Herbert Blomstedt conducts Bruckner and Hindemith

06 Mar 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

  • Paul Hindemith
    Nobilissima visione, orchestral suite (25 min.)

  • Anton Bruckner
    Mass No. 3 in F minor (66 min.)

    Juliane Banse Soprano, Claudia Mahnke Mezzo-Soprano, Dominik Wortig Tenor, Markus Butter Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Herbert Blomstedt on Hindemith’s “Nobilissima visione” and Bruckner’s Mass in F minor (15 min.)

Herbert Blomstedt has given many memorable performances of Bruckner’s symphonies together with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In this recording, Blomstedt performs Bruckner’s Mass in F minor: a work which irritated conservative church circles at the time of its premiere due to its orchestral power, but which provided the composer with a rare popular success.

The mass is still one of the most popular late 19th century choral works today. Its instrumentation orientates itself towards Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, its chromatic harmonies towards the works of Richard Wagner. The Benedictus is particularly moving. This visionary inspiration in A-flat major was composed on Christmas Day 1867, and according to the composer himself, it was only by working on it that he recovered following a nervous breakdown.

As in Bruckner’s Mass, a symphony orchestra is also employed in Paul Hindemith’s Nobilissima visione (“Most noble vision”) to convey a religious theme. This is however no liturgical work, but a ballet, telling the story of Saint Francis of Assisi. “The Philharmoniker play like a dream!”, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote about this performance. “They let their wings fully unfurl in Hindemith’s balletic visions. This magical music dreams itself far away from reality.” The Berliner Philharmoniker’s first performance of this suite, which the composer himself had created from the ballet music, was in 1949 with Hindemith conducting.

In Search of Peace of Mind

Visions of faith from Paul Hindemith and Anton Bruckner

German musical life after 1933 was shaped by the tastes of the new rulers, with Hitler playing the decisive role. Anton Bruckner stood especially high in favour because the composer came from the Führer’s homeland, while the fact that Paul Hindemith was hardly heard in concert any more, in spite of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s advocacy, could be analogously explained by Hitler’s personal aversions. Once Hindemith recognized the futility of all efforts on his behalf, he relinquished his position at the Berlin music academy in March 1937 and went on extended journeys abroad before leaving Germany for good in August 1938.

One of the composer’s destinations during that time of transition was the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in May 1937. In Florence he was to meet the Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who had asked him the previous year for a composition for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. A suitable subject was still lacking, however, until Hindemith came across one on a visit to the great Florence church of Santa Croce, which is home to Giotto’s frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He invited Massine to have a look. “I too was struck by their spiritual beauty,” the choreographer recalled, “and could well understand why they had so profoundly moved Hindemith.” But Massine was only able to warm to the idea of making a ballet based on them after reading a French book about St. Francis, and it was there that he found the Latin title Nobilissima Visione – “most noble vision”.

When the two artists met for a working week in September at Positano on the Amalfi coast, Hindemith already had a detailed scenario in hand. During this stay he conceived his first musical ideas for the score. On 4 February 1938, Nobilissima Visione was finished. After taking part in the dance rehearsals in May in Monte Carlo, Hindemith took over the musical direction and conducted the ballet’s premiere on 21 July in London. Two months later in Venice, shortly after presenting the first American performance in New York, he extracted and conducted the three-movement suite heard in this concert.

In the first movement, the bass strides “very slowly” and solemnly several steps downward while the melody played by clarinets and violins wanders through various tonal centres. The “moderately fast” rondo begins with a unison on strings; then a broad melody for solo flute leads to a fugato taken up by strings and woodwind. Piccolo, triangle and tenor drum lend a typical bright timbre to the quick march which in the ballet accompanies a troop of soldiers Francis has joined. The music turns coarse and noisy when the mercenaries waylay a traveller. Appalled by this brutality, Francis has a vision of three female figures representing the virtues of chastity, obedience and poverty. Brooding strings are crowned here by the melody of the flute and then the oboe. In the final movement, a six-bar passacaglia theme with its characteristic leaps of a fourth and tied notes is introduced by the brass. It unfolds twice from unison to splendid polyphony, representing St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun”. Like Bach and Bruckner before him and Messiaen after him, Hindemith in this work employs his compositional craft in praise of God.

The great Mass No. 3 in F minor by Anton Bruckner was also composed during a transitional period. For years Bruckner had become increasingly uncomfortable in provincial Linz and was considering the possibility of a post in the far more cosmopolitan Austrian capital. He was also anxious to relinquish his position as Linz Cathedral organist. As early as 1861, he complained to his friend Rudolf Weinwurm about the “backwater characters” in Linz. He was hoping for support in his move to Vienna, not only from Weinwurm, who was the university’s music director, but also from the court Kapellmeister Johann Herbeck. In February 1867, Herbeck performed Bruckner’s Mass in D minor to great success in the Hofburg chapel. This led to a commission from the court administration for a new mass.

It was, unfortunately, at this time – spring 1867, when he was at last within reach of his goal – that Bruckner suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork, depression and his unhappy private life; the crisis occurred in the wake of a number of unsuccessful marriage proposals. On 8 May the composer was confined to the cold-water sanatorium at Bad Kreuzen for treatment. The therapy helped: by August Bruckner already felt stable enough to be discharged. But for true healing he needed music – he needed to compose again. On 14 September he resumed work on the F minor Mass, which he had begun (strictly against doctors’ orders) at Bad Kreuzen. By 19 October he had completed the Kyrie, by 27 November the Credo. His new lease of life was also apparent in his writing to the Vienna Hofkapelle in October concerning the organist position. On Christmas Day, “after an hour of ardent devotion”, he suddenly found inspiration for the Benedictus and, in its wake, a full recuperation.

In August 1868, Bruckner finished the Sanctus and Agnus, and by September his new mass was ready for performance. It was at that moment that he received the appointment, signed by Herbeck, as Vienna court organist as well as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the conservatory of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Yet the mass still awaited its premiere – the musicians rejected the work as being too difficult. Even Herbeck told the composer, following a disastrous rehearsal in January 1869: “You know that Wagner made a mistake with his Tristan and I with my Symphony in B flat. Couldn’t you just admit that you also made a mistake with this mass?” But Bruckner remained convinced of its artistic worth and sought to organize a performance at his own expense. It took place on 16 June 1872 in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche under his direction and was a remarkable success.

Bruckner’s F minor Mass, which the composer revised four times after the premiere (1876, 1877, 1881 and 1890), has long since taken its rightful place among the most popular choral works of the Romantic period. The orientation of its scoring is to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, of its harmony to the works of Richard Wagner. Bruckner’s employment of sonata-form principles in the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo as well as his treatment of its motivic and thematic material place this mass near the genre of the symphony. The germinal motif heard at the opening – a meekly descending fourth – returns at nodal points and, now ascending, concludes the work in the “Dona nobis pacem”. Theatrical moments such as the inserted cries of “Credo” and the arresting contrast between the sighing melody of “passus et sepultus est” and the wind fanfares underlining “Et resurrexit” were utterly innovative. The most intimate and probably most personal section, however, is the Benedictus, that visionary inspiration in warm A flat major that, according to his own claims, helped Bruckner on Christmas Day 1867 to achieve a complete recovery. His prayer for inner and outer peace was answered.

Albrecht Dümling

Translation: Richard Evidon

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. At the beginning of October 2010, for the first time, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is hosting an international masterclass for young professional choir conductors. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2011 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in works by Hugo Wolf, Brahms and Mahler.

Juliane Banse initially took violin and ballet classes before turning to singing at the age of fifteen, studying with, among others, Brigitte Fassbaender. At the age of twenty, she made her debut as Pamina at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In further engagements, which included appearances in Brussels, Vienna and Glyndebourne, she sang lyric soprano roles in particular, such as Susanna, Sophie, Marzelline and Zdenka. Her interpretation of the title role of Heinz Holliger’s opera Schneewittchen played no small part in its success at its premiere in Zurich in 1998. In the past few years she has extended her repertoire to now include roles such as the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (debut at the Salzburg Festival), Tatyana (Eugene Onegin), the title role in Strauss’ opera Arabella, and Agathe (Der Freischütz). The long list of her engagements all over the world as an oratorio, concert and also lieder singer demonstrates the high regard in which she is held. Juliane Banse has performed on many occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker since her debut with the orchestra in 1995: At the end of April 2003, for example, she sang the role of Marzelline in a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle; in September 2004 she gave a lieder recital at the invitation of the Foundation, accompanied by András Schiff.

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. After early lessons at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in early June 2010, when he conducted Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. He was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003.

Christian Elsner received his initial vocal training in the Freiburger Domchor. Afterwards, he studied with Martin Gründler in Frankfurt. Further studies took him to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Neil Semer. A winner of many international competitions, Christian Elsner has appeared in opera houses in Heidelberg, Oslo, Munich, Paris and at the Salzburg Festival, to name but a few. His debut as Siegmund in Wagner's Walküre at the Semperoper in Dresden in 2010 has now established him as a Wagnerian tenor. Christian Elsner is highly regarded both as an interpeter of lieder and as a performer on the concert stage. As a soloist with many leading orchestras all over the world, he has worked with conductors such as Carlo Maria Giulini, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Neville Marriner. Christian Elsner sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in April 2004. He gives lieder recitals with his regular accompanist Burkhard Kehring in many European cities. He has also written several children’s books, most recently Lennie und der Ring des Nibelungen, and teaches at the University of Music in Würzburg.

Claudia Mahnke studied at the Dresden University of Music with Heidi Petzold. In 1994 she won first prize at the German National Singing Competition in Berlin. Following initial engagements in Chemnitz and, from 1996 to 2006, at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, she joined the ensemble at the Frankfurt Opera in the 2006/07 season. Guest appearances have taken her to San Francisco Opera, the Opéra National de Lyon, the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Bavarian State Opera, as well as the Ruhrtriennale and the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. Her repertoire covers works ranging from Mozart and Strauss to Zemlinsky. Her major roles have included Charlotte (Werther), Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) as well as the title role in The Rape of Lucretia and in Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus. As a concert singer, she has worked together with Helmuth Rilling, Manfred Honeck and Lothar Zagrosek. These concerts will be Claudia Mahnke’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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