Of his final performance in the Cleveland International Piano Competition:
“Schimpf, the last to take the stage, distinguished himself in more ways than one Saturday, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4… By turns, the pianist whipped up storms, spun out golden filigree, and plumbed philosophical depths… The others played their selections. He owned his.”
~Cleveland Plain Dealer
Classical VI “All Beethoven”
Saturday, May 11, 2013 8:00pm
Zeiterion Theatre, New Bedford, MA
Ludwig van Beethoven:
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G
Symphony No. 3, Eroica
Alexander Schimpf, piano | bio
Winner, 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition
Individual freedom was a fascinating concept for Beethoven. Throughout his life he struggled to compose as his muse demanded, regardless of the desires of his patrons or audience.
When he received a commission to provide incidental music for Goethe’s drama Egmont, Beethoven enthusiastic accepted the task. He had long admired Goethe and was drawn to the theme of Egmont—the struggle for freedom. The play depicts the struggle for freedom of the people of the Netherlands against Spanish oppression. Beethoven also treated the theme of political oppression overthrown in the name of freedom in his opera Fidelio, and the musical process employed there also served well for Egmont.
First performed in 1810, the strength and triumphant nobility of Egmont Overture has made it one of Beethoven’s most performed works. It compresses the drama’s action into a single 8-minute span. Good triumphs over Evil, Light over Darkness throughout the structure of the work, with major tonalities supplanting minor ones at peak moments, bright orchestral scoring replacing dark, and triumphant fanfares overwhelming sinister themes.
With one of the most dramatic beginnings in all of music, huge block chords—symbolizing the harsh hand of the tyrant—characterize profound oppression. As the work unfolds the voice of the hero, introduced first in cellos, strengthens until the triumphant fanfares of the conclusion signal that tyranny is conquered.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G
This was the last concerto Beethoven composed for his own use, and if brilliance and assertiveness had been the chief characteristics of the previous three, in the Fourth it is serenity, lyricism and depth of expression. This is richly poetic music, seemingly improvisatory in its revelation of the material. And, in an unprecedented move, it opens with piano alone.
“In young Alexander Schimpf listeners made the acquaintance of a rising pianist who simply overwhelmed them with his expressive power and passion...(who) combined outstanding technical brilliance and virtuosity with remarkable sensitivity.”
Up to this time, the concerto form had been viewed as more of a contest than a dialogue. The expectation of the audience was that a suitable introduction by the orchestra would precede the awaited entrance of the “star.” And, predictably, when the soloist stopped playing, one would wait until they came in again. But here, Beethoven reveals the intimacy of work from the very beginning, a contemplative monologue on a three-note motive that stands at the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum from its cousin in the opening of the Fifth Symphony. A dialogue results throughout the first movement, with the piano as the dominant partner.
Franz Liszt compared the role of the soloist in the second movement to that of Orpheus. The stark and restless recitative with which unison orchestral strings open the movement is met with a serene, calming response. This is the dialogue of the movement and the orchestra sternly resists to the very end, until, with an Orphic final statement, the piano’s conciliatory entreaties calm the beast and the strings abandon their stern unison voice to a hushed and more lyrical closing.
Having calmed the beast, in the concluding rondo movement the piano seems to try to rouse it again, urging the orchestra forward from its quiet opening statement through a series of progressively more energetic episodes. More charming, lyrical and witty than grand, the movement owes much to Haydn with its abundant energy and high spirits always held discretely in balance.
Symphony No. 3, Eroica
If it was Beethoven-as-Orpheus we hear in the Piano Concerto No. 4, taming the wild beasts with his music, in Eroica Beethoven seems to identify with Prometheus, the rebellious Greek Titan who stole the fire of the gods and brought it to humanity. Much like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Beethoven's “Heroic Symphony” is considered a turning point in musical history, and kindled the fire of the Romantic period in music. With its two mighty strokes at the beginning, it announced not only a shift in Beethoven’s thinking, but in the consciousness musical world as well, forcing his contemporaries to rethink what a symphony was—indeed what music itself was—and what it could become.
It was the first of his symphonies to which Beethoven attached extra-musical program ideas –he was profoundly attuned to the emerging democratic principles throughout Europe and by acts of idealism and heroism. He originally had titled the work Bonaparte and dedicated it to Napoleon, whom he saw as a liberator of the downtrodden and a positive force for expanding democracy’s reach in Europe. But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven flew into a volcanic rage. His hopes betrayed, Beethoven immediately ripped the title page of the symphony in two and threw it on the floor. He eventually inscribed a new title: "Sinfonia Eroica… composed to celebrate the memory of a great man."
On a more personal scale, Eroica was created during the time Beethoven first began to divulge to friends that his hearing was degenerating, and stands is a musical counterpart to his famous “Heilingenstadt Testament”, in which he expressed his despair over increasing deafness and a determination to triumph over Fate and complete his artistic destiny. Eroica is as a sort of musical “Declaration of Independence.” Twice the length of a mature symphony by his great predecessors Haydn or Mozart and revolutionary in its design and character, Eroica set Beethoven free from prior conventions regarding the genre.
The innovations of Eroica are many: the startling two tonic chords which open the work, the interrelatedness of themes between the four movements, its unprecedented length, the harmonic surprises throughout the work, a second movement cast as a funeral march (probably one of his most influential pieces of music), and formal innovation of the use of the theme and variations form for the finale, to name a few. Beethoven had already used the theme for the final movement variations before in several works, notably the ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, and like Prometheus, who took risks and suffered in his struggle to help humanity, Beethoven’s choice of the hero's theme seems appropriate as the subject for the conclusion for this "Heroic" Symphony.
Free Concert Prelude: Join Dr. David MacKenzie for an informal talk on the evening’s program at 7:00pm in the Penler Space, adjacent to the theater.