Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra 1931 | 28 mins
Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto is a milestone in his stylistic evolution, and the overall architecture of the piece reveals his fascination with symmetrical patterns. Following an ascending flourish from the keyboard, the first movement sets off with a brass fanfare that is immediately extended by the piano. LISTEN FOR: Melodically, the core theme of this movement is often compared to the grandly tolling finale tune from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The second movement Adagio is the concerto’s gravitational center. It brings us a variant of Bartók’s signature “night music,” with a highly atmospheric chorale of muted strings and moodily rolling thunder from the timpani. The effect is both serene and surreal, night plunging into fevered nightmare in the raving scherzo, before the music returns to the framing slow dream. For his finale, Bartók resumes the festive energy of the first Allegro—now reinforced by the full orchestral palette. To this he adds a simple, demonic motif for timpani and piano. One of the concerto’s most-inspired passages arrives near the end when the tempo calms and woodwinds weave their gentle reflections around the piano line. The meditation abruptly gives way to a valedictory flare of cheerful colors.
Symphonie fantastique 1830/32 | 52 mins
Berlioz’s Fantastique, that most amazing of first symphonies, sounds and behaves like nothing ever heard before. On September 11, 1827, Berlioz went to the Paris Odeon for a performance of Hamlet by a company from London. The younger female roles were taken by Harriet Smithson, an actress who had been brought up in Ireland. Berlioz fell instantly and wildly in love with her. DID YOU KNOW? Berlioz wrote several programs for this autobiographical and in every way fantastic symphony of his, and some speculate that the differences between them are as a barometer of his changing feelings for Harriet Smithson. What follows is the beginning of one of his notes, from 1845. “Part One: Reveries, Passions—The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a celebrated writer calls ‘the surge of passions,’ sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Through a bizarre trick of fancy, the beloved image always appears in the mind's eye of the artist linked to a musical thought whose character, passionate but also noble and reticent, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved. . . .”
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.