Four Seasons Recomposed
David Danzmayr, conductor
Violinist Alexandra Soumm, with her lush tone and lyrical personality, presents The Four Seasons Recomposed—Vivaldi’s classic, reimagined. ProMusica pairs this new twist with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which is itself a lively, wild—even manic—ride.
MAX RICHTER – The Four Seasons Recomposed
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 4
Among the most famous and recognizable violin concertos, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons remains a beloved staple of the repertoire. Tonight, we will hear this magnificent work as reimagined by the post-minimalist Max Richter, a version that transposes Vivaldi’s brilliance into a dreamlike atmosphere. Beethoven’s Fourth, on the other hand, will be heard just as the composer imagined, with all of its original charm, flair and emotional power. Often overlooked and cast into the shadows by the mighty symphonies that surround it, the Fourth is an absolute gem, one guaranteed to send you whistling into the cold December night.
Max Richter (b. 1966): The Four Seasons Recomposed
Instrumentation: violin solo, strings, harp and harpsichord
Composed: Winter of 2011
Premiere: Barbican Centre, London, 2012
Duration: about 44 minutes
At some point during the winter of 2011 German-British composer set about re-envisioning Vivaldi’s violin masterpiece, The Four Seasons. The work, originally composed around 1720, had long captivated audiences. Given its overuse as “wallpaper” music, whether in elevators, movie soundtracks or telephone “on hold” loops, Vivaldi’s blockbuster had become, for Richter, something of an irritant. So, the post-minimalist composer sought to freshen things up a bit. As a composer, Richter knows few boundaries. His influences range from the classical minimalism of Phillip Glass to Pink Floyd and The Clash and he is as comfortable working within the domain of film music as he is electronica or casting broad orchestral soundscapes. Vivaldi, then, offered the composer great possibilities while posing serious challenges, since the Italian’s music, and particularly his Four Seasons, is so beloved. Richter set out to honor the Venetian master while creating something new and, of course, making a strong personal musical statement.
Richter invested his reconstruction with a healthy dose of Vivaldian DNA and anyone familiar with the original will recognize its memorable patterns and gestures. But these are starting points for Richter, who related having jettisoned all but 25% of Vivaldi’s original material. For Richter, Vivaldi offered an iconic starting point. From there, the German-born, British-raised composer moves into personal terrain, reflective of his minimalist sensibilities. At some points the music is dreamlike, at other times haunting. Then, there is the rhythmic thrum, a driving beat that actually shares a great deal in common with the electricity of Vivaldi’s original (listen, for instance, to the last movement of Summer, which features punctuated syncopations set against Vivaldi’s original groove). We get a sense of Richter’s approach right from the start of Spring, where a repeated “loop” of violin/bird chirping is set to a slow-moving line in the lower strings, and though it underpins everything above it, this bass line only gradually becomes a presence. In the slow movement of the same season, Richter borrows the opening phrase of Vivaldi’s original, from which he then weaves an entirely new and lushly romantic theme (for the connoisseurs in the audience, the incessant ‘short-long’ repeated motive in the lower strings, which is meant to evoke barking dogs, was originally assigned to the violas by Vivaldi but are here dispatched by the cellos).
To move through each movement would do injustice to Richter’s creativity; though the original remains ever present and recognizable, each of you will react differently to what he has done with—or to—Vivaldi’s score. The third movement of Winter, however, should be singled out as among the composer’s personal favorites. From Vivaldi’s original violin material, Richter spins out perpetually descending violin lines. Below this idea runs a slow, eerily haunting chorale (not unlike the technique with which the concerto began), creating a bleak landscape brilliantly capturing the essence of a cold, dark winter, though one admittedly more Germanic than Italian! Richter’s vision will leave you shivering, much as winter should.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 4
Instrumentation: flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and horns, timpani and strings
Composed: Summer of 1806
Premiere: Vienna, March 1807
Duration: about 34 minutes
In the summer of 1806, having recently completed his opera Leonore and the three magisterial “Razumovsky” string quartets, Beethoven set to work on what would become his Fourth Symphony. His “Eroica” Symphony was now some three years behind him, though the composer had no intention of replicating or outdoing that monumental offering. Indeed, with the Fourth Symphony, a symphonic pattern began to emerge—those created on a large scale were followed by scores of a more regressive character, which dialed back the size of the forces involved, were significantly shorter or simply didn’t deliver the intense emotional punch of the earlier composition. The “Pastoral,” folk-inspired Sixth Symphony, for instance, followed the tumultuous C minor Fifth, and a half year after the dramatic Seventh, with its brooding funeral march and expanded contours, came the charming and witty Eighth Symphony. Now, in the summer and fall of 1806, at the close of what would prove the most productive period of Beethoven’s lifetime, the famed composer gave himself over to a tight, compact symphony, classical in its design (it is scored, for example, for a single flute), devoid of any personal or extra-musical subject matter. And though appearing cast from a well-worn mold, the Fourth remains a highly individual and beloved work, the product of a genius at the height of his compositional powers. And it demonstrates through and through that its creator regarded each new work as a unique musical event, one providing the opportunity to reveal new musical truths and a level of expression unequaled before or since.
