A Richard Strauss evening with Christian Thielemann, Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson

07 May 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson

  • Richard Strauss
    Festmusik der Stadt Wien, o. op. AV 133 (13 min.)

  • Richard Strauss
    Orchestral songs: Traum durch die Dämmerung · Hymnus · Notturno · Gesang der Apollopriesterin · Pilgers Morgenlied · Winterliebe · Waldseligkeit (43 min.)

    Renée Fleming Soprano, Thomas Hampson Baritone

  • Richard Strauss
    Arabella: Prelude to Act 3 · Duet “Sie woll’n mich heiraten” · Duet “Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein” (20 min.)

    Renée Fleming Soprano, Thomas Hampson Baritone

  • Richard Strauss
    Festliches Präludium, op. 61 (16 min.)

  • free

    Christian Thielemann, Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson on Richard Strauss (20 min.)

  • free

    Thomas Hampson on classical music in digital media (38 min.)

Christian Thielemann and Richard Strauss: a long-standing close relationship if ever there was one. However, the conductor never follows blindly, but inquisitively investigates the dual nature of his music: “With Strauss, I try to balance two aspects which seem to be mutually exclusive: transparency and richness. I try to achieve a certain lightness and at the same time give the heavier sections their due. With all its pathos, and its tendency towards the bombastic – this music ultimately has an innocent simplicity.”

This combination of lightness and sophistication is revealed in the works chosen for this concert. For example, in the excerpts from Arabella: a stage work which combines the mellifluousness and charm of Viennese operetta with sophisticated orchestration and finely-drawn characterisation. Just how masterfully Strauss – who was married to a singer – knew what could be done with the human voice can also be heard in a selection of songs, one of which, the Gesang der Apollopriesterin Op. 33 No. 2, was given its premiere in a Berliner Philharmoniker concert in 1896, conducted by Strauss himself.

The soloists for this evening’s concert are two of the greatest American singers of our time. An early milestone in Renée Fleming’s career was the Berliner Philarmoniker’s New Year’s Eve concert in 1992, which was broadcast on television all over the world. Even then, as the Marschallin in excerpts from Rosenkavalier, the soprano demonstrated just what an outstanding interpreter of Strauss she was. Thomas Hampson is also just as much at home with the music of Strauss. Like Christian Thielemann, he appreciates the multifaceted nature of this repertoire – particularly the role of Mandryka in Arabella: “He has his dark moments, leavened with a lot of humor. His fate is complex – even when he smiles, his eyes are deep and dark.”

The two orchestral works of the evening – the Festliches Präludium and the Festmusik der Stadt Wien – are rarely performed nowadays. Strauss wrote the Festmusik by way of thanks for the prize in the Beethoven Competition in Vienna which he received from Baldur von Schirach in 1942. However, it only received its premiere in Vienna in May 1943 as part of celebrations for the “5th Day of the Greater German Reich”, an occasion for which it had not been composed. Similarily, the Festliches Präludium, which was composed in 1913 for the opening of the Wiener Konzerthaus, was also used by those in power at National Socialist events. This fate was shared by works by other composers, not only by Richard Strauss. With this performance, Christian Thielemann on the other hand, would like to focus attention once again on the musical qualities of the works: “And how wonderfully Strauss could write, even for – I don’t know – something I think he did not take very seriously. It was simply the joy of composing, the joy of making music.”

A Strauss for All Occasions

Occasional works have a tough time finding a place in the concert repertoire. There is a certain stigma attached to them because they were composed not for eternity but for only a particular moment: as a musical birthday greeting, a dedicatory fanfare or an expression of tribute or gratitude. If, in retrospect, the associated occasion should leave a questionable aftertaste, then an unprejudiced reception becomes even more problematic. Certain compositions produced by Richard Strauss between 1933 and 1945 fall into this category, including his Olympic Hymn for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Festmusik der Stadt Wien (Festival Music for the City of Vienna).

