Stanisław Skrowaczewski is one of the grand seigneurs of Bruckner interpretation. Just in March this year, the Bruckner Society of America awarded the Polish conductor an honorary prize for his "exemplary work in furthering the understanding and appreciation of the life and work of Anton Bruckner". It was in particular his recording of the composer's complete symphonies that created a sensation, winning a Cannes Classical Award in 2002. Now, Skrowaczewski performs Bruckner's Third Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Third Symphony is the first where Bruckner's unmistakable musical language fully blossoms. The work also demonstrates his special relationship to Wagner. Bruckner visited Wagner in September 1873, offering to dedicate either his Second or Third Symphony to him. It turned out to be a very convivial meeting and the beer flowed freely. So much so that on his return home, Bruckner realised to his horror that he could not remember which of the symphonies the master had chosen. An exchange of letters clarified the situation: Wagner had chosen the Third, something which was no great surprise, as Bruckner had incorporated diverse Wagner quotes in the work. Bruckner continued to revise the piece over the next sixteen years, eliminating all echoes of his role model by the final version. By then, he no longer needed Wagner as his reference - he knew what he himself was capable of.
The concert opens with Karl Amadeus Hartmann's poignant and declamatory Gesangsszene for baritone, based on a text by Jean Giraudoux. The work, which moves between opera and symphony, vividly portrays a world doomed to destruction in spite of, or even because of, its ingenuity and its ambition. The soloist, a regular guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker, is Matthias Goerne, a singer who brings with him the necessary vocal and dramatic skills required for the scene.
The Thunder of the Inexorable
Music by Anton Bruckner and Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Among the many alleged crises that have dogged symphonic music since the late works of Beethoven, the most serious has been the postwar crisis. As heir to the Schoenberg school and a friend and champion of Luigi Nono, Karl Amadeus Hartmann felt himself closely impacted by the thrust of symphonic criticism. And as director of the Munich concert series Musica Viva he even offered a platform for Stockhausen and Boulez, thereby unintentionally undermining, at least in the medium term, the promulgation of his own works. Hartmann clearly acknowledged the “burden of tradition” by undertaking a thorough revision of the symphonies he composed during the Nazi period and contributing two further masterpieces to the genre, his Seventh and Eighth. His last work, the Gesangsszene (Vocal Scena) for baritone and orchestra was left unfinished when Hartmann died in December 1963.
Why this title and not Ninth Symphony? The work’s content – a setting of passages from Jean Giraudoux’s drama Sodome et Gomorrhe – justifies the designation. It seems that Hartmann was trying to avoid an explicit reference to symphonic tradition and the impression of having recourse in any way to the safety net of history. He sought to emphasize the exceptional nature, the apocalyptic aspect, of this work composed by a mortally ill 58-year-old, but its form can be understood equally well as a vocal scena or a symphonic movement. The autograph originally identified seven sections which could easily be translated into classical first-movement sonata form, but these indications were omitted from the published score.
The Gesangsszene begins with a flute solo that mingles bucolic innocence with dark foreboding. Other woodwind add their voice, then strings and percussion, horns and trombones intoning a two-note “death” motif. The slow tempo gives way to an Allegro molto suggesting a negative, destructive continuation of passages from Hartmann’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, where the effect is virtuosity. Here the orchestra is ramped up and driven by brutally primitive energy before it stalls in whirling motions. Hammering percussion ostinati raise the curtain for the opening vocal monologue, which tells of those proud worldly empires that possessed everything yet disappeared over night from the face of the earth. The attainments of a perverted materialist society are enumerated and commented upon mockingly by orchestral interjections.
At the climax, after the “war of all wars” is declared, the musical fabric threatens to tear apart. A turning point is reached, though it lacks any element of consolation. The flute solo returns but is distorted by mysterious tam-tam strokes into a funeral rite. “A note of cruelty has crept into every birdsong,” states the soloist. “Out of the swallow’s throat breaks forth the thunder of the inexorable.” The final lines are only declaimed; the orchestra is silent. This ending corresponds to Hartmann’s intention and is not a consequence of his death before he could complete the work.
In spite of having some impressive competition, Anton Bruckner can still safely be singled out as the apocalyptic symphonist. His Eighth Symphony has even been called “the apocalyptic”. The image of Bruckner the mystic, whose symphonies resemble Gothic cathedrals, has taken a serious beating in recent decades: commentators have pointed to secular and extramusical elements in his works; they have analysed the composer’s fantasies of omnipotence rendered in monumental form as attempts at compensation by a provincial, authoritarian petit bourgeois; and, on the basis of his craggy, dissonant, often demonically brutal style, have even claimed that Bruckner in no way found peace in a “unio mystica” but rather produced the reflection of severe psychological disturbance and chaotic social upheaval.
