Brett Dean introduces his new piano concerto for Jonathan Biss, transporting us to an Austrian village house where Beethoven struggled with family conflict and deafness.
Your new concerto has a close Beethovenian connection. Can you explain the subtitle Gneixendorf Music – A Winter’s Journey?
In 2013 I was resident composer at the Grafenegg Festival and had the chance to explore Lower Austria. I came across signs to a ‘Beethoven House’ in the small village of Gneixendorf and discovered what has to be one of the most mysteriously fascinating episodes in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. He had escaped Vienna with his nephew, after Karl’s attempted suicide, to stay with his brother Johann but there were soon heated arguments and the composer moved to rooms in a landowner’s farmhouse. This was where he completed revisions to the Ninth Symphony and composed his final string quartet. He returned in the depth of winter to Vienna in an open carriage, contracted pneumonia and died three months later.
You’ve explored Beethoven in earlier works such as Pastoral Symphony and Testament. What keeps drawing you back to the composer?
This has a lot to do with my background as a performer and particularly as an orchestral musician. Beethoven is a colossus, so huge you can’t ignore him, you can only go around him. He is embedded deep in my musical life – playing the Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan for the first time was an unforgettable experience for me, and I’ve inevitably engaged with Beethoven in my later role as a composer. Pastoral Symphony has more of an ironic than a musical association with his sixth symphony, whereas Testament focuses on specific biographical aspects such as his acute loss of hearing. In addition to the Piano Concerto I’ve written a solo piece for Rudolf Buchbinder’s Diabelli 2020 project, touring in the Beethoven 250th year.
What’s your relationship with the piano as an instrument?
I’m a viola player, so the world of strings is closer to me than that of the piano. That said I can’t compose away from a keyboard. In recent years I’ve been exploring how different composers have written for the instrument through a series of ‘hommage’ etudes, not only as tributes to the obvious keyboard composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms but also to the later figures not typecast in this way such as Janácek, Kurtág and Lutoslawski. This has allowed me to absorb different technical solutions to piano writing which have informed the Piano Concerto. Without a close physical relationship as a performer it has liberated me to adopt unconventional approaches: rather than shapes derived from how the hands fall on the keyboard I’m listening into the resonances produced by the chording.
What’s more important compositionally: the personality of the instrument or the soloist?
This depends on the instrument, the performer and the situation of the commission. For my trumpet concerto Dramatis personae I’d heard a lot of music played by Håkan Hardenberger and was aware of his immense contribution to the advancement of the trumpet in new repertoire. And for my Viola Concerto I knew I’d be performing it myself, which is a different compositional challenge. I’ve heard some remarkable Beethoven recitals by Jonathan Biss and this close association is crucial to this particular concerto. But the curious thing is that I will probably learn more about his musical personality as we go through the rehearsal and touring of the work, which could only be fed into a second piece for him.
Your concerto is being paired with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’. Did this influence the composition?
The work is part of Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven/5 project in which he commissioned five different composers to write companion pieces to the five Beethoven concerti, and is paired with the final ‘Emperor’ Concerto on concert programmes. Beethoven’s magnificent edifice needed to be held at arm’s length, but his piece started creeping into my composition and was soon inhabiting it in an unexpected way. Subconscious motivic links were revealed, aspects of the piano figuration came to the surface, and the orchestration is within the paradigm of what Beethoven might have done.
Does the Beethoven soundworld go beyond your choice of chamber orchestra forces?
The brief for the scoring was to follow that of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto and I’ve only burst this orchestration slightly by including a percussionist in addition to the timpanist, and to have a flautist double on alto flute – an instrument not available in Beethoven’s time. The critical expansion is that the soloist plays on an upright piano with practice pedal as well as on the expected grand piano. Because of his hearing loss, Beethoven couldn’t perform the Emperor, and I wanted to follow up Testament’s exploration of his aural isolation through its rosinless string bows. Here, the soloist starts from the upright piano hidden in the orchestra, with his muffled sound depicting Beethoven’s daily struggle to hear his music.
Your series of concertos range from confrontational to collaborative, from programmatic to abstract. Where does the Piano Concerto sit?
Beethoven’s lonely ego and volatility play into the confrontational side of the concerto, but there are also sections of collaboration with the orchestra. The work errs on the programmatic side because of the historic background and, while no clear narrative is intended, I’ve given biographical titles to each of the three movements that play continuously. The scurrying opening records Beethoven’s comment when he first heard the name of Gneixendorf: “that sounds like a breaking axle”. The pensive middle movement is titled “Difficult Decisions. Must it be?”, referring to his annotation to the final quartet, and the closing Epilogue captures one of the last decipherable utterances before his death: “Applause my friends, the comedy is over”.
Interviewed by David Allenby (2019)
Piano Concerto (2019) 22’
Gneixendorf Music – A Winter’s Journey
Commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, BBC Radio 3, NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic and Dresden Philharmonie
13 February 2020 (world premiere)
Jonathan Biss/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/David Afkham
> Future performances of Dean's Piano Concerto
> Further information on Work: Piano Concerto
Photo: Bettina Stoess
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