Baldur von Schirach, head of Hitler Youth and, from 1941, Reich-Governor of Vienna, re-established the city’s Beethoven Prize in 1942 and endowed it with the generous sum of 10,000 reichsmarks. Strauss was chosen as its first recipient, accepting this award on 16 December in the Vienna Rathaus. He promptly returned the favour by composing festive music for the city, which he premiered with the Vienna Trumpet Choir on 9 April 1943 at a celebration of five years of “Greater Germany” – a present on the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Austria. It would be going too far to presume that Strauss was trying to make a political statement with this work. Much more likely is that he was attracted by the scoring and performers – the Vienna Trumpet Choir brought together the city’s best brass players. Conceived for two antiphonal choirs of trumpets, trombones and tubas, the Festival Music, with its starkly contrasting thematic material, demands extreme virtuosity from the instrumentalists.

The Festliches Präludium (Festival Prelude) Op. 61, written for the inauguration of the Vienna Konzerthaus on 19 October 1913, is another specimen of these occasional works. This lavish musical panegyric in radiantly affirmative C major calls for some 150 musicians, including 96 strings, quadruple woodwind and brass, with eight horns, eight timpani, twelve offstage trumpets – as if attempting to turn into music the favourite word of the Gründerzeit (the period of economic development in Germany and Austria extending from the mid-19th century to the early 20th): simply colossal!

The art song would seem to represent the greatest possible antithesis to this type of monumentality, but the fin de siècle took pains to readjust the genre’s boundaries. It was Hector Berlioz who pointed the way: with his Nuits d’été he invented the orchestral song in the mid-19th century. Berlioz’s example would be followed by Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf and Hans Pfitzner as well as by Richard Strauss, creating a brief late Romantic heyday for the concert song.

Strauss began composing his Lieder in the traditional fashion: for voice and piano. His marriage to a singer proved a definite stimulus to his production of vocal music. By his own report, he seems to have found it easy to get the juices of his poetic imagination flowing and, quite spontaneously, to commit his songs to paper. The orchestration of Traum durch die Dämmerung, on a poem by the German writer Otto Julius Bierbaum, is not, however, Strauss’s own, but rather a later arrangement by the conductor Robert Heger.

Strauss’s first original composition for voice and orchestra, the group of songs Op. 33, dates from 1896-97. He called them Gesänge – a more artful and less folklike category of German song than Lieder – and indeed the basic conditions are different: the scale of the settings has grown; the rhetoric is no longer that of intimate dialogue, but more public; and the lyric character has given way to greater pathos. The themes and musical idiom are, nevertheless, unrecognizably Straussian. Gesang der Apollopriesterin, for example, displays his fondness for the world and philosophy of antiquity, which also informs a number of his stage works. The emphatic upsurges in Hymnus reveal a musical proximity to his operas, while Pilgers Morgenlied finds Strauss clearly moving in the direction of his tone-poem Ein Heldenleben, upon which he would soon be embarking.

With a quarter-hour’s playing time, Notturno – a dance of death to words by Richard Dehmel – enlarges the dimensions of the Lied to that of a complete scene. Musically, it is among the most advanced things Strauss ever composed. The sonorities are almost expressionist, the harmony already looks ahead to works like Salome and Elektra, but the texture is astonishingly transparent and allows the architecture of the vocal line to emerge with wonderful vividness. Strauss composed Winterliebe with piano accompaniment in October 1900; 18 years later he arranged it for orchestra.

During the years of empire, Strauss was still considered a model artist, but following World War I he faced losing his reputation as one of the leading figures in German musical life. He was hardly reaching a wide public with his Lieder, and his new music-theatrical works – Intermezzo and Die ägyptische Helena – achieved neither the acclaim nor the number of performances of his prewar operas. The suspicion dawned on Strauss that he had become regarded as an aging composer, who had long since passed his peak. Together with his ideally matched librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he pondered future options.

The stages of the day were dominated by operetta, and so Hofmannsthal was knocking at an open door in 1927 when he outlined to Strauss his first thoughts on a lyrical comedy entitled Arabella: “I hope to have found the scenario of a three-act comic opera, indeed almost an operetta, which in gaiety does not fall short of Fledermaus.” The mystical and the heroic, Hofmannsthal was convinced, “always gave the audience a bit of a fright”. On the other hand, if you show them “a hotel salon, a ballroom, an engagement opportunity, officers, carriages, purveyors and waiters, they know all the whys and wherefores.”

