BSO Concert Hall


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Thierry Fischer

Stephen Hough

Piano Concerto No.5 'Emperor'

The Unanswered Question

Symphony No.1

Ives referred to The Unanswered Question as a "cosmic landscape” in which the strings portray “the silences of the Druids.” Over that quiet background the solo trumpet phrase asks “the perennial question of existence.” In response a quartet of winds Ives called the “fighting answers”, seeks a reply, becoming more agitated and frustrated, until the trumpet states the question one final time, only to be answered by silence. It was one of the first modern works in which the performers' parts are arranged independently of the other parts in both key and tempo with intriguingly juxtaposed musical textures that move at different rates. Writing a symphony for Brahms was not something he took for granted. It took him more than twenty years to approach the challenge and several more years to complete. It was no “laughing matter” to write a symphony after Beethoven. The symphony he finally did produce was described by Hans von Bülow as “Beethoven’s Tenth” while other critics pronounced it “the greatest first symphony in the history of music.”

But Brahms was not just trying to recapture Beethoven. He incorporated ideas and innovations that changed the traditional aesthetics of the Classical/Romantic symphony. The dramatic intensity of the first movement gives way to the peace and serenity of the second, and the finale has been described as “one of the sublimest utterances human ears have heard” – its hymn-like theme commuted into a glorious and magnificent conclusion. Beethoven wrote his final Piano Concerto at the height of his compositional powers, but at a time of personal and political turmoil. It opens with such power and majesty as to remind you forcibly of the Eroica Symphony. A sort of spacious simplicity characterises the first movement, whilst the adagio offers a dramatic change of mood by way of its exquisite mystical serenity, only to be superseded by the most exuberant bravura rondo finale. However it might have acquired its name, it really is the ‘Emperor’ of piano concertos!

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