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Beethoven, Strauss, Liszt

Concert Paraphrase on Themes from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
Stephen Prutsman (b. 1961)

Stephen Prutsman was born in Los Angeles in 1961. He composed his Concert Paraphrase on Themes from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 2008.

This virtuoso arrangement of well-known melodies from Tchaikovsky’s beloved opera was released on the Blue Griffin label by the composer on piano, joined by his colleagues in the Trio Nobilis: violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and cellist Suren Bagratuni. It will showcase the versatility of composer-performer Stephen Prutsman, one of the most complete all-round musicians on the American and international music scene.


Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on or around December 16, 1770 and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He wrote his Triple Concerto in 1803/04. The work was premiered publicly in May 1808 in the Augarten in Vienna (a private performance may have taken place in 1804 in the home of Prince Lobkowitz). The first performance in the United States was given in 1864 by the Musical Society in Milwaukee under the direction of Frederick Abel.
            This concerto runs about 35 minutes in performance. Beethoven scored it for piano, violin, and cello soloists, plus an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Musicologists have searched far and wide and have not found another concerto for piano, violin, and cello. How fortunate for us that the only composer to have tried this particular combination was none other than Ludwig van Beethoven! Concertos for multiple solo instruments, such as Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, or Haydn’s for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon, usually feature winds and/or string instruments. The keyboard, with its all-encompassing harmonic possibilities, and its range covering all the registers from the highest to the lowest, seemed in most cases to be self-sufficient and to demand undivided attention.
            Was it that the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s talented pianist pupil, was not quite ready to take on a solo concerto but wanted to be included? The youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, Rudolph was for many years one of Beethoven’s most ardent supporters who received the dedication of more works by the master than anyone else. It has long been thought that the Triple Concerto was written with his participation in mind, even though in the end, he did not play in the first performance. (The technical demands of the piano part are considerably lighter than those of Beethoven’s solo piano concertos.)
            Written right after the ‟Eroica” symphony, the Triple Concerto belongs to Beethoven’s “middle” period, yet it doesn’t conform to the image of Beethoven the heaven-storming hero that was so dear to critics from the Romantic era down to the present day. The unusual instrumentation and the deceptively “unproblematic” nature of the music have caused some critics to regard the Triple Concerto as a lesser work, while in fact it is only a work of a more peaceful and lyrical character.
            The concerto has many unusual features, starting with the unaccompanied cello-and-bass melody at the very beginning. The first solo instrument to enter after the brief orchestral introduction is the cello, followed by the violin and, lastly, by the piano. The cello part, written for the prominent virtuoso Anton Kraft, remains the leader for most of the time. It often moves in a high register, so it is never overshadowed by the other soloists or the orchestra. (This also causes the solo violin to move in its extreme high register, to keep the two timbres separate.) In concertos for multiple instruments, each theme is normally played by each soloist in turn, which results in frequent repeats and in a musical form that is less goal-oriented than most middle-period works of Beethoven. Mozart and Haydn had written “collective cadenzas” in their symphonies concertantes; Beethoven did not do so, but instead provided plenty of virtuoso opportunities for his players throughout the movement.
            The cello, once more, begins the second-movement “Largo.” The key is A-flat major, rather distant from the main key of C major, but Beethoven provides a subtle link by emphasizing the note C, which, as the third of the chord, plays an important part in A-flat major as well. As in the C-major piano sonata Op. 53 (“Waldstein”), written around the same time, the slow movement is relatively short and functions mainly as a transition to the finale, here a dazzling “Rondo alla Polacca.” The rhythm of the Polacca (or Polonaise) dance dominates the entire movement, ensuring its light-hearted nature. Before the end, the meter unexpectedly changes to 2/4, and the “Polacca” melody briefly takes on the character of a wild chase between the three instruments. The stately Polacca is restored, however, to conclude the piece.


