Sir Simon Rattle
Breathing fresh life into old art – that’s one of a symphony ochestra’s biggest challenges. Thus it’s only fitting for the Berliner Philharmoniker and principal conductor Sir Simon Rattle to open the 2012/13 season with two works that present exactly this artistic challenge in the way their composers have rethought and reshaped traditional forms.
First there is Johannes Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto – completed in 1881. As a symphony cum solo concerto it was already considered by many at the time to be outmoded. In fact, the work is full of surprises. At times it acts like a symphony in which the piano merely adds its special colour to the mix; then the pianist is again allowed to display his full range of soloistic abilities. Finally, there are moments of exquisite chamber-musical exchange. Nothing in the work is schematic. Pianist Yefim Bronfman is ideal in this work, “a virtuoso, with chops that need fear no comparisons” (New York Times), yet also one who loves being part of collective music-making and once even confessed that he felt especially comfortable in the role of “second violin”.
The orchestra and its conductor will inaugurate a whole series of works by Witold Lutoławski with the composer’s Third Symphony of 1983. Sir Simon Rattle has referred to the symphony as “Lutosławski’s masterpiece”, and his idiom’s distinctive qualities are exhibited in the tightest space: unconditional modernity – for example in aleatoric passages in which the orchestral musicians are required to improvise – but also atmospheric concentration and vital force. The Berliner Philharmoniker last performed the work in 1985, conducted, incidentally, by Lutosławski himself.
“The new alongside the old”
Music by Johannes Brahms and Witold Lutosławski
In a 1973 interview, Witold Lutosławski outlined his own position in the conflict between tradition and modernity: “Many people consider me an avant-garde composer, and that pleases me, even if this pleasure is a superficial feeling. I have nothing against change and progress. My own compositions testify to that … At the same time, however, I don’t share the contempt for anything that isn’t absolutely new. If a work’s greatest merit lies in its novelty, than we’re talking about a really weak piece that will very soon become dated. If it has no substance, it will immediately vanish.” 100 years earlier, Johannes Brahms would surely have agreed without reservation.
“Symphony with piano obbligato” – Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto
If the 19th century viewed Richard Wagner and his followers as embodying musical progress in the conflict between revolution and conservatism, Brahms in the judgement of his contemporaries represented the guardian of compositional traditions. But precisely because he defended the ideal of an “absolute” music against the “New German” school grouped around Wagner, with their tone poems inspired by literature, Brahms suffered – to borrow the phrase of his mentor Robert Schumann – from “symphonic scruples”: the model of Beethoven, who Brahms heard “marching behind him like a giant”, was simply too overpowering. Thus he had struggled for some 20 years before finally producing the composition that in 1876 he presented as his First Symphony.
In the sphere of the solo concerto as well, Brahms followed a circuitous path before finding the artistic self-confidence that allowed him to face up to the tradition. His First Piano Concerto, completed in 1856–57, assumed its definitive form only after a long gestation. Composing his Second Piano Concerto in 1881, on the other hand, was relatively straightforward. He had already made preliminary sketches for a Piano Concerto in B flat major in 1878; but its completion was interrupted in the following years by work on the Violin Concerto op. 77 and the Violin Sonata op. 78.
Shortly before Brahms launched his Second Piano Concerto in public and approved the score’s publication, he tried out the work in a private performance with the Meiningen Court Orchestra in October 1881. Comparison of his autograph with the later printed score shows that he took this opportunity to make further changes to the text. Mainly, however, he was concerned about ensuring the effectiveness of the scherzo. After the Meiningen rehearsal phase Brahms was still contemplating “scrapping the 2nd movement” because “the piece had just got too long”. Ultimately he decided, however, that the concerto needed “something powerfully passionate before the simple Andante”.
