The legendary Emanuel Ax

Prepared by Ken Meltzer

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 73 (“Emperor”) (1809)

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827.  The first performance of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto took place in Leipzig, Germany, on November 28, 1811, with Friedrich Schneider as soloist, and Johann Philipp Christian Schulz conducting. 

Approximate performance time is thirty-eight minutes.

Perhaps the “Emperor” Piano Concerto is the work that most eloquently testifies to Ludwig van Beethoven’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through the sheer force of will and genius.  Beethoven, a fiery virtuoso, had previously stunned Vienna with brilliant performances of his keyboard compositions, including four Concertos for Piano and Orchestra.  By the time Beethoven began work on his E-flat Concerto in 1808, however, increasing deafness had made public appearances all but impossible.  The “Emperor” is, in fact, the only Beethoven Piano Concerto not premiered by the composer himself.

Beethoven completed his Fifth Piano Concerto in 1809, the year Napoleon invaded Vienna.  In May, Napoleon’s forces bombarded the city.  Beethoven’s lodgings stood directly in the line of fire, and so he took refuge in a basement of another home.  During the massive shelling, Beethoven tried to protect the last remnants of his hearing by covering his ears with pillows.

The succeeding French occupation brought physical and economic chaos.  On July 26, 1809, Beethoven wrote to his publisher: “Normally I should now be having a change of scene and air—The levies are beginning this very day—What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons and human misery in every form....”

Through all of this turmoil and despair, Beethoven never lost his fierce sense of independence and rebellious spirit.  Once, during the occupation, a friend spied Beethoven in a café.  There the composer stood behind a French officer, shaking his fist and proclaiming: “If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do counterpoint, I’d give you fellows something to think about.”  And there is an undeniable pride and heroism in the E-flat Concerto, music that refuses to capitulate to the misery Beethoven suffered during its composition.

The Concerto’s nickname, “Emperor,” was first used after Beethoven’s death.  It relates not to any specific political figure, but to the work’s majestic character.  Beethoven would compose no more piano concertos during the remaining 18 years of his life.  Nevertheless, the “Emperor” is as fitting a summation of the composer’s achievements in the realm of the piano concerto as is the immortal Ninth in the symphonic repertoire.

The grand opening movement (Allegro) begins in dramatic fashion, as the orchestra’s massive chords are answered by the elaborate flourishes of the soloist.  The beautiful slow-tempo second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) features a lovely melody, introduced by the muted violins.  Toward the conclusion of the movement, one of several masterstrokes in this work creates a moment of incomparable magic.  After a sudden and unexpected shift from B to B-flat, the soloist quietly entices the listener with fragments of the principal theme of the spirited finale, which follows without pause.  The concluding movement (Rondo. Allegro) is based upon a jaunty theme, first played by the soloist, and immediately repeated by the orchestra.  Beethoven adds a touch of mystery just before the closing measures, featuring the pianist accompanied only by the timpani.  Suddenly a series of ascending flourishes by the soloist leads to an athletic restatement of the principal theme, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto reaches its triumphant conclusion.

Piano soloist Emanuel Ax

Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900)

Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliště, Bohemia, on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna, Austria, on May 18, 1911.  The first performance of the Symphony No. 4 took place in Munich, Germany, on November 25, 1901, with Margarethe Michalek, soprano, and the composer conducting the Kaim Orchestra. 

Approximate performance time is fifty-four minutes.

Gustav Mahler completed his Fourth Symphony in the summer of 1900.  The premiere took place in Munich on November 25, 1901, with the composer leading the Kaim Orchestra.  Before the opening performance, several members of the orchestra approached Mahler and confessed “they hadn’t been able to make head or tail of the work but would do their best to change their minds the following day.”

The audience and critics demonstrated a like sense of confusion.  Everyone seemed to anticipate that Mahler’s Fourth would, in the spirit of his Second and Third Symphonies, be an epic, dramatic piece.  They were decidedly taken aback by the apparent naïveté and simplicity of Mahler’s new score.  Boos mingled with—and sometimes overwhelmed—demonstrations of support for Mahler’s latest Symphony.  At the conclusion of the performance, Mahler took his bows “in a manner more furious than friendly.”

Nevertheless, the Fourth Symphony, with its abundant lyricism and relative brevity, quickly proved to be among the most accessible and popular of Mahler’s Symphonies.  Today, each of Mahler’s Symphonies has received its due, both in concert performances and recordings.  Still, the genial lyricism and grace of the Fourth, sometimes called Mahler’s “Pastorale” Symphony, continue to accord the work a favored status.  Further, close analysis reveals that beneath the seemingly naïve exterior of the Fourth Symphony is an extraordinarily intricate, sophisticated, and unified work.

The following are some of Mahler’s comments regarding the nature and meaning of his Fourth Symphony:

Portrait of Arnold Böcklin - the inspiration behind the second movement.

What I had in mind here was unbelievably difficult to do.  Imagine the uniform blue of the skies, which is more difficult to paint than all changing and contrasting shades.  This is the fundamental mood of the whole.  Only sometimes it darkens and becomes ghostly, gruesome.  But heaven itself is not so darkened, it shines on in an eternal blue.  Only to us it suddenly seems gruesome, just as on the most beautiful day in the woods, flooded with light, we are often gripped by panic and fear.  The Scherzo (second movement) is mystical, confused and eerie so that your hair will stand on end.  But in the following Adagio you will soon see that things were not so bad—everything is resolved.

In the final movement (“The Heavenly Life”), although already belonging to this higher world, the child explains how everything is meant to be.

The Symphony is in four movements.  The first (Bedächtig. Nicht eilen) opens with a “sleigh bell” motif, followed by a grazioso dotted-rhythm figure, introduced by the first violins.  Both play crucial roles in the finale.  Bruno Walter, the great German conductor and Mahler disciple, described the second movement scherzo (In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast) as “Freund Hein spielt zum Tanz auf (‘Friend Death is striking up the Dance’).  Death fiddles rather strangely; his playing sends us up to heaven.” According to Mahler’s friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, the composer referred to the third movement (Ruhevoll) as: “‘The Smiling of St. Ursula’ and said that at the time he had a childhood image of his mother’s face in mind, recalling how she had laughed through grieving and had smiled through tears, for she had suffered unendingly yet had always lovingly resolved and forgiven everything.”  In the finale (Sehr behaglich), a soprano sings Mahler’s setting of the poem Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life).

Soprano soloist Sari Gruber