Yo-Yo Ma plays Shostakovich
15 Jan 2011
Cold Heat (première) (17 min.)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in G major, op. 126 (43 min.)
Yo-Yo Ma Cello
Symphony No. 5, op. 50 (43 min.)
Anders Hillborg on his composition “Cold Heat” (9 min.)
David Zinman and Yo-Yo Ma on melancholy, life and death in Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto (18 min.)
The recording of Yo-Yo Ma’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1979 is still available today. Together with Herbert von Karajan, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mark Zeltser, he then performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – a young Chinese American musician who was so unknown at the time that the recording company even spelled his name incorrectly on the cover (they forgot the hyphen). Things have changed a lot in the meantime. Ma is not only one of the great cellists of our time, but is also one of the most important figures there is on the American cultural scene. After an interval of almost 15 years, he returned to the Philharmonie for this concert in January 2011: a feast for all cello fans.
The main work for Yo-Yo Ma’s guest appearance was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto. It is an elegiac, but never monotone work from the composer’s late period which here, with concise and concentrated means, creates a maximum of expressive intensity. The concert also included two compositions from the North, beginning with the premiere of a work by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg who enjoys employing the widest possible range of styles in his music (and also happily writes for pop musicians and rappers). The concert closed with Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony – a fascinating blend of Scandinavian flavour and a powerful, pioneering musical character.
The Versatile Symphony Orchestra
Compositions by Hillborg, Shostakovich and Nielsen
Scandinavia has earned a special niche in the world of contemporary music. If you look at a list of the composers regularly commissioned to write new works for major symphony orchestras, you’ll come across a remarkably large number of Scandinavian names. Indeed one could say that a “Nordic trend” has been developing in contemporary music, one whose lusciously sensual sounds give the lie to all those generalisations about the inaccessibility or incomprehensibility of the music of recent decades. Among the most prominent exponents of this movement is Anders Hillborg. Cold Heat, his first work for the Berlin Philharmonic, represents a premiere in another respect as well: it marks the first time in its history that the orchestra has awarded a commission to a composer from Sweden.
Hillborg’s music also enjoys growing popularity because for many listeners it triggers powerful images and associations. Its expressive directness ensures that one is not overwhelmed on first hearing by the profusion of events, but rather is carried along by the work. In his new orchestral piece this is apparent right at the opening in the “division of labour” between strings and wind. The strings sustain long ribbons of sound, while the wind play very fast and dynamic little figures. This reduction of musical structure has contributed to Hillborg’s frequently being labelled a post-minimalist.
When undertaking a new work, Hillborg typically starts with an idea from an earlier composition, which he then transforms and further develops. For Cold Heat he takes up a passage from Exquisite Corpse, composed in 2002 for the Stockholm Philharmonic. It informs the new work’s opening. David Zinman, to whom Cold Heat is dedicated, asked Hillborg for a piece with a strong rhythmic flow and pulse, and the composer was only too happy to oblige. We hear this most conspicuously when the percussion thunder away for 43 bars in the midst of the proceedings, framed by strings and woodwind.
“A peculiar anxiousness seizes us every time a young man appears with a cello and, after securing it between his legs, settles into a chair”, scoffed the renowned 19th-century Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, voicing a prevailing general antipathy to the instrument. The change in attitude towards the cello around the turn of the 20th century and over the next two decades was largely the achievement of Pablo Casals, who not only introduced Bach’s Cello Suites to the concert hall but also set new technical standards for the instrument. In the course of the century the cello enjoyed an unexpected solo career, which reached its peak in the 1960s and 70s.
Much of this flowering can be attributed to Mstislav Rostropovich, whose extraordinary abilities and love of discovery inspired composers like Serge Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Luciano Berio. Rostropovich gave the premieres of more than 100 works, and the two cello concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich were among those created for him. Shostakovich, as the composer himself once confessed, actually wrote the Cello Concerto No. 2 in G minor op. 126 for himself as a 60th-birthday present, and on that date, 25 September 1966, it was premiered by Rostropovich at a gala concert in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
The concerto dates from the beginning of Shostakovich’s late creative period and embodies many of its characteristics. The tone of the slow first movement, a Largo, is weighty, dark and despairing, yet at the same time elegiac and intimate. By way of contrast, the following Scherzo appears rhythmically that much more accentuated and wild: out of a sharply pointed melody, “Buy my bubliks” (bread rolls resembling large bagels), commonly sung earlier by street vendors in Odessa, Shostakovich develops one of his typical sardonic folk dances. In the recapitulation, this musical objet trouvé is transformed into a waltz, while the rhythmic organisation is torpedoed by a bassoon trio.