Arabella – even with its compositional sophistication – has become one of Strauss’s most popular operas. Offering attractive melodies, transparent, at times even chamber-musical sonorities, and a simpler harmonic idiom than earlier works, it seems especially well matched to the story’s setting: Vienna around 1860 – capital of the multi-national Habsburg Empire and thus resembling, in Strauss’s words, “nothing other than a conglomeration of opera and operetta”. This framework quite naturally allowed him to quote Croatian folk tunes, as he does, for example, in the duet between Arabella and Mandryka “Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein”.

This duet forms the work’s architectonic mid-point, but also an intimate centrepiece that creates a vision of the couple’s future connubial happiness. The most interesting orchestral piece in the Arabella score is probably the Prelude to Act III, in which the music knows more than at least one of the actors on stage: while Arabella’s admirer Matteo believes that he at last holds his beloved in his arms, musical motifs signal that she is “only” her sister Zdenka.

Hofmannsthal, who died in 1929, did not live to hear the premiere in Dresden on 1 July 1933, conducted by Clemens Krauss. Krauss was a late replacement for the opera’s dedicatee Fritz Busch, recently relieved of his post as Dresden’s Generalmusikdirektor by the Nazis, who nevertheless felt no compunction in ascribing the work’s success to their cultural policies – what did it matter any longer that the librettist was a Jew? Arabella, this wholly apolitical comedy, has remained a repertoire fixture of many opera houses. It transcends all times and ideologies.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Richard Evidon

Renée Fleming trained first at the Juilliard School in New York, then completed her studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam (NY) and the Eastman School of Music. Since making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1991, Renée Fleming has performed in the world’s greatest theatres, including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier in Paris, and at the Bayreuth, Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Pesaro festivals. In addition to Mozart roles such as Fiordiligi, Contessa di Almaviva, Donna Anna and Ilia, her repertoire includes Desdemona (Otello), Violetta (La traviata), Marguerite (Faust) and the Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier), as well as the title roles in Alcina, Rusalka and Rossini’s Armida. Renée Fleming has often performed in the premieres of new music theatre pieces such as in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1998). She also gives many lieder recitals and concert performances. The soprano has already won the coveted Grammy Award on three occasions. Further distinctions include honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music in London and an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School (both in 2003), the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the French government (2005) and the Swedish Polar Music Prize (2008). Renée Fleming made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of 1992, conducted by Claudio Abbado; her most recent appearance was at the Berlin Waldbühne on 27 June 2010 (conductor: Ion Marin).

Thomas Hampson, born in Elkhart (Washington), has received world-wide recognition in opera, operetta, musicals, on the concert platform and in lieder recitals thanks to his enormous technical and interpretive skills. The baritone, whose teachers include Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Martial Singher, has also made a name for himself in the areas of musicological research and vocal pedagogy. He is one of the greatest interpreters of German romantic lieder, particularly of Schumann, Mahler and Wolf, and with his project Song of America, and the Hampsong Foundation which he founded in 2003 to promote international and intercultural dialogue, he has become an ambassador for American song. The first Artist in Residence of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the 2009/10 season, Thomas Hampson performed with the orchestra and its conductor Alan Gilbert all over the USA and in Europe. In the same period, he gave recitals and held masterclasses together with the Library of Congress in Washington, which named him Special Advisor to Study and Performance of Music in America in 2008; he also participated in numerous educational events, exhibitions and radio broadcasts, and created the interactive research website www.songofamerica.net. This current season, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death, Thomas Hampson will perform the composer’s complete lieder in a series of concerts at the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg and as part of the Mahler cycle at the Musikverein in Vienna. The singer, who has been a recipient of the most prestigious recording industry prizes and awards from major institutions, made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in June 1988, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. His most recent guest appearance was at the end of 2002 in a series of concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with works by Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin.

Christian Thielemann, designated principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden from autumn 2012, has been general music director of the Munich Philharmonic since the start of the 2004/05 season, having previously held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from the autumn of 1997 to the summer of 2004. He studied at the Academy of Arts in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. Since then he has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he has concentrated increasingly on a relatively small number of opera houses, most notably the Vienna State Opera and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, while at the same time limiting his concert appearances to a select group of world-class orchestras. Since 2000 he has been particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertory are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods – above all the music of Wagner and Strauss – as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. In the summer of 2006 he conducted Tankred Dorst’s new production of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth. Christian Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently in December 2009, when he conducted works by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg.

Renée Fleming appears by kind permission of Decca Classics.

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