It was largely this second movement that led Eduard Hanslick to dub the concerto “a symphony with piano obbligato”, contradicting the composer who had called it a “Concerto for Pianoforte with Orchestral Accompaniment”. In fact, the function of the second movement, which brings Brahms’s piano concerto superficially close to symphonic form, is ambivalent. The scherzo – tellingly no longer referred to as such by Brahms in the printed score – qualifies the symphony structure of the opening movement and serves as a transition to the two following movements, which are more concertante in conception: an Andante, painfully beautiful though also containing passages of passionate defiance, introduced by a solo cello intoning a theme that prefigures the 1886 song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer op. 105 No. 2, and then an airy finale which, in spite of its contemplative moments, rounds off the work in best concerto style, eluding all the expectations traditionally attached to the last movement of a symphonically conceived composition.
In the work’s opening movement, Brahms reaps new dimensions from his particular form of motivic development – aptly called by Schoenberg the “technique of developing variation”. Thus the horn motif of the introduction soon emerges as the primal cell of the orchestral exposition’s first theme. In the course of the movement it becomes the object of various reinterpretations, but always reappearing in its original form at nodal points of the sonata structure. Thus – and it is this novelty of the movement that looks forward to the music of Mahler – a latent tension is generated between the horn call as sound of nature and Brahms’s compositional adaptation of it.
Novel textures – Witold Lutosławski’s Third Symphony
“The new alongside the old”, as the German musicologist Aloyse Michaely observed, can also be found in Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3, premiered in 1983. The Polish composer shared with Brahms an exceptionally scrupulous attitude to his work: Lutosławski was occupied with completing his Third for more than ten years. Although it consists of a single movement, one can detect a five-part articulation with surprising references to Classical and Romantic symphonic traditions. An introduction is followed by a rondo-like complex that leads by way of a brief intermezzo to a section in sonata form before the symphony dies away in an epilogue. Internal caesuras are established by a prominent motif of four rapidly repeated notes, which opens the work in the manner of a musical motto, re-appears, often with dramatic effect, at numerous points of formal articulation and finally concludes the symphony.
Along with this superimposition of single- and multi-movement form, a binary structure typical of Lutosławski’s music is also discernible: the division into a “preparatory first movement (introduction), intended to capture but never fulfil the listener’s attention,” writes Michaely, “and a second, the actual main section, which resolves what was previously promised and expected, though only after cleverly measured out delays”. This principle is deployed in the Third Symphony in extended form: the first part is preceded by an introduction and the second part ends in an epilogue clearly set up to be the work’s climax.
Through its superimposition of various formal structures, the composition presents itself differently according to the viewing angle – comparable to the perception of a sculpture from changing perspectives. This interpretative freedom for the listener corresponds to the “limited aleatoric” technique in Lutosławski’s score. In numerous sections of the Third Symphony the composer relegates to the orchestral musician the individual shaping of parameters such as tempo, dynamics and duration of a pre-determined succession of notes. The resulting impression, said Lutosławski, was “as though each musician is playing alone”.
Lutosławski was, however, by no means concerned with a superficial distinction between moments of “chaos” and “order”. Rather he was utilizing varying compositional principles in order create novel textures. In his Third Symphony this led him to produce passages of iridescent beauty as well as others of almost neo-Romantic expressiveness. Lutosławski’s “limited aleatoric” technique had already proven its worth several times by this point. What was even more surprising in his œuvre, however, was the preoccupation with traditional formal structures: what is new and what is old depends on one’s own perspective.
Mark Schulze Steinen
Translation: Richard Evidon
Yefim Bronfman, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1958, emigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 15 and became an American citizen in 1989. His teachers included Arie Vardi in Israel and Rudolf Firkušný, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin in the USA. Yefim Bronfman launched his international career in Montreal under Zubin Mehta in 1975; his first concerts with the New York Philharmonic followed three years later. Since then Yefim Bronfman has appeared with the leading international orchestras, collaborating with many distinguished conductors. Recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1991, he performs with such chamber music partners as Shlomo Mintz, Lynn Harrell, Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman and the Emerson, Cleveland, Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets. During the 2007/2008 season the pianist was Perspectives artist at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Artiste étoile at the Lucerne Festival in summer 2009. In May 2012 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic, in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Alan Gilbert. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 Yefim Bronfman has appeared frequently at the Philharmonie as a concert soloist, chamber musician and in solo programmes, serving as the orchestra’s pianist in residence during the 2004/2005 season. His most recent appearance with the Philharmoniker was in October 2010, when he performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.