At the climax of the movement, a baleful fanfare of two horns over a drum-roll leads without break to the finale, ushering in a cello cadenza. Accompanied only by a tambourine, the soloist recapitulates the entire material of the concerto before the piece concludes with a striking coda. Like a long, plaintive farewell, the opening theme returns and then a “clockwork” mechanism starts up in the percussion. When it finally stops, all that remains is the gradual dying away of a low sustained note in the solo part. This ending has naturally provoked much speculation. Given the period in which it was composed and the personal character of Shostakovich’s “birthday present” to himself, it does not seem far-fetched to hear the coda as a musical metaphor for the passing of time and the extinction of individual life.
As in the case of Hillborg today, the recognition of Carl Nielsen’s music outside his own homeland of Denmark at the beginning of the 20th century was of great significance to the composer. During the 1920s he had already gained a degree of prominence in central Europe that on 1 December 1922 – the year of its Danish premiere – he was invited to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the German premiere of his Fifth Symphony op. 50. Another high point of his career – Nielsen himself described it as one of the greatest experiences of his life – came four years later: a concert in Paris devoted entirely to his works and attended by Maurice Ravel and Arthur Honegger.
Although Nielsen’s creative output ranged widely in many different genres, his reputation is based largely on the six symphonies: along with Sibelius and Mahler, he ranks among the most important symphonists of the early 20th century. A special strength of Nielsen’s symphonies lies in their seeming to deal in musical terms with the great questions of humanity in a historical context. Although Nielsen did not give the Fifth Symphony a title – as he did all his others except the first – he described it programmatically in a conversation with one of his pupils: “It’s something very primitive I wanted to express: the division of dark and light, the battle between evil and good. A title like ‘Dreams and Deeds’ could maybe sum up the inner picture I had in front of my eyes when composing.”
The struggle between good and evil expresses itself in musical events which are often brutal, with starkly contrasting themes clashing violently in a quest for dominance. The work has also been labelled a “war symphony”, centred on survival within and by means of the struggle. In its two movements, Nielsen contrasts a “vegetative” – idle and thoughtless – nature with a thoroughly active one. The first (Tempo giusto) begins with “good” nature motifs, then the side drum attempts to derail the musical progress at any price. In the second section (Adagio non troppo), a collage recalling Charles Ives is evidence of Nielsen’s musical modernity: layers of tonal material superimposed to produce a dissonant result. Meanwhile, the drum, improvising in complete independence from the orchestra, once again asserts its evil intent, and a perceived catastrophe grows out of the Romantic expressiveness before the solo clarinet concludes the movement with a poignant cadenza.
Translation: Richard Evidon
Yo-Yo Ma, born in Paris to Chinese parents, received his first cello lessons at the age of four from his father. The family emigrated to New York shortly afterwards where Leonard Rose became Yo-Yo Ma’s principal teacher at the Juilliard School. In 1976 he completed his education, graduating from Harvard University. Both as a soloist with major orchestras all over the world and as a committed chamber musician, he has worked with artists such as Emanuel Ax, Christoph Eschenbach, Ton Koopman, Bobby McFerrin and Mark Morris. In 1998 Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project, whose aim it is to explore the cultural, artistic and educational traditions of this once important trade route, and promote the intercultural exchange of ideas. He is also involved in a variety of educational projects and holds masterclasses all over the world. As CultureConnect Ambassador of the United States Department of State in 2002, he taught students in countries such as Lithuania, Korea, Azerbaijan and Lebanon; he also performed with musicians from the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. In 2006, Secretary General Kofi Annan named him a UN Messenger of Peace. This multi award-winning artist – e.g. the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the National Medal of Arts of the USA (2001) and the Dan David Prize (2006) – has been a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions; most recently in 1995 for a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto together with Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim. Yo-Yo Ma plays a cello made by Domenico Montagnana (Venice 1733) and the so-called Davidoff cello by Antonio Stradivari from 1712.
David Zinman was studying conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center when he was discovered by Pierre Monteux who supported his musical development and helped him secure his first conducting engagements. Since making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1967, he has conducted the major orchestras in Europe and the USA as well as in Israel and Japan. Following various appointments as principal conductor in the Netherlands and the USA during the 1960s and 70s, David Zinman took over the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1985. He now holds the title of “conductor emeritus” with this ensemble, with which he put particular emphasis on the performance of contemporary music and historical performance practices. Since 1995, he has been principal conductor and music director of the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich; in 1998 he took over the musical direction of the Aspen Music Festival. His awards include the title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” from the French Ministry of Culture (2000), the Art Prize of the City of Zurich (2002) and the Theodore Thomas Award from the Conductors Guild (2006). For his work with the Tonhalle-Orchestra, he received the “Artist of the Year 2008” award in the classical category at MIDEM, the music industry trade fair, held in Cannes. David Zinman has been a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker on more than one occasion since his debut in 1985; most recently in October 2008 with works by Bartók and Elgar.
Yo-Yo Ma appears by kind permission of Sony Classical.