Semyon Bychkov conducts Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

04 Oct 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Semyon Bychkov

  • Detlev Glanert
    Theatrum bestiarum (24 min.)

  • Richard Strauss
    Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64 (51 min.)

The Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov has been one of the orchestra’s close artistic partners for many years, and Herbert von Karajan considered him one of the greatest talents of the next generation. One of Karajan’s favourite compositions was heard during this concert from October 2008 – Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, which Karajan conducted with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1982; it was the first commercial CD release, with a legendary recording of the work. The choice of this tone poem for the new digital medium is not surprising, since the instrumental virtuosity and wealth of harmonic colours in Strauss’s last symphonic poem demand the utmost of every orchestra. The composition, which was inspired by Nietzsche, depicts a day in the mountains, during which a solitary wanderer is confronted with overwhelming impressions of nature – until perhaps the most spectacular pinnacle of orchestral literature is reached at the summit.

Caligula, whose reign spanned the years AD 37 to 41, was already considered by ancient historians to be the epitome of an unscrupulous tyrant. During the 20th century, writers and film-makers have recognized a forerunner of contemporary dictators like Stalin and Hitler in the brutal Roman emperor, who himself was the victim of murder. In the 1930s the young Albert Camus wrote a play entitled Caligula that is still staged regularly today, which composer Detlev Glanert and his librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel used as the basis for their opera of the same name, premiered in Frankfurt in 2006. As in other cases, Glanert also used material from the opera for an orchestral work. The evocative composition, entitled Theatrum bestiarium, is dominated by tremendous sound masses and powerful organ chords as well as moments of ominous calm, grotesque dance sequences and echoes of tonality. This work is the first composition by Glanert to be performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Symphonic Tableaux by Glanert and Strauss

The Roman emperor Caligula had reigned for only four years when he was assassinated in 41 AD, but stories of his cruelty, profligacy and debauchery have kept his name alive throughout the millennia. In Albert Camus’ play of 1938, the character of Caligula is analysed from an absurdist viewpoint, and, although the great French writer resisted a political interpretation of his protagonist, parallels with the 20th-century dictators Stalin and Hitler were clear to all.

A contemporary German composer has now based an opera on the Camus play: Detlev Glanert’s Caligula was premiered to great acclaim in Frankfurt in October 2006. The subject had been occupying Glanert since the mid-1990s, and two years before the opera he wrote a purely orchestral, symphonic psychogram of Caligula for the BBC Proms, Theatrum bestiarum,which had its premiere in the Royal Albert Hall on 26 July 2005.

In a 2005 interview with Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian,Glanert called Theatrum bestiarum “a glimpse into the inner soul of a monster – as human beings can become”, a “dark and wild series of songs and dances for orchestra, in which the audience looks in upon the dissection of ‘man as beast’… I look at people as animals because sometimes they behave as animals. … In Theatrum bestiarum I visit a zoo of human beings.”

Like his teacher Hans Werner Henze, Glanert considers social responsibility an essential element in the music he writes: “It has to be connected to the life of people. It must tell you something about your life and something about what you are. Opera has to have this principle, and so does orchestral music. I would hope that listeners to Theatrum bestiarum would understand it is about the evil inside people.” Tellingly, the work is dedicated to Shostakovich, whose orchestral music Glanert hears as a potent critique of Stalinist society, and its final bar quotes one of the Russian composer’s string quartets.

Pointing out Theatrum bestiarum’s relationship to his opera Caligula, Glanert explains: “It has the same themes and ... both start with the same chord, a very complicated one.” The 20-minute orchestral piece with organ was written with the Albert Hall’s instrument in mind. Theatrum bestiarum uses the organ mostly in duets with the orchestra, rather than as a solo instrument. Glanert notes that “it does have little solos, in the manner of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, but really the organ is working in a dialectical way with the orchestra. That is always how I work, through dialectics.”

Already world famous for tone-poems like Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Death and Transfiguration and for operas including Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, the 51-year-old Richard Strauss surprised his admirers with the musical depiction of a incident from his boyhood, a mountaineering expedition in which he and his party nearly came to grief. Eine Alpensinfonie, which he began composing in 1911, completed in the winter of 1914/15 and conducted at its premiere in Berlin’s old Philharmonie in October 1915, would be Strauss’s last major orchestral work for three decades. It is also his longest – at 50 minutes duration – and largest – calling for more than 130 musicians, including an offstage band comprising twelve horns, two trumpets and two trombones, a gigantic percussion arsenal (including wind and thunder machines, cowbells and three tam-tam players), not to mention the organ.

The “Alpine Symphony”is in a single movement, symphonic less in the structure into which Strauss organizes its descriptive sections than in his development of themes and motifs to portray a perilous ascent and descent in the Bavarian Alps he loved. It starts with a dark-toned cluster opening downward on the B flat minor scale and symbolizing “Night”. Motifs begin to form and set the sound gradually in motion, building to a solemn climax on brass: “Sunrise”. The “Ascent” begins with energetic march rhythms, while a distant horn fanfare warns of surprises ahead. After “Entering into the Wood”, the climbers continue “Along the Brook” to “The Waterfall”, where they see an “Apparition” – an Alpine water-fairy – in the rainbow-coloured spray. They continue “On the Mountain Pasture”, hear the tinkling of cowbells and mooing of cows, struggle “Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path”, then emerge “On the Glacier”. But there are still “Dangerous Moments” before a brass fanfare announces the arrival “On the Summit”.

Up there, the climbers encounter unearthly stillness (solo oboe over quietly shimmering strings). Following the blaze of noonday sun, a “Vision” signals it is time to descend. “Mists Rise”, “The Sun is Gradually Clouded Over”, and a melancholy “Elegy” is heard. In the “Calm before the Storm”, the first raindrops appear, then a violent “Thunderstorm” erupts. In their hurried “Descent” the climbers retrace their steps to an inversion of the ascent theme and fragments of other earlier motifs. The storm finally dies out, and violins illuminate the glowing “Sunset”. Strauss’s Alpine expedition ends as it began, with the dark tones of “Night” enveloping the scene.

Semyon Bychkov, born in Leningrad, was a pupil of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire. In 1973, he won First Prize at the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Since leaving Russia in 1975 and moving to the USA, he has enjoyed a career taking him from New York’s Mannes College of Music to engagements for international opera productions (eg. in Milano, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, London, Chicago, New York, at the Salzburg Festival and Maggio Musicale in Florence), as well as concerts with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Bychkov was appointed Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (1989–98), Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1990–94) and of Maggio Musicale in Florence (1992–98). Starting with the season 1997/98, he became Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchesters Köln, a position he also held at the Dresden Semperoper from 1999 to 2003. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985, stepping in for Riccardo Muti at short notice, Semyon Bychkov has returned several times for guest conducting engagements, the last in March 2007 with works by Richard Wagner and Dmitri Shostakovich. His recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic was the winner of the Belgian Caecilia Award and StereoReview’s “Record of the Year”.

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