Watts Plays Beethoven
Considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century and a perennial favorite guest of Pacific Symphony, André Watts returns to the stage with one of Beethoven’s most beloved works – the "Emperor Concerto." A work prized for its serene and tender second movement, Beethoven’s last piano concerto is a testament to the composer’s emotional range. Shostakovich complements the evening with his intense 10th Symphony.
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Whether or not we believe Shostakovich’s alleged statement that the Symphony No. 10 is “about Stalin and the Stalin years,” this is clearly a work with bleak, dark and violent things on its mind. The initials of the composer’s name become a theme (as do those of a lover) that seems victorious at the end, but an ambiguity remains. Note the many meandering solos for the woodwinds — as dire a picture of loneliness and isolation as any in music.
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CARL ST.CLAIR • CONDUCTOR
ANDRÉ WATTS • PIANO
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, Emperor
Adagio un poco mosso
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Andante – Allegro
The 2017-18 season piano soloists are generously sponsored by The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianists Fund.
The Thursday night concert is generously sponsored by Ellie and Mike Gordon.
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman
Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, “Emperor”
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN ( 1770–1827)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings; solo piano
Performance time: 38 minutes
Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the culmination of his work in the concerto form, combines majestic musical ideas with intimate, hauntingly beautiful utterance. Lovers of classical music have universally taken it to heart; it is the paradigm of the grandly scaled, Romantic concerto that Beethoven virtually invented, and it continues to inform our idea of what a concerto should be.
But why is it called the “Emperor” Concerto? “There is no question that the popular title originated from extra-musical associations not sanctioned by the composer,” says musicologist Andrew Schartmann, who calls the term misleading. “It can only be hoped that performer[s] do not base their interpretations on these unfounded anecdotes,” he says. The concerto should not be associated with Napoleon.
Perhaps. But there are reasons why these anecdotes seem inescapable.
Beethoven was among the many thinkers who first believed that as liberator of Europe from monarchies, Napoleon was a champion of human freedom who betrayed this noble cause by arrogating the power and privileges of monarchy to himself.
The composer famously intended to dedicate his “Eroica” symphony—which, like the Emperor Concerto, bears a key of E flat—to Napoleon, but furiously “undedicated” it in manuscript.
There are also good reasons why the concerto form is especially well suited to Beethoven’s philosophical concerns. Its most basic formal constraint—the one (soloist) versus the many (orchestra)—provides an ideal framework for exploring the individual’s relationship with society. As with his symphonies, Beethoven’s piano concertos pushed the scope and heft of the form as he worked his way through musical ideas.
For lovers of the pianist’s art, the “Emperor” Concerto is perhaps the cornerstone of fandom. Beethoven completed it in 1811, about one year before his Symphony No. 7. Including it in one’s personal repertory is almost mandatory for most top-flight pianists, regardless of specialty; for fans, deciding one’s preferences in the “Emperor” Concerto goes beyond an evening’s interpretation, to larger questions of performance style and aesthetic philosophy.
Friendly debates over these matters have led to fistfights and worse. In recent decades we can trace these passions back to the friendly rivalry between Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz, brilliant pianists whose long and influential careers represented polar opposites in playing style.
Rubenstein, one of the 20th century’s greatest interpreters of Chopin, waited until late in his career to tackle the “Emperor” Concerto, astonishing his admirers when he recorded it. His approach is characteristically restrained and poetic, in marked contrast to the power and dazzle of the Horowitz version.
This partisanship has produced a glorious legacy of performance. In the latter half of the 20th century, pianists including Claudio Arrau and Rudolf Serkin emphasized statesmanlike restraint and overall architecture in the “Emperor,” while others including Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter thrilled with their fleetness and overpowering technique.
This abundance has left today’s interpreters and listeners to enjoy one of Beethoven’s greatest creations any way we like— clearly a case of artistic freedom in the service of human freedom.
What to Listen For
In music, nothing is beyond controversy. That includes the seemingly incontestable idea of repeatedly programming Beethoven’s great piano concertos. Does the continuing popularity of these masterpieces mean we hear less from other composers? Well, to quote an appraiser on The Antiques Road Show, “Go find me another that good.”
Yes, we need the new and the newly discovered. But works such as the “Emperor” Concerto challenge us to listen again and again, discovering new content with each hearing.
With this particular hearing, you might challenge yourself to take note of a musical element that shapes our experience without showing in the notes: the pairing of the modern concert grand piano with Beethoven’s music. Again, this is not without controversy, and historically reconstructed “authentic” performances have presented modern “Emperors” with solo instruments more closely resembling the pianoforte of the 1820s, which projected a sound that was more metallic, less resonant and less evenly produced across the instrument’s seven-plus octaves.
Beethoven in 1814. Portrait by Louis-René Létronne
Full disclosure: To your intrepid annotator, Beethoven and the modern grand are a match made in heaven. Do you agree?
The question is especially relevant in the “Emperor” Concerto, which explores the idea of the lone voice pitted against the many as no concerto had ever done before.
This is the Romantic hero, the lone individual in discourse with the hugeness of the crowd, of nature, of the state, represented in the interplay between piano and orchestra.
