Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Оp. 77 (1878)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888)
Barnabas Kelemen, violin
Conductor — Teodor Currentzis
The Utopia Orchestra will perform works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, two of the greatest masters of the 19th century, who, in their lifetime, were often counterposed one against the other. Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated for its sensual completeness and subjective colouring, which reached confessionary quality; Brahms was seen as an adept of objectivity and low-key emotions.
Brahms’ Violin Concerto was written in 1878 for a close friend of the composer and one of the most influential violinists of the 19th century, Joseph Joachim. While working on the composition, Brahms actively consulted with him about the technical capabilities of the violin. As a result, after the premiere the complexity of the solo part became proverbial — some declared it unfeasible, others made witty remarks that the concerto was written not “for”, but “against” the violin, and still others clarified that it was written for the violin, but “against the orchestra – and the violin prevails.” Nowadays, the violin part of the Brahms concerto can serve as an example of good musical taste: instead of flashy virtuosity emphasizing exclusively the virtues of the soloist, it is rather a full partnership with the orchestra that is seen here.
Joachim considered Brahms’ concerto one of several great German violin concertos along with those of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. It was during that period that people in Germany began to talk about the “three great B’s”, and Brahms regularly kept coming back in his thoughts to the music of Beethoven and Bach, his two counterparts in this triad. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was an obvious musical model for him: it was written in the same key and equally lyrical in character. Brahms synthesizes Beethoven’s organic growth, scope and breadth of conception with tunefulness and Hungarian dance rhythms, and creates an orchestral idyll complicated by several explosions of dramatic emotions, but invariably bright and solemn in its overall tone.
Tchaikovsky composed the Symphony No. 5 in the summer of 1888, against the background of usual doubts about his creative worth. In letters to his confidants, he worried that he might have exhausted his inspiration, complained about the difficulty of the work, and also hoped that the new symphony would come out at least no worse than the previous ones. The composer’s Moscow friends greeted the completed symphony with praise, the audience — with enthusiasm, yet critics reacted sourly. Tchaikovsky, out of his habitual pessimism, decided that the critics were right, and later wrote to Nadezhda von Meck that the symphony was unsuccessful: “There is something so repellent about such excess, insincerity and artificiality.” However, a few months later, after the success in Hamburg, he revised his opinion — and dedicated the symphony to Theodor Avé-Lallemant, director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society.
In the new symphony, Tchaikovsky once again addresses his recurring theme of fate, but this time solves it more psychologically in depth. From the standard symphony orchestra composition, he extracts unusually sharp and vivid colours, and emotional swings reach impressive strength here — from the dark and mournful tones of the introduction to the dazzling brightness of the climaxes. The fatal theme-motto undergoes a series of transformations and in each of the parts intrudes into the action in the ultimately theatrical way. At the finale, it turns into a triumphal march — and for a century and a half this transformation has been making listeners wonder how the battle between the symphony’s protagonist and fate ended, and who of the two won. The author did not leave us any clues, but in one of the letters he let a phrase slip that could shed light on his way of thinking while working. “The motive of all reflections is a purely personal feeling of life passing and the fear of death.”