At the Proms with Hans Keller: 24 July 1962

Royal Albert Hall

Welcome to this evening’s Prom dear readers. We here at MusiCB3 thought we might offer you an alternative to that on offer from the esteemed BBC’s Proms Archive this evening and give you instead the one which took place on 24 July 1962 given by Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for which Hans Keller provided a set of his inimitable programme notes. The works you will hear tonight are:

Mozart – Symphony no. 38 in D, K. 504, “The Prague”

Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, with Yehudi Menuhin

Shostakovich – Symphony no. 11 in G minor, ‘The Year 1905’

So, take your seats, settle down and enjoy…the players are seated and tuned and so I hand my keyboard to Hans who will present extracts from his notes…

Mozart – Symphony no. 38 in D, K. 504 “The Prague”

Adagio – Allegro; Andante; Presto

Every age discovers; every late age in a culture re-discovers. About half a century ago, musicians thought that at long last Mozart had been rediscovered, that the romantic notion of the prodigious, graceful, but none too deep genius (‘Perfection!’ with the imperfect’s unconfessed sneer) had been exploded once and for all. … For a considerable time after the rehabilitation of Mozart had begun, it still seemed true to say that he had written three ‘greatest’ symphonies, the last three created in one long breath: No. 39 in E flat major, No. 40 in his own G minor, and No. 41 in C major, the towering ‘Jupiter’. The very people who had been anxious to establish Mozart’s profundity failed, as yet, to find it in the preceding ‘Prague’ Symphony (so called because it was first performed in Prague – in January 1787, just over a month after its completion, under the composer’s own direction).

Eventually, however, the ‘Prague’ did get its due…. In the inimitable words of one of those trilingual analyses that enrich our pocket scores, the ‘Prague’ Symphony ‘is second not even to the three master symphonies…which Mozart composed during the following year, and possibly even surpasses these as regards conciseness and plasticity of form.’… again and again, we read that the ‘Prague’ achieves an unequalled degree of compression.

Now, all this piece of analytic praise amounts to is an attempt to turn the mystifying fact that the ‘Prague’ has only three movements into some sort of significant statement….all three movements are in fully worked-out sonata form, and the ‘Prague’ is, in fact, the only classical symphony which, dispensing with the most striking structural contrast of symphonic tradition, celebrates an exclusive sonata festival in which new and highly original contrasts of mood and rhythmic structure take the place of the pre-established contrast between the minuet and the rest of the symphonic build-up.

Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

Allegro molto appassionato – Andante – Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace

[SW: the original programme gives the soloist as Alberto Lysy, but on the night it was Menuhin. Lysy was a pupil of Mehuhin’s and in 1977 the founder of the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad. Back to HK….]

Even without the annotator’s habitual special pleading, a case can be made for this work being the greatest violin concerto ever. True, the Beethoven Concerto occupies this position officially, especially amongst people who do not know anything about violin playing. But with full respect to its towering musical qualities, its technical difficulties are greater than they seem and sometimes lack brilliance, whereas the difficulties of the Mendelssohn Concerto ‘lie’ wonderfully on the instrument and, once mastered, give the impression of the most natural virtuosity. What is more, it is a paradoxical fact that the passage-work in the Beethoven is not always ‘inevitable’, thematically meaningful, whereas in the Mendelssohn it is.

At the same time, the underestimation of Mendelssohn by our musical élite is really his own fault. He is too good a composer to be readily acknowledged as great. Where nothing is wrong, something simply must be wrong. Where expression is unhesitating, without a sign of friction, the suspicion of shallowness arises only too easily. When original thoughts and forms pour forth with an ease commonly granted only to the mere imitator, can we altogether blame the wary highbrow if he does not recognize them for what they are?

Yet, despite his facility, Mendelssohn thought about this Concerto for six years, until he eventually finished it in 1844. The result was a flawless flow of ideas and developments and, underneath, the breaking of hard new ground…

Keller then goes on to explore the new ground, including: “…the orchestral exposition at the outset is abandoned and replaced by a mere bar and a half of introductory accompaniment before the soloist enters… the cadenza… forms an unheard-of, integral part of the structure…”

Shostakovich – Symphony no. 11 in G minor, ‘The Year 1905’

Adagio – Allegro – Adagio – Allegro; Adagio – Allegro non troppo – Adagio – Allegro

…. one of the great composers of our era, and among the few who, at this critical stage in the development of large-scale composition, remain capable of writing genuine symphonies. After the Tenth, the Eleventh (in G minor, as its title does not say) seemed to come as a disappointment to many partly because they had made the time-honoured mistake of wanting a composer to do the same thing twice over (only bad composers oblige), and partly because in the event, the Eleventh turned out to have a programme – the Russian uprising of 1905 with its tragic consequences – which, musically if not humanly, immediately suggested tedium….

But however much Shostakovich may, at times, mistake his political conscience for his musical one, he has, as a natural musician, a purely musical conscience too, and although conflicts between the two seem to belong to the history of his creative development, they have, in the present instance, combined to produce a symphonic drama of heroic proportions, as independent of its political implications as the ‘Eroica’ is of Napoleon.

The enormous work – it lasts almost an hour, although you will not believe it when you hear it – was completed in 1958. It makes use of several Russian folk-songs, which are not only unfamiliar to us, but which, one gathers, even Russian audiences have found difficult to identify throughout, so diverse are their metamorphoses. What is important to realize is that here is perhaps the first successful folkloristic symphony in the entire history of the genre….

Shostakovich has found a new method of development: where he cannot develop from or on a folk-tune, he develops into it. The sad folk-tune on the flutes that forms the second of the first movement’s three themes, for instance, unfolds very gradually, by way of fragmentary, punctuating trumpet calls, while the first theme is fully exposed….

The four movements are played without a break. The first is called ‘Palace Square’ and expresses the mood before the uprising. The second, ‘Ninth of January’ (the day of the massacre), is a powerful allegro, growing out of another folk song…The third movement, ‘Eternal Memory’, is a highly original funeral march, and the fourth, ‘Alarm’, one of the very few spontaneous symphonic finales of the last hundred years.

SW: what a fascinating concert that must have been, the juxtaposition of Mozart and Mendelssohn with Shostakovich is surely unusual. Oh to have been a fly on the wall, as it were, to hear the audience’s reaction as they made their way out into the summer evening to hail a cab or walk down Exhibition Road to the tube to head for home. And thank you, HK for your inimitable notes with their finely judged mix of basic information and deep insight peppered with the occasional left-field observation.


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2 Responses to At the Proms with Hans Keller: 24 July 1962


    Dear Susi Thank you for posting this – rivetingly readable as always from HK,who spoke up for DS at a time when many of the rest of us didn’t. The only thing I regret about the Mendelssohn concerto is thelinkage of the movements: unnecessary and, yes, even downright inartistic.(HK is sharpening his pen up/down there …) The Mozart I too adore to distraction, and don’t frankly carewhether it gets first or fourth prize. Keep up the good work, *please*!



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