Zubin Mehta conducts Mahler’s First Symphony – and a rediscovery

02/10/2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

Johannes Moser

  • Gottfried von Einem
    Orchestermusik (00:16:20)

  • Robert Schumann
    Cello Concerto in A minor (00:31:12)

    Johannes Moser Cello

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 1 (01:08:57)

  • free

    Johannes Moser in conversation with Walter Küssner (16:26)

In March 1896, Mahler travelled to Berlin to perform his First Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although audience interest was meagre, the concert marked an important stage in the history of the work. At its first performance in 1889, it still went under the name of “Symphonic Poem in 2 Parts”, and the Berlin performance was the first time Mahler used the term “symphony”. 

This change of genre led to Mahler removing the programmatic titles of the movements of the work in addition to its original title, “Titan”. He also discarded the complete second movement with the title “Blumine”, which was only rediscovered in the 1960s. Following one of its first performances at the Aldeburgh Festival, the critic Alan Blyth wrote, “This is an exquisite Andante, and is shot through with the same sense of resignation and regret so dear to the composer. Nowhere else did he capture this feeling more succinctly.” One of the few conductors who has recorded the movement is Zubin Mehta, who now introduces “Blumine” to Berliner Philharmoniker audiences.

The main work of the first half of the concert is the all too seldom performed Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. Unlike other solo concertos of the early 19th century, this work does not try to woo the listener with brilliance or easy to remember melodies. Instead, the solo part strikes a sensitive narrative tone as if the composer wants to entrust the listener with his most internal thoughts and feelings. Making his debut with the orchestra as the soloist in this concert is the German-Canadian Johannes Moser, described by the magazine Gramophone as “one of the finest among the astonishing gallery of young virtuoso cellists”.

Incidentally, the programme of this evening’s concert has a special historical background. It was with exactly these works that Zubin Mehta made his debut with the Philharmoniker 50 years ago, on 18 September 1961. The concert was met with standing ovations at the time, and a Berlin critic wrote quite prophetically that Mehta was “the man to look out for” in the conducting world. In fact, the Philharmoniker and Zubin Mehta have since met almost every year to perform together. Reason enough to remember the beginning of this wonderful partnership.

(Natural) World and Longing

The Berliner Philharmoniker play works by Mahler, Schumann and Gottfried von Einem

Gottfried von Einem was an outsider among early modern composers, and his works have not found a lasting place in the repertoire. How many music lovers today, for example, are familiar with von Einem’s operas and ballets? Where have any of his string quartets been performed recently? And when was the last time we encountered one of his orchestral compositions in the concert hall? Yet symphonic music – along with opera – was the first genre that von Einem cultivated. He called his Opus 1a Four Episodes for Orchestra. They were followed by the Capriccio Op. 2 in 1943, the Concerto for Orchestra Op. 4 in 1944, the suite from his first opera, Danton’s Death, and, in 1948, the Orchestral Music Op. 9.

The influence of his teacher Boris Blacher is unmistakable in von Einem’s Op. 9, especially in the work’s luminous instrumentation, clear melodic lines and basically rhapsodic, narrative orientation. But von Einem’s personal style also comes through vividly: a musical language bound to tonality but, notwithstanding that fundamental allegiance, rhapsodically free, slowly stripping away expressionism as it approaches neo-classical realms. Experimental (at times dissonant) moments are integrated into a polyphony whose evident complexity is nonetheless sorted out by the transparent scoring and brought into a kind of order.

Barely a century earlier, in 1850, Robert Schumann composed his Opus 129, which he called a Concert Piece for Cello with Orchestral Accompaniment. The title gets to the heart of the matter: the Cello Concerto in A minor indeed grants the solo instrument a dominant role; to the orchestra it delegates the function of a flexible supporting partner. The first movement begins with a harmonically simple cadence that leads directly to the main theme, introduced by the cello, a broadly sung, deeply Romantic melody for which the orchestra lays out a velvet carpet. To this central idea, which appears as a reminiscence in the transition to the finale, are added two subsidiary themes, though they play a rather ephemeral role in the work’s overall conception. The character of a “thoroughly light-hearted work” – Schumann’s own description of the concerto – best suits the third movement, which makes no attempt to conceal its virtuosity but still finds space for moments of lyrical intimacy.

The world is so big, yet so small: Gustav Mahler is living and working in Kassel, since August 1883 as assistant conductor and choral director at the Royal Prussian Theatre – surely not a position capable of fulfilling his artistic ambitions. It may be here, in provincial isolation, that he conceives his First Symphony, not least as a means of escaping the narrowness of his daily existence. The work is not completed, however, until 1888, by which time the composer has moved on and is now assistant conductor at the Municipal Theatre in Leipzig. In the words of its creator, the First (and Second) symphonies “contain my whole life” and are meant to give expression to “my experience and suffering” as “truth and poetry in music”. At the same time, Mahler doesn’t want to pigeon-hole such a confrontation between reality and musical authenticity as programme music – even though he still refers to the symphony at its world premiere in Budapest on 20 November 1889 as a “symphonic poem in two parts”.

