Once again, I have reason to wax enthusiastic about a musical event in Stockholm and about my personal discovery of a magnificent Swedish artist who enjoys world-wide acclaim, concert pianist Roland Pöntinen.
As I compose this article I am listening to a CD I bought at Berwaldhallen, near the US Embassy, during a symphony concert there on 1 September. I attended, as I have before, with my friend Johannes from Uppsala. During the intermission, just after Mr. Pöntinen performed, Johannes and I visited the area of the lobby where CDs were for sale. We each bought one of Mr. Pöntinen’s many recorded performances, then stood in line to get the album notes signed by the artist. As Mr. Pöntinen signed mine I told him that I felt he had paid great respect to Chopin in the playing of this composer’s piano concerto (described below). He seemed pleased by the comment; Johannes and I then returned to the concert hall for the second part of the evening’s performance.
Here are the performers and the program we heard:
Felix Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture op. 26
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2
(Encore: Chopin Mazurka in b minor Opus. 33 No. 4
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2
(Encore: not sure, but it seemed like one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances)
[Note: Some of the links under specific pieces, above, are directed to “Youtube” sites and are not performed by the artists in this evening’s concert]
The Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn is one my favorite pieces because of its connection to my youth. There was a radio program, The Lone Ranger, which aired from 1933 until 1955, that had several pieces of music in its theme and during the program, including The Hebrides Overture. The main theme was from the “cavalry charge” finale of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Other borrowed music was by Peter Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt.
The next piece was the piano concerto by Chopin, one that I have long loved. What struck me about Mr. Pöntinen’s playing was that he did not, as so many performers of Chopin do, insert himself into the equation. There was no flash, no needless and ostentatious pounding of the keys, just a clear delivery of Chopin’s phrases and melodies. Perhaps it was the influence of the Swedish lagom: “not too much and not too little.” In addition, there seemed to be warm and relaxed rapport between the conductor and the solo pianist. Mr Pöntinen’s encore piece, also by Chopin, was similarly played. He was enthusiastically received by the audience.
During the concerto’s many cadenzas for the piano, written with the extraordinary embellishments that Chopin is well-known for, I was reminded of the stylistic playing of the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. As I later read in a biography of Mr. Pöntinen, he also has appreciation for the jazz idiom, as well as music for the cinema which is the subject of the CD recorded by him that I bought at the concert.
Upon returning to the auditorium after the paus (intermission), I allowed by myself some anticipatory pleasure in knowing that one of my favorite composers was about to be presented to me, and through a piece I often play at home. My father preferred Beethoven above all, although he had a high opinion of Brahms. Over time I have grown to prefer Brahms. His wistful and sometimes melancholic phrases, all laid on a foundation of latent power that often emerges, full-throated, resonate in me more than any composer–with the sometimes exceptions of several of the Nordic composers, particularly Grieg and Sibelius.
The first movement of the symphony is long, around 21 minutes of the symphony’s approximately 45 minutes, but the remaining three are shorter, the third movement being quite short at five and one-half minutes.
As the playing of the familiar symphony unfolded, I reminisced on anecdotes about Brahms I had read and heard about over the years. I recalled that the great German conductor, pianist and composer Hans von Bülow called Brahms’s first symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth” (Beethoven wrote only nine) because of many similarities in the two pieces. I recalled also this quote of Brahms, when comparing himself to Beethoven in 1870: “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter. You have no idea of how it feels to hear a giant’s footsteps behind you!”
Brahms spent at least fourteen years completing this work, whose sketches date from 1854. Brahms himself declared that the symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years, from 1855 to 1876. Source
I speculated, as the playing of the symphony proceeded, that Brahms, now having been freed from the terrible burden of composing a great symphony under the shadow of the god-like Beethoven, felt much lighter and gayer, hence the mood of this second symphony. My notes during this first movement contain the words: “triumphant,” “joyful,” “lyrical, “pastoral” and a reference to Brahms’s penchant for walking in the woods while composing in his head.
There is a part in the first movement I always anticipate with great joy: the full orchestra is in a long passage which culminates in a loud, grand chord that creates an image in my imagination of a magnificent pipe organ in a cathedral coming to the end of an important statement.
I am not scholarly enough in musical forms to vouch with authority for the following observation: Brahms seems to employ the major and the minor modes alternatively and often in any piece and in any movement or section of the piece. Further, he does a counter-intuitive thing: when the music is in major mode, the pitch of the notes progresses generally downward (lower), and when in minor mode, the notes progress generally upward (higher) in pitch. I think this is what gives his music the “wistful” character I perceive.
To hurry things along here, I’ll make some short comments about the remaining three movements:
- Movement No. 2, pastoral
- Movement No. 3, country dance
- Movement No. 4, triumphant, with a chorale-like ending
In sum, Johannes Brahms knows how to employ an orchestra, every section, every instrument.
Here is the entire discography of Roland Pöntinen at Naxos Records.