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Hindemith, Strauss, Rachmaninoff

Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50
Paul Hindemith
b. Hanau, Germany / November 16, 1895
d. Frankfurt, Germany / December 28, 1963

The young Hindemith stood at the forefront of the German avant-garde, delighting in creating bold, daring music that flaunted convention. With time, he became a fully practical artist. He created specific pieces for specific occasions, and music for the enjoyment of professional and amateur musicians alike. His productivity was vast, and his music is vigorous, richly textured and life-enhancing.

He composed the Konzertmusik (Concert Music) for Strings and Brass in 1930, on commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the BSO in the premiere on April 4, 1931.

Hindemith’s choice of instruments for this composition gave it a sound that is often massive and powerful. The first movement falls into two sections. The first is lively and filled with great contrapuntal interest, Hindemith regularly layering together several lines of activity. In terms of style it resembles one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, but it is driven by rhythms and underpinned by harmonies that are distinctly twentieth-century. The second section of the movement is slower in tempo and more lyrical in mood, giving free rein to the strings’ expressive capabilities.

The second movement begins playfully, as the strings introduce a bounding fugue subject that is punctuated first by brass chords, then by solo turns for various instruments. Contrast arrives with a quiet, flowing passage which in time is shared by both groups of instruments. Hindemith brings back the opening section and builds it to a sonorous, richly textured conclusion.

Oboe Concerto in D Major
Richard Strauss
b. Munich, Germany / June 11, 1864
d. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany / September 8, 1949

Through his grandiose operas and tone poems, the young Strauss took up the hyper-emotional mantels of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. In the latter stages of his career, he came under the spell of Neoclassicism. His favorite composer was Mozart, whom he adored for the elegance and clarity of his music: “Mozart was the one to have all the most beautiful thoughts, coming straight down from the skies!” he stated.

Strauss composed several works in which the spirit of Mozart is reborn in communicative twentieth-century dress. Chief among them are a brace of pieces which he composed at the very end of his career. Together they make up a glorious Indian summer of instrumental creation. Horn Concerto No. 2 was the first of them, followed by the two Sonatinas for wind instruments; Oboe Concerto; and Duett Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, and strings.

During the final days of the Second World War, American forces reached Garmisch Partenkirchen, the German town where Strauss and his wife Pauline had come to live a short time before. One of the soldiers stationed there was John de Lancie, a California-born, Paris-trained professional musician who would soon afterwards become Principal Oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“During one of my visits with Strauss,” de Lancie recalled, “I asked him if, in view of the numerous beautiful lyric solos for oboe in almost all his works, he had ever considered writing a concerto for oboe. He answered ‘No!’ And there was no more conversation on the subject. He later told a fellow musician friend of mine that the idea had taken hold of him as a result of that remark.”

The Strauss Oboe Concerto unfolds in one, continuous movement. Its principal characteristics are warmth, charm and beauty. The central section in slow tempo is exceptionally sweet and lyrical. The writing for the soloist is long-breathed, virtually operatic in style. A quasi-cadenza accompanied by pizzicato strings leads into the bright, witty finale, where the oboist displays considerable agility and virtuosity.

Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27
Sergei Rachmaninoff
b. Oneg, Russia / March 20, 1873
d. Beverly Hills, California, USA / March 28, 1943

In 1897, the premiere of his ambitious and intensely dramatic First Symphony proved such an unmitigated disaster that it plunged the gifted 24-year-old composer into a depression so profound that we was unable to compose a note. Three years and the help of a psychiatrist were needed to bring him out of it. He was also able to resume his two-pronged, pianist/conductor performing career, adding further luster to his reputation. 

By the autumn of 1906, in fact, Rachmaninoff came to feel that his concert activities were leaving him too little time for his first love, composition. The political situation in Russia had become dangerously volatile, as well. Seeking a retreat from these stresses, he chose Dresden, Germany because of its thriving musical life. He leased a villa there, in which he would spend several months during each of the next two-and-a-half years. In that idyllic setting, he was free to relax, to ponder, and to allow his inherently expansive creative impulses to define their limits.

During this period, he composed several important scores, including Piano Sonata No. 1 and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. Having finally exorcised the demon of his First Symphony’s failure, he was able to consider the creation of a successor. He took great care with it, sincerely wishing it to succeed. His efforts won total vindication when the first performance, which he conducted himself in St. Petersburg on February 8, 1908, scored a resounding triumph.

The Symphony’s length was remarked upon from the beginning. A review of the second performance stated, “After listening with unflagging attention to its four movements, one notes with surprise that the hands of the watch have moved 65 minutes forward. This may be slightly long for the general audience, but how fresh, how beautiful the music is...”

Numerous conductors have not shared this view of the Symphony’s dimensions. Under pressure, Rachmaninoff reluctantly agreed to authorize certain small cuts, a practice which was followed for many years, especially prior to the 1960s, when the Symphony rebounded from decades of neglect and regained its original popularity. Some maestros took this damaging approach further still, reducing the Symphony to as little as 40 minutes. It makes its full, carefully balanced effect, however, only when heard in its entirety, as it will be at these performances. This reveals it, as Rachmaninoff intended, as a vast, unbroken outpouring of emotion, dramatic, sumptuously scored and above all lyrical in expression.

As would be the case in all three Rachmaninoff symphonies, the Second is bound together by a brief, simple recurring theme, a “motto.” This one is played by the double basses at the beginning of the first movement’s slow, brooding introduction. The main Allegro presents a balance of restless, dramatic, and yearning elements. In its urgency and rhythmic drive, the following Scherzo leans toward the tart style of Prokofiev, but only Rachmaninoff (or perhaps his idol, Tchaikovsky) could have written the soaring second theme.

The third movement Adagio is the symphony’s beating heart, an outpouring of passionate lyricism virtually unsurpassed in all music. The principal theme is a long, glowing melody introduced by solo clarinet. As the movement develops, it touches repeated heights of rapture, before dying away into contented stillness. The symphony concludes with a surging, joyful Rondo. Fleeting reminiscences of previous movements crop up, en route to the exhilarating conclusion.

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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