Whatever associations may occur to this work’s listeners, it undoubtedly exerts an immense attraction right from the first movement. Seemingly out of nowhere a shimmering sustained A – root of the dominant key – spreads in octave strings across all registers, the harmonics in every part producing an enigmatic, almost surreal effect. In this opening Mahler conjures up the transition from silence to sound, from a realm of not-yet-being (or at least of not-yet-being-awake) to the sounds of artistic externalization. The composer is feeling his way forward, seeking form for what is to come.

Out of the musical mists emerges an ostensibly harmless descending 4th motif – the first intervallic consistency – then the silhouette of a fanfare that slowly, tentatively makes its approach to the imaginary hero and the atmosphere of (Romantically charged) nature. At its side is a gently lyrically horn duet. From somewhere a cuckoo calls, perhaps the one we already know from the Songs of a Wayfarer. And another song is quoted – in the cellos’ melody, assuming a folk-musical air and alluding to Mahler’s “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld”. From this amalgamation of diverse materials, the composer fabricates a symphonic structure, allowing ever-increasing scope for the individual shapes to develop within the musical expanses. But in doing so, he constantly shifts the weighting of themes so that the world encountering us here ultimately remains hermeneutically approximate, in any event leaving space for various options, ready for outbursts of all kind and suddenly to be torn apart.

The original second movement was an Andante, later called Blumine (a term, recurring in the writings of Jean Paul, that refers both to a bunch of flowers and to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers). It, however, was withdrawn (along with the whole literary programme) by the composer after the symphony’s third performance in Weimar, so that the opening movement is followed directly by the scherzo. This movement takes us out among the people and on to the dance floor of a rustic Ländler. Its metrical steadiness recalls the Beethovenian minuet, as does the strict periodicity of the theme and the corset-like structure. Set against these are the grandeur and variety of the musical images, the melodic profusion, the principle, if you like, of overflowing the banks. Mahler is constantly seeking not only to encompass the world but also to transcend it.

The world is filled with grief, as the funeral march relates. This minor-mode paraphrase of the children’s song Frère Jacques is full of bitter irony and oppressive uncertainty, of longing and gloomy shadows – melancholy congealed in music, so to speak, that never quite goes away even in the gentler passages. This is hardly surprising as one of Mahler’s sources of inspiration here was the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind’s The Huntsman’s Funeral.

But it gets deeper, darker and even more absurd. In his early deliberations over a programme, Mahler characterized the finale as “Dall’inferno al paradiso”, an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Hence it begins with a piercing outcry, which is immediately answered by a four-note motif on the brass: a kind of “musical symbol of the Cross”, as Liszt called this formula derived from Gregorian chant. Almost hellishly, a triplet motif throws a spanner in the works of this formula. A ballad follows in which Mahler alludes to the last part of his Das klagende Lied. Only afterwards does the creator decide to return to earth and seek paradise anew: an epic affair that, on the one hand, establishes a reminiscent link to the opening movement and, on the other, is marked by substantial distortions.

Mahler acknowledged that he was trying to represent a struggle in which victory was always furthest away just when it seemed nearest. Consistent with that notion, the reconciliatory tonal goal is reached only after another harmonic lightning bolt rips through the world. Mahler himself points it out: “My D major chord had to sound as though it had fallen from heaven, as though it had come from another world.” There it is once again, the world: so small and yet so big.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started 50 years ago in September 1961. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. In November 2007, he was made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, and in 2008 he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv provides tuition to young Israeli musicians and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Moreover, within the scope of a new project, young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth are trained by local teachers as well as by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Zubin Mehta last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker at the beginning of December 2009 in works by Franz Schubert, Béla Bartók and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Johannes Moser, born in Munich in 1979 to a German Canadian family of musicians, began playing the cello at the age of eight, and started studying with David Geringas in 1997. In 2002, he was a winner at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and received, in addition, a special prize for his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Since then, he has performed with leading orchestras all over the world, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The cellist has worked with conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti and Christian Thielemann. Johannes Moser is a committed advocate of new music: for his solo debut in the U.S. with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005, he played the cello concerto by Bernard Rands, conducted by Pierre Boulez. His passion for the electric cello has already inspired several composers to write works for this instrument. Together with Midori and Jonathan Biss, the artist undertook a tour of Europe as a trio in the summer of 2008. As a chamber musician he has also performed at prestigious festivals such as the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the Verbier Festival and the Kissinger Sommer. These will be Johannes Moser’s first concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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