Kirill Petrenko conducts Beethoven and Elgar

10 May 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Lars Vogt

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C minor, op. 37 (44 min.)

    Lars Vogt Piano

  • free

    Edward Elgar
    Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, op. 63 (54 min.)

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    Kirill Petrenko and Lars Vogt in conversation with Sarah Willis (8 min.)

Following Kirill Petrenko’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2006 with works by Rachmaninov and Bartók was met with unanimous enthusiasm from audience, press and the orchestra alike, the Russian conductor’s second appearance was keenly anticipated. This time, the programme did not include any works from Petrenko’s Russian homeland, but Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony: An ideal constellation for a conductor who not only brings out new aspects in familiar repertoire, but is also a convincing champion for rarities.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, sitting precisely in the middle of his five contributions to the genre, is also the only one of this group which is in a minor key. The orchestral introduction to the first movement is correspondingly serious, followed by a Largo of meditative beauty. In the final movement, the composer moves the rondo theme with an ingenious shortened variation to a major key and provides the work with an irresistible finale. The soloist was Lars Vogt who was the Philharmoniker’s Pianist in Residence in the 2003/2004 season.

Before this concert, the last time the orchestra played Elgar’s second and final symphony was in 1972. As the welcoming applause continues, Petrenko signals the upbeat to a work that the composer himself described as the “pilgrimage of a soul”. Momentum and spirit, seriousness and humour characterise this work which, at the end of around an hour, fades into peaceful tranquility. A work in which Elgar succeeds in creating a synthesis of complexity of form and thematic cogency.


Might and Dreams

Musical Confessions

The Sovereign Beethoven and his Third Piano Concerto

In the 1796 Yearbook of Music in Vienna and Prague, the name of the former Bonn court musician Ludwig van Beethoven appears, surprisingly to posterity, in the category of “Virtuosos and Dilettantes”. This classification – though quite demeaning from our perspective – was not considered in any way defamatory at the time. In the “Pianoland” of Vienna a gifted pianist was held in high esteem by the paying public and music-loving patrons. Beethoven, noted the Yearbook, was “admired for the particular speed and extraordinary difficulties that he executed with such lightness”. Because this virtuoso was no longer a salaried court musician but a “freelance artist”, he was counted as a “dilettante”, in the original sense of the word – one who made music for pleasure, not as a breadwinner. In truth, Beethoven corresponded much more closely to the image of an artist who soars above convention, for whom work is not a pleasure but an inner compulsion. An eyewitness reports: “He was very proud and I saw how Prince Lichnowsky’s mother, Countess Thun, lay on her knees before him, as he reclined in the sofa, begging him to play something. Beethoven, however, did not do it.”

The artist as lord and master, as thinker and guide, as pioneer and prophet – this is how Beethoven presented himself in his first appearance with his Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37. He himself was the soloist at the premiere on 5 April 1803 at the Theater an der Wien, and no-one but he would have been able to master such a task: he had not even completely written out the sketchily notated solo part.

After 111 bars of orchestral groundwork, the pianist – i.e. Beethoven – begins the solo exposition with an imperious demonstration of power. He spans the whole keyboard from bottom to top in three run-ups, then practically gouges the main theme into the keys, forte and unisono, in a show of manual strength with piled-up octaves (admittedly, this is followed at once by a gentle, wistful reflection). In Beethoven’s hands, the intellectual game of concert giving is transformed into existential earnestness: into a matter of self-assertion, of creative will-power, of proud subjectivity. Beethoven, the celebrated virtuoso, claimed absolute authority in “Pianoland”. A sovereign, who brought princes and countesses to their knees.

“Pilgrimage of a Soul”: Elgar’s Second Symphony

Even a fleeting glance at Edward Elgar’s catalogue of works inevitably leaves the impression that symphonies did not play a central role in his creative output. In fact, the opposite is true: he actively confronted the symphonic challenge. Over the course of decades he left traces of such projects: sketches, programmatic titles, remarks in letters and diaries. Yet Elgar completed only two symphonies – three, if one counts a student exercise of 1878.

