This evening we join Leif Ove Andsnes on the third stage of his Beethoven Journey. He has set himself the target of recording all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and the Choral Fantasy, conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the piano.
The journey – literally a journey around the great musical centres of the world – started with Piano Concertos 1 and 3 (the CD was released in 2012), continued with 2 and 4, and concludes with this evening’s programme: the Emperor Concerto (no. 5 in E flat major) and the Fantasy for Piano, Choir and Orchestra in C minor.
Leif Ove Andsnes, like many visual artists of our time, is keen on projects. This is less common amongst pianists, but it suits an experimental, curious artist such as Andsnes. Though he was fascinated by Beethoven from an early age, both as a person and a composer, he nevertheless waited a long time before approaching him. Beethoven is difficult and complex. It was not without reason that Joseph Haydn wrote to his star pupil that ‘… you make upon me the impression of a man who has several heads, several hearts and several souls.’ It makes him musically demanding, but no less technical. Andsnes said in an interview that ‘the hand and keyboard do not belong together in Beethoven as they do in Chopin’s music.’ A challenge, but then as a composer Beethoven was both radical and provocative, and had an irrepressible belief that music can change the world and make it more human.
This is what the Choral Fantasia is about. It opens with a slow solo piano introduction, progressing to the main part of the work, the second movement marked Finale, which starts with an allegro theme in the cello and double bass. The solo piano then introduces the choral theme in an ornamented version, variations of which are played by the flutes, oboes, clarinets and string soloists respectively before a full orchestral version leads into a more lyrical piano line. After further development a reprise of the allegro theme introduces the choral section. The poem to which it is set was hastily written in December 1808 by an unacknowledged poet. Beethoven was not totally satisfied with it, but the content suited him well, telling as it does of the capacity of music to bring about joy and peace, transforming coarseness and evil into sublime delight: the vagaries of destiny can only be conquered through outer peace and inner tranquillity. The choir concludes by relating that only when love and force are combined will God’s love be conferred upon humankind. Beethoven wrote some years later in 1824 that the choral section of this work presages the final movement of his ninth symphony. It is not only the music that does so, but also the words about the universal brotherhood that art and music can create.
The Emperor Concerto, with its bright, long first movement and its calm, reflective second movement which transitions gently into the rondo finale, basically underlines Beethoven’s essential message: the ability of music to bring about peace and harmony, a message which is reiterated in Arnold Schönberg’s (1874–1951) Friede auf Erden, op. 13, which he originally wrote for a cappella choir in 1907, reworking it with orchestra in 1911. The words, written by the Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825–98) in 1886, made a great impression on Schönberg, who at the time still believed that universal peace was attainable. The style is late Romantic, though composed at a time when he was moving towards atonality. In 1923 Schönberg said that he now considered the message of the work to be an illusion – World War I had deprived him of his faith.
The first work in the programme is Igor Stravinsky’s (1882–1971) Concerto for Chamber Orchestra in E flat major, named ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ after the Washington DC estate of Robert Woods Bliss, who commissioned it. Stravinsky wrote the work in Europe however, shortly before emigrating to the USA in 1938. Its neo-classical style was at times favoured in the inter-war period by Stravinsky, as it was by his friend and contemporary, the painter Pablo Picasso. The three movements of the work are played without a break. Like Schönberg, Stravinksy was an innovator, but he built on a tonal base, just as Picasso built on a figurative foundation.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin