Neeme Järvi conducts Strauss’s “Don Juan” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14

11 Dec 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Neeme Järvi

Anatoli Kotcherga, Olga Mykytenko

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 14 in G minor, op. 135 (53 min.)

    Anatoli Kotcherga Bass, Olga Mykytenko Soprano

  • Richard Strauss
    Don Juan, op. 20 (22 min.)

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Francesca da Rimini, op. 32 (29 min.)

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    The Nutcracker, op. 71: Waltz of the Flowers (9 min.)

  • free

    Neeme Järvi in conversation with Stanley Dodds (17 min.)

The concert consists of a set of intense, richly coloured works which explore the relationship between music and literature from different perspectives. In his Symphony No. 14 for example, the already seriously ill Shostakovich set eleven poems, all of which revolve around the subject of death in various ways. No less unusual are the musical forces he employs, with Shostakovich foregoing wind instruments completely and, through the combination of strings, vocal soloists and percussion alone, developing a unique sound which surprises again and again.

In contrast, the programme of this concert with Neeme Järvi also includes Richard Strauss’s Don Juan – a contrast not only because of its irrepressible hero, but also because of the way the young composer so confidently displays his mastery of the full orchestra. Like Don Juan, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini is also based on literature without the narrative being set directly. In Francesca da Rimini, the starting point is Dante’s Divine Comedy – although there is also another clear influence to be heard, namely Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, which Tchaikovsky had heard in Bayreuth shortly before composing his own work.

New Ideas, New Forms

Symphonic works by Shostakovich, Strauss and Tchaikovsky

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies. Not one of them is like any of the others. Each has its own unmistakable profile, a quality that links the composer to the tradition of Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler. The issue – put to rest long before the composer’s death – of whether to label the basis of his music “absolute” or programmatic was largely ignored by Shostakovich himself. Composition was for him a mode of expression on a par with speech. In his works he subtly explored its manifold communicative possibilities, by no means always unambiguous. Whether or not symphonic compositions should be given programmatic titles or, by means of a sung text, extra-musical points of reference was something that hardly concerned Shostakovich – he was too busy reinventing himself and the symphony itself with each new contribution to the genre.

One of Shostakovich’s most astonishing creations is his Symphony No. 14 op. 135. Written in 1969, largely during a hospital stay, the work is divided into eleven short movements, of which several are so closely connected that a larger formal structure comprising five sections (movements 1, 2 – 4, 5 – 7, 8/9 and 10/11) becomes perceptible. The individual movements are based on poems by Federico García Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rainer Maria Rilke and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, all in Russian translation and all revolving, in the composer’s words, around “the eternal themes of love, life and death”.

Shostakovich clothes the formal structure of his Fourteenth Symphony – which resembles a song cycle with soprano and bass soloists – in spare yet highly varied sonorities. The work’s imaginative spectrum opens with “De profundis”, a “tragic monologue” (Krzysztof Meyer) echoing the medieval sequence Dies irae. It is followed by bizarre visions of the “Dance of Death” that include the Lorca setting “Malagueña” and “On the Alert” – piece driven by an almost obsessive xylophone melody – as well as brief quasi-operatic moments, surrealistic points of repose and the arioso lament “O Delvig, Delvig!” on a text by Küchelbecker. The two solo voices sing in alternation before coming together in the epilogue (“Conclusion”), which ends with the “obstinate repetition of a dissonant chord in increasingly rapid succession” (Meyer).

The fact that Shostakovich produced his Fourteenth Symphony at a time when he was seriously ill should not lead to the conclusion that the musical confrontation with death in this work is necessarily tied to the composer’s own life experiences. Even a cursory look at the texts he set will show that Shostakovich was not writing about himself. Moreover, his comments about the work indicate a conception that transcends biographical considerations. “It’s stupid to protest against death”, he is quoted as having said to Solomon Volkov. “It’s bad when people die before their time from disease or poverty, but it’s worse when a man is killed by another man.”

Speculation over the biographical basis of his tone-poem Death and Transfiguration, which had its world premiere in 1890, was unequivocably dismissed by the young Richard Strauss: “Death and Transfiguration is a pure product of the imagination – it is not based on experience. I only became ill two years later.” What still confounds Strauss experts, however, is less his often disarmingly humorous reluctance to offer clues to interpreting his works as the thematic range of his symphonic œuvre. Not infrequently in the Strauss literature one senses an undertone of embarrassed disappointment at finding that the same composer who attempted, with his Also sprach Zarathustra, to translate the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche into music also undertook, in the Symphonia domestica, the musical description of everyday domestic life, with its highs and lows.

