This evening’s concert works its way backwards through time, beginning with a work in the Neo-Classical vein of the first half of the 20th century, and wending its way back 130 years. From Bartók’s Divertimento, composed just before the outbreak of the Second World War, we go back a century, to a late work by Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most conservative of the Romantic composers. Our finale dates from the first decade of the 19th century. Beethoven’s Fourth, one of his lesser-known symphonies, displays a synthesis of Classical style and sensibility along with a Romantic composer’s growing flair for the dramatic.
Béla Bartók had a close relationship with Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. It was Sacher who commissioned one of Bartók’s best known works, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and it was also at the behest of Sacher that Bartók wrote the selection on tonight’s concert, the Divertimento for Strings. It was written in 1939, a tumultuous time in Europe’s history, but the work gives few hints of this tension. As its title suggests, it was a diversion from such drama, a pleasant entertainment, in the spirit of the Classical divertimento, written for parties and events. Bartók received Sacher’s commission in 1938, and Sacher even gave him a peaceful place to write, his own chalet in the Alps. The change of setting and the lack of distractions had the intended effect, and Bartók completed the Divertimento in about two weeks. Although the fruit of his labor is wonderful, Bartók came to regret the time he spent in the Alps. When his mother passed away a few months later, he lamented the time lost with her.
Bartók’s foray into the Divertimento seems inspired as much by the Baroque concerto grosso as by the Classical divertimento, although the harmonies mark it as firmly within a modern tradition. The first movement resembles a dance, featuring Bartók’s sense of rhythmic drive. It is complemented by rich harmonies, along with moments for solo instruments that rise up out of the thick texture echoing the concerto grosso. The second movement begins quietly, almost out of nothing. There is a pensive attitude here, with dark undertones. Certain chords seem to break through, like worries in an unquiet mind. The final movement brings back the dance-like intensity, which was so infectious in the first movement. Here Bartók draws his melodic material from a folk tune, which he presents in a few different guises including a three-voice, imitative fugue, some courtly pizzicato, and a whirling dramatic climax that ends the piece. That he could conjure up such passionate musical moments in the peace and quiet of the Swiss Alps is indicative of Bartók’s own intensity as a 20th-century composer.
One hundred years before Bartók undertook the Divertimento that opens this concert, Mendelssohn was composing the Violin Concerto in E minor. This Concerto would be the composer’s last major work for orchestra. Throughout the process of composing the piece, Mendelssohn sought the counsel of Ferdinand David, friend and concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. When Mendelssohn was appointed to lead the Orchestra in 1835, he brought David in as the concertmaster. The two were actually born in the same house a year apart, and had known each other since their teens. The close relationship between Mendelssohn and David allowed a collaboration that was unusual at the time, but later composers, like Brahms for instance, were accustomed to asking their intended soloists for technical advice while composing concertos. David premiered Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in 1845.
Mendelssohn uses the standard three-movement format for his Concerto, but it is notable that he does not use the standard form for the first movement. Usually a concerto begins with an exposition of themes played only by the orchestra, followed by the soloist’s exposition. But Mendelssohn brings the soloist in right away, rather than waiting for the orchestra to play first. Also unusual for the time are accompanimental passages played by the soloist. The first movement, marked Allegro molto appassionato, features the haunting theme that Mendelssohn complained gave him “no peace” while he was composing the work. The violin has plenty of virtuosic moments including a passionate cadenza, which Mendelssohn wrote out explicitly, rather than leaving the improvisation to the soloist, as was customary. The second movement, Andante, which begins with a solo passage in the bassoon, seems even more emotional and lyrical. The phrases of the violin sing in a way that suggests Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte (“Songs Without Words”). The movement ends serenely and is quickly connected to a short transition leading into the animated finale. David must have had an uncommon ability to play quick passages accurately and cleanly and provide contrast with long lyrical phrases, because that is what Mendelssohn calls for here. The orchestra provides their most accompanimental music in this movement, allowing the soloist to lead the ensemble to an energetic and breathtaking close.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major often gets lost between the genre-shattering Third Symphony and the incredibly popular Fifth Symphony. The Fourth, however, deserves some attention not because of what it isn’t, but for what it is: a tightly constructed early Romantic symphony.
Symphony No. 4 begins with a slow introduction, an intriguing section in the dark hues of an ambiguous minor tonality. The inclusion of a slow opening is perhaps a nod to Haydn’s similar practice in his late symphonies, but the ambiguity might take its cues from the opening of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, called “The Representation of Chaos,” which was composed just eight years earlier. The mystery of the introduction eventually gives way to a bright and unambiguous B-flat major Allegro vivace. The orchestral colors, especially those of the woodwinds, are particularly vivid. There is no shortage of dramatic outbursts in this movement, even though the overall effect is energetic without being overwrought.
The second movement is a beautiful Adagio, with accompanimental figures in the strings and the melody carried in the woodwinds. Beethoven achieves a richness and depth of emotion in this movement without sacrificing momentum. An unexpected foray into a minor key brings a sense of anticipation and dramatic interest. For the third movement, Beethoven added additional restatements of the material to expand the minuet-trio-minuet standard. In this case, the minuet and trio third movement is actually a quick-moving scherzo that gallops along with rhythmic insistence, but never entirely loses a feeling of playfulness.
The finale of this work combines the charm of the Classical style with the burgeoning Romantic expansiveness that would characterize some of Beethoven’s most enduring works. It evokes all of the feelings we associate with Beethoven’s “heroic” period, but manages to keep some of the structure and conventions that made Haydn’s late symphonies so much fun. That the Third and Fifth would cast such enormous shadows over the Fourth simply makes the rediscovery of this gem all the more special.