For all the philosophical meanings that many listeners hear in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, its appeal is mainly a matter of sheer, abstract beauty, expressed through melodies that combine simplicity and grandeur.
Their development seems profound yet personal, partly because Beethoven’s development sections often delineate only the accompanying line in the orchestra or the piano, leaving us to imagine the melody on our own. This draws us into the composition as few concertos do—one reason why the “Emperor” has achieved such rare popularity.
The “Emperor” Concerto bears the hallmarks that have grown familiar through the canon of Beethoven piano concertos: the fast-slow-fast arrangement of movements, the adherence to sonata form, the final rondo with its repeated melodic statements by the soloist. But its consistently noble character is unique.
Rather than climbing to altitude, the concerto’s opening seems already to have arrived at a great height, announcing itself through repeated, solemn chords with the gilded quality of a royal fanfare. After an introduction, the splendid opening theme has a sense of firmness, strongly rooted in the concerto’s tonic key of E flat. It is balanced by a second theme that is no less noble but far softer, almost whispering its presence until the two themes reconcile.
After this high-flying but worldly opening, the second-movement adagio seems to ascend still further, perhaps heavenward, stopping time with a sweet but melancholy meditation. After the end of a series of trills, listen for the second phrase of the poetic main theme: in his book The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross identifies this as a source for Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from the musical West Side Story.
This kind of borrowing seems especially appropriate when it draws from Beethoven, who often quoted his own arrangements of common songs and folk melodies in his compositions. Today, Beethoven’s compositions—not the songs themselves—are remembered.
In the final movement, the main theme is really just an arpeggio reassembled. But with each dazzling iteration, Beethoven disassembles it still further, requiring the listener to take part in the performance through active listening—just as variations on a theme may require listeners to bushwhack their way back to the original theme. As in the concerto’s opening, the main theme of the final movement has the structure and imposing character of a fanfare.
Beethoven performed his other concertos publicly, but by 1811 his increasing deafness prevented him from doing so. In listening, we can hear why: this concerto requires extreme virtuosity from the soloist. Entrances are precise and unforgiving, and some passages that have a free, cadenza-like quality are actually prescribed in detail.
Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH ( 1906–1975)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo (2nd flute also doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (English horn doubles third oboe), 3 clarinets (Eb clarinet doubles 3rd clarinet), 3 bassoons (contrabassoon doubles third bassoon); 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; percussion; strings
Performance time: 57 minutes
In the first half of the 20th century, Shostakovich composed 15 major symphonies; his compatriot Prokofiev, whom he outlived by more than 20 years, produced seven. We could compare their output to Bruckner’s 11 and Mahler’s 10. But those symphonies were all composed before 1911, and could be described as intensely personal explorations of the divine.
By contrast, Shostakovich—like Beethoven—wrote symphonies as public statements in which political ideas and events had a living presence. And his Symphony No. 10 came at a critical moment in political history, premiering the year after the death of Joseph Stalin.
What was happening to the symphony as an orchestral form? Having arisen in Haydn’s Vienna and matured in Germany and Austria, was it now finding greater relevance in Shostakovich’s Russia? In a compelling 2014 essay on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 written for Pacific Symphony by Joseph Horowitz, this esteemed music historian shows that the two leading composers in Soviet Russia turned to the symphony because their symphonies were needed.
Having endured decades of starvation, war, Stalin and Hitler, the Russian people “craved a cathartic, communal outlet for grief,” writes Horowitz. The result was an outpouring of great symphonic music that had no parallel in the West. In his symphonies, Shostakovich expressed things about the Russian experience that he dared not say in words.
As in Nazi Germany, the repression of artists in Soviet Russia was not just a matter of censorship, but a matter of life and death. Art in the Soviet Union was expected to serve the state and further government policies, and a large bureaucracy was deployed to make sure it did. To describe this cultural apparatus seems almost surreal, but its reality made Shostakovich’s artistic and family life a living nightmare.
Born in 1906, Shostakovich had begun to attract international attention as an important new composer by the mid-1930s, when his daringly satirical opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District drew international attention.
Within two years of its premiere in 1934 in Leningrad, it had found its way to Europe, and opera companies in the West were clamoring for it. If not for his growing reputation, Lady Macbeth might have resulted in his exile or death rather than just censure: With its bold confrontation of psychosexual frustration, the dissatisfaction of women and the inequities of Soviet life, it offered plenty of grounds for official disapproval.
Stalin chose the least likely—musical style—for a blistering public condemnation in Pravda. Throughout the period of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union, with its mass arrests and deportations, Shostakovich knew that his compositions were under official scrutiny and could put him and his family at risk.
What did Soviet officials want from their composers? Music that was highly accessible to the proletariat and utile to the state, promoting the advantages of approved collective ideals and the values of the revolution. By the government’s reckoning, even non-programmatic music could conflict with these goals if it explored new ideas in composition, as Shostakovich wanted to do.
After withdrawing his progressive fourth symphony from rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic in December 1936, Shostakovich began work on his fifth. On its surface, at least, he employed more traditional techniques of composition, gambling that somehow the bureaucrats gauging his artistic usefulness would not hear the meaning behind the melodies.
