Beethoven and Brahms—the stuff of legends. We hear what sets them apart in a program of music that displays their exceptional instinct for creating inventive and masterful works.
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major 1806 | 34 mins
Concertos are a form of theater. Beethoven had a keen feeling for that, and the older Beethoven grew, the more imaginative he became. In his Fourth Piano Concerto, the most gently spoken and poetic of all his concertos, Beethoven offers his most radical move—to begin with the piano alone. The piano enters softly and densely voiced. The phrase is arresting in its subtle rhythmic imbalance, but the greater wonder is the orchestra's hushed, sensitive, and remote response. The second movement is the concerto’s most famous, and has been compared to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music. Here the orchestra is loud, striking, and stark. The piano is soft, flowing, and songful, until it winds into a truly Orphic cadenza. Trumpets and drums appear for the first time in the finale—not that this movement is in any way grand; rather, it is lyrical and witty. It is also, with its two (!) sections of violas, given to outrageously lush sounds—one more surprise in this most subtle, suggestive, and multi faceted of Beethoven’s concertos.
BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 1883 | 30 mins
Unlike Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, Johannes Brahms was middle-aged by the time he wrote his first ever symphony. Once he found his symphonic voice, however, his skills could not be denied. Brahms’s Third Symphony opens with two broad chords. Then, a passage that exhibits why Brahms’s music is often described as “autumnal,” in a gentle melody played by the winds and a little dance-like tune that grows out of it. The sentiment shifts as the music begins conveying a sense of great struggle, spelled by the respite of a deep-throated passage dominated by a solo horn, like sunlight filtered through haze. The movement ends serenely. The beginning of the Andante suggests a folk melody. Eventually the tempo slows as winds and strings engage in a call-and-response, a gesture that will reappear with explosive force in the finale. For now, this movement ends bittersweetly. With perfect simplicity, the intermezzo captures a melancholy that seems the essence of this composer. The finale opens nervously, and the call-and-response gesture reappears. Catastrophe intervenes in succeeding episodes, all rushing toward some end not yet visible. At length a passage heard earlier emerges from the veil. Mellow and restrained, it is the main theme of the first movement, transformed by time and experience from a shout into a whisper: calm, reassuring, complete.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.