Individual programmes can provide information about the varied themes of Strauss’s symphonic poems, though for listeners they are really only of interest when attempting to trace dramatic events or dynamic processes in the music. Even that isn’t practicable in a work like Don Juan, his tone poem based on a text by Nikolaus Lenau, which had its premiere in 1889. The three excerpts from Lenau’s poem that are printed in the score depict no external sequence of the Spanish libertine’s adventures or conquests; instead Strauss amalgamates them musically into his subjective internal assessment of the hero: from the tone poem’s vigorous opening (Lenau: “the fiery pulse of youth”) to moments of “surfeit and exhaustion of lust” and the work’s enigmatic ending, which seems to be a musical counterpart of Lenau’s image of the “cold, dark hearth in which all fuel has been consumed” as a symbol of Don Juan’s flagging libido. Whether or not Strauss – as Freudian musical scholars suggest – was actually attempting to explain Don Juan’s sexual energy as the character’s life force is not relevant to the music’s programme. It is only one of many possible interpretations.

The symphonic œuvre of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is riven with contradictions comparable to that of Strauss. Nonetheless, his production of a series of symphonic poems along with six symphonies was not debated with the same vehemence as was the co-existence of diverse orchestral genres in the German composer’s output. One explanation for this may be that in Russia there was never an attempt to play off “absolute” and “programme” music against each other. Tchaikovsky was at home in both, as is clear from his orchestral fantasy Francesca da Rimini, based on an episode from Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Composed in the autumn of 1876 and premiered in Moscow the following year, the work relates through musical means the historically based tragic love affair of a north Italian noblewoman and her brother-in-law. Francesca and Paolo are surprised in a tryst and murdered by her jealous husband, Paolo’s brother. According to Dante, they are condemned for their adultery to eternal suffering in hell, where they are haunted by memories of their brief happiness together. Tchaikovsky’s composition closely follows the Dantean source, in which a fictitious visit by the poet to the second circle of hell frames the narrative of the tragic love affair. The first of the work’s three sections (Andante lugubre – Più mosso. Moderato – Tempo primo) illustrates the torments of eternal damnation suffered by Francesca and Paolo. A yearning middle section (Andante cantabile non troppo) is devoted to the couple’s former happiness in love, before a shortened recapitulation of the opening music concludes the work in darkly dramatic tones.

Thus in Tchaikovsky’s composition, chronological depiction of the story’s events or its dramatic moments, such as the murder of the lovers, defers to his compositional response to the narrative structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This has not resulted in fundamentally new musical forms, but in a composition that does ideal justice to both Tchaikovsky’s inventive and expressive powers, without needing to compete with the composer’s symphonies.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Neeme Järvi is chief conductor of the Hague Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra as well as guest chief conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Born in Tallinn in Estonia, Neeme Järvi first studied at the music academy in his home town, then at the conservatoire in Leningrad with Nikolai Rabinovich and Yevgeny Mravinsky. In 1963, he became principal conductor and music director of the Estonian Radio Symphony Orchestra; in the same year, he founded the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Between 1966 and 1969 Neeme Järvi was principal conductor of the Estonian National Opera. This was followed by engagements with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In 1980, the conductor and his family emigrated to the USA, where he then worked with all the major orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra). From 1982 to 2004, he led the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, also the Royal Scottish National Orchestra between 1984 and 1990, as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 2005; with these three orchestras he now holds the honorary titles of principal conductor emeritus, conductor laureate and music director emeritus respectively. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has also named him conductor laureate and music director. He has received many awards for his artistic achievements both in his homeland and abroad and is much in demand as a guest conductor with the world’s top orchestras. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1990 with works by Pärt, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky; his most recent appearance with the orchestra was in March of this year in a concert of works by Johannes Brahms, Carl Maria von Weber and Edvard Grieg.

Anatoli Kotscherga, born in Ukraine, studied singing at the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in his home town of Kiev. His international breakthrough was with the role of Shaklovity in Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina at the Wiener Staatsoper, conducted by Claudio Abbado. In both Vienna and later at la Scala in Milan, Anatoli Kotscherga sang the major bass roles, in particular Boris (Boris Godunov), Prince Gremin (Eugene Onegin) and the Grand Inquisitor (Don Carlo), as well as the bass roles in Samson and Dalila and Rigoletto. His appearances at major opera houses, his work with renowned conductors and orchestras, not to forget his lieder recitals, have taken him to Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, San Francisco, Seville, Toulouse, and the festivals in Bregenz and Salzburg. Anatoli Kotscherga has also performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions, most recently in April 2002 when in three concerts conducted by Claudio Abbado, he sang the bass role in Dmitri Shostakovitch’s incidental music for King Lear.

Olga Mykytenko began her singing career as a member of the National Opera House of Ukraine in Kiev, where she made her debut in 1995. Two concerts in Kiev played an important role in starting her international career: In these concerts she sang duets with Renato Bruson and José Carreras, which led to appearances in major opera houses all over Europe, including the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Theater an der Wien, Violetta (La Traviata) at the Bavarian State Opera and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg as well as Mimi (La Boheme) in the Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival. In 2007, Olga Mykytenko made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the role of Lauretta (Gianni Schicchi), conducted by James Levine. Last season she could be heard as Nedda in I Pagliacci at the Teatro Municipal Santiago di Chile, as Liu in Turandot and Leila in The Pearl Fishers at the Aalto-Musiktheater in Essen, and also as Violetta in Cologne. The soprano has won many international competitions including the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens in 1997 and the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo in 2003. This will be the first time Olga Mykytenko has performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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