Program Notes: The Great Romantics

Concert Program

Ludwig van Beethoven / Andrei Feher (1770 – 1827)
String Quartet No. 16 in F, Op. 135
Lento assai e cantante tranquillo
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Piano, Op. 15
I. Maestoso
II. Adagio
III. Rondo: Allegro non troppo
Antonin Dvorák (1841 – 1904)
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
I. Allegro maestoso
II. Poco adagio
III. Scherzo: Vivace
IV. Finale: Allegro

Program Notes

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, arr. Andrei Feher
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 15 or 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Lento assai slow movement from the String Quartet in F, Op. 135 (1826)

Op. 135 is Beethoven’s final string quartet and his last word in a medium he chose to explore life’s journey.  Written in poor health, after a traumatic period in his life resulting in an uneasy reconciliation with his nephew Karl, its music was nevertheless composed quickly.  Its directness and clarity of language appears to be far removed from the crescendo of complexity and soul-searching of the other late quartets.  Beneath the surface lies a subtlety and richness to the music, together with an intricacy of emotional worlds.   The slow movement, chosen and arranged by Andrei Feher to mark the centenary of the end of World War 1 (at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month) is profound in its timeless gravity.  The music adds layers of emotion, one on top of another.  Without doubt, this is among the most moving of all Beethoven’s slow movements.  All Beethoven’s troubles and emotional conflict during the summer of 1826 find expression and universal resonance in the gentle, occasionally painful solemnity of the music.

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Born in Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897
Piano Concerto No. 1, in D minor, Op. 15 (1854-9)

The Hamburg-born Johannes Brahms was the first great composer to fully appreciate the achievement of composers from the past.  He had a deep knowledge of the music of Vienna, the city in which he chose to live.  He knew the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn inside out.  He revered the music of Bach.  He went back further, editing editions of Couperin and Handel as well as Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  As a choral conductor, he revived forgotten works by Renaissance and Baroque composers.  In writing his own motets, chorale preludes and fugues and using their principles in his large-scale orchestral works, he helped revive the harmonically-based Classical tradition.

For years Brahms was known as the Great Conservative: a traditionalist, reactionary, even.  A bearded philosopher, who brooded on the past and who, for decades, lived in fear of what he referred to as “the tramp of giants.”  But, in the present century, our view of Brahms has been transformed.  Although he has seldom been underrepresented in concert programs, and never fallen out of fashion, we now talk more openly of Brahms the Progressive and Brahms the Innovator, the gateway to musical modernism.  Brahms the Romantic is a favourite theme of concert programming, particularly in light of his enigmatic love affair with Clara Schumann (‘did he or didn’t he?’).  Adding to the picture, ‘Brahms the Ambivalent’ and ‘Brahms the Subversive’ are the titles of two chapters in a recent collection of essays on the composer.

Starting life as a four-movement Sonata for two pianos, then partly re-worked as the opening of a symphony, and only then conceived as a piano concerto, Brahms’s Op. 15 was to become his first important orchestral composition.  From these initial ideas, Brahms extracted the piano as the binding medium for the orchestral texture.  He would treat the solo piano as a responsible equal rather than as a temperamental star.  The first movement opening (Maestoso – Majestic) seems to reflect the turmoil of the composer’s life in the year 1854.  It is of exceptional ferocity, with the strings appearing at the time of the première to do violence to their very nature – the sound made all the more sinister by their clamorous trills.  According to Joseph Joachim, the conductor at that première, the turbulent opening reflects the state of Brahms’s mind when he heard that his mentor, composer Robert Schumann, had thrown himself into the Rhine.  Similarly, the profoundly serious and meditative mood of the Adagio is believed to reflect Brahms’s thoughts on the death of Schumann two years later.  “The whole piece has something ecclesiastical about it; it might be an eleison,” Schumann’s wife Clara wrote to Brahms.  “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” Brahms wrote on the autograph score.  The finale gave Brahms the most trouble, eventually arriving at an energetic Rondo that lightens the earlier moods of defiance and elegy.  The movement begins in D minor but, after the soloist’s cadenza, it turns to a bright D major, suggesting that the dark clouds have finally lifted.

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op.70, B.14 (1884-5)

“Now I am convinced that there is not a single superfluous note in the work,” Czech composer Antonín Dvořák wrote to his publisher after making the final revisions to his Seventh Symphony.  Widely acknowledged as the greatest of his nine symphonies, the Seventh has a powerful sense of purpose and unity of mood.  Were it to be given a descriptive title, this D minor symphony would be known as Dvořák’s Tragic.  At the time of writing, the stakes were high for the 44-year-old composer.  It was his first – and only – commissioned symphony, written for the Philharmonic Society of London who, a little over a half century earlier, had made the same request from Beethoven and received the Choral Symphony in return.  Dvořák’s mentor, Brahms, had recently premièred his Third Symphony to great acclaim.  Dvořák, perceived by traditionalists as still writing under his shadow, determined to create a symphony of equal, but independent stature.

