Program Notes: Robert Moody Conducts Sibelius

Mason Bates, Liquid Interface

Water has influenced countless musical endeavors — La Mer and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey quickly come to mind — but it was only after living on Berlin’s enormous Lake Wannsee did I become consumed with a new take on the idea. If the play of the waves inspired Debussy, then what about water in its variety of forms?

Liquid Interface moves through all of them, inhabiting an increasingly hotter world in each progressive movement. “Glaciers Calving” opens with huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register. (Snippets of actual recordings of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic, supplied by the adventurous radio journalist Daniel Grossman, appear at the opening.) As the thaw continues, these sonic blocks melt into aqueous, blurry figuration. The beats of the electronics evolve from slow trip-hop into energetic drum ‘n bass. The ensuing “Scherzo Liquido” explores water on a micro-level: droplets splash from the speakers in the form of a variety of nimble electronica beats, with the orchestra swirling around them.

The temperature continues to rise as we move into “Crescent City,” which examines the destructive force as water grows from the small-scale to the enormous. This is illustrated in a theme and variations form in which the opening melody, at first quiet and lyrical, gradually accumulates a trail of echoing figuration behind it. In a nod to New Orleans, which knows the power of water all too well, the instruments trail the melody in a reimagination of Dixieland swing. As the improvisatory sound of a dozen soloists begins to lose control, verging into big-band territory, the electronics — silent in this movement until now — enter in the form of a distant storm.

At the peak of the movement, with an enormous wake of figuration swirling behind the soaring melody, the orchestra is buried in an electronic hurricane of processed storm sounds. We are swept into the muffled depths of the ocean. This water-covered world, which relaxes into a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise, is where we end the symphony in “On the Wannsee.” A simple, lazy tune bends in the strings above ambient sounds recorded at a dock on Lake Wannsee. At near pianissimo throughout, the melody floats lazily upwards through the humidity and — at the work’s end — finally evaporates.

© Mason Bates

Franz Josef Haydn, Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, Hob Viib:I

Haydn’s First Cello Concerto dates from 1761-1765 and was lost to the world for nearly two centuries. (The manuscript for his Second Cello Concerto also disappeared but that concerto was published in 1804, during Haydn’s lifetime.) At some point, archivists for the Prague National Museum had collected documents from a chateau in Radenín, a village in southern Bohemia, and Czech musicologist Oldřich Pulkert was perusing this collection in 1961 when he made an astonishing discovery: an 18th-century manuscript of a cello concerto apparently composed by Franz Joseph Haydn. The orchestral parts were signed by Joseph Weigl, principal cellist of the Esterházy court orchestra from 1761 to 1768. The manuscript was not in Haydn’s hand but the theme matched the incipit of the concerto’s opening notes recorded in Haydn’s own catalog of works. That match coupled with stylistic evidence left virtually no doubt as to the authenticity of the concerto. The work’s 20th-century “premiere” was given in Prague by Czech virtuoso Miloš Sádlo with Charles Mackerras leading the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on May 19, 1962.

Haydn and Weigl began their employment by the Esterházy family within weeks of each other in 1761, extending a friendship begun earlier in Vienna. Doubtless seeking to showcase Weigl’s virtuosity as well as satisfy the prince’s continual demand for new music (and that would, incidentally, demonstrate to all visitors the prince’s exquisite taste and considerable wealth), Haydn seized the opportunity to write a cello concerto. It was an endeavor requiring creativity beyond melodic inspiration.

The violoncello, shortened to cello through popular use, was not commonly considered a solo instrument for much of its early existence. The tenor member of the violin family, it largely assumed harmonic duties previously performed by the bass viola da gamba (also shortened to viol) as violins gradually superseded viols. By the 17th century, the new Baroque style with its heavy reliance on continuo (harmonic underpinning provided by keyboard and a bass instrument, commonly cello) meant that cellos were essential to the music of the era but almost always in a supporting role. Vivaldi did write about 25 cello concertos but he wrote ten times as many violin concertos and the cello concertos were largely unknown after his death. J.S. Bach’s six unaccompanied Cello Suites are sublime but they are not concertos. All of this points to the fact that Haydn had little past practice on which to base his cello concerto.

Haydn’s ingenuity was driven and blessed by the relative isolation of working for the Esterházy family in Eisenstadt and Eszterháza. One tremendous advantage was that Prince Nikolaus Esterházy spent lavishly on music, placing an orchestra of superb musicians — including Weigl — at Haydn’s disposal. Haydn could easily experiment and be assured of first-rate readings, allowing him to finely hone musical ideas.

When writing a cello concerto, composers must take to assure that the soloist is not mired in an orchestral morass, especially in the lower and middle registers. To accomplish that, Haydn scored the accompaniment lightly, using only two oboes, two horns, and strings. And while there are extended passages in the cello’s upper register, Haydn doesn’t shy away from having the soloist rumble occasionally in the bottom octaves.