Shostakovich’s subtitle for the Fifth can be translated as “A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.” And hiding in plain sight behind those ironic words is a symphony that is one long, contemptuous shout of protest against the Stalinist regime’s campaign of terror against the citizens of Russia and its repressive, often brutal regulation of artists.
Devoid of words but full of meaning, the sound of a symphony enabled Shostakovich to express himself without uttering a word. Many listeners believe that Shostakovich’s tenth symphony and even those that came later were also encoded critiques of Soviet rule.
6 March 1953, via Wikimedia Commons
What to Listen For
In Shostakovich symphonies, a sense of narrative prevails whether or not we are listening for a story. Is this symphony a story of Stalinist tyranny? Its timing doesn’t tell us much, since musicologists tell us Shostakovich probably began working on it either shortly before or shortly after Stalin’s (unexpected) death.
The conductor Kurt Sanderling—who was with Shostakovich in the days leading up to the symphony’s premiere, and was present when it took place in Leningrad in 1954—concurs with the account in Testimony, the controversial book brought to the West and edited by Solomon Volkov, purported to be Shostakovich’s memoir.
In it, Shostakovich is quoted as saying “I did depict Stalin in … the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis…”
The symphony certainly bears listening as an expression of beauty, sorrow and an assertion of spiritual resilience. As in other Shostakovich symphonies, an extended opening movement seems to envelop us in a sense of shared adversity in a bleak landscape. The voices of strings seem to be searching for a sign of hope, which comes with the entrance of a clarinet theme.
Few composers have ever equaled Shostakovich’s ability to combine lyrical beauty and acid sarcasm, and we hear this knack in the raucous second movement—the scherzo purported to be a portrait of Stalin.
It could indeed describe a murderous tyrant, or perhaps a bull in a china shop: Funny, frightening and grotesque, it proceeds with a sense of heedlessness. The possibility of a Stalin-inspired narrative is supported by Shostakovich’s deft modulation to a Bach-style transliteration of his own name in the notes D/E-flat/C/B, a device he often used to covertly insert himself into his music.
If we choose to hear it as a political allegory, the symphony starts with a general, shared experience of suffering under tyranny in the first movement, then moves to the nightmarish tension between Stalin’s cultural bureaucracy and the hapless Shostakovich.
Then, in its third and fourth movements, the symphony’s narrative seems to shift and broaden, embracing all of us who are listening: Its acidulous energy slows and turns more melancholy. In the final movement, as brooding strings open onto woodwinds, we hear a gesture of contemplative inclusion. Perhaps Shostakovich is inviting us to share with him in less hectic, more meditative consideration of what we hear.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Shostakovich - Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93
Steve J. Sherman
André Watts burst upon the music world at the age of 16 when Leonard Bernstein chose him to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic in their Young People’s Concerts, broadcast nationwide on CBS-TV. Only two weeks later, Bernstein asked him to substitute at the last minute for the ailing Glenn Gould in performances of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, thus launching his career in storybook fashion. More than 50 years later, Watts remains one of today’s most celebrated and beloved superstars.
A perennial favorite with orchestras throughout the U.S., Watts is also a regular guest at the major summer music festivals including Ravinia, the Hollywood Bowl, Saratoga and Tanglewood.
Recent and upcoming engagements include appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and on tour, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Louis, Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Seattle and National symphonies, among others.
In celebration of the Liszt anniversary in 2011, Watts played all-Liszt recitals throughout the U.S., while recent and upcoming international engagements include concerto and recital appearances in Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and Spain.
Watts has had a long and frequent association with television, having appeared on numerous programs produced by PBS, the BBC and the Arts and Entertainment Network, performing with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among others.
His 1976 New York recital, aired on the program Live from Lincoln Center, was the first full-length recital broadcast in the history of television, and his performance at the 38th Casals Festival in Puerto Rico was nominated for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Individual Achievement in Cultural Programming.
Watts’ most recent television appearances are with the Philadelphia Orchestra on the occasion of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary gala and a performance of the Brahms Concerto No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz conducting, for PBS.
Watts’ extensive discography includes recordings of works by Gershwin, Chopin, Liszt and Tchaikovsky for CBS Masterworks; recital CDs of works by Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Chopin for Angel/EMI; and recordings featuring the concertos of Liszt, MacDowell, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns on the Telarc label. He is also included in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series for Philips.
A much-honored artist who has played before royalty in Europe and heads of government in nations all over the world, Watts received a 2011 National Medal of Arts, given by the President of the United States to individuals who are deserving of special recognition for their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.
In June 2006, he was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl of Fame to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and he is also the recipient of the 1988 Avery Fisher Prize. At age 26, Watts was the youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and he has since received numerous honors from highly respected schools including the University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis University, The Juilliard School of Music and his alma mater, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.
Previously artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, Watts was appointed to the newly created Jack I. and Dora B. Hamlin Endowed Chair in Music at Indiana University in May, 2004.
André Watts’ Hamburg Steinway provided by Mary Schwendeman Concert Service.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.