The symphony opens with ominous rumblings and a dark theme low in the strings, full of latent energy.   More ideas grow organically from this opening, intensifying the mood.  The germ of the idea came to Dvořák while waiting for a large group of Hungarian anti-Habsburg nationalists to arrive at the Prague railway station.  But, although the ideas are soon to explode into a big climax before giving way to a more ingratiating sequence of themes, nationalist fervour comes second to tragedy in the musical argument that follows.  Dvořák’s mother had recently died and he was distressed at the rapidly declining mental health of Smetana, the leading Czech nationalist composer of the time.  Something of the intensity of Dvořák’s feelings work their way into the music of the opening movement, which ends quietly, with an air of foreboding.

The slow movement begins and ends with a peaceful hymn-like theme, offering an abundant framework for Dvořák’s richly lyrical melodic writing.  The scherzo is the most Czech in spirit with its cross-rhythms of three against two, after the manner of the Czech dance, the furiant.  But even its lilting main theme takes on the driven ferocity of mood that underlines the entire work.  The opening theme of the finale derives from the low-lying theme with which the symphony opens and seems destined to continue the feeling of tragic drama.  There are contrasting themes in a heroic march and the sweepingly joyful theme from the cellos which bring a distinctively Czech feel to the score.  Still, the impassioned main theme dominates and even the mighty D major conclusion only emphasizes the tragic nature of the symphony.

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

Biographies

Photo by: Ben Lariviere Photography

Andrei Feher, conductor

Andrei Feher has already earned a reputation for his musical maturity and integrity, natural authority on the podium, and an imaginative and intelligent approach to programming. At the age of 26 Feher was appointed as the new Music Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, a position which is effective from August 2018.

Having gained early experience as assistant to Fabien Gabel at the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec, at the age of 22 Feher joined the Orchestre de Paris as Assistant Conductor to its Music Director, Paavo Järvi. During this time he collaborated with conductors including Zubin Mehta, Valery Gergiev, Christoph von Dohnányi, Thomas Hengelbrock and Jaap van Zweden, as well as regularly conducting the orchestra in their popular Young Public concerts at the Philharmonie de Paris.

In addition to his commitments with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, recent and upcoming highlights include performances with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec, Les Violons du Roy, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre National d’Ile de France, Orchestre Métropolitain Montreal and Romanian Radio National Orchestra.

A strong advocate of contemporary music, Feher has recently performed works by Eric Champagne, Pierre Mercure, George Dimitrov, Ciprian Pop and Abigail Richardson, as well as the world premiere of Thierry Besancon’s opera for children Les Zoocrates with Opéra de Lausanne. In November 2015, Feher conducted the world premiere of Soleil Noir by Pierre Jodlowski with the Orchestre de Pau-Béarn, which resulted in an immediate invitation to conduct the work in Toulouse in November 2016.

Born in Romania into a family of musicians, Feher began his musical education as a violinist in his hometown Satu-Mare before continuing his studies at the Montreal Conservatoire when his parents relocated to Canada.

Charles Richard-Hamelin, pianist

Silver medalist and laureate of the Krystian Zimerman award of the best sonata at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, Charles Richard-Hamelin is standing out as one of the most important pianists of his generation. He also won the second prize at the Montréal International Musical Competition and the third prize and special award for the best performance of a Beethoven sonata at the Seoul International Music Competition in South Korea. Charles was recently awarded the Order of Arts and Letters of Quebec and the prestigious Career Development Award offered by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto.

He has appeared in various prestigious festivals including La Roque d’Anthéron in France, the Prague Spring Festival, the “Chopin and his Europe” Festival in Warsaw and the Lanaudière Festival in Canada. As a soloist, he has performed with various ensembles including the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Singapour Symphony Orchestra, Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic, Quebec Symphony Orchestra, OFUNAM (Mexico City), Orchestre Métropolitain, National Arts Center Orchestra, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Violons du Roy, I Musici de Montréal, Sinfonia Varsovia and the Poznań Philharmonic. He has played under the baton renowned conductors such as Kent Nagano, Vasily Petrenko, Jacek Kaspszyk, Aziz Shokhakimov, Peter Oundjian, Jacques Lacombe, Fabien Gabel, Carlo Rizzi, Alexander Prior, Christoph Campestrini, Lan Shui and Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Originally from Lanaudière in Québec, Charles Richard-Hamelin studied with Paul Surdulescu, Sara Laimon, Boris Berman, André Laplante, Jean Saulnier and is a graduate of McGill University, the Yale School of Music and the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal.

His first solo recording, which features late works by Chopin, was released in September 2015 on the Analekta label and received widespread acclaim from critics throughout the world (Diapason, BBC Music Magazine, Le Devoir) as well as a Felix Award (ADISQ). A second album, recorded live at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City with music by Beethoven, Enescu and Chopin, was released in the fall of 2016 and also had a very positive welcome (Gramophone, La Presse, The WholeNote).

Charles Richard-Hamelin’s 2018 year is marked by three tours in Asia (Japan, Korea and China), the recording of the first volume of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for piano and violin with the OSMconcertmaster Andrew Wan, the recording of Chopin’s two concertos with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Kent Nagano, a solo recording of Chopin’s works and over 75 concerts in Canada, Asia, Europe and the United States.