A Brahms evening with Sir Simon Rattle and Lars Vogt
08 Nov 2008
Sir Simon Rattle
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D minor, op. 15 (52 min.)
Lars Vogt Piano
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (43 min.)
Johannes Brahms’s works have been part of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s core repertoire since the orchestra’s founding. In 1884, the composer himself appeared as soloist in the First Piano Concerto and conducted his Third Symphony with the ensemble, at that time still under the name “Philharmonisches Orchester”. Like his predecessors Hans von Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado, as chief conductor of the Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle has also regularly programmed the composer’s symphonies and orchestral works. The first recorded cycle was released on CD in 2009, followed in 2016 by a second on vinyl, recorded in the sensational direct-to-disc process.
As part of the season focus on Brahms, both the Second Symphony and the First Piano Concerto were presented in November 2008. With the concerto, Brahms celebrated his debut as the composer of a large orchestral work relatively late, in 1859. A difficult and circuitous compositional process had preceded it. Initially planned as a sonata for two pianos, the material was to be reworked as a symphony before it acquired its final form. The composer, who was still inexperienced in the art of orchestration, asked his friend Joseph Joachim for advice several times. This period of his life was marked by the illness and death of Robert Schumann and Brahms’s deepening friendship with Schumann’s wife Clara.
Although the premiere in Leipzig, with Brahms at the piano, was a failure, the music world was quickly convinced that the composer had produced one of the most important, “most symphonic” works of the genre. The soloist in this performance was Lars Vogt, with whom the Berliner Philharmoniker have worked closely for many years and who served as the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence during the 2003/2004 season.
Brahms: PIANO CONCERTO NO.1 • SYMPHONY NO.2
The FIRST PIANO CONCERTO has a strange, sad story with a happy ending. No other work cost Brahms such sweat and toil as this one, which began life in 1854 as a sonata for two pianos and was transformed into a symphony before finally emerging in 1856 as a concerto. The young composer had never before attempted to write for large orchestra, but his material in this work permitted nothing less. At one point he wrote dejectedly about the concerto to his friend Joseph Joachim, whom he had sent drafts and asked for suggestions: “I understand even less about instrumentation than it appears from the score.”
When Joachim conducted the premiere in Leipzig in January 1859 with Brahms playing the solo part, the audience reaction was almost openly hostile. By the 1850s superficially brilliant and pleasing concertos had become fashionable, and Brahms’s was anything but that: in this unprecedentedly long, overtly passionate work, his Romantic temperament and Classical ideals engage in open conflict, without the conciliatory moderation of his maturity nor the empty technical display then expected. (The Leipzig fiasco also meant that Brahms got a pittance for it from his publisher.) Eventually, gradually, the majestic beauty of the concerto was recognized, and it found its well-deserved niche in the repertory.
An “idea of primeval force” was one critic’s apt description of the vast first movement’s craggy opening theme with its chains of trills. Following a lyrical idea, the piano eventually takes up an “appropriately magnificent ... commensurately elevated and beautiful” theme in major, specifically requested by Joachim. We might almost be listening to an independent solo interlude, but Brahms takes pains to integrate it structurally.
An unmistakable religious feeling pervades the tender and poignant slow movement, composed when Brahms’s mentor Schumann was recovering from a suicide attempt. A slithering, high chromatic melody for the piano adds a sense of foreboding, and there is a brief orchestral outburst towards the middle; but the overriding tone is comforting and devotional. The finale is a long and serious rondo, modelled on the finale of Beethoven’s C minor Concerto, with a fiery principal theme of almost gypsy character and a sequence of cadenzas near the end. A fugal passage near the midpoint must have sounded forbiddingly high-minded to early audiences waiting for light relief after the emotional rigours of the earlier movements. Indeed the whole magnificent work is full of unresolved contrasts and paradoxes, as well as technical demands for the pianist confirming contemporary reports of the young Brahms’s own virtuosity.
Brahms’s SECOND SYMPHONY (1877) is regularly described as sunny and melodious, in marked contrast to the dark, epic First Symphony, which appeared only a year earlier, following a long gestation in which Brahms was dogged by the immense and intimidating precedent of Beethoven’s achievements in the form. Given the spontaneity and absence of strain one senses in the Second – though, as Brahms himself pointed out, the work also has a “melancholy” side – it’s not surprising to learn that he composed it during a summer holiday at the idyllic resort of Pörtschach in southern Austria. The symphony shares its D major tonality and some of its pastoral character with the Violin Concerto, another work of the late 1870s, one of the happiest and most creative periods of Brahms’s life.
The Second, like all of Brahms’s symphonies, begins with a musical motto – a three-note, V-shaped motif on cellos and basses. A warmly lyrical melody on horns and winds unfolding above it is the movement’s principal theme, but it is the motto that binds it together, quickly rising into the higher instruments and generating almost every new theme in the symphony. A particularly lovely moment in the opening movement: an extended horn phrase that melts into in the tranquil, heartwarming coda.
The Adagio is unusually concentrated, not long for a slow movement, but rich in material. An ideal performance seamlessly fuses its succession of developing variations, building to a turbulent climax before the oboe and violins bring the return of the songful opening. In place of the traditional quick scherzo, the third movement is a rondo-like Allegretto, based on the graceful opening melody introduced by the oboe, then speeded up with altered rhythm, and later inverted as a jaunty syncopated march. Between these two transformations and at the end, the theme returns in its original guise.
The finale is one of Brahms’s most optimistic, uplifting movements, and every musical element in it derives in some way from the motto. For example, the first three notes of the movement are the motif itself, though rhythmically disguised as they sweep into a long, whispering melody, which is repeated forte. The chorale-like contrasting idea, richly harmonized by strings in their low registers, returns at the end in a jubilant blaze of brass. It too is derived from the motto, turned on its head. No Romantic composer lavished more attention on subtle details of rhythm and melody than Brahms in his Second Symphony.
Lars Vogt is one of the leading pianists of his generation. He was born in Düren in 1970 and studied with Ruth Weiss in Aachen and with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling in Hanover. In 1990 he won second prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition and was launched on a meteoric career that quickly led to solo recitals and guest appearances with the most famous orchestras throughout Europe, the United States of America and the Far East. The conductor in the final round in Leeds was Sir Simon Rattle, with whom he went on to give numerous concerts and to make several recordings together with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 1998 Lars Vogt founded a chamber music festival, Spannungen: Musik im Kraftwerk Heimbach, which he has run since its inception. Here and elsewhere he appears regularly with artists such as Christian Tetzlaff, Antje Weithaas and Truls Mørk. Following an invitation from the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation to give a recital in the Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Lars Vogt made his debut with the orchestra at the 2003 Salzburg Easter Festival, playing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. During the 2003/04 season he was pianist in residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker.