Joyous Rapture—Strauss’ Tone Poems & Joshua Bell & Brahms

The set of June 8-10 concerts given by the Pittsburgh Symphony was the much-anticipated musical experience centered around world-renowned violinist, “classical music superstar”, Joshua Bell. I attended Saturday’s concert and was drawn into the truly overwhelming atmosphere of magic created by the PSO and Maestro Honeck and Joshua Bell. For me, this concert presented was probably one of the most enjoyable concerts of the season. I don’t think I have felt quite this way since the concert opening the 2011-2012 BNY Mellon Grand Classics series, featuring pianist, Rudolf Buchbinder.

The concert began with the incredibly delightful Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28. The start of Eulenspiegel by the violins was simply gorgeous. I could not (and still cannot) wrap my mind around the perfection of the violins entrance that Strauss composed. The “poetical idea” from which Till Eulenspiegel sprang was a well-known character of German folklore, a “rude mechanical” born in Brunswick in 1283.

Olin Downes wrote of Till’s character, “Till, they say, was a wandering mechanic who lived by his wits, turning up in every town and city. He made himself out to be whatever the situation required—butcher, baker, wheelwright, joiner, monk or learned metaphysician. He was a lord of misrule, a liar and villain, whose joy it was to plague honest folk and play foul jests upon them. He pillaged the rich, but often helped the poor…For Till is freedom and fantasy; his is the gallant, mocking warfare of the One against the Many and the tyranny of the accepted things. He is Puck and Rabelais, and [he inspired] quicksilver in Strauss’ music.”

When asked to elucidate his music, Strauss wrote to Franz Wüllner, the conductor of the premiere, “By way of helping listeners to a better understanding, it seems sufficient to point out the two Eulenspiegel motives, which, in the most manifold disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe, when, after he has been condemned to death, Till is strung up to the gibbet.”

Next, on the program was the most gorgeous Death and Transfiguration-Tod und Verklärung, Opus 24. I have heard this work before on the radio, but never took the time to truly reflect on the ethereal heights of beauty composed. Strauss wrote of the inspiration for Death and Transfiguration in a letter to his friend Friedrich von Hausegger in 1894: “It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals, presumably an artist. The sick man lies in his bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to his face; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its strivings and passions; and then, the ideal which he attempted to embody in his art, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal which could not be fulfilled here below.”

Strauss’ composition follows his description almost perfectly. Divided into four sections, it is like this:
I. Largo (The sick man, near death)
II. Allegro molto agitato (The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man)
III. Meno mosso (The dying man’s life passes before him)
IV. Moderato (The sought-after transfiguration)

This work was so incredibly beautiful I felt it deserved it’s own encore.

The real highlight of the program was Joshua Bell’s entrance, performance and interpretation of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77. The Brahms, is technically challenging yet musically fluffy. Bell plays with the confidence and bravado that is expected. He certainly has an impressive technique and a thorough mastery of his instrument. The lyrical sections of the Brahms showcase his ability to truly sing through his instrument without becoming overwrought. He tosses off technically demanding passages with energy and accuracy and possesses an appealing variety of tone colors, that already after the first movement, the crowd spontaneously broke out into applause and bravos. Bell, is, like Sarah Chang noted for his choreography, yet Bell’s physical movements I feel were more of a true expression of his passion for the piece of music rather than a dramatic theatrical show as Chang does. Because he [Bell] is in such control and possesses such command of the instrument the physical movements did not detract in any way from the perfection, accuracy and purity of his performance. Bell, also composed the cadenza which really added a new and exciting flavor. “Bell plays with intensity, bravura and joyous rapture that only a master violinist can achieve.”

The concert closed with Strauss’ tone poem, Don Juan, Opus 20. Strauss began sketching his Don Juan late in 1887, turning to 19th-century Hungarian poet Nicolaus Lenau. “Lenau, was possessed by a blazing romantic spirit fueled in part by a hopeless love for the wife of a friend.”…In Lenau’s words about Don Juan he states this: “My Don Juan is no hot-blooded man, eternally pursuing women. It is the longing in him to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood, and to enjoy in the one all the women on earth whom he cannot as individuals possess. Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him, and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him.” “In Lenaus’s version, Don Juan meets his death in a sword duel with the father of one of the woman he has seduced. Dissilusioned and empty, ready for death, he drops his guard and welcomes fate.”

Strauss’ tone poem certainly captures every facet of Lenau’s depiction and we as the audience get a clear picture of the story of Lenaus’ and Strauss’ Don Juan.

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