Claudio Abbado, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska

15 May 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado

Anna Prohaska, Maurizio Pollini

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” – “Ah conte, partite”, aria for soprano and orchestra, K. 418 (8 min.)

    Anna Prohaska Soprano

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Die Zauberflöte: “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden” (5 min.)

    Anna Prohaska Soprano

  • free

    Alban Berg
    Lulu Suite (22 min.)

    Anna Prohaska Soprano

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G major, K. 453 (34 min.)

    Maurizio Pollini Piano

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 10 (performing version by Deryck Cooke): Adagio (29 min.)

  • free

    Claudio Abbado, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska on old and new musical friendships (17 min.)

Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini covered much of their artistic careers together, giving many joint concerts, including the ones with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In this recording from 2011, they perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major together for the first time in Berlin. The same evening, Claudio Abbado conducted the Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony with his old orchestra for the first time.

The appeal of the G major concerto lies not least in the prominent role given to the woodwind. On an almost equal footing, they converse with the piano, awaking memories of ensemble scenes in Mozart’s operas. And just as in an opera, the gamut of emotions is run: “Within its friendly key”, the work is “full of secret smiles and secret sorrows,” fittingly wrote the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein. There is genuine theatrical drama in this concert with Mozart’s concert aria K 418, giving us the opportunity to meet Anna Prohaska, a young soprano from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and a rising star of the Berlin music scene.

The concert opens with Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu, which Berg put together to promote his opera, at a time when he saw the planned premiere threatened by the Nazi regime. The result is a fully-grown five-movement symphony resembling not least the symphonies of Mahler – a composer who Berg deeply admired and whose baton he once stole as a souvenir. Notably, the parallels between the last of the pieces, an adagio, and the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth are clear; both manifestations of the hopelessness of, and a farewell to life.


Compositions by Mozart, Mahler and Berg

Death “must be Viennese”, to quote the Austrian cabaret artist Georg Kreisler, and in his hometown even the greatest have heard the Grim Reaper rapping at their door prematurely – think of Egon Schiele or Franz Schubert. Not one of the composers featured in this evening’s concert lived to celebrate his 51st birthday. All three died in Vienna under circumstances that gave rise to legends: Wolfgang Amadeus murdered at the age of 35 by rival composer Antonio Salieri; Gustav Mahler felled at 50 by various strokes of fate; and Alban Berg, also only 50, the victim of his own wife, who thought she could treat his septicaemia herself. A city that even has its own god for toothache is fertile ground for such rumours.

The “last works” of these masters underline a conspicuous tendency in Viennese intellectual history to the non-completion of musical creations and are thus highly conducive to mythologizing. Not only did Mozart’s Requiem, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Berg’s Lulu remain fragments, the composers also dedicated themselves in these works to “last things” – obvious in Mozart’s case from the genre alone; in Mahler’s sketches suggested by, for example, the movement heading “Purgatorio”; and in Berg’s opera documented in the story of a fallen woman who meets with a particularly messy end. The perpetrator washes his hands on stage and complains that “these people don’t even have a towel”.

Thanks to Lulu’s X-rated plot, not everyone in Alban Berg’s circle was disappointed that he didn’t complete the opera, that the gruesome end meted out to his eponymous heroine was lost in the dark recesses of his estate. Berg could not have suspected that he would complete only 268 bars of the opera’s third and last act, but he certainly must have realized what problems would be faced by stagings in the future. The Schoenberg-school composer was more highly regarded in Germany than in Austria – especially in Berlin by the Philharmonic and Staatskapelle – but that meant he also fell victim even faster to the Nazis’ cultural barbarism. The sudden loss of royalties from Wozzeck left Berg in desperate financial straits, and so the five-movement suite he compiled and called Symphonic Pieces from the opera Lulu was intended as a means of survival as well as advertising for his still unfinished second opera. International interest in the work was considerable, but Berlin’s was narrow: the critical response to the premiere, which Erich Kleiber courageously undertook at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in November 1934 led to the conductor’s emigration only two months later.

