayable.  Conductor, Hans von Bülow, another friend, quipped that while Bruch had written a concerto for the violin, Brahms had written one against it.  A later violinist, Bronislav Huberman, won this particular war of words when he described the Brahms as “a concerto for violin against orchestra – in which the violin wins!”

The tradition of leaving the cadenza for the soloist to improvise had virtually died out since Beethoven.  By entrusting the first movement cadenza to Joachim, Brahms found a way in which he could bind his own music to past tradition.  Joachim’s cadenza soon became so intimately connected with Brahms’s concerto that it is usually the one heard to this day.  The concerto looks back to classical practice in another way – by keeping the first appearance of the soloist in reserve until the orchestra has presented much of the material of the first movement.  When the violin does appear, it presents a variation of the first theme, in the minor key, later introducing a new theme of its own.  Throughout, the treatment is symphonic, with orchestra and soloist taking an equal share in the working-out of themes.  Indeed, the extensive correspondence with Joachim shows that Brahms initially planned the work in four movements – like a symphony – rather than the customary three.  Soon, however, the middle two movements were removed (the scherzo was later drafted into the Second Piano Concerto) and Brahms substituted what he called a ‘feeble Adagio.’

This ’feeble’ slow movement opens with one of the classical repertoire’s great tunes, not on violin, though, but on oboe.  When the soloist does take up the melody, it is elaborated and made more idiomatic to the string instrument.  The movement artfully disguises itself as a free-sounding meditation on this magnificent leisurely melody.  The finale presents another aspect of Brahms’s idiom: the Hungarian gypsy style which he learned in his youth from the violinist Eduard Reményi.  In spirit, the music resembles Brahms’s own Hungarian Dances.  Its exuberance contrasts well with the serious tone of the opening two movements and serves as an homage to the work’s patient collaborator, Joseph Joachim.

FRIEDRICH GERNSHEIM

Born in Worms, Germany, July 17, 1839; died in Berlin, Sept 11, 1916

Symphony No. 2, in E-flat, Op. 46 (1882)

Brahms continues to have such a strong presence in late 19th century classical-romantic music that he quite eclipses the work of many contemporary well-schooled, competent, often imaginative composers whose work filled the catalogues of German music publishers of the day.  Max Bruch’s symphonies are a case in point, coming to my attention some years ago when the KWSO introduced his admirable Third Symphony.  Two cycles of Friedrich Gernsheim’s symphonies have been recorded in recent years, making a case for this contemporary of Brahms, born to a prominent Jewish family in Worms and six years younger than his friend and role model.   Like Brahms, Gernsheim wrote four symphonies and worked within a conservative musical language, with a keen awareness of musical tradition.  Like Brahms, Gernsheim steered clear of opera and devoted a significant part of his catalogue to chamber music, choral music, songs, chorus with orchestra, and no oratorios.  His schooling for a successful career as composer, conductor and pianist included two years in Leipzig with Moscheles and violinist Ferdinand David and several years in Paris.  He then conducted in Saarbrücken, taught at the Cologne Conservatory, conducted in Rotterdam, where he introduced several works by Brahms, and in Berlin where he taught at the Stern Conservatory and Prussian Academy of Arts.

From the very opening of Gernsheim’s Second Symphony of 1882, we hear confident, well-crafted writing for both winds and strings, a tendency to favour the horns (nothing wrong with that) and a secure hand in developing a winning melody from its shadowy introduction to a blazing full statement.  The basic structure is that of the traditional symphonic first movement, with the oboe introducing a lyrical second theme and the violins introducing a third, which is drawn from the first.  Gernsheim shares Brahms’s love of the conflict-seeking cross-rhythm, with the play of two beats against three.  He also shows a distinctive inclination to introduce chamber music-like textures into his symphonic writing with long, lyrical solo wind melodies and lean underscoring.

In place of the traditional scherzo, Gernsheim successfully introduces a tarantella.  There’s a lightness of touch to the scoring that may suggest Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and a judicious use of triangle and tambourine – though a fugal section quickly loses its way among the mediaeval alleys of Naples, which is where Gernsheim spent his honeymoon.  A warmly romantic Notturno prolongs the Italian reverie, dreamily weaving its theme into slumberland.  The mood is abruptly jolted by the build up to the stirring theme of the finale.  This is where Gernsheim tips his hat most overtly to Brahms (think the finale to Brahms’s First Symphony, completed one year after Gernsheim’s First, in 1876).  Cross-rhythms twice provide the conflict that the movement’s triumphant theme is designed to conquer and Gernsheim expertly whips up its progression to a final stretto and a feeling of resolution.  Germany’s leading music journal, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, praised the symphony after a performance in Bonn a few months after its première as “one of the most significant symphonic creations of recent years.”

©2019 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: khnotes@sympatico.ca

Biographies

Blake Pouliot, violin

Violinist Blake Pouliot has joined the upper echelons of brilliant soloists, establishing himself as a consummate 21st century artist with the rigor and passion to shine for a lifetime. At only 25-years-old the tenacious violinist has been praised by the Toronto Star as, “one of those special talents that comes along once in a lifetime.”

Highlights of the 2019-20 season include Pouliot’s debuts with the Atlanta, Asheville, Sarasota and Madison symphonies and a collaborative experience as the featured soloist for the first ever tour of the European Union Youth Orchestra and National Youth Orchestra of Canada.

The tremendously successful 2018-19 season included his debuts with the Detroit, Dallas, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Seattle symphonies, dazzling audiences by “[surging] onstage in rock star pants…[presenting] Brahms as a composer of great passion. It was compellingly – indeed, irresistibly – done.” (The Dallas Morning News) In September, Pouliot’s debut album featuring the works of Ravel and Debussy was released (Analekta Records), earning a five-star rating from BBC Music Magazine and a 2019 Juno Award nomination for Best Classical Album. Adding to his accolades, Pouliot won both the Career Development Award from the Women’s Club of Toronto and the Virginia Parker Prize from the Canada Arts Council.

Pouliot has twice been featured on CBC’s “30 Hot Canadian Classical Musicians under 30”. He’s also hosted CBC’s This is my Music, was featured on Rob Kapilow’s What Makes it Great? series, and was NPR’s Performance Today Artist-in-Residence during the 2017-18 season in Minnesota.

As Grand Prize winner of the 2016 Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Manulife Competition, Pouliot toured across South America during the summer of 2017 as soloist with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas performing Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons with conductors Carlos Miguel Prieto and Paolo Bortolameolli. He later returned to Montreal where he was featured in recital at the Montreal Symphony’s La Virée Classique. A prolific recitalist and chamber musician, Pouliot has performed in Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Toronto, and performs at Pepperdine University, the Isabel Bader Center in Kingston, and the Ottawa Chamber Music series in the 2019-20 season.

Since his orchestral debut at age 11, Pouliot has regularly performed with the orchestras of Aspen, Calgary, Edmonton, Pacific, Toronto, Vancouver, and the National Arts Centre. Internationally, Pouliot has performed as soloist with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in Bulgaria, and Orchestras of the Americas on their South American tour. He has collaborated with musical luminaries such as conductors Sir Neville Marriner, David Afkham, Pablo Heras Casado, David Danzmyer, Nicolas McGegan, Brett Mitchell, Vasily Petrenko, Alexander Shelley, and Hugh Wolff.

Pouliot studied violin in Canada with Marie Berard and Erika Raum, and completed his training as an associate of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He graduated from the Colburn School Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Robert Lipsett, the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair.

Pouliot performs on the 1729 Guarneri del Gesù, on generous loan from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank as First Laureate of both their 2018 and 2015 Competition.