New Year’s Eve Concert with Simon Rattle

31/12/2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Slavonic Dance in G minor op. 46 No. 8 (4:52)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Slavonic Dance in B major op. 72 No. 1 (4:30)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Slavonic Dance in E minor op. 72 No. 2 (6:02)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Slavonic Dance in C major op. 72 No. 7 (4:03)

  • Paul Hindemith
    Symphonic Dance No. 3 (7:18)

  • Aram Khachaturian
    From the Gayane Suite No. 3: Sabre Dance (2:40)

  • Aram Khachaturian
    From the Gayane Suite No. 3: No. 2 Dance of the Young Kurds (3:57)

  • Aram Khachaturian
    From the Gayane Suite No. 1: No. 7 Adagio Gayane (4:47)

  • Aram Khachaturian
    From the Gayane Suite No. 1: No. 8 Lezginka (14:28)

At the end of the year, the Berliner Philharmoniker traditionally leave Johann Strauss and Viennese waltzes to their philharmonic colleagues in the Austrian capital. This however does not mean that the Berlin New Year’s Eve concert did not put the audience in the mood for dancing. On this occasion, works by Dvořák, Khachaturian and Hindemith were on the programme, with dances of Slavic, Armenian-Soviet, and somewhat brooding German variants.

Not only the audience was enthralled by the magnificent sounds and rhythmic energy of the Berliner Philharmoniker under its chief conductor Simon Rattle: The critic of RBB-Kulturradio called the delicately flavoured series of symphonic dances “incredibly zestful and well served”.

Dvořák’s dances, four of which were to be heard in this concert, reveal the influence of the earlier waltzes of Johannes Brahms and yet are unmistakably Dvořák through the Czech composer’s use of Slavic rhythms and melodic ingenuity. And then there was Aram Khachaturian’s Gayaneh suite. This music has had a special relationship with the home town of the Philharmoniker ever since Billy Wilder made fun of both Coca-Cola capitalists and soviet-loyal East German communists in his Cold War comedy set in Berlin One, Two, Three to the sounds of the Sabre Dance.

Head Dancing and Other Culinary Delights

Or: How Folk Dance Became Art Music

Throughout the Middle Ages, dancing was a well-established art that was connected to the realities of life – either robustly popular or ceremonially aristocratic. Michael Praetorius still had genteel society with lavish costumes in mind when he published his dance collection Terpsichore in 1612. The countless French dance movements in Bach’s suites, on the other hand, were strictly a treat for the ears 100 years later. The Romantic nationalism of the 19th century completed the emancipation of dance music from the dance itself. Almost every nation had authentic dance forms, and composers used or imitated these originals in their instrumental works. This led to an unfortunate false reaction. The composers idealized the heritage of their people, while the middle-class public enjoyed their free adaptations as entertaining diversions. The consequence was that all atavistic, ritualistic or belligerent elements of the dance were suppressed or only presented as staged ballet.

Dancing became an imaginative act, a patriotically charged declaration of freedom or a nostalgic sentiment. The notion that composers would have taken to the dance floor themselves was ridiculous. No matter how much rhythm was in their blood, it was impossible – Tchaikovsky lacked a partner for well-known reasons, while Johannes Brahms simply did not want to, like his great idols Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Yet Brahms, of all people – the cool Hamburg native with a lame hip – composed some of the most beautiful artistic or head dances of the 19th century. As a 13-year-old, he had played the piano at outdoor restaurants in the Hamburg suburbs in order to supplement his pocket money, and in Vienna the urge for rhythmic movement finally overcame him – perhaps not the entire person, but his fingers at least. Brahms used to listen to Gypsy bands at the Hungarian restaurants in the Prater night after night. As bourgeois as he was, for him dance music and culinary pleasures were closely connected: “I tell you, the food is decent, goulash delightful, curd cheese pancakes delicious, good beer, good wine and a splendid Gypsy band.” The artistic results of these pleasures are famous the world over – the popular Hungarian Dances.

