From Bach to Beethoven with Giovanni Antonini

23 Sep 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Giovanni Antonini

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066 (25 min.)

  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
    Symphony in F major, Wq 183 no. 3 (12 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36 (36 min.)

  • free

    Giovanni Antonini in conversation with Raimar Orlovsky (18 min.)

For the Berliner Philharmoniker, working together with conductors from the world of Early music is a bonus in more ways than one. Firstly, these historically informed performance specialists often bring a new perspective to music of the Baroque and Classical periods. Secondly, time after time these concerts include glorious works which are otherwise hardly ever performed by traditional symphony orchestras, as is the case with Giovanni Antonini’s guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Giovanni Antonini made a name for himself in particular as the founder and leader of the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. For this appearance in Berlin, he undertakes a journey from the Baroque period through the early Classical to the music of Beethoven. The concert opens with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 – a work which has been included in a Berliner Philharmoniker programme only once before. The suite reveals the Baroque world of expression in its purest form: a solemn pace, graceful dances and sophisticated counterpoint all come together to form an at once both magnificent and charming whole. 

However, the perfection of this music was regarded by the next generation of composers in many cases as cold and unemotional. All that had to change. Or, as Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach wrote, “I believe music must, first and foremost, stir the heart.” With works such as his F major Symphony – performed here for the first time by the Berliner Philharmoniker – he is regarded as one of the composers who laid the foundations for a music of hitherto unknown emotionalism. It was Beethoven who completed this development, placing his own feelings and experience at the centre of his works – and in doing so, smashed open the door to the world of the Romantic.

“They all betray the master who created them.”

Orchestral works by Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and by Ludwig van Beethoven

Johann Sebastian Bach probably composed the first of his Ouvertures or Orchestral Suites (C major, BWV 1066) in 1719/1720. Fifty-five years later, his second oldest son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote his Orchestral Symphony in F major. After another twenty-five years, Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 2 in D major op. 36. Eighty years of music history! It is quite breathtaking how fundamentally the composers’ artistic and aesthetic approach, and accordingly the style of their works, changed in this period of time ...

When Johann Sebastian Bach took up office as Hofkapellmeister in Köthen in August 1717, he found a respectable orchestra: the payroll for 1719 records nineteen permanently employed instrumentalists in the very modern violin-orientated orchestra. Particularly as the Calvinistic royal court had only little interest in cantatas and other sacred music, conditions were therefore perfect for Bach for the composition of instrumental music which the Prince had expressly wished. Numerous concerts and orchestral works were also composed in this period, including probably the Ouverture or Orchestral Suite in C major BWV 1066 in 1719/1720.

Ever since Jean-Baptiste Lully composed an overture for the first performance in Paris of Francesco Cavalli’s dramma per musica Xerse in 1660, the three-part instrumental opening piece had become a standard element of baroque opera. Outside the opera house, it quickly asserted itself as purely instrumental music, now and then extended to a suite with a series of dances. As the three-part overture with its slow opening section with its marked, dotted rhythms, its fast contrapuntal central section, and the repeat of the opening section became the most significant movement of the suite, the whole work was named after it: overture, after the French “ouverture” or orchestral suite. In Bach’s C major Ouverture, the opening section is followed by a series of six dramaturgically effective and contrasting dances and pairs of dances of French and Italian origin.

On 30 November 1778, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote to the Leipzig publisher Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf, “A year ago I wrote four large orchestral symphonies with 12 obligato parts. They are the best of their kind that I have made.” This is also demonstrated in his choice of dedicatee: the highly musical, viola da gamba and cello playing Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the later King Friedrich Wilhelm II. “They are,” wrote Bach in his dedication, “pieces of varying content, and I would not dare do so, were I unfamiliar with the fundamental knowledge of our musical arts and the practical abilities that are associated with it, which your Royal Highness possesses more than the gods of this world, and who takes pleasure in more than one kind of music, May this royal enjoyment extend to these pieces!” And indeed it did, as the Crown Prince assured him in his response to the dedication: “They all betray the master who created them, and I look forward with anticipation to having them performed.”

