Its noble character not withstanding, Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73" was written under the cloud of war and occupation. When Beethoven was writing the work in 1809, Vienna was not so much the fabled "City of Dreams" as a metropolis of nightmares. The French laid siege to it with shelling so fierce that at one point the composer took refuge in his brother's house and covered his head with pillows to escape the din. "[L]ife around me", he wrote, "is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort." The royal family—including Beethoven's friend and patron Archduke Rudolf—fled, along with many of the notable families with whom the composer had become close.
Left alone and, once the French occupation began, in difficult financial circumstances due to rapid inflation, Beethoven had little else to do but compose. The Fifth Concerto is probably the most famous work to emerge from this difficult period, although the Op. 81a piano sonata ("Les Adieux") is probably a close second. Both were dedicated to Rudolph.
Much has been written about the "Concerto No. 5", so I won't presume to waste your time with my own analysis, especially when there are concise and informative articles on Wikipedia and at the Classy Classical blog. The magisterial first movement, the wistful second, and the jolly concluding rondo all show Beethoven at his best.
They offer a wealth of opportunities to shine for soloist and conductor. This week's soloist, the French-Canadian Louis Lortie has, according to his biography in the symphony program, "extended his interpretative voice across a broad range of repertoire rather than choosing to specialize in one particular style." He has also, however, studied "in Vienna with Beethoven specialist Dieter Weber, and subsequently with Schnabel disciple Leon Fleisher," so I'd expect that the "Emperor" would hardly be foreign territory for him.
"In my youth," wrote the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók in a 1929 letter to Edwin von der Nüll, "Bach and Mozart were not my ideals of the beautiful, but rather Beethoven." It seems only fair, then, that the other Big Piece on the program this weekend should be Bartók's 1943 "Concerto for Orchestra"—a dramatic, appealing, and sometimes humorous work that, ironically, was written when the composer's health and fortunes were both at a low ebb.
Forced by the rise of Fascism to flee to the USA in 1940, the composer found himself marooned in a strange land where he was known primarily as an ethnomusicologist and teacher rather than as a composer. Unable to find steady work and suffering from the leukemia that would soon kill him (he died on September, 26, 1945), Bartók found himself unable to summon the will to compose anything.
That all changed in 1943. Prompted by conductor (and former Bartók student) Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti—both fellow Hungarians and Bartók admirers—Serge Koussevitzky, famed music director of the Boston Symphony, came to Bartók with a commission for a new orchestral work. The commission worked like a tonic. Bartók threw himself into the project and the final result has been part of the core orchestral repertoire ever since
Why a "Concerto for Orchestra"? As Thomas May pointed out in his program notes for a performance by Chrisoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony last January:
The idea of a concerto featuring not just a soloist, as in Mozart's classical example of the genre, but for the whole ensemble as a collective of virtuosos did not begin with Bartók…At the same time, Bartók revives something of the Baroque concept of the concerto-the so-called "concerto grosso"- which juxtaposes various smaller groupings of instruments against the texture of the larger ensemble. And of course the Concerto for Orchestra also serves to showcase the expressive power and versatility of a modern orchestra. Indeed, instrumental timbre turns out to be a significant dimension of this music, along with its innovative formal design and the manner in which Bartók develops his thematic material.
It is, in short, an opportunity for the members of the symphony to show off, either individually or in small groups. The second movement (titled "Giuoco delle coppie " or "The Game of Pairs"), for example, unfolds as a series of duets for pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets, while there are neat little solos for trombone and oboe in the first movement. Pretty much every section gets a chance to join in the fun.
Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch
It will offer guest conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada a chance to show what he can do as well. Although born in Columbia, Mr. Orozco-Estrada was trained in Vienna and, according to his biography in the program, "first came to international attention in 2004, when he took over a concert with the Tonkünstler Orchestra Niederösterreich at the Vienna Musikverein. For that performance he was celebrated by the Viennese press as a ‘wonder from Vienna.'" He became Music Director of the Tonkünstler in 2009 but will be leaving that in 2014 when he takes up the positions of Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has tended to specialize in the Romantic and Viennese repertoire as well as contemporary Spanish and South American works, but it doesn't look like he has done much Bartók recently. Still, it looks like he's no stranger to early 20th-century music, so it will be interesting to see the results.
The concert opens with the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's 1823 opera "Euryanthe," based on a 13th-century tale of a knight who is conned into doubting his lady's fidelity (full title: "L'Histoire du très-noble et chevalereux prince Gérard, comte de Nevers et la très-virtueuse et très chaste princesse Euriant de Savoye, sa mye."). It's the sort of Medievalism that was all the rage among 19th-century Romantics and might have been a hit if it hadn't been for the libretto. As Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes for these concerts, the text by German journalist, poet and playwright Helmina von Chézy "was an incompetent botch, and its dramatic deficiencies have kept Euryanthe out of the active opera repertory."
Still, the overture is enormous fun and remains and is performed often. The symphony hasn't taken it on in over twenty years, though, so it will be good to welcome it back.
Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the St. Louis Symphony and pianist Louis Lortie in von Weber's "Euryanthe" Overture, Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, and Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra" Friday at 10:30 AM, Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM, January 17-19. For more information: stlsymphony.org.