Andris Nelsons and Emanuel Ax interpret Mozart and Strauss

18/10/2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Emanuel Ax

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Piano Concerto in E flat major K. 449 (26:58)

    Emanuel Ax Piano

  • Richard Strauss
    Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra (25:17)

    Emanuel Ax Piano

  • Frédéric Chopin
    Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2 (6:19)

    Emanuel Ax Piano

  • Richard Strauss
    Also sprach Zarathustra (42:02)

An unusual combination: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major K. 449 and Richard Strauss’s Burleske for piano and orchestra at one concert. But pianist Emanuel Ax already gave a guest performance with the Berlin Philharmoniker with this programme: in June 2001 he played the two works with Bernard Haitink as conductor. The reviewer from the Berliner Morgenpost praised Ax’s Mozart interpretation when he wrote that Ax was no “lion” of the keyboard, more a dove that knows how to coo intelligently with his fingers. Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday will be celebrated this year, admired Mozart all his life. For him, the Viennese classic was the “incarnation of the pure artist” and a great role model, particularly in the field of opera. The Burleske, however, is in the tradition of Johannes Brahms. The work of the 21-year old Strauss brings together different elements: symphonic poem, piano concerto, farce. Witty, ironic, highly virtuoso – it is considered a challenge for any pianist.

When, ten years later, Richard Strauss composed his orchestral piece Also sprach Zarathustra, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise of the same name, it had been quite some time since he was a “youngster” composer. Indeed, with a series of tone poems he had already proven himself a master of the genre. Since being used in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the work’s distinctive beginning with a rising trumpet motif has acquired cult status. Andris Nelsons, who is conducting the programme, has already proven himself an accomplished Strauss interpreter with performances with the Berlin Philharmonic of the Rosenkavalier Suite and A Hero’s Life.

This concert’s compositions are connected by one thing in particular: they each mark an important stage in their creator’s life and development. The Piano Concerto in E flat major, K. 449, represents Mozart’s new existence as a freelance artist – as a piano virtuoso, teacher and composer in Vienna – as well as his changing conception of the instrumental concerto. Strauss’s Burleske, the young aspiring conductor-composer’s “prank”, pays homage to the Classical era while setting its sights on something larger and bolder that would later manifest itself in tone poems like Also sprach Zarathustra.

“A happy medium between too easy and too difficult” – Mozart’s balancing act in Vienna

In May 1781 Mozart takes a step that will have far-reaching consequences: he resigns his position as organist to the Salzburg archbishop in the hopes of earning his living as a freelance composer in Vienna – liberated from the constraints of court service and from the directives of others. This new freedom will, however, require him to secure his own livelihood. He cannot do that yet as a composer on the free market, and so he earns most of his money as a pianist performing his own works and as a piano teacher.

In 1782‒83, Mozart creates his first cycle of piano concertos for Vienna – K. 413, 414 and 415. He refers to the three compositions as striking “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult”. They are very brilliant, “pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” This characterization is also applicable to most of his subsequent piano concertos. 1784 turns out to be an extraordinarily successful year for Mozart. Within a brief period, between February and April, he writes four piano concertos (K. 449, 450, 451 and 453) and makes numerous public appearances. He discovers – or, perhaps better, creates – an “ideal communicative situation” in the personal union of composer and interpreter. As the German musicologist Martin Geck stresses: “He isn’t performing pieces from the repertoire but rather brand-new compositions from one week to the next. And he can count on many of his listeners still having last week’s work in their ear as they hear the new one.”

Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat major, K. 449

The Concerto in E flat, K. 449, composed in February 1784, is Mozart’s first entry in the catalogue of his own works. Its extensive opening Allegro vivace – 347 bars long – is in the first-movement sonata form typical of Mozart’s concertos, with themes exposed first by the orchestra and then by the soloist, and with a somewhat abbreviated recapitulation. The opening theme is harmonically ambiguous – it can be heard in either E flat major or C minor. The piano, in its first “entry”, already plays a varied form of it. Mozart’s own cadenza does not refer to the principal theme but is based instead on a phrase from the opening tutti. The highly expressive and intimate three-part Andantino, chromatically inflected in its melodic writing, is a mixture of variation, rondo and sonata form. The middle section contains some surprising, deceptive modulations. The finale (Allegro ma non troppo) bubbles over with contrapuntal ingenuity. The opening tutti introduces the two main themes – one highly melodic, the other elegant. The soloist begins with the first theme, which is varied upon each repetition. There is a dramatic, developmental middle section and a racy coda in dancelike 6/8 time introduced by the pianist.

