Paderewski's 150th birthday and Bruno Walter, Week One

By James David Jacobs

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Saturday, November 6, marks the 150th birthday of Ignacy Jan Paderewski. In a year marked by so many other milestones, it is perhaps understandable that Paderewski would be forgotten -- no one would put his compositions in the same league as Chopin's or Schumann's or Mahler's. But Paderewski was a unique figure who was highly respected in his lifetime - Saint-Saëns called him "a genius who accidentally plays the piano." He was a superstar, an internationally famous celebrity, and one of the last performing artists to achieve that status before the advent of cinema and audio recording changed the paradigm for fame. (While he did make a number of recordings between the years 1911-1938 and at the age of 76 starred in a movie called Moonlight Sonata, it is generally agreed that his talent was never adequately documented.)

As successful as his music career was, however, he often stated that "I adore music, but not as much as I love my home country." He increasingly used his fame to espouse the cause of Polish independence, giving rousing patriotic speeches and corresponding with politicians in a manner not unlike Bono these days. After the Greater Poland Uprising of 1918 Paderewski was elected Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, but he held these offices for less than a year, during which he signed the Treaty of Versailles; it's probably the concessions he was forced to make in the treaty that led to his political downfall. He quickly returned to his successful music career.

On today's show we'll hear two recordings by Paderewski himself, made in New York in the 1920s: Liszt's Etude de Concert No. 2 and Paderewski's own Menuet celebre in G, by far his most popular work. We'll also hear a rare example of his music without piano, an expertly orchestrated Overture.

Other highlights of Saturday's show: we'll hear music by another musician/statesman, King Friedrich II of Prussia (aka Frederick the Great). Renowned as much for his flute playing as for his diplomacy, we'll play his Flute Sonata in E minor, as well as selections from J.S. Bach's A Musical Offering, whose Royal Theme was composed by the king; and, following Kid's Classical Hour, which concerns Mozart's The Magic Flute, we'll hear some lesser-known Mozart that anticipates the style of that opera in some remarkable ways: the incidental music to Thamos, King of Egypt.

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Mozart will also figure prominently on Sunday's show, when we'll begin a month-long exploration of the legacy of conductor Bruno Walter. Walter had a special relationship with Mozart's music; Walter's interpretations underline the music's warmth and lyricism in a manner unparalleled by any other conductor. Today we'll take a glimpse into how he does it, by listening to part of a rehearsal (as well as a complete performance) of Mozart's "Linz" Symphony with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1955.

The so-called Columbia Symphony was essentially a pick-up ensemble, which is why it could co-exist in both New York and Los Angeles; both orchestras included members of their cities' respective philharmonics as well as top-flight studio and freelance musicians. Walter made this series of recordings for Columbia for the purpose of capturing his interpretations using the latest advances in recording technology, and he even made a few recordings in stereo. The Mozart recording for Sunday was made with the New York version of the CSO. After this, it's the only recording Walter made of an American work: Samuel Barber's First Symphony, recorded by the New York Philharmonic in 1945, three years after Walter and the NYPO gave the premiere of the revised version of the work, written by the 26-year-old Barber during his sojourn in Italy as winner of the American Prix de Rome. Here's Barber's own description of his symphony:

"The form is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme, in diminution, forms the basis of the scherzo section (Vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by the violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, then serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony."

Listeners who think of Walter as a kind, grandfatherly Austrian maestro may be surprised to hear the fierce conviction with which he digs into the modern American idiom of this work.

For a bit more about Barber, listen to conductor Marin Alsop's conversation with NPR's Scott Simon at NPR Music.  And to read  about Bruno Walter, a reminiscence of the man by a musician who worked with him, visit Robert Meyer.

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