Burleske for Piano and Orchestra in D minor
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. He composed his Burleske ar Meiningen in the winter of 1885-86, writing the piano part with Hans von Bülow in mind. Eugen d’Albert, however, was the soloist in the first performance, which took place on June 21, 1890, at Eisenach, with Strauss conducting. His tone poem Death and Transfiguration received its premiere at the same concert. The Burleske was published in 1894 with a dedication to d’Albert.
            This work runs approximately 20 minutes in performance. Strauss scored it for solo piano, plus an orchestra of 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Richard Strauss was the first great composer since Mozart to be born into the family of a distinguished musician, famous in his own right. His father, Franz, was the principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra and a professor at the Munich Conservatory. In addition to being one of Germany’s foremost horn virtuosos, he also played the viola well enough to participate in a string quartet, and for twenty years conducted an amateur orchestra, which he raised to a fairly high level. As the exceptional musical talents of his son Richard became evident at an early age, Strauss Sr. was able to give him excellent professional advice and assist him throughout his musical education. When Richard was only 17, his Symphony in D minor was performed by the Court Orchestra under the direction of the famous Hermann Levi (who would premiere Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth the following year).
            The man who did the most to help young Strauss’s career was the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, and this in spite of the fact that Bülow counted Strauss’s father among his musical enemies. In the 1860s, around the time Richard Strauss was born, Bülow conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger in Munich and it came to violent clashes between him and his principal horn player who was a fierce opponent of Wagner’s music. It is true that this conflict did not prevent either man from acknowledging the other’s artistic excellence, and Franz Strauss mastered the difficulties of the detested Wagner’s horn parts quite superbly. Nevertheless, there were feelings of hostility between Strauss Sr. and Bülow that persisted even after Bülow himself was estranged from Wagner in the wake of the Cosima scandal (Bülow’s wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, left Bülow for Wagner).
            It is understandable, then, that the 19-year-old Richard Strauss approached Bülow with some apprehension when they met in Berlin during the winter of 1883-84; but Bülow was so impressed with the young man that he gave him a chance to conduct the Meiningen Orchestra of which he was the director. When the tryout went well, Bülow invited Strauss to be his assistant at Meiningen for the 1885-86 season. Since Bülow himself was absent during the second half of the season, this meant that Strauss had to take sole charge of the orchestra, as well as the chorus attached to it.
            Strauss, a born conductor, met this challenge admirably. His apprenticeship with Bülow taught him lessons he would never forget. The greatest event during the months they spent together at Meiningen was no doubt the first performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, conducted by the composer himself. Strauss was awed by meeting Brahms and being present at such a momentous premiere. It is only natural that he came under Brahms’s influence (his final conversion to Wagner did not take place until some years later).
            Strauss wrote his Burleske shortly after his encounter with Brahms. Many of the work’s themes and harmonic progressions have a distinctly Brahmsian flavor, but the structure of the work as a one-movement concert piece owes more to Liszt than to Brahms.
            One of the most striking features of the Burleske is precisely the ambitious synthesis Strauss attempted to achieve between different styles and musical forms. The original idea was a scherzo-type composition (“Scherzo” was even the first title Strauss intended to give the work); yet in its final form it contains many serious, sentimental, even dramatic elements besides playful ones. This ambivalence is evident already in the tonality of the piece: D minor, a traditionally “tragic” key since the days of Mozart, seems an unlikely choice for a piece called “Burleske.” Strauss clearly wanted to have it both ways; he seems to have striven to say everything in a single composition, while keeping a certain lightness of expression on top of it all. And there is no doubt that he succeeded. Burleske manifests the boundless energy of a young man of 21 who did not know the meaning of the word “impossible.”
            The work starts with a rather unusual trick, a theme played by four solo timpani. The rest of the orchestra quickly responds, and the piano soon enters with the first of many witty statements, one of which contains an uncanny anticipation of a characteristic motif from Till Eulenspiegel. The second melody, whose beginning comes from the timpani motif with which the whole work began, contains a foreboding of an even later Strauss work, the opera Der Rosenkavalier. The various themes are organized in a large-scale sonata form. There is a audacious coda, in which the harsh D-minor chords of the orchestra alternate with the piano playing in the contrasting keys of E-flat minor, E major, and F major. The piano plays a cadenza that contains a unexpected quote from Wagner’s Tristan prelude. Just when we might think the work is over, there is a brand-new theme on the strings (only indirectly related to earlier materials), accompanied by delicate arpeggios on the piano. After a last re-statement of the piano’s opening melody, the initial timpani solo returns, and Burleske ends the way it began: with an unaccompanied D on the kettledrum.