To understand the beginning of his Symphony No. 3 in D minor is already to have grasped a great deal about Bruckner. This is either pure, absolute music or music that signifies much more than mere structure and sound. The first movement opens with undulating string figures, above which a trumpet melody unfolds, several bars in length and beginning with descending open fifths. It is often referred to as a fanfare, although it more closely resembles an endless melody in the Wagnerian sense – the woodwind and horns seem to want to spin out the melody ad infinitum. However, Bruckner does not linger in endless realms. A crescendo leads quickly to the striking principal motif, which also traces a descending line, evincing a powerful downward tendency, and ends – after a general pause – in a dour closing figure. It is hard not to interpret this 40-bar introduction as the manifestation of an irresistible force. The melody that blossoms antiphonally on violas and horn marks the beginning of the second thematic group. The third is a chorale theme on the brass, alternating between musing and gruff outbursts, which governs long stretches of the development section. The trumpet melody also returns, now boldly energetic.
In the Adagio, Bruckner comes closer to his mentor Richard Wagner, the symphony’s dedicatee, than in any of the other movements, though still far from the eroticism that infuses Wagner’s sonorities. Bruckner himself reported that the Misterioso middle section had something to do with memories of his mother. The Scherzo then offers the greatest possible contrast, dominated by an exuberant, at times menacing atmosphere. Actual themes are hard to identify here; instead we experience a kind of “machine” music that anticipates much later historical developments. Dancelike flourishes provide a momentary relaxation of the tension; the Trio section even leads to a dance floor somewhere in Upper Austria.
The last movement can be understood as a continuation of the first. The nervously vibrating quavers (eighth notes) prepare for a martial brass theme that is often likened to obstreperous cyclopes. It begins by bringing back the descending line from the first movement, as though forcing listeners to their knees, and later it is articulated in wild intervallic leaps. The second thematic group could, as so often with Bruckner, bear the heading: “In the midst of life we are in death”. The strings play a polka; the wind add to it a chorale. Bruckner was plagued, as we know now, by necrophiliac tendencies. He had a pathological interest in all morbid phenomena, something that may explain the rigid, inanimate character of many of his themes. The apocalyptic power of Bruckner’s music, if heard psychoanalytically, reflects the submission to anonymous, omnipotent forces of an individual who has learned to suppress his normal drives. Personal self-denial of pleasure is raised to a cosmic principle, the idea ultimately becomes a saving compulsion. In the Finale of the Third Symphony, Bruckner succeeds in curbing these death fantasies. The final bars are given over to the first movement’s trumpet melody bathed at last in radiant D major. This is no more than a halfway believable victory, but even it was hard won.
Translation: Richard Evidon
Matthias Goerne was born in Weimar and studied singing with Hans-Joachim Beyer in Leipzig and subsequently with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He is now equally acclaimed as an opera singer, concert artist and lieder recitalist in musical capitals all over the world as well as at international festivals. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He first appeared as Papageno at the 1997 Salzburg Festival in a production of Die Zauberflöte conducted by Dohnányi. Although he limits the number of his operatic appearances, the range of his roles is wide, extending, as it does, from Mozart’s Papageno and Wagner’s Wolfram to the titles roles in Berg’s Wozzeck and Aribert Reimann’s Lear. Among the pianists who have accompanied his lieder recitals are Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Christoph Eschenbach and Eric Schneider. A fellow of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Matthias Goerne was “artist in residence” with the Hessen Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt in the 2009/2010 season. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1998 and has returned on frequent occasions since then. His most recent appearance was in May 2009, when he took the title role in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah op. 70 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, born in Lwów (formerly in Poland, now Ukraine), studied piano, violin, composing and conducting. He gave his first performance as a pianist at the age of eleven, and made his conducting debut when he was thirteen. After studying in Warsaw, he continued his training in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. In 1946 he became director of the Philharmonie Wrocław. During the period 1949 to 1959, he was successively principal conductor of the philharmonic orchestras in Katowice, Krakow and Warsaw. Two years after winning the International Conducting Competition in Rome in 1956, he was invited by George Szell to appear with the Cleveland Orchestra. This was followed by concerts with other American orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. In 1960, he was appointed music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. In 1984, he took on the same role with the Hallé Orchestra, which he led until 1991. As a guest conductor, he has appeared with the world’s major orchestras, and regularly receives invitations to North and South America, Australia, Japan, and to numerous European cities. For many years he has had close links with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchesters Saarbrücken (now the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern), where he has been principal guest conductor since 1994. He has also conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker several times since his debut in 1969, most recently in May 1986 in two concerts with works by Anton Webern, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovitch. Stanisław Skrowaczewski has received numerous awards for his work both as a composer and as a conductor including Poland’s highest decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his Concerto for Orchestra.
Highlights from the concert can be seen in our trailer.