By around 1775, Joseph Haydn had already composed about sixty symphonies of four movements, including at least one movement employing the sonata form. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on the other hand, adhered to the three movement form which was favoured in Berlin with the sequence fast – slow – fast, and a sonata form is rarely to be found. More than anyone else, he was a child of the empfindsames Zeitalter (the age of sentimentalism) and of the musical Sturm und Drang movement. Bach had already stated his artistic and aesthetic credo in 1753 in his treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments: “A musician cannot stir the heart of others unless he is moved himself; thus it is necessary for him to be able to employ all the emotions which he wishes to arouse in his listeners No sooner does he satisfy one emotion than he arouses another, consequently the emotions constantly change.”

In his orchestral symphonies, Bach liberated himself consistently from all constraints of form and compositional technique. “I examine my own being, and find there a world!” says Goethe’s Werther. The Orchestral Symphony in F major No. 3 is also based on this sense of “I-ness”. Bach enjoys playing with the listeners’ expectations, astounding them with stark contrasts and with an unbridled sentimental language, wilfully holding back the melodic flow only to allow it to continue after a pause in a wholly surprising manner. He shows the way ahead particularly with his orchestration. Woodwind instruments had never been heard like that before! Not only as solo instruments, but also in combination with the orchestra, charming effects and refined combinations of musical colours show off their brilliance.

Clear influences of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach can be heard in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. In both composers’ desire to be unique, they are remarkably similar. The two “original geniuses” had perfect command of the musical language of their time: the galant and the sensitive, the erudite and the free-thinking. It is the “merging and intensification” of this stylistic approach “into a language of the future that marks out their genius,” noted the musicologist Peter Rummenhöller. Whereby a new “heroic” tone was added to this by Beethoven. After all, he was then still a passionate supporter of the French revolution and of Napoleon Bonaparte who at this point had yet to be made emperor.

Beethoven had long since made his mark as a successful piano virtuoso and conductor in Vienna when, directly after the completion of his First Symphony op. 21, he began sketching his Symphony No. 2 in D major op. 36. In addition, the publication of his compositions demonstrates that he was embarking on a new path as a composer who was to be taken seriously. And yet a dark shadow was cast over his life. “For almost two years,” he wrote to his childhood friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler on 29 June 1801, “I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.” A devastating testimony to this desperate situation is the Heiligenstädter Testament which Beethoven wrote in the autumn of 1802. By this point, the Second Symphony was largely completed.

Even if the Second Symphony does not reflect the reality of his life at that time, Beethoven creates a sense of drama. This begins right from the slow introduction to the first movement with the descending D minor triad with its fortissimo dotted rhythm (bar 23) which Armin Raab describes as a signal of horror. After this, in spite of the tempo indication “Allegro con brio”, the main section can no longer produce a sense of carefree merriment. The evenly flowing Larghetto is followed by a capricious Scherzo. Just like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Beethoven thwarts his listeners’ expectations. For example, he allows a peaceful piano in the woodwind to be abruptly followed by a thundering forte from the strings. Just how much everything that comes before is heading for the final movement, a combination of sonata and sonata forms, is shown in the finale. Contemporaries thought there was “something very bizarre” about it (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 1812). The brusque main theme does not seem quite to suit a light-hearted finale. But then, after a sudden pause, the view opens out onto a new, peaceful world. With powerful tutti chords, it anchors itself firmly to the ground.

Ingeborg Allihn

Translation: Innes Wilson

Giovanni Antonini studied in his home town of Milan, as well as at the Centre de Musique Ancienne in Geneva. A founding member of the Baroque ensemble Il Giardino Armonico, he has been their music director since 1989 and has performed with them in many of the world’s major music venues both as conductor and as recorder and baroque flute soloist. In addition to the baroque and early classical concert repertoire, Giovanni Antonini has also conducted a large number of operas and oratorios by Monteverdi, Fux, Handel, Pergolesi, Cimarosa and Mozart. To date, he has made guest appearances – often on a regular basis – as conductor of many renowned symphony and chamber orchestras such as Camerata Academica Salzburg, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He is closely associated with the Basel Chamber Orchestra and is currently recording a cycle of Beethoven symphonies with them. Giovanni Antonini has worked together with Cecilia Bartoli, Christophe Coin, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Viktoria Mullova and the RIAS Kammerchor. At his last guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2005, he conducted works by Handel, Mozart, Kraus und Sammartini; in January 2009 he performed works by Handel and Haydn with students of the Orchestra Academy.

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