Antonín Dvořák: Four Slavonic Dances

Brahms was not particularly proud of these dances, however; he was poorly paid for them and later even faced absurd accusations of alleged plagiarism. His Berlin publisher Simrock made a fortune on the Hungarian Dances, though – an international success, which he intended to repeat with Antonín Dvořák. And Dvořák agreed at once. What Brahms had done could not be wrong. The two saw eye to eye on all the fundamental human questions as it was, at least as far as Bohemian beer and the principles of symphonic music were concerned – why shouldn’t they agree when it came to dance! Especially since Dvořák had also been exposed to the popular folk music tradition at a young age. The two volumes of Slavonic Dances op. 46 (1878) and op. 72 (1886) do not need to hide behind their model, either; they even surpass it in variety and originality. Unlike Brahms, Dvořák used his own melodies throughout; he merely borrowed the rhythms from traditional dance forms.

The first cycle includes only Czech dances, with a single exception. It opens and closes with a furiant, a breakneck dance in 3/4 metre which no one should attempt without a doctor’s permission. The furiant op. 46/8 consists of a presto framework, whirling with frenzied repetitions, and a calm G major middle section dominated by flutes and oboes. In the second series Dvořák used various Slavic dances – op. 72/6 is a polonaise, op. 72/2 a Ukrainian dumka with a mazurka as its middle section and op. 72/7 a Serbian kolo.

Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Dance No. 3

Paul Hindemith and Dvořák not only had a mutual love for trains, which the Czech composer invariably admired in the original everywhere he went, while the German preferred to expand his model railway, which was 300 metres long when it was completed. They also shared a desire for fresh music with an immediate impact that conceals its demanding technique under a popular disguise and does not reveal all personal feelings at once. It is scarcely necessary to point out that Hindemith also had a special fondness for the dance. His Symphonic Dances, composed in 1937, are by no means music that makes one want to dance, however, but a symphonic version of expressionist dance. A lyrical, solemn, hymnlike, heroic tone predominates. The third movement is particularly characteristic of this “mystical” Hindemith. The element of dance is subtly present in the dotted 3/4 rhythm. The clarinet provides the thematic material, which rises to a powerful symphonic peak, finally ending in a soft variation of the clarinet melody.

Aram Khachaturian: Four Dances from Gayane

Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane was composed five years after Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances – a work from a different universe. By that time Hindemith had finally given up the illusion that he could survive in fascist Germany, while Khachaturian was still deeply convinced of the blessings of Soviet Russia. They were actually similar in nature, and many of Khachaturian’s qualities are also reminiscent of Brahms and Dvořák. Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs characterize his Armenian friend as follows: “Meeting Khachaturian means, first of all, eating a good, filling meal, drinking with pleasure, and chatting about this and that.” Conductors who knew him well recalled that Khachaturian wanted to have his music played as loud as possible – sparks should really fly. Gayane offers the best opportunities for that – particularly during the familiar Sabre Dance.

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, op. 26

Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is not particularly danceable, but it is at the beginning of a path that would lead to Romeo and Juliet – along with Gayane, the most successful ballet of the Soviet era. It was composed around the same time as the Classical Symphony, and in the rhythmically energetic C major Concerto, completed in 1921, Prokofiev also strikes a popular note, favouring diatonicism – in this case, the white keys on the keyboard. Of his five piano concertos, it is the only one with the traditional three movements. The appearance of simplicity is deceptive, however; under the elegant surface there are numerous traces of Prokofiev’s experimental phase, which had still influenced the dissonant, occasionally almost barbaric-sounding Second Piano Concerto. The Third is also a thoroughly artistic work – all his life Prokofiev, Russia’s most colourful composer, never cared about ideologies but only his art. We do not know whether he could dance. But since Sergei Prokofiev could do almost everything – he spoke English, French and German and, not least, was an extremely good driver – let us assume that he could dance as well.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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