"Brahms has always been one of my favourite composers but I've rarely programmed him with amateur orchestras because I never felt that the ensembles I conducted in the past had the maturity or beauty of tone to do him justice. Fortunately, the splendid Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra is more than up to the task and having conducted Brahms's First Symphony with them two years ago, I was eager to do more. Shortly afterwards, I heard our two young soloists perform Brahms's Double Concerto and, being very impressed with their idiomatic reading, I asked them if they'd like to repeat the performance.
Perhaps less understood than Brahms's other orchestral works, the Double Concerto is actually an excellent work full of passion, colour and memorable themes, all fused together with the granite-like structure one expects of Brahms.
Sibelius is often described as the Beethoven of the Twentieth Century, largely due to his symphonies, which, like those of Beethoven a hundred years earlier, consolidate the style of the previous century while innovating and opening doors to new possibilities in the vast canvas of symphonic form. In fact, Sibelius virtually reinvented the form with his Nordic-inspired melodies and highly original structures.
The Second Symphony is an early example of this, being indebted to the late Romantic style of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and others, yet, at the same time, forging new and original paths in terms of structure and musical language. It's a broad and sweeping multi-faceted work with one of the most positive and uplifting endings in all of music.
Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello
The Double Concerto was Brahms’s final work for orchestra. It was composed in the summer of 1887 at the request of the cellist Robert Hausmann, and also for Brahms’s old but estranged friend the violinist Joseph Joachim, partly as a gesture of reconciliation towards the latter. Brahms was anxious about writing for instruments that were not his own, but by combining a violin and cello in this work he was able to create a ‘super’ stringed instrument with a sonority and range that neither instrument could offer on its own. The piece was clearly very significant for Brahms, who wrote on the autograph score that he presented to Joachim: ‘To him for whom it is written.’ After its premiere he said he now knew what had been missing from his life for the past few years – the sound of his friend’s violin. It was not entirely favourably received, however. Clara Schumann said it was ‘not brilliant for the instruments’, and the musicologist Richard Specht described it as ‘one of Brahms’s most inapproachable and joyless compositions’. Even Joachim said it was not one of the composer’s finest works, adding that the solo parts needed more brilliance. (Brahms destroyed his sketches for a second double concerto after this cool reception.)
Perhaps the concerto was simply too undemonstrative and disciplined, its solo instruments not required to give flashy displays of brilliance but rather integrated with great skill into the orchestral fabric itself. Perhaps, also, the unfamiliar combination of violin and cello raised expectations of novelty that Brahms confounded by using the instruments as familiar components through which to express his usual dramatic ideas. Its more classical, austere ambiance was not in vogue at the time of the highly romantic, virtuosic concerto, but has come back into its own since. The weight of its orchestral texture, the stern gravity of the opening movement and the moments of delicately drawn melodic clarity are all appreciated by those who love the music of Brahms.
Sibelius Symphony no. 2
‘In comparison with the first symphony, the second symphony already shows a dignified man of the world looking into the horizon. We have moved from Slavism to Central Europe. Still, from time to time I also see images of Karelian grandmothers practising their witchcraft.’ So said the conductor Jukka-Pekke Saraste of Sibelius’ second symphony, which was begun in the winter of 1901 in Italy, and revised during the next two years. It is a popular piece and has been connected by many with the Finnish struggle for independence from Russia, but it is not clear whether Sibelius intended any patriotic message. What we do know is that from this point onwards he strove increasingly for austerity and economy in his thematic methods, and in this symphony – though lush and grandiose at times – we can see his supreme mastery of the development of material from tiny components. The piece grows almost organically from a rising three-note motif heard at the very opening; it appears in many guises throughout, forms the basis for most of the material and constitutes the dramatic theme of the finale.
Another aspect of this symphony that is often discussed is the conflict between the cold North of Sibelius’s homeland and the warmth of the South, represented in this case by a visit the composer made to Italy in 1901. It has been said that Italy cast a spell on many artists from the North: Mendelssohn returned with his Italian Symphony; Berlioz ended up staying fifteen months, and produced Harold in Italy; Wagner claimed he got the idea for the opening of Das Rheingold on the west coast of the country; Tchaikovsky soothed a broken spirit in Italy and took home his serene Capriccio Italien. (Although this rather falls down when we consider that Sibelius also wrote his supremely bleak Tapiola in Italy, later.)
Even in 1901, Sibelius’ name conjured up visions of fjords and bitter cold to people who had not yet heard his music. His music is not outwardly nationalistic (picture-postcard style), however, and that is what makes it so profound: it is evocative, yet timeless and also universal. This symphony is a bold, unconventional work, one that staked out new territory to which Sibelius alone of his contemporaries would return. As does much of his most characteristic music, the first movement makes a compelling whole out of bits and pieces. He later wrote: ‘It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together.’ There is true, sustained lyricism in the slow second movement, but what we remember most is the wonderful series of adventures encountered before that begins. The scherzo is brief, hurried (except for a sorrowful woodwind theme inspired by the suicide of Sibelius’s sister-in-law) and expectant. When it leads straight into the broad first chords of the finale, we realize that this is what we have been waiting for all along. From there the fourth movement unfolds in broad swathes, continuously and with increasing power. It rises and soars in ways the earlier movements were not allowed, and that, of course, is Sibelius’s way: at the last, he shows us heaven’s floor in its entirety.