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8.550959 - WEBER: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Polacca brillante
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op. 11 (1.98)
There is an operatic element in much of the music of Weber, composer of the first great German romantic opera, Der Freischütz. Much of the childhood of Carl Maria von Weber had been spent travelling with the theatrical company directed by his father, Franz Anton Weber, uncle of Mozart's wife Constanze and like his brother, Constanze's father, at one time associated with the famous Mannheim orchestra. At the time of Weber's birth his father was still in the service of the Bishop of Lübeck and during the course of an extended visit to Vienna had taken a second wife, an actress and singer, who became an important member of the family theatre company established in 1788.
Weber's musical gifts were fostered by his father, who saw in his youngest son the possibility of a second Mozart. Travel brought the chance of varied if inconsistent study, in Salzburg with Michael Haydn and elsewhere with musicians of lesser ability. His second opera was performed in Freiberg in 1800, followed by a third, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (Peter Schmoll and His Neighbours), in Augsburg in 1803. Lessons with the Abbe Vogler led to a position as Kapellmeister in Breslau in 1804, brought to a premature end through the hostility of musicians long established in the city and through the accidental drinking of engraving acid, left by his father in a wine-bottle.
A brief an idyllic period in the service of Duke Eugen of Württemberg-Öls at Karlsruhe was followed by three years as secretary to Duke Ludwig of Württemberg, a younger brother of the reigning Duke. The financial dealings of Weber's father, who had joined him there, led to imprisonment and expulsion, and a return to a career as an active musician, at first mainly as a pianist, appearing in the principal cities of Germany. A short stay in Berlin proved fruitful, before his appointment to the opera in Prague in 1813. In 1817 he was invited to Dresden, where it was hoped he would establish German opera, although the first performance of Der Freischütz was eventually given in Berlin in 1821. While the rival Italian opera in Dresden continued to cause Weber trouble, he was invited to write an opera for Vienna. Euryanthe, described as a grand heroic-Romantic opera, with a libretto by the blue-stocking authoress of Schubert's Rosamunde, had a mixed reception.
In spite of deteriorating health, the result of tuberculosis, Weber accepted a commission from Covent Garden for an English opera, Oberon, and this was first performed there in April 1826 under the direction of the composer. Weber was a pioneer in the use of the conductor's baton and his first appearance before the orchestra with this potential weapon caused initial alarm among English musicians at his possibly aggressive intentions. The English weather could only further damage his health and he died during the night of 4th June on the eve of his intended departure for Germany.
Weber's achievement was both considerable and in influential. In German opera he had opened a new and rich vein that subsequent composers were to explore: as an orchestrator he demonstrated new possibilities, particularly in the handling of wind instruments, while as a conductor and director of performances he instituted a number of reforms, as he had first attempted as an adolescent Kapellmeister in Breslau. In style his music follows classical principles of clarity, with a particular lyrical facility shown both in his operas and vocal compositions and in his instrumental works.
On their expulsion from Württemberg in February 1810, Weber and his father travelled from Stuttgart to Mannheim, the former thereafter visiting Heidelherg and making use of introductions provided for him by his friend Franz Danzi, Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, but a former member of the orchestras of Mannheim and of Munich. Weber was able to give the first performance of the first of his two piano concertos, the Concerto in C major, Opus 11, in Mannheim on 19th November. He had completed the second and third movements in May and the technically more demanding first movement on 23rd August in Darmstadt and had planned to introduce the work at a concert in Frankfurt in October, an event forestalled by disturbances in the city. The concerto provides a connection between the world of Mozart and Beethoven and the generation of Romantics to come, something even more evident in the Konzertstück of 1821. The first movement is classical in form, with an orchestral exposition started by the strings and a solo bassoon doubling the cello. The soloist enters with aversion of the principal theme already announced by the orchestra at the outset and a brilliant transition leads to a lyrical second subject, material ingeniously developed, before the recapitulation. The A Hat major slow movement is remarkable in its scoring for violas, two solo cellos, double bass and two horns, giving a darker and richer sonority to the music, and is followed by a brilliant final Presto with a principal theme based on the arpeggio. Throughout Weber's piano music intended for his own use there are considerable technical demands. His own hands had a particularly wide stretch, allowing him, on the slightly narrower keyboard of the day, with its more delicate touch, to reach chords including a tenth.
The Piano Concerto No.2 in E flat major, Opus 32, was completed in 1812 at Gotha and dedicated to the eccentric but enthusiastic Duke Emil Leopold August of Saxe-Gotha. Weber gave the first performance on 17th December 1812 at court, including the concerto in following concerts on New Year's Day 1813 in Leipzig and on 6th March in Prague. Once again he first w rote and performed a later movement, making use of the final rondo of the new concerto with the first two movements of the earlier work at a concert in Munich in the autumn of 1811, although, as he pointed out to a friend, the new rondo was very different in spirit, a brave piece of Sturm und Drang. The influence of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto is evident in Weber's new concerto. He had bought a copy of that work in 1811 and in his own concerto followed the same key pattern, with a B major slow movement separating the outer E Flat movements. Now there are even more obvious demands for technical virtuosity in a concerto that opens with a formidable first movement, a martial first theme suited to the times and contrasted with the Romantic lyricism of the second subject. The concerto continues with a remarkable Adagio in which original colouring is provided by the use of muted violins in four parts and unmuted viola, while the piano plays a tenderly lyrical role, in finely shaded orchestral writing. The closing rondo is a vehicle for visual and aural display, remarkably effective in performance, as Weber well knew.
Weber completed his exciting solo piano work, the Polacca brillante, at his summer residence at Klein-Hosterwitz in August 1819. In the Saxon countryside he found a refuge from the political difficulties and disappointments of the German opera in Dresden. The Polacca, subtitled L'hilarite, anticipates the Polonaises of Chopin, and was later transcribed by Liszt for piano and orchestra, with the inclusion of the introduction from Weber's earlier Grande Polonaise, material that lacks any thematic connection with w hat follows. The arrangement is evidence, however, of Liszt's admiration of Weber, with a reflection in the orchestration of that composer's own command of instrumental colour.
Weber started work on a new piano concerto, his Konzertstück in F minor, Opus 79, in 1815, confiding in his friend, the critic Friedrich Rochlitz, the programme he had in mind for the work, parting, lament, sadness and final reunion and rejoicing. He eventually completed it in Berlin on 18th June 1821, the morning of the first performance of Der Freischütz at the Berlin Schauspielhaus. His pupil Julius Benedict was present, with Weber's wife Caroline, when the composer played through to them the new composition, providing a narrative to explain the piece. A lady is sitting in her tower, sad because of the absence of her knight on a crusade in the Holy Land: she wonders whether she will ever see him again, since she has heard nothing of him and her prayers have remained unanswered. She imagines him lying dead on the field of battle, and longs to fly to him and die by his side. She falls in a swoon, but there is the sound of a distant march and the sun is reflected on forms appearing through the woods. Knights and their attendants draw near, carrying their banners and the cross of the crusades. Her knight has returned and now all is happiness, for love has triumphed. The dramatic narrative is, of course, unnecessary. The Konzertstück may have an underlying programme, but Weber made no attempt to publish this more widely and the work stands as a one-movement piano concerto, a fundamentally Romantic conception, independent of any extra-musical implications that it might have had.
Proinnsias Ó Duinn
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