Beethoven’s Adagio introduction opens mysteriously—over a sustained B-flat in the winds, the strings emerge with apprehensive fragments of ideas, first as pairs of descending gestures and then as scale fragments. Note how Beethoven builds tension with small gestures but no actual theme. Having opened in the dark realm of B-flat minor, Beethoven drifts to the yet-more-distant key of B minor and even touches on G-flat/F-sharp (unusual keys that will return in the Allegro proper), before a dramatic explosion of sound sets up the home key of B-flat major for the Allegro vivace. The Allegro is initially driven forward by the violins, which are momentarily checked by a descending wind scale, before the entire orchestra launches into action. Listen how Beethoven creates tremendous “spin,” to quote Sir Donald Tovey, with nothing but arpeggios (bassoon, for example), sustained wind chords, driving eighth notes in the lower strings, dramatic timpani rolls and the simplest of fragments in the violins! Admittedly, Beethoven’s contrasting material, presented by the winds and answered more forcefully by the strings, is of a more lyrical, even pastoral nature, but even this passage, for all its beauty, lacks a true thematic profile. The patterns that close the exposition and a variant on the lyrical wind idea, serve as the basis for the development, the climax of which achieves a level of violence unknown to his contemporaries. The recapitulation is a major event, prefaced by the slowing of action and mounting tension, until only the timpani is left to fill the silence. This moment, though subtle, is among the most harmonically thrilling symphonic passages Beethoven ever conceived: against the pianissimo B-flat timpani roll Beethoven juxtaposes a jarring F-sharp major chord, a grating harmony that resolves as the bass moves down a half-step, from G-flat to F. From here, Beethoven can return effortlessly to B-flat, a subtle yet breathtaking coup! The movement’s coda is one of raw power, as Beethoven drives to the double bar with syncopated violins, offbeat accents, the return of the scale material, and a final, hair-raising push from pianissimo to the tremendous fortissimo at its close.
The Adagio is among the most beautiful of Beethoven’s slow symphonic movements. Set to a simple two-note accompaniment in the second violins that will thread its way throughout the movement, the cantabile theme unfolds in the first violins before being taken up by the winds. Clearly, we find ourselves in the heart of Beethoven’s “second” or “heroic” period, an era that witnessed some of the most achingly beautiful melodies he ever produced and whose language presaged the Romantic age. Indeed, Robert Schumann, who alluded to the Fourth as “the Greek-like slender maiden between two Norse giants,” made a piano reduction of the opening section of this movement. Though adagios tend toward simpler song forms, Beethoven constructs this one as a rondo of a vast and relatively complex design. The recognizable rondo theme at the start will return several times, anchoring the movement. Interspersed are contrasting episodes, such as the brass-dominated response, the poignant clarinet solo and the ensuing transitions, ranging from stormy to atmospheric, each of which leads us back to embellished versions of the rondo theme. If Beethoven seems reluctant to bring such a stirring movement to a close—as evidenced by the various instrumental cadenzas towards the end—who could blame him?
