(Click the red play button to listen)
OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908–1992)
Les Offrandes oubliées (1930)
From an early age, Olivier Messiaen was a devout Catholic who wanted to "shed light on the theological truths of the Catholic faith" through music and musical symbols. This objective — along with his preoccupation with the sounds of nature, especially birds and their song — dominated virtually all of his creative output. And, like Scriabin, he had the gift of synaesthesia, which enabled him to see colors when he heard pitches. His voice among 20th century composers had a unique, personal vocabulary that ecstatically celebrated God and life; his soundscapes were sensuous and harmonically rich; and his music shimmered with exotic inspirations gained from his avid interest in Eastern music. Les Offrandes oubliées, Messiaen's first published orchestral work, concerns mankind's sinfulness and the possibility of redemption. He provides a prose-poem for the one-movement work: "Arms outstretched, afflicted unto death, you shed your blood on the cross. We have forgotten, sweet Jesus, how you love us. Driven onward by madness and forked tongues, in breathless, uncontrolled, and headlong flight, we have fallen into sin like a bottomless pit. It is here to be found, the unsullied table, the source of charity, the feast of the poor, the well of holy sympathy which is to us the very bread of life and love. We have forgotten, sweet Jesus, how you love us." Les Offrandes oubliées is comprised of three continuous sections, Messiaen explains: "The Cross" (nearly slow, sorrowful, profoundly sad), "a lamentation of the strings, whose sorrowful 'neumes' divide the melody into groups of uneven lengths, broken by deep-grey and mauve sighs"; "Sin" (quick, savage, desperate, breathless), "a kind of 'race towards the abyss' at an almost mechanized speed"; "The Eucharist" (extremely slow, with great compassion and great love) "features the long and slow phrase of the violins, which rises over a carpet of pianissimo chords, with reds, gold, blues (like a distant stained-glass window) to the light of muted solo chords." At the end, this symphonic meditation becomes a wave of sound that seems to hang suspended in a kind of timelessness that points towards eternity.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No. 23 (1786)
This masterful composition is the product of an amazing creative period following Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781. Of his 27 piano concertos, no fewer than 15 were written between 1781 and 1786. He had composed them as a vehicle for his own talents. But a change in fortunes loomed on the horizon. Granted, he was still much in demand for his vocal music, as evidenced by the legendary success of the opera The Marriage of Figaro of this same period that had Figaro-crazed fans galore. Yet while Mozart had reigned supreme both as a composer of instrumental music and a pianist, his star was beginning to set. Vienna wanted lighter fare than what Mozart was beginning to create. The Piano Concerto No. 23 and the two that surrounded it, the No. 22 and No. 24, were probably performed at the Lenten subscription series of 1786. But unlike those larger-scale concertos, the K. 488 uses no trumpets or timpani, and mellow clarinets replace brighter-toned oboes. Mozart worked in the key of A Major, usually associated with a warm, serene beautyâ€”though here a more wistful feeling encroaches on the melodies, underscored by the dark timbre of clarinets that Mozart used for only a second time in his piano concertos. It is interesting to note that the opening Allegro ends with a cadenza that Mozart actually wrote out, as opposed to playing it extemporaneously, as would normally have been the case. Often seen as a harbinger of the Romantic period, the ravishing Adagio in the rare key of F-sharp exhibits a haunting depth of feeling and poignancy that nearly touches on tragedy. The final Allegro assai returns to sunnier climes and takes us home to A Major with spirited energy.
Le Désenchantement du monde, Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (U.S. Premiere–New York Philharmonic Co-Commission with Bavarian Radio, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra)
TRISTAN MURAIL (b. 1947)
Le Désenchantement du monde, Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2012) (U.S. Premiere)
Tristan Murail once posed a fascinating question: "Can one still write for the piano today? Through the 19th century and to the beginning of the 20th it was the emblematic instrument ... but has it survived the array of tortures inflicted upon it by the end of the 20th century? After the clusters of Henry Cowell, the preparations of John Cage, the ornithological percussions of Messiaen, the electrified mantras of Stockhausen, and the various scrapings and pinchings of strings, what space is left to the imagination?" His new Piano Concerto could answer this question. It was co-commissioned by the Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and is having its US premiere at these concerts. The featured soloist is Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whom the composer has known for some 30 years, but for whom he has never before written a work. Five seasons ago, the Philharmonic performed Murail's Gondwana, an important example of the evocatively named composition technique of spectralism. "Spectralism," he explains, "involves the analysis of the complex structure and evolution of a sound's timbre. These aspects then form the basis for the harmony and melody of a spectral composition." And while the Piano Concerto "will employ spectral techniques to some extent," says Murail, "they are not the basis for this work; rather, my exploration of sound provides models for the concerto's musical structures, giving me a large palette of harmonic and timbral colors and gradations to work withâ€¦almost like a rainbow." And because he is writing for traditional instruments — piano and symphony orchestra — to achieve spectral effects his score calls for changes in the tuning of some instruments. That said, rather than pondering technical issues, Tristan Murail invites the audience "to listen for the actual sound of the concerto, i.e., the relationship between the solo instrument and the orchestra, as well as its abstract psychological structure. Think of it like the interactions among the characters of a novel."
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 2 (1801–1802)
Ludwig van Beethoven completed his Second Symphony in 1802 at Heiligenstadt, a country village near Vienna and the place that gave its name to the composer's heartbreaking "Heiligenstadt Testament" — an unsent confessional letter that reveals his near-suicidal anguish over his growing deafness. Fortunately for posterity, Beethoven chose life over death in order that he might express through his art all that was in his soul, writing: "It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me." Despite the backdrop of his personal crisis the composition's mood is upbeat and sunny, with only a few passing clouds. (Berlioz remarked that "this symphony is smiling throughout.") The Symphony No. 2 was premiered in 1803 on a mammoth program that by today's standards had enough material for at least two concerts: the Symphony No. 1, plus additional first performances of the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Beethoven as conductor and piano soloist. Even though we usually think of the "Eroica" of 1804 as being the musical shot heard round the world, the Second Symphony already carries within it some of the orchestral power, energy, and drive we identify with Beethoven. Bookended by a dramatic slow introduction (à la Haydn or Mozart) and an extended raucous coda played at full speed, there is the second movement Larghetto, described by Berlioz as "a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure ... wholly and serenely happy," and a Scherzo where soft and loud dynamics are traded by the orchestra in lively banter. As you listen, keep in mind Beethoven's words to F.G. Wegeler: "I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live — and live a thousand times over!"