Two B’s and One Hymnus

On 5 June, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andreas Spörri presented a particularly well compiled programme. The two big B’s (Beethoven and Brahms) formed the two ends of a curve opening and closing the concert, bridging the beginning and the end of 19th century, from 1806 to 1885, and the age of Romance it subsumed. Though no thought of the B’s of music can afford to ignore Bach, the third big B, there was no space for Bach in this evening.

Published on 10 June 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

We were left with two great masters nonetheless, Beethoven and Brahms, while Andreas Spörri’s very own composition, Hymnus for Orchestra, weaved into the programme, added its own special flavour to the concert.

Apart from being a child prodigy Franz Clement, Beethoven’s contemporary and his friend, a remarkable violin virtuoso who became Director of the Orchestra at the Vienna Theatre, was also known for his yearly benefit concerts organised around Christmas time. In 1806, Clement had decided to make a particular impression on the audience and asked Beethoven to compose a violin concerto especially for the evening, giving the composer only one month for the task.

This was an extremely productive period for Beethoven. Only one year earlier he shocked the world with his Eroica (Symphony no. 3) which — as Haydn has predicted and history confirmed — set off a new era in classical music: Romanticism. History tells us that Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61 was completed in a rush, and played by Clement from a score which he had not had time to practise. Those facts would be devastating for any mediocre composer. The concerto was not sufficiently appreciated by Beethoven’s contemporaries but over time proved, once again, to be yet another exquisite work by a musical genius.

Today, critics still debate the concerto’s lack of homogeneity or balance from one movement to the next. The paradox is its popularity, especially in the last decades when it became one of the most frequently played concertos and a great audience magnet. The concerto underlines the poetic side of Beethoven’s character where music takes the most harmonious and heavenly shapes. In it Beethoven stresses several aspects of his music: subtly shaped lyricism, especially apparent in its first (Allegro ma non troppo) and second movements (Largetto) which lead to charming and dynamic segments culminating in the opening of the third movement (Rondo).

Yasser El-Serafi approached the material with the required sincerity. His preparation for the performance was obvious and his hard work as a violinist cannot be underestimated. It was in the Third movement — considered to be the most challenging to a violinist, due to its high technical demands — that El-Serafi’s came to the fore, adding numerous invaluable colours to his interpretation. El Serafi’s cautious openings of the solos were invariably compensated for by his technically correct developments and well articulated endings.

Beethoven creates much space for interaction between orchestra and soloist. Even though at times we desired a more obvious dialogue among all the musicians, El-Serafi developed a number of interesting phrasings, such as a captivating counterpoint with the bassoon in the Third movement.

Beethoven’s violin concerto penetrates the listener’s emotions with its harmony, melodious phrasings and lyricism. Even though the concerto lacks strong forte accents — which are so characteristic of Beethoven — timpani does play an important role in sharpening the musical edges; it should not be kept as a distant accompaniment, which alas was the case during this evening.

Andreas Spörri has conducted the Cairo Symphony Orchestra on several occasions during this season. I have already reviewed two of his Cairo concerts yet I was waiting for Spörri’s specialty to appear, hoping it would be a work that gave the conductor space for a high emotional charge. Definitely Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 was an excellent choice and Spörri’s best performance in the season.

The symphony introduces many restless emotions, as if Brahms knew that it would be one of his last huge statements as a composer. Starting with the First symphony, Brahms placed himself shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven, and his later works continued to testify to his great abilities.

Symphony no. 4’s first movement (Allegro) introduces an ardent and dramatic melody repeated several times. In the second movement (Andante) Brahms adds an archaic quality: the medieval Phrygian mode. A sizzling energy, sharpened with piccolo and triangle, animates the third movement (Allegro giocoso) where vibrant music pulses in the ear. The fourth movement (Allegro energico e passionato) is marked by a passacaglia, variations on a recurring melody drawn from Bach’s Cantata No. 150.

Spörri specifically enjoys emotional peaks and he stressed them throughout the symphony. This continuous emotional outburst can be overwhelming for the listener. However when speaking of Brahms’ Symphony no. 4, such intensity only adds splendour to the composition.

In between Beethoven and Brahms, it was a pleasure to listen to Anderas Spörri’s own composition Hymnus for Orchestra, which he dedicated to Denis Knobel, the Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Switzerland in Egypt. Spörri states in the concert notes: “The Hymnus for Orchestra is a piece imbued with festive feelings. The melodious understanding and inventive capabilities are rooted in the tradition of the European choral folksong.” The composition is based on tutti parts with several intercalating woodwinds and brass phrasings. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the composition is inventive, yet it does have a cheering effect on the listener. Its romantic expressions and neat harmonies definitely fit with the whole programme.

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