30 years later, a symphony by Elgar first found its way into a concert hall, the A flat major, op.55, which was premiered in Manchester on 3 December 1908. It wasn’t long before he was at work on the Second. In autumn 1909 Elgar began looking at some earlier sketches and sifting through notes from his Italian journey of the previous spring. That he was ultimately able to fashion a symphony of remarkable size and formal mastery out of such disparate and temporally disconnected material is truly astonishing but by no means atypical of Elgar’s working method. His composing gives the impression of a jumble of scraps, an ingenious puzzle, assembled like a mosaic from everyday – and highly personal – musical snapshots.

Elgar repeatedly commented on the ideas expressed in his Symphony No.2 in E flat, op.63. The score, which he completed in the first two months of 1911, is headed by a quotation from Shelley, “Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” Corresponding to this literary idea is a musical one, expounded in the symphony’s opening bars. Elgar referred to it as the “germ” of the entire work. And indeed his E flat major Symphony is marked by a technique of germ-cell development and variation of thematic relations, by “unity in diversity”, by strong internal cohesiveness – and by a cyclical conception: the “germ” of the introductory bars, explained Elgar, is heard “in a modified form ... for the last time in the closing bars of the last movement”.

Elgar described the finale of his Second Symphony as “a broad, sonorous, rolling movement throughout – in an elevated mood”. He even claimed that “high & pure joy” is the dominant “spirit” of the work as a whole: “There are retrospective passages of sadness but the whole of the sorrow is smoothed out & ennobled in the last movement, which ends in a calm &, I hope & intend, elevated mood.” The music itself, however, speaks a different language, ridden with conflict and psychological discord – for example, the baleful theme intoned by the cellos in the first movement, full of foreboding, described by Elgar as “a sort of malign influence wandering thro’ the summer night in the garden”. At the climax of the third movement, this cello theme returns with infernal, destructive energy, brutally accented and whipped by the rhythm of the percussion. Elgar compared this overwhelming outburst with “that horrible throbbing in the head during some fever. It seems gradually to blot out every atom of thought in your brain and nearly drives you mad.”

Elgar provided listeners a key to understanding this score when he spoke of “the passionate pilgrimage of a soul”. If we regard his music as autobiographical, the dramaturgy of the E flat major Symphony appears in quite a different light: the surging and plummeting, the inconsolable sorrow, the hectic joie de vivre, the fear of annihilation – and the peaceful, majestic and uplifting conclusion with which this pilgrimage arrives at its destination. While working on his Opus 63, Elgar reported on the new work to a friend, and the well-read, highly educated composer repeatedly quoted Shelley (from Julian and Maddalo) in order to divulge something of the secrets hidden in this composition: “I do but hide under these notes (Shelley: “words”), like embers, every spark of that which has consumed me.”

Kirill Petrenko was born in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1972 and was eighteen when he and his family moved to Vorarlberg. He studied conducting at the Vienna Academy of Music, before working as a music assistant and conductor at the city’s Volksoper. From 1999 to 2002 he was general music director in Meiningen, where he came to international attention conducting Christine Mielitz’s production of the Ring in designs by Alfred Hrdlicka. Between 2002 and 2007 he held a similar post at the Komische Oper in Berlin, acquiring an outstanding reputation for the way in which he built up both the orchestra and the ensemble. Since then, guest engagements have taken him to many of the world’s leading houses from the Dresden, Munich and Vienna State Operas to the Maggio Musicale in Florence, London’s Royal Opera, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Opéra Bastille in Paris and the Salzburg Festival. Among the orchestras that Kirill Petrenko has conducted in the concert hall are the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the London and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Kirill Petrenko made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006 conducting works by Bartók and Rachmaninov. In January of this year, the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation invited him to conduct the Federal Youth Orchestra.

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. 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 Sharon Kam. 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; his most recent appearance was in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, in November 2008 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

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