We are thrilled to return once more to the Royal Festival Hall with this all-Beethoven programme, just days before the 250th anniversary of his birth. This may not be how we anticipated marking the occasion, but we are grateful and excited to be able to bring you his jubilant Violin Concerto and hopeful Second Symphony tonight, live from our home to yours.
Who better to join us to celebrate than powerhouse violinist Nicola Benedetti, and our old friend Pekka Kuusisto? Pekka steps in for conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, who was unable to travel to London. We hope you will enjoy their thoughts on Beethoven as we catch up with them during the breaks in the performance. In these extraordinary times, we do not take for granted the chance to make music together, and we thank you for joining us.
Please share your thoughts on the performance on social media, using the hashtag #PhilharmoniaLive.
Nicola Benedetti appears courtesy of Decca Classics.
Header image: Nicola Benedetti © Luca Migliore
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Nicola Benedetti © Luca Migliore
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806)
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Rondo: Allegro
If anyone in the audience at the Vienna premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in 1806 was expecting a showpiece full of sound and fury then they soon realised their error. Within a single bar it would have become clear that this was something else entirely.
Five drum taps – not peremptory but gentle, marked piano – open the work. It’s an arresting, audacious gesture, almost the first time timpani are heard as soloist rather than support. An echo from a battlefield? A knock for admittance? A statement expecting a response, or a question in search of an answer? It’s all of these things and many more, but what it isn’t – crucially – is empty rhetoric.
This isn’t musical throat-clearing, it’s thematic. Those five strokes are the germ of a movement that unfolds organically, the concerto of a composer with four symphonies now behind him, weaving drama and structure, soloist and orchestra, virtuosity and introspection into a single musical trajectory.
Philharmonia timpanist Antoine Siguré © Camilla Greenwell
Perhaps because of these provocations, Beethoven’s Concerto was famously premiered to less than warm response, as Johann Nepomuk Moser described in the popular Zeitung fur Theater. “The cognoscenti,” he wrote “are unanimous in agreeing that, while there are beautiful things in the concerto, the sequence of events often seems incoherent and the endless repetition of some commonplace passages could easily prove fatiguing.”
Other explanations for the work’s muted reception include its hasty, last-minute composition, forcing commissioning soloist, concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien, Franz Clement, to perform the demanding music if not quite “at sight”, as one contemporary recalled, then certainly from minimal rehearsal. Reservations about the work persisted until 1844 when the 12-year-old prodigy Joseph Joachim, making his debut with the Philharmonic Society orchestra under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, finally established it in the repertoire.
“Delightful tenderness and purity...” Beethoven on the playing of Franz Clement, the soloist who inspired his Violin Concerto
The Concerto is lyrical and its demands lightly-worn, designed to showcase the “delightful tenderness and purity” Beethoven had first admired nearly a decade earlier in the teenage Clement’s playing. The soloist’s new relationship to the orchestra is established in the violin’s delayed entry, arriving after several minutes of orchestral rumination with more of a gesture than a theme – an expansive arabesque-like opening that establishes the violin as the free-spirit to the orchestra’s diligent workhorse, often soaring high above it in what sounds, despite its tight construction, like almost improvised meditation and extrapolation of the themes, culminating in a cadenza.
The second-movement ‘Larghetto’ continues this spirit of spontaneity but turns it inward. Still and contemplative in mood, the movement is a set of variations on a theme that’s almost hymn-like in its contained simplicity. Initially heard in the supporting strings, it is then transformed into an accompaniment for the soloist’s graceful, fragmented interjections – the gaps in in the original melody creating a sense of dialogue between violin and orchestra.
The violin launches into a rustic dance, drawing the orchestra helplessly along with it. You can almost hear the boot-stamps and see the bright skirt-flicks...
This dialogue leads us seamlessly into the closing ‘Rondo’. After a few exploratory gestures, the violin launches into a rustic dance, drawing the orchestra helplessly along with it. You can almost hear the boot-stamps and see the bright skirt-flicks in a theme that alternates with contrasting episodes, but always returns joyously to the main theme. An unexpectedly long coda defies harmonic expectations, playing a witty and virtuosic game of cat and mouse with the home key, before finally returning in ebullient, irrepressible triumph.
Notes by Alexandra Coghlan © Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexandra Coghlan
Nicola Benedetti © Luca Migliore
Nicola Benedetti’s Cadenza
Nicola Benedetti wrote the cadenza to the Beethoven Violin Concerto heard during tonight’s performance with close friend and pianist Petr Limonov after much historical research. In this arrangement, listeners will hear a blend of direct quotation from Beethoven’s piano version of the cadenza as well as new composition by the duo, referencing the original thematic material and harmonic structure, to result in an authentic yet daring finale.
"As Nicola was researching Beethoven’s autographs, drafts and first editions, looking for possible clues in his other, perhaps discarded, ideas, it gradually became clear that we needed to rewrite the cadenza..." Petr Limonov
In the programme notes for the Beethoven cadenza, Limonov says: “Working on the cadenza together with Nicola has been a fascinating journey. We were immediately confronted with a unique set of compositional and structural problems. Beethoven himself only wrote a cadenza for a piano version of this concerto, and he approached it in a truly revolutionary way by incorporating timpani part into the texture, turning his cadenza into a dialogue between the pianist and the timpanist. However, to our mind, previous attempts to transcribe Beethoven’s bravura broken octaves and chromatic scales for violin in a literal way sounded too forceful for the otherwise lyrical and inward-looking nature of the piece. As Nicola was researching Beethoven’s autographs, drafts and first editions, looking for possible clues in his other, perhaps discarded, ideas, it gradually became clear that we needed to rewrite the cadenza, being true to Beethoven’s spirit, but not necessarily the letter.”
Pekka Kuusisto © Maximillian Krome
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800 – 1802)
- Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
- Scherzo: Allegro
- Allegro molto
“O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes … I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence…” Beethoven
If the Violin Concerto belongs to a time of new confidence and creativity for Beethoven – a surge that also generated the Third Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, ‘Appassionata’ Sonata and ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets – the earlier Second Symphony sits at a turning point. Frustrated and isolated by his growing deafness, cut off from society and increasingly from music itself, the composer was driven to his lowest point. In the famous 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament – a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann that would remain unsent – Beethoven spoke of his suicidal thoughts, acknowledging his desperation before resolving to live and continue composing.
Beethoven may have been the original Romantic artist, whose tragic autobiography has become inextricably woven through his music, but there’s nothing in the works of this period to suggest the inner turmoil the composer was suffering – quite the reverse. The Second Symphony, probably started in Vienna and completed in rural Heiligenstadt where the composer moved in April 1802 on the advice of his doctor, is a joyful, extrovert piece that shares its bright key of D major with the Violin Concerto.
A page from Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, 1802, Wikimedia Commons
“This symphony is smiling throughout,” wrote Hector Berlioz of a work overflowing with energy and excitement. But light-hearted and lively though it is in spirit, the symphony represents a significant and provocative step forward in the development of the genre. Looking through the wrong end of the telescope, it’s the Eroica’ that is credited with rewriting the rules, but many of its innovations are prefigured in its predecessor.
Beethoven’s contemporaries felt the changes keenly at the work’s premiere, which also included a performance of the composer’s First Symphony. The contrast was marked, with listeners suspicious of a work that seemed so overtly to be “striving for novel and striking effects”. What makes the Symphony so provocative is the tension between its conventional forces – pairs of winds, trumpets, horns, timpani and strings – and four-movement architecture, and the quiet subversions within.
“This symphony is smiling throughout...” Hector Berlioz
The first surprise is the ‘Adagio molto’ introduction – a stately opening of unusual scope and stature Berlioz called a “masterpiece” – already hinting at the drama to come. Having held back the release during this long opening, Beethoven then whips his orchestra into a frenzy of nervous energy. The forward momentum of the ‘Allegro con brio’ is given a jagged uncertainty by plenty of unexpected harmonic twists and sudden accents. There’s courtliness here still, but also a strong sense that it’s under threat.
This threat is temporarily calmed in the lulling ‘Larghetto’, with its patrician conversational gambits in the wind, and sprung-floor of strings. Any memory of the darkness of the opening movement is banished in graceful aria-like melodic lines and polite interplay, restoring us briefly to the drawing-room whose doors Beethoven had just flung so violently wide.
But it’s only a temporary reprieve, as the symphony’s third movement makes abundantly clear. Rather than an elegant minuet, Beethoven substitutes a ‘Scherzo’ – a musical joke whose rustic punchline seems squarely aimed at the well-heeled Viennese audience at the premiere.
