Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Emperor 1809 | 38 mins
The Emperor Concerto is a magnificent affirmation made in terrible times. PICTURE THIS: In 1809 Austria was at war with France for the fourth time in eighteen years. In May, one month after hostilities began, Napoleon was in the suburbs of Vienna. The French artillery began its terrifying assault. On the worst night of all, May 11, Beethoven sought refuge in the cellar of his brother Caspar’s house. Once there, he covered his head with pillows, hoping to protect the remaining shreds of his hearing. Late in the summer, Beethoven regained his ability to concentrate, and by year’s end he had completed this concerto—a masterpiece known as the culmination of what we think of as Beethoven’s “heroic” period. He begins in a striking and original style, introducing the piano sooner than an audience of 200 years ago expected to hear it. The entire first movement—the longest Beethoven ever wrote—is continually inventive in its flourishes and manner. The excitement builds as dissonance increases: He blends brilliance with quiet, and tempers virtuosic writing with the instruction dolce (literally “sweet”). The music of the slow movement is both interestingly fresh and reassuringly tied to where we began. The chief music here is a chorale in two versions: the first given to the piano, the second to the orchestra. When this music has subsided into stillness, Beethoven makes a drastic shift. A new idea bursts forth and the finale begins with a robust German dance. Just before the end, the timpani plays a captivating passage of unexpected quiet. This subsiding is undone with closing music that is as brilliant as it is brief.
Symphony No. 2 in G minor 1915 | 43 mins
Stenhammar was born into a family that buzzed with musical and other artistic talent. He had formal training as an organist and a pianist, but as a composer he was essentially self taught. Like many musicians of his generation, young Stenhammar was taken by the late Romantic style typical of Scandinavia at the time, with musical influences from composers such as Liszt and Brahms. He was also an ardent Wagnerian early on, though that was a faith he later disavowed. His mature pieces veer away from these influences and display a style and classicism all his own. There is a clear shift to melodies imbued with influences ranging from Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Renaissance polyphony. Stenhammar’s greatest works, including this evening’s G minor Symphony, showcase this new classicism. LISTEN FOR: Stenhammar’s Second aims at austerity in its most beautiful form, and displays some truly clever and masterful writing (especially in the finale). Full of lush allusions to Swedish folk music and folk-dance rhythms (particularly in the first and third movements), this piece brings together all the best qualities of this master composer. It is no wonder that the Second Symphony has become known as one of the most outstanding orchestral works in the Swedish repertory.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.