Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

  • Carl Reinecke
    Flute Concerto in D major (29:22)

    Andreas Blau Flute

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 4 in G major (1:08:02)

    Christiane Karg Soprano

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    Yannick Nézet-Séguin in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (10:55)

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    Andreas Blau in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (29:16)

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, first guest director of the London Philharmonic and chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, debuted with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010, one could read in the press that it had been a “memorable evening” with a “rising star in the conducting firmament”. For his return to the podium at Philharmonic Hall, the charismatic Canadian has this time selected Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the last of the so-called “Wunderhorn symphonies”.

Compared to the monumental dimensions of the Second and Third Symphonies, the work appears to be significantly scaled back in scope and instrumentation. After its two predecessors, the Fourth seems almost like a detoxification. It lasts only a good hour and is relatively frugally orchestrated; performance markings like “rather leisurely” or “very comfortable” warn interpreters not to generate excess pressure. And then the Finale – not a monumental climax, but a song of downright suggestive simplicity that recounts the “joys of heavenly life”.

But don’t let yourself be deceived: like Mahler’s other symphonies, the Fourth is also ambiguous. Moods change suddenly in a hardly noticeable way; expectations are dashed and abysses gape abruptly in the seemingly naive idyll. Before the interval, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will devote himself to the virtuoso flute concerto in D major op. 283 by Carl Reinecke. The solo part will be played by Andreas Blau, the solo flutist of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Angelic Voices, Dreams of Heaven

Early 20th-Century Music of Carl Reinecke and Gustav Mahler

The sentence comes from Goethe’s Torquato Tasso: “When I reflect how poor at best we are, To others more indebted than ourselves.” Although this observation by the hero was certainly not meant for Carl Reinecke (which is also impossible, since Reinecke was not even alive when the privy councillor wrote these lines in 1789), the idea describes one characteristic of this composer perfectly. “You know that no brilliant, original inventiveness is at my disposal,” we read in one of the composer’s letters, and in Reinecke’s memoirs he comes to the sad conclusion that “In my obituary I will still be referred to as a composer of the Mendelssohn-Schumann school.”

Rhapsodic, Light-Hearted Texture: Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concerto in D major, op. 283

Many people regard the Romanticist Reinecke as an imitator; his oeuvre reflects the solidly conventional, bourgeois musical culture of the 19th century rather than the aura of exceptional brilliance. The influence of Mendelssohn (who confirmed that Reinecke had “a very definite talent for composing”) and Schumann is in fact obvious, especially in the works of the early and middle periods, and the atmosphere of the salon is also unmistakable. Only in his mature works does Reinecke develop an independent, rhapsodic, light-hearted musical idiom. The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D major, op. 283, composed in 1908, provides a profound example: a composition run through with Brahmsian echoes and yet completely original. The metre of the opening Allegro molto moderatoalready makes the listener sit up and take notice: 6/8 time! When have we heard that before in the first movement of a solo concerto? The mood is less reminiscent of a dance, however, than a pensive serenata in a twilight atmosphere like that of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cushioned by soft chords in the woodwinds, in particular, the solo instrument soars in an Orpheus-like song that would not only be capable of charming gods and animals but could also captivate Odysseus. Sadly enough, this siren soon falls silent. But just for a momentary pause, only to return to the imaginary stage with even more intensity (“as though in a dream”, according to the performance indications), while the delicate, exquisite main theme appears in the orchestra. The second theme of the exposition is utterly unspectacular. A highly expressive, rhythmically pronounced theme is introduced; it makes its first appearance in the blue-grey minor variant but soon afterwards takes on the more colourful major mode. The third theme, which we encounter for the first time in a refreshing dialogue between the solo flute and the brass, also appears in a similar guise.

The Lento e mesto could easily bear the title Bonjour tristesse. Judging from the rhythm, it is a funeral march. This explains the dark mood of the cantilena in the solo instrument, which the composer indicates is to be played “with sorrow” – filled with melancholy. The intensity of this slow movement was apparently reason enough to adopt the rhythm of the Lento e mesto in the closing rondo, at least in its opening bars. The moderato Finale then unfolds in a series of episodes – now dramatic and exciting, now relaxed and full of enthusiasm, now intricate and high-spirited – in which at least one protagonist can put on a brilliant show – the solo flute.

Gustav Mahler: A Panther Trapped in His Own Cage?

If one seeks similarities between Carl Reinecke and Gustav Mahler, one will find few, although they were contemporaries. The physiognomy of person and work is too dissimilar; the strange gift we call – in the Kantian sense – “genius” is too unevenly distributed. Mahler was a genius, but he was also the panther described by Rainer Maria Rilke in 1902, which paces back and forth in the cage of his mind as though in a daze, goes around in circles and yet, strong-willed, has the whole world in view. Mahler’s music depicts its course seismographically, by pleading against it, opposing it and imitating it, only to complain about it. Mahler’s music always objects when it goes against the way of the world and breaks down of itself rather than conceal the breach between subject and object.

Symphony No. 4 in G major

In Mahler’s Fourth Symphony the composer no longer seems to be able to sing a melody with unspoiled youthfulness. The flow of time no longer allows him to focus on “before”, bringing sorrow over the loss of the indomitability of former emotions. That is the implicit idea of this symphony, which proves to be a highly stylized fairy tale that occasionally reaches the threshold of artificial classicism, in which nevertheless, in the words of Bruno Walter, “a devout piety dreams its dream of heaven”. The dominance of the home key of G major (only in the second movement is it overgrown with a different tonal underbrush), the affinity of the themes to each other and the primacy of lyrical expression result in a Hermeticism that is particularly clear in the orchestral reduction.

