Coriolan Overture, Opus 62 1807 | 8 mins
The subject of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture is a tragedy by Viennese poet and playwright Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811). In von Collin’s play, the hero vacillates and delays, speaks reams of elegant verse but never acts, and dies at last by suicide. Beethoven’s music for Coriolan is portraiture of extraordinary concision, with few composers having ever put characters on stage as vividly as he does here.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra 1939 | 27 mins
These are the first SFS performances of this concerto. One might be surprised by the immediacy of the opening, with hardly a few notes stammered out by the orchestra before the violinist enters, unabashed and brilliant. There is a sense of urgency from the very start, partially due to a truly tuneful violin melody. The slow second movement lies at the heart of this piece. The violin is more or less left alone for a good amount of time, soliloquizing, with only smatterings of short interjections played by single wind instruments or small string ensembles in accompaniment. The music then grows agitated. In the end, the lyrical solo violin line is exposed once again, and the movement ends on a melancholy, but serene note. The spell is broken by an exuberant finale. Dynamic, vivacious, and substantial, the music exudes a confidence and optimism. The piece concludes vigorously, with an animated cadenza and energetic sprint to the finish.
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98 1885 | 40 mins
Brahms’s Fourth Symphony was written in 1885 when he was fifty-two and starting to think of retirement and the time that remained. The piece is a summation of its composer’s learning and technique, but for all its complexities it cuts as close to the heart as music can. One imagines that this is the work Brahms always wanted to write, a work in which form and function are balanced, in which technique opens new paths to expression, allowing him to voice his deepest convictions about all the unnamables that shape destiny—if any of Brahms’s music conveys a world view, this is it. The opening movement is tragedy on an epic scale. The second movement is the response, offered in more human proportions. The aggressively upbeat third movement seems initially out of place, given what comes immediately before and after, and yet it is utterly apt. Brahms’s humor also has a crueler side, for this happy music will be followed by a most uncompromising, pessimistic conclusion. The finale is music that shows Brahms looking into the future, toward a century that would validate Brahms’s apprehensions.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.