With homage to the ritornello form (a recurrent musical section that alternates with contrasting material) popular in the Baroque era, Haydn infuses the opening movement of the concerto with grace and elegance, bywords of the galant style fashionable at the time. With its compact phrases and song-like melodic materials, the music is immediately engaging. The contrasting sections are the most demonstrative of Haydn’s exploration. Although the aesthetic of the era called for a simple melody-and-accompaniment arrangement between soloist and orchestra, Haydn manages to incorporate a wealth of finely crafted detail into the orchestra’s unpretentious supporting role, but never at the expense of the solo line.

Strings alone provide accompaniment in the second movement. Haydn presents the thematic material in a straightforward manner and where the soloist would typically enter, restating the theme, the cello slips in quietly, sustaining a single note while the violins play the melodic line. This feint builds anticipation that is richly rewarded when the cello finally comes to the fore and Haydn, pleased with the result, uses the technique twice more in the movement as well as in the last movement. Of particular note are the passages that Haydn specifically marked pianissimo, very soft, which create ethereal moments of sublime beauty.

Virtuosity is amply displayed in the last movement. Sparkling accompaniment provides a suitable framework for the solo cello to dazzle with rapid scales and bravura passagework, often in the violin tessitura or range. We are fortunate that Weigl was such a fine cellist as to inspire Haydn’s excellent composition and for the archival bent that preserved the work, albeit unseen and unheard for two centuries.

© Eric T. Williams


Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82

The compositions of Jean Sibelius constitute a case study in the capriciousness of musical taste and the power of the artistic avant-garde. Pigeonholed by many as primarily a Finnish nationalist, whose dark, remote music was a shallow representative of Romanticism’s last gasp, Sibelius was nevertheless deemed a champion by American and British conservative musical tastes between the world wars.  Typical was Olin Downes, music critic of the Times, whose relentless public support of Sibelius bordered on sycophancy. Likewise, Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, programmed a cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, and dogged the composer to finish the eighth, which he never did. But those who favored the avant-garde of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and company—and that included most of continental Europe and American intellectuals—were scathing in their contempt.  One respected and well-known critic entitled an essay about Sibelius, “The Worst Composer in the World.” These controversies, and Sibelius’s life-long struggle with alcoholism and depression no doubt played a signal part in his composing nothing of significance from the nineteen thirties until his death in 1957 at the age of 91. But tastes change, and the current crop of composers and scholars now take a more balanced view of Sibelius’s compositions, and his seven symphonies enjoy renewed respect.

The fifth symphony was composed at a particularly crucial time in his creative life; his previous symphony had in his mind pushed the limits of modernity, and its dark and somewhat abstruse nature are evidence of his intent to create a progressive style of increased dissonance, innovative structure, and dense motivic textures. It was a failure at the time. The long and the short of it was, the important audiences and critics of Germany and France found it severely lacking in comparison with the far-reaching new compositions of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss, among others. He had thought of himself as a leader in continuing to push traditional mainstream European composition gradually into the future, only to find out that complete revolution in style was far more popular and intellectually respectable.

So, his fifth symphony represents somewhat of a deep breath, and a resolve to find his own way, which, of course, he did. Finished in 1915 for the concerts given in celebration of his fiftieth birthday, it was immediately revised the next year, and even more so in 1919 (the latter version now being standard). It has four movements, but the first two are literally composed into each other, so they are heard as one. Too much (largely inconclusive) musicological ink has been spilt trying to analyze the form of these one/two movements, so don’t try. Rather, hear it as one long continuous movement that evolves gradually in a weft of ideas (don’t listen for too many “singable” themes) derived from the initial horn calls and others in the rippling woodwinds. One can hear some folk-like elements as we go along, but the big thing is to listen for the masterly way that Sibelius manages a long and almost seamless (and difficult to pull off) transition into the second half (second movement?) scherzo-like conclusion. You can spot the beginning of this final section by the trumpet solo that marks it. Again, the novelty is the sneaky way that Sibelius challenges us to figure out whether this movement is two things run together, or one thing in a complex, innovative form.

The second movement is traditional in that after the faster, dance-like section, there follows the expected slow contrast, but as occasionally with Brahms, Sibelius doesn’t make it too slow, so it’s rather a kind of intermezzo. Here it takes the form of a set of variations. Don’t expect to be able to discern each variation easily, but Sibelius does weave a texture that is always based upon the little five-note figure first heard tweeting in the flutes. In the best Sibelius tradition, the last movement provides welcome clarity. Those who appreciate his ever-popular second symphony, wherein one waits for the “big” glorious tune to finally appear in the last movement, will experience the same here. Sibelius, if nothing, was a sensitive enthusiast of the flora and fauna of his beloved Finnish landscape, particularly the native waterfowl. Tales about them, and his musical depiction of them, are a common element in his work, and in this last movement we heard the famous “swan” theme. It splendidly evokes the migrating swans that appeared over his rural home, “Ainola,” deep in the Finnish woods. After an initial flurry in the strings, the majestic swan theme rises out of the horn section.  Another ingratiating theme appears, and after some development, the movement and the symphony close on a rising tide of happy sound, the swans to the fore. Six dynamic exclamatory chords end the work.

© William E. Runyan