We began by listening to an excerpt from Beethoven’s fifth Piano Concerto, often referred to as the Emperor Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. This was his last piano concerto and was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf who was Beethoven’s patron and pupil. The previous concertos had been written with Beethoven as the soloist but his hearing had deteriorated to such an extent that it was no longer possible for him to play with an orchestra. Its first performance was in Vienna in 1811 with the Archduke as the soloist. It is not entirely clear why it is known as the Emperor Concerto, the name was apparently coined by the English publisher of the concerto, Johann Baptist Cramer, most likely with a view to its successful marketing.
On a somewhat lighter theme we then listened to two pieces by French composers. The first was the overture from Offenbach’s opera bouffe, La Vie Parisienne. The plot is a typically complicated one whereby two Parisian dandies after having both been dumped by the same lady, Métella, plot to acquire a better class of mistress and offer to show a Swedish baron and his wife the sights of Paris. One of them, Gardefeu, takes the Swedes to his house which he pretends is a hotel with the intention of getting the baron out of the way so that he can attempt to seduce the baroness. However, the Baron contrives an assignation with Métella, and the Baroness discovers remnants of Gardefeu’s affair. In the final scene the Baron discovers that Métella is still in love with Gardefeu and is not interested in him. The Baron is understandably somewhat peeved as Gardefeu and Métella are reconciled but is calmed down by the Baroness. So all ends happily ever after!
Thaïs was a two act opera by Massenet in which Athanaël, a monk, confronts Thaïs, a beautiful and hedonistic courtesan and tries to persuade her to abandon a life of pleasure and find salvation through God. In the second Act Thaïs agrees to follow Athanaël into the desert and lead a new life. We heard the meditations of Thaïs which are played by the violin accompanied by a piano as an entr’acte and are intended to reflect the thought processes of Thaïs as she decides to follow Athanaël into a life of prayer in the desert.
To follow we listened to the cello suite No 1 by Bach transcribed for the guitar by the Swedish guitarist Göran Söllscher. Bach most likely composed this suite between 1717 and 1723 when he was kapellmeister at Köthen. After the prelude, all the other movements are based around baroque dance types, Allemande, Courante Sarabande, Minuet and Gigue. Due to various difficulties the suites were little known and rarely performed in public until they were revived and recorded by Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Now they are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for the cello. This version was played on an alto guitar, an extended range eleven string classical guitar developed by the Swedish luthier Georg Bolin in the 1960’s.
We concluded the afternoon with the Fantasie in C Major op17 by Schumann. It was written in 1836 and dedicated to Liszt and has been described as one of his greatest works for solo piano and one of the central works of the early romantic period. Schumann wrote the piece as a contribution to the appeal fund to erect a monument to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. Other contributors included Mendelssohn. The monument was eventually unveiled in 1845 with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in attendance. Unfortunately, Schumann himself was unable to be there due to ill health.