When Ludwig Van Beethoven died in 1827, the music world was at a loss. "Who can do anything after him?" Franz Schubert wondered. At the time, Johannes Brahms was widely thought of as Beethoven's successor. In fact, his first symphony was described by the 19th-century conductor Hans Von B‹low as "The Tenth." "Can you imagine such a burden?" asks David Finckel, co-artistic director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "No other composer had this kind of pressure."
It was this connection that inspired the Chamber Music Society's 2011 Winter Festival, Manifest Legacy: Beethoven/Brahms. The festival features works of these two masters in five programs, February 6 through March 8 at Alice Tully Hall.
"Even though these are two of the most familiar names in classical music, I have never seen these pieces paired together in programs, ever. When I realize how much sense it makes artistically, I can't believe that Wu Han and I have never done this anywhere else," says Finckel, referring to CMS's co-artistic director. There are a lot of stories behind the relationship of these two composers. "When you read about the life of Brahms, you know how much Beethoven was involved in his thinking," Finckel explains. Quite literally, Beethoven figured into Brahms's everyday life: a marble bust of the German master stood guard over his studio.
"Beethoven had a way of looking far into the future. He had an uncanny ability to combine the lofty and the earthy, the profound and the outrageous, the sublime and the ridiculous, and have them coexist in much the same way as they actually do in life," proclaims Finckel. In his own inimitable way, Brahms's approach to composition picked up the thread that Beethoven wove, creating a body of work that demonstrates his sense of understanding of the human condition.
For Brahms, his clarinet quintet is a deeply personal statement. In the same way, Beethoven's Op. 131 String Quartet is also a personal letter from the composer. The two richly emotional works are paired on Program II (February 11) and feature the clarinetist: and former CMS artistic director: David Shifrin with the Orion String Quartet.
Some of the most essential elements, and most intimate forms, of string literature are the violin and cello sonatas. Program IV (February 27) features Ani Kavafian performing the Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 3 and Carter Brey performing the Cello Sonata No. 2 by Brahms, both with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. Two works for piano trio round out this program: Beethoven's "Kakadu" Variations and Brahms's Piano Trio No. 2 in C major. This program shows the lighter side of both composers, the sunny moods of Beethoven and Brahms.
The festival begins with a concert that features the two Op. 70 piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1. "Beethoven composed these trios during his middle period, when he wrote what many say is his most popular music: the fifth symphony, the fifth piano concerto, and the violin concerto," says Finckel. "Brahms began his B major trio as a young man. It's quite an adventurous statement for a young composer, so in that way they go perfectly together. They're all lovable major components of our repertoire." Finckel teams up with pianist Jeffrey Kahane and violinist Cho-Liang Lin for this monumental first program of the Winter Festival, performed on February 6 and 8.
Finckel points out the similarities between Brahms's String Sextet and the Beethoven "Archduke" Trio. "You can hear almost exactly the same magisterial opening music in both works," he says. "The melodies move in similar ways, and the accompaniment in the beginning of each of the pieces is steady eighth notes in the piano." The slow movement of the Sextet is a passacaglia, which harkens back to a much earlier form. On the other hand, the Archduke Trio, which is the last piano trio that Beethoven wrote, is groundbreaking in that both the violin and cello parts are on equal footing with the piano part. Both works are performed on Program III on February 13. The concert, which includes a performance by co-artistic director Wu Han, will be broadcast on the PBS series Live From Lincoln Center at 5 p.m. EST.
The festival concludes with a concert that includes Beethoven's String Trio Op. 9, No. 2 (March 6 and 8), featuring co-artistic director David Finckel. "It's clear when you listen to his string trios, Beethoven was an expert at writing for strings. They are sparkling, virtuosic and profoundly beautiful works, and they are not played anywhere near as much as the string quartets," says Finckel. "We decided in this last program to really pull the composers apart, because the delicacy and the purity of this string trio by Beethoven are deeply contrasted by the incredible weight and massive sonority of Brahms's Piano Quintet in F minor, which finishes this program."
Every concert at the Chamber Music Society features a multigenerational roster. "That's the ideal chamber music mix, as we see it," says Finckel. The ensembles combine the perspective of those who have played many performances with the fearlessness and openminded attitude of musicians who are relatively new to these works.
Finckel says, "Every single time I play with gifted young performers, I'm also learning from them. Young musicians today have their hands in so many different genres and styles of music, they have a wider range of experience than most of us from my generation."
As an accompaniment to this year's Winter Festival, CMS's lecture program, Inside Chamber Music, will focus solely on the music of Brahms. Bruce Adolphe brings his knowledge, insight, humor and whimsy to the Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Studio on four successive Wednesday evenings: January 26 (Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87), February 2 (String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18), February 9 (Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34) and February 16 (Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115).
Presenting two of the most well-known composers in a festival format thrills Finckel. "There's always a kind of excitement when it comes down to the U.S. Open finals and there's just the top two people left. Here you're looking at two guys in the finals, two of the greatest composers who ever lived, and what does it matter who wins or loses? It's the greatness of the play that makes the whole experience unforgettable."