The first movement does not hide its traditional structure. Exposition, development, recapitulation – everything is clearly outlined and strictly separated from each other. The tone shows a tendency towards songlike sweetness, occasionally to the point of infantile simple-mindedness. Throughout the entire symphony, the cheerfully tinkling sound of jesters’ bells, supported by the flutes, with which the symphony begins is heard in pristine nature. The lullaby theme introduced in the strings at the end of the third bar also recurs; its melodic and rhythmic contours rudimentarily depict the dreamy character of the journey Mahler undertakes for four movements, with Arcadia as his destination – the soul enveloped in tender melancholy.

The second movement transports the listener to a world that has little in common with Arcadia, but where there is already dancing – ländler, waltz and minuet. Mahler envisions the three-part scene “at a leisurely pace, unhurriedly” and presents it as a “dance of death”, played on a violin whose strings are tuned a whole tone higher. The introspective Adagio is obviously the continuation of the Scherzo using different means. The movement alternates with extreme complexity between two themes. In this movement, Mahler himself saw “the richest mixture of colours there ever was. The final dying away is like the music of the spheres – the atmosphere almost that of the Catholic church.”

In the Finale, the image of a distant, peaceful, carefree world emerges from these childhood dreams, in which all the finely spun threads from the previous movements converge. A glorious, naïve landscape appears, where all of life is pleasant, with dancing and singing. Above everything, however, inexpressibly lovely music is heard – the five-stanza song, for the most part filled with tenderness, which Mahler drew from Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Youth’s Magic Horn] and set to music under the title Das himmlische Leben [Heavenly Life]. He embedded the song in a composition whose quintessence is something that was only “envisaged” before. That is already conveyed by the theme introduced in the clarinets at the opening. It went through several transformations earlier but only now achieves its full-fledged form and blossoms, so to speak, under the new conditions – and they are indeed unique! Outwardly, the first section adheres to sonata form, including the key structure, thus presenting two contrasting thematic groups. In the middle section, however, the various subcutaneous relationships between motifs result in such a vast network of connections that even the experienced listener is uncertain about whether Mahler derived and developed an idea from the first or second theme group. The harmonic and melodic elements are so closely entangled that one can only come to the conclusion that everything is connected to everything else, as on an archipelago. Perhaps that is because this movement lacks power and radiance. Even the ending is not suitable as a moment of awakening but rather one in which everything dies – except hope.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra since the beginning of the 2012/2013 season, studied piano, conducting, composition and chamber music in his native city of Montreal as well as choral conducting in Princeton; he continued his training with Carlo Maria Giulini. He is also music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has also served as artistic director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal since 2000. His European debut in 2004 was followed by numerous appearances with leading orchestras throughout the world, including the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Orchestre National de France, Tonhalle Zurich, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the orchestras of Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has also achieved great success as an opera conductor, with Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Don Carlo at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Janáček’s The Makropulos Case and Puccini’s Turandot at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. He made his debut at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden with Dvořáks Rusalka. He led performances of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and Debussy’s L’Enfant prodigue during the Rotterdam Opera Days and conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Salzburg Festival. The young conductor has received numerous awards, among them the Royal Philharmonic Society Award and the National Arts Centre Award from the Canadian government. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Quebec in Montreal in 2011. His first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in October 2010 with works by Messiaen, Prokofiev and Berlioz. He last conducted the orchestra in June 2012 with works by Berio, Tchaikovsky and Ravel.

Andreas Blau was born in Berlin and won first prize in the 1965 “Jugend musiziert” Competition. After graduating from the Berlin Academy of the Arts, he became principal flautist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1969 and over the years has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician both with the orchestra’s own ensembles and in concert halls at home and abroad. He is the founder and artistic director of the 14 Berlin Flautists and a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Soloists. Since 1973 he has taught at the Orchestral Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Between 1983 and 1985 he also taught at the city’s Academy of the Arts. He is in great demand as a tutor in masterclasses in Europe, Asia and the United States of America and as a juror at international competitions. In 2005 he received an honorary professorship from the Shanghai Conservatory.

Christiane Karg, born in Feuchtwangen (Bavaria), received her vocal training at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. In the summer of 2006, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival, and since the autumn of 2008, she has been a member of Oper Frankfurt where her roles have included Susanna, Pamina, Musetta and Zdenka. She has also appeared as a guest artist at the Bavarian and the Hamburg state opera houses, the Komische Oper Berlin, the Theater an der Wien, Opéra de Lille and the Glyndebourne Festival. As a concert singer, the soprano has performed with orchestras such as the Concentus Musicus Wien, Les Arts Florissants, the NDR Sinfonieorchester, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph Eschenbach Thomas Hengelbrock, Christian Thielemann, and Mariss Jansons are among the conductors she has worked with. One of Christiane Karg’s particular passions is lieder singing. Recitals have taken her to the Musikverein in Vienna and the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Philharmonie Essen, London’s Wigmore Hall and the Rheingau Music Festival, among others. For her first CD of lieder, Verwandlung, Christiane Karg was awarded the Echo Klassik Prize. This will be her first appearance in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

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