Monday, 7 May 2018

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto:
Themes and variations

15 May 2018: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
23 May 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham
25 May 2018: Town Hall, Cheltenham

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Overture, ‘Coriolan’, op62
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C major, op56
  • Felix Mendelssohn – Symphony no4 ‘Italian’ in A major, op90

When we are immersed in a great novel, we may wonder just how much of the author, or the author’s life, can be read within it. Likewise with poetry – although this does have an innate tendency to be autobiographical. But with music – unless we have documentary evidence; or the composer has also penned its lyrics – it is much harder to fathom. Many though have seen (or heard) tonight’s overture as a self-portrait: despite its front-and-centre reference to the Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or ‘Coriolan’, in German). With its occasional thematic reminders of the Fifth Symphony, written in the same year, 1807, there is no doubt that the work musically encompasses some form of desperate mental struggle. Whether that fight involves Beethoven facing his deafness; or the semi-legendary patrician as he matures from brute to peace-monger (under the onslaught of his mother’s and wife’s entreaties), is, though, solely for the listener to determine.

Notwithstanding, Mendelssohn’s marvellous symphony is definitely autobiographical: as we know, not only from the many letters he wrote to family and friends, but from the fact that it follows his well-recorded ‘grand tour’ around Europe – which included a lengthy period in Italy (as well as Scotland, of course)! Although it eventually closes in a minor key, there is little doubt of the happiness this journey brought its composer. The joyful music he wrote in response is (hopefully) truly infectious!

It is doubtful whether anything other than Beethoven’s innate genius attaches to the Triple Concerto, however; although the short central movement is extremely moving. Following the examples of Haydn’s and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertantes – for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon; and oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn; respectively – both performed by OOTS, last season – it contains some of its composer’s most awe-inspiring and enjoyable music. (It is a shame, therefore, that all three of these great composers’ concertos share another trait – that of underperformance – especially when placed side-by-side with this concert’s celebrated overture and symphony.)

Indubitably, though, it is music’s effect on the individual that is most meaningful. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with being cheered by Coriolanus’ fate (killed by his erstwhile allies, according to Shakespeare; nobly dying on his own sword, according to Heinrich Joseph von Collin – who supposedly influenced Beethoven); or with sobbing at the Saltarello which concludes the concert.

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