The finale Berlioz called “a second scherzo” catches this spirit of Puckish provocation and runs with it. Moods are mercurial and restless, never settling, ricocheting from cruel wit to more playful exchanges, powered by the same giddy, explosive energy as the opening. Just as you feel you’ve got the measure of its cheeky spirit, a coda arrives of such emphatic weight and pomp that its triumphant blaze of timpani and brass casts doubt on everything that has gone before. Could it be yet another joke, or was Beethoven, in fact, serious all along?
Notes by Alexandra Coghlan © Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexandra Coghlan
Pekka Kuusisto © Maximillian Krope
Meet Pekka Kuusisto
"Not having the audience in the room should not stop us from transmitting how much we appreciate their existence."
You’ve performed with the Philharmonia many times as a violin soloist, but this is the first time you’re joining us as conductor. How does that feel?
It’s a very luxurious gift from the universe. Thanks to the pandemic, living in the symphonic world feels rather like being a ball in a multistory system of roulette tables equipped with trap doors and ejector seats.
To find oneself conducting the Philharmonia in this situation is like accidentally firing a shotgun into the heavens and ending up having goose for dinner.
You have said about conducting: “… the presence of a conductor can stop the inner life of an orchestra … I think the essential thing is that a conductor doesn’t kill off … all the connections happening within the ensemble.” How do you avoid this?
I think it’s basically about unfailing respect and the fluent taking and giving of responsibility. If you are directing a team of extremely gifted people, you have to be very sensitive in order for everyone to be their best. People who share joy tend to do well. Also, the conductor needs to remember the fact that the team could very well do it without you, but you could absolutely not do it without them. Positions of power are fascinating and not entirely unlike poison.
What’s it like conducting for cameras and an online audience rather than live?
I try to have an idea of what the director of the film as well as the sound engineer are looking for and take those things into account. The proportions change, and it becomes trickier to judge the balance of various details as you are not quite sure how audible or visible they will be or what gravity they will gain.
Not having the audience in the room should not stop us from transmitting how much we appreciate their existence.
"To find oneself conducting the Philharmonia in this situation is like accidentally firing a shotgun into the heavens and ending up having goose for dinner."
Tell us about Beethoven’s Second Symphony.
In my opinion, the Second is the kind of symphony that grew up in elegantly decorated rooms, learning about all the art on the walls, reading all the books, and yet chooses a pint over champagne. The second movement has the character of a prayer by a person with a very humorous and uncomplicated relationship with his Creator, who chooses to sin a bit just so God will have something to forgive.
The brilliant, hilarious Scherzo and last movement are the first Beethoven symphony movements I remember hearing as a child, and that experience has subsequently helped me approach his music with love and admiration but not a crippling amount of reverence.
As a violinist, what it is like not playing the solo part in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto? How much influence do you have over the soloist’s interpretation?
There’s nothing strange about not playing the solo part in the Beethoven Concerto.
I’m an admirer of Nicky Benedetti, she is an illuminating person to be around, so the chance to work with her on Beethoven is basically where the rainbow ends.
In my experience, a collaboration between a conductor and a soloist is not really about influencing an interpretation, it’s about finding a resonance between musical thoughts and having an adventure possible only in that moment.
"I’m an admirer of Nicky Benedetti, she is an illuminating person to be around, so the chance to work with her on Beethoven is basically where the rainbow ends."
Pekka Kuusisto © Kaapo Kamu
“Undeniable star power…” The Financial Times
Conductor, violinist and composer Pekka Kuusisto is renowned for his artistic freedom and fresh approach to repertoire. Widely recognised for his flair in directing ensembles, Kuusisto is Artistic Director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (from the 2021/22 season), and Artistic Partner with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He is also a Collaborative Partner of the San Francisco Symphony, and Artistic Best Friend of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. In the 2020/21 season Pekka Kuusisto is Artist in Residence with the hr-Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt and at Milton Court at the Barbican, a role that culminates in a concert with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.
In the coming season, Kuusisto appears as a conductor with the Philharmonia, Concertgebouworkest, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, hr-Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt and Helsinki Philharmonic, and Tapiola and Scottish Chamber Orchestras. Already established as a star violinist, he is due to premiere new concertos by Bryce Dessner, Djuro Zivkovic, Thomas Adès and Enrico Chapela and chamber works by Sauli Zinovjev and Calliope Tsoupaki. He is also set to perform other concertos written for him including Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, Anders Hillborg’s Bach Materia and Nico Muhly’s violin concerto, Shrink.