Les Préludes
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Franz Liszt (in Hungarian Liszt Ferenc) was born in Doborján, Hungary (now Raiding, Austria) on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886. He completed Les Préludes in 1854, although the genesis of the music dates back about a decade. Liszt conducted the first performance on February 23, 1854, at a benefit concert for the Weimar Court Orchestra. The work was first heard in the United States in May 1858, conducted by Carl Bergmann.
            Les Préludes runs just over 15 minutes in performance. Liszt scored the symphonic poem for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum), harp, and strings.

Quite a bit of Romantic musical history could be written under the heading ‟From the Piano to the Orchestra.” Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms all started out as pianists, and in the early stages of their respective careers wrote little or nothing except solo piano music. Later their paths diverged. Chopin made a conscious decision to limit himself to piano music, and never attempted the larger symphonic forms. Schumann, having given up performing due to a hand injury, systematically explored symphonic, chamber, and vocal genres. For Brahms (a generation younger than the other three), the conquest of the symphony was a long and arduous process that took more than twenty years to complete. Of all 19th-century pianist-composers, however, it was Liszt whose shift from the piano to the orchestra took the most extreme form.
            No one in the 1840s had a more dazzling pianistic career than Liszt. Lionized throughout Europe as a travelling virtuoso, Liszt was widely regarded the Paganini of the piano. Then, after 1848, he abruptly stopped his concert tours. Whereas earlier his primary home base, if he had one, was Paris, he now moved to Weimar, where he became the conductor of the court orchestra. Finally, having broken up with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, the mother of his three children, he now began a new long-term relationship with the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein.
            It was in the wake of these fundamental changes in his life that Liszt turned his serious attention to orchestral music. But he had no intentions of cultivating the four-movement symphonic form inherited from Beethoven, as Schumann had done before him or Brahms would do subsequently. Liszt’s ambitions were of a different kind. Just as his early piano music often evoked ‟poetic and religious harmonies” or places he had visited during what he called his ‟years of pilgrimage” (as opposed to the preludes, nocturnes, and mazurkas of his friend Chopin), so in his symphonic works he wanted openly to acknowledge the inspiration received from extra-musical sources.
            In Weimar, Liszt began work on what would become a cycle of twelve symphonic poems of which Les Préludes is the best known today. The title originally belonged to a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), a leading French Romantic poet and statesman. While Liszt was inspired by Lamartine, the poet himself had been inspired by musical ideas; he called his work, a reflection on love, man’s destiny, war, and pastoral life, a four-movement ‟poetic sonata,” and the opening section, invoking the poet’s lyre, speaks of ‟internal music” and ‟ineffable harmonies.” From the line Esprit capricieux, viens, prélude à ton gré (‟Capricious spirit, come, ‛prelude’ to your heart’s content”) we can see that the title word means not only an introduction to something else (although that is the primary meaning) but also the act of free improvisation.
            Much of the musical material of Liszt’s symphonic poem originally appeared in other works, not connected to Lamartine, before being reworked in its present form. During this reworking, Liszt made the various sections of the symphonic poem correspond to the sections of Lamartine’s poem (reversing the order of the last two, however). Yet he also unified the material in a way that has no parallel in the poem. He used the technique of ‟character transformation” in which the notes of the melody remain the same but their character changes drastically, from pensive to lyrical to martial. Through this technique he suggested that the various life activities portrayed in the different sections of the poem were merely different aspects of the same general idea.
            In Les Préludes, two different themes are subjected to character transformation. The first one, heard in the powerful ‟Andante maestoso” section, alludes to the ‟Muss es sein?” (‟Must it be?”) theme from Beethoven’s last string quartet, Op. 135. The melody, which sounds dreamy at first, will later reappear in lyrical and jubilant guises. A second theme, first played in an espressivo manner by a quartet of French horns, is restated as a pastoral and then as a military march. There are substantial transition passages linking the various sections, signifying that the various episodes—phases in life—are not separate but intimately connected. As Liszt wrote in his preface to the printed score:

What else is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death? Love is the dawn of all existence; but what fate is there whose first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose fine illusions are not dissipated by some mortal blast, consuming its altar as though by a stroke of lightning? And what cruelly wounded soul, issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavour to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life? Nevertheless, man does not resign himself for long to the enjoyment of that beneficent stillness which he first enjoyed in Nature’s bosom, and when ‟the trumpet sounds the alarm” he takes up his post, no matter how dangerous may be the struggle which calls him to its ranks, that he may recover in combat the full consciousness of himself and his powers.

Program notes by Peter Laki



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