The syncopation at the start of the Allegro vivace is the result of two-beat figures cast in 3/4 time. Its sheer speed and syncopated phrasing reveal how far the symphony has traveled since the minuets of Mozart, as Beethoven continues to distance himself from his classical predecessors. Even the contours of the movement have been radically expanded—Beethoven twice repeats both the scherzo proper and the wind-dominated trio. The latter marked Un poco meno Allegro (“a little less fast”), exhibits a peasant-like quality with its drone bass scoring and repetitive gestures, which lends it a folksy flair.
The image that has come down to us of Beethoven as a towering, yet maligned and misunderstood genius, is in many ways spot on. Particularly once deafness set in, which it had by the time of his Fourth Symphony, he felt increasingly and understandably cut off from society. His stormy temperament and angry torrents, often a consequence of misunderstandings, were well known to his circle. Add to this chronically poor health, his inability to find requited love and an unwillingness to compromise his progressive musical ideals, and we are left with a cocktail all but guaranteed to create a misanthropic artist. Yet Beethoven was also capable of puns and practical jokes and known to possess childlike charm, and this is the character that reveals itself in the symphony’s closing Allegro ma non troppo.
The exuberant finale is cast as a perpetuum mobile, its “perpetual motion” established by the opening flurry of sixteenth notes. Beethoven’s score displays Mozartean lightness, Haydnesque wit and charm through and through. Yet, beneath its playful surface lies the essence of Beethoven’s art, drawn from the full human experience: the stormy offbeat chords that enter suddenly and disappear just as quickly; the unbridled joy of the second theme, introduced by the winds with its rollicking, triplet accompaniment; the miraculous development, constructed of minimal material but which in less than thirty seconds moves from despair to nightmarish intensity; and the thrilling coda, with its playful starts and stops and its manic rush to the close. In only 355 bars of music, Beethoven has taken us on an emotional journey; and despite being an intensely private man, opens his heart fully to his audience. If we listen carefully, we hear all we need to know.
© Marc Moskovitz
French violinist Alexandra Soumm is a multi-faceted artist who is equally at home in concerto and chamber repertoire. Highlights of her 2018-19 season include performing with the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, Orchestre Régional de Cannes, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan Century Symphony, and the Sapporo Symphony. She will appear in solo recitals in Auditorium du Louvre (Paris), Festival de musique de l’Orangerie de Sceaux with Ismaël Margain (Sceaux), Neauphle-le-Château, and three recitals with pianist Xiayin Wang in the San Francisco Bay area including Herbst Hall.
Alexandra has appeared in previous seasons with Bruckner Orchester Linz, Galicia Symphony, Danish National Symphony, NHK Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl among many others. Ms. Soumm has given recitals at the Auditorium du Louvre (Paris), Palais des Beaux Arts (Brussels), and Wigmore Hall (London) and has also appeared at the City of London Festival, and the festivals of Deauville, Schleswig-Holstein, Verbier, Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad and Varna. A passionate supporter of the newest generations of musicians, Ms. Soumm has loved her work with Youth Orchestra of the Americas, the Animato Foundation, the Sphinx Foundation, and Orchestre Français des Jeunes, and has maintained an involvement with the Seiji Ozawa International Academy in Switzerland for over 10 years.
Alexandra’s strongest ties are to France and England where she has ongoing relationships with many leading orchestras including Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier, and most of the BBC ensembles with whom she worked as former BBC 3 New Generation Artist and London Music Masters Awardee.
Born in Moscow, Alexandra started to learn the violin at the age of five and gave her first concert two years later. She later moved to Vienna to study with the renowned pedagogue Boris Kuschnir and won the Eurovision Competition in 2004. Now based in Paris, she, along with two friends, founded the non-profit organization Esperanz’Arts, whose goal is making the Arts in all its forms accessible to people in schools, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. Alexandra was named Godmother of El Sistema France. Passionate for teaching and communicating her artistry, she has given masterclasses in the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, UK, Japan, Israel, and Kenya. In 2018, she joined the Artistic and Pedagogical Committee of the Musica Mundi school, based in Belgium.
Alexandra Soumm is happy to work with contemporary composers, such as Christoph Ehrenfellner, who composed a string quartet and his second violin concerto for her, and Eric Tanguy, who composed a piece for soprano and piano, based on her poem “Cercle.”
Alexandra plays on a Gioffredo Cappa, made around 1700.