In recent seasons Kuusisto has premiered new works by Sauli Zinovjev, Anders Hillborg, Philip Venables and Andrea Tarrodi. He has performed and toured with orchestras such as the Philharmonia, Chicago and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras, Concertgebouworkest, Orchestre de Paris, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, London Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Tapiola Sinfonietta, and the Australian, Scottish and Swedish Chamber Orchestras.
Kuusisto is an enthusiastic advocate of contemporary music and a gifted improviser, and he regularly engages with people across the artistic spectrum. Uninhibited by conventional genre boundaries and noted for his innovative programming, recent projects have included collaborations with Hauschka and Kosminen, Dutch neurologist Erik Scherder, pioneer of electronic music Brian Crabtree, eminent jazz trumpeter Arve Henriksen, juggler Jay Gilligan, accordionist Dermot Dunne and folk artist Sam Amidon.
Kuusisto has released several recordings, notably for Ondine and BIS. He has recently recorded Adès’ Violin Concerto with the Aurora Orchestra and Nicolas Collon for Deutsche Grammophon, Hillborg’s Bach Materia and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard for BIS, and Daniel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting, for Sono Luminus. Past releases include Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Noesis Concerto for violin and orchestra for Ondine, and Sebastian Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto Darkness in Light for BIS, both recorded with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu.
“Kuusisto has a stage presence that is simultaneously elegant and mischievous...” Canberra Times
Nicola Benedetti © Luca Migliore
"Yet beyond sheer agility, Benedetti offers listeners something even more valuable: a dynamic personal interpretation, refreshing and convincing." The Times
Nicola Benedetti is one of the most sought-after violinists of her generation. Her ability to captivate audiences and her wide appeal as an advocate for classical music has made her one of the most influential artists of today.
This season, in addition to her collaborations with the Philharmonia, Nicola has appeared with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment live at the BBC Proms and in digital projects with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Maxim Emelyanychev. Nicola will also perform with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and James Gaffigan, the Spanish National Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony with Pablo Heras-Casado.
Nicola is also Artist in Residence for the St Louis Symphony and will perform several concerts, recitals and masterclasses throughout the season. In Spring 2021 Nicola will give the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda, before the same work is performed with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and WDR Köln.
Nicola has continued her role as a dedicated, passionate ambassador and leader in music education. Her commitment to supporting the UK’s music practitioners was underlined in July 2018, when Nicola took over as President of the European String Teachers’ Association. She has formalised her vision and expanded her commitment to the education of young people and support of music teachers by establishing a charitable organisation: The Benedetti Foundation. Launched in January 2020, The Benedetti Foundation puts on transformative workshops for young people and teachers, showcasing what music education at its best can look and feel like. The Foundation has delivered four live sessions throughout the UK and in May 2020, during lockdown, the Foundation went online with ‘virtual sessions’ providing over 7,000 musicians across the globe with online tutorials and inspirational workshops.
Winner of the GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo in 2020, as well as Best Female Artist at both 2012 and 2013 Classical BRIT Awards, Nicola records exclusively for Decca (Universal Music). Her latest recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto entered at number one in the UK’s Official Classical Album Chart. Other recent recordings include her GRAMMY Award-winning album written especially for her by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.
Nicola was appointed a CBE in 2019, awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music (2017), and an MBE in 2013. In addition, Nicola holds the positions of Vice President (National Children’s Orchestras), Big Sister (Sistema Scotland), Patron (National Youth Orchestras of Scotland’s Junior Orchestra, Music in Secondary Schools Trust and Junior Conservatoire at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). Nicola plays the ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius (1717), courtesy of Jonathan Moulds.
"A talent to inspire ... her maturity is striking ... Her vitality is infectious..." BBC Music Magazine
Our presenter: John Suchet
We’re delighted that this concert is being introduced by John Suchet, acclaimed broadcaster and much-loved Classic FM presenter. John Suchet is also the perfect presenter of this programme as an avid admirer of, and expert on, the music of Beethoven. Once you’ve read our programme notes and enjoyed the concert, find out more about the mystery and magnificence of Beethoven in John Suchet’s acclaimed biography, Beethoven: The Man Revealed, which has been specially updated for this, the 250th anniversary year of the composer’s birth.