A 20-year-old’s stroke of genius – Strauss’s Burlesque in D minor

The young Richard Strauss wrote his Burleske while serving as Hans von Bülow’s assistant Kapellmeister at the Meiningen court orchestra – his first professional appointment and crucially important in his development as a conductor, though lasting only six months. The brilliant 20-minute work, in a single movement, could also be called a concertino or fantasia – Strauss referred to it as a “piano concerto” in a letter to his mother – conforms to the classical sonata form of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. Assured in style and scoring, with solo and orchestral parts cleverly interlaced, it opens with four Allegro vivace bars from the timpanist – the work’s second soloist. The orchestra replies with a motif based on the interval of a 3rd before the pianist enters with the main theme in D minor. The consequent idea, marked “con umore”, introduces a marcato motif in waltz time. There are essentially three principal “actors”, who engage in dialogue, pass the ball to each other, and sometimes fight for the upper hand. The opening timpani motif is tossed back and forth in various guises between the piano and orchestra, and is even deconstructed – dissected into its component parts. At times it appears introverted and tender, at others extroverted and high-spirited. The piano develops a songlike subsidiary theme, and later a third, rather lyrical idea is introduced. Brahms, Wagner, Liszt or Schumann could have been this composition’s godfather, but it also betrays its author’s own personal style. Strauss was already a master of musical dramaturgy: the ending of his “Burlesque” is not fiery and swaggering, but rather restrained and withdrawn.

Hymn to this world: Also sprach Zarathustra

In 1895‒96, during his time as court music director in Munich, Strauss wrote two highly acclaimed though highly contrasted pieces in close succession: the exuberantly brilliant Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and – now spreading his net to take in philosophy as a seemingly suitable subject for programme music – the tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In it Strauss also took the bold, unprecedented compositional step of expanding normal tonality with a sort of key symbolism. The two worlds addressed in Nietzsche’s poem are represented by different tonalities: clear, pure C major for Nature and B major, often with the indication “glowing”, for the realm of human thought and emotion. The worlds are juxtaposed, sometimes abruptly, with no attempt to reconcile them. Zarathustra’s modernity goes even further. In the section “Of Science and Learning” Strauss generates a theme out of the twelve successive semitones. It begins in the lowest regions of the orchestra and ascends in a fugato. In treating the subject Strauss resorted to a different form than the expanded sonata movement he had previously favoured: Also sprach Zarathustra is a symphonic fantasy with themes, thematic variations and a development section based upon them. The stages or “milestones” are derived from headings taken from Nietzsche’s text: “Of the Backworldsmen”, “Of the Great Longing”, “Of Joys and Passions”, “The Song of the Grave”, “Of Science and Learning”, “The Convalescent”, “The Dance-Song” and “Song of the Night Wanderer”. As regards content, these eight distinct but connected sections are not so much programme music as musical associations or reflections on ideas that came to Strauss in reading Nietzsche’s work. He also preceded the score with the “Hymn to the Sun” from Zarathustra, which contains the lines that were of greatest importance to the composer: “For too long we have dreamt music, now let us awake. We were nightwalkers. Let us now be daywalkers.”

The musicologist Heinz Becker commented that Strauss did not conceal any recondite philosophy in Zarathustra but instead presented “evocative concert music” that could be grasped by the listener even without the aid of a programme. “But if it used to be quipped that Strauss presents Nietzsche in a popular edition, one must in all fairness today add: but in a masterful de-luxe binding.”

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Emanuel Ax, born in what is now Ukraine in 1949, started his musical training as a child in Warsaw before studying with Mieczyław Munz at the Juilliard School after his family emigrated to the USA. At the age of 25, he won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition (Tel Aviv), and the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize (New York) five years later. Emanuel Ax is regularly to be heard as a concert soloist with leading orchestras, in piano recitals, and as a passionate chamber musician at major music venues and festivals all over the world: For many years he was Isaac Stern’s duo partner, and he plays with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as the violinists Jaime Laredo and Itzhak Perlman; he performs in a piano duo with Yefim Bronfman. Emanuel Ax’s repertoire includes not only major Classical and Romantic works but also numerous contemporary compositions; he has premiered works by John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bright Sheng and Melinda Wagner. Emanuel Ax has been awarded several Grammys for his recording work. He has performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since 1988, and in the 2005/06 season, he was the orchestra’s pianist in residence. His last appearance with the orchestra was in March 2014 with Mozart’s Piano Concerto “Jenamy” in E flat major, K. 271, conducted by Bernard Haitink.

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