Suites normally have the function of bringing the most important numbers of an opera, ballet or film score into the concert hall. In the rare case of Berg’s Lulu, part of the suite actually tells more of the story than the work it excerpts. The murder of Lulu and the grief of Countess Geschwitz who loves her at the end of Act III could only be reconstructed from these Symphonic Pieces. On the stage Berg’s opera illuminates a dizzying number of characters and situations with almost cinematic editing, but here the composer shines a single spotlight on the title figure and the music associated with her. The centrepiece is the confession Lied der Lulu (Lulu’s Song), framed by a tumultuous ostinato movement and sumptuous variations followed by a bitter final Adagio, in whose composed-out “death cry”, a twelve-note layering of fourths across four octaves, can be found parallels with the Adagio of Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Clorinda hasn’t got Lulu’s problems but isn’t much happier for all that. She is the woman around whom everything revolves in Il curioso indiscreto, a dramma giocoso by Pasquale Anfossi (1727–1797). Though one of the best-loved comic operas of the 18th century, for its performance at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1783, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart received the then not usual commission to compose three additional arias to be inserted in the work. One of them was the Aria for soprano and orchestra K. 418 “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio – Ah conte, partite”, which Mozart tailored to the vocal gifts of his sister-in-law Aloysia Lange. She must have possessed exceptional flexibility, because at the end of the aria Clorinda hurls her voice across octaves before finally – on the words “non parlate” – floating down in coloratura. It is the love – which must remain undeclared – of Clorinda for another man than her betrothed, to whom she would have remained faithful if only... But that’s another story.

The year after Il curioso indiscreto, Mozart bought a pet starling for 34 kreutzer. For three years the lovely bird delighted the composer, and then it died – oddly enough, just after Mozart’s father Leopold. The starling has gone down in history because it inspired Mozart to write a commemorative poem for its burial, and because the bird apparently could sing the first five bars from the finale of the Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. In this case, there is no reason to doubt the legend – why shouldn’t an extraordinary genius like Mozart also have had a brilliant pet bird? Moreover, this concerto almost demands to be chirped – Mozart decorates his melodies merrily with trills and appoggiaturas, and the light-footed finale that evokes Papageno could have come directly from a comic opera. An unusual feature is the writing for the solo instrument, which is not always virtuosic. This probably results less from the fact that Mozart wrote the concerto for his pupil Barbara Ployer than from more basic considerations: in his hands the genre of the concerto was undergoing a transformation: into a symphony in which the piano was first among equals.

If the key of G major is exceptional for Mozart the piano concerto composer, it seems unremarkable compared with the visionary floating quality of F sharp major, the key of Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. What a beginning. His Ninth Symphony, following a long struggle, ends with a sprawling Adagio that leaves us with a glimpse of distant worlds. The Adagio that begins his Tenth is already transported beyond time and space. Spacious and subdued, “but very warm” (Mahler’s indication), the violins introduce a lyrical theme that is varied and horizontally reflected. A second theme in F sharp minor seems to derive from a mournful dance punctuated by the mocking sound of successive trills, as though death and the devil were dancing along. An A flat minor chorale with organ-like scoring leads to one of the most discussed moments in all of Mahler’s works, a dissonance that erupts with apocalyptic violence and transforms the interval of a third – the epitome of musical beauty – into its opposite. Mahler piles thirds upon thirds until it is no longer beautiful – an overdose of the sense of well-being brings forth a hideous vision of horror.

When Mahler died in 1911, the publisher of his complete edition was able in good conscience to present only the Adagio first movement, which was fully orchestrated by Mahler. Schoenberg and Webern both refused to complete the rest of the work from the sketches. Not until a half century after Mahler’s death did the English musicologist Deryck Cooke consolidate the puzzling materials that Mahler left behind into an ambitious, five-movement “performing version”. Quite apart from specialist considerations, there is at least one argument against Cooke’s completion: that it takes something away from the aura of Mahler’s silencing by death that even a halfway successful performance of the Adagio on its own can movingly manifest.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Claudio Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1966. In October 1989 he was appointed the orchestra’s artistic director, and between then and 2002 he fashioned its artistic profile and shaped its concert programmes in many decisive ways, granting the music of the 20th century a status equal to that of the Classical and Romantic periods and helping to decide which areas of the repertory should receive particular attention each season. In 1994 he also assumed the artistic direction of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Prior to taking up his post in Berlin, Claudio Abbado had held a number of other important positions. From 1968 to 1986 he was director of music of La Scala in his native Milan, where he had made his conducting debut in 1960. Between 1986 and 1991 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera and from 1987 was also general music director of the city. In 1988 he established the Wien Modern Festival. He has always been keen to foster new talent, and it was this desire that led him to form the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra) and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Since 2005 he has also worked with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. Among Claudio Abbado’s awards are the Gold Medal of the International Mahler Society and the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, and in the summer of 2005 he was given the freedom of the city of Lucerne, where in 2003 he had revived the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first desks of this last-named orchestra are filled with international soloists of the eminence of Kolja Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Sabine Meyer and the members of the Hagen Quartet. Since 2004 Claudio Abbado has returned to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker regularly, most recently in May 2010, when he presented a programme of works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Brahms.

The exceptional global career of Maurizio Pollini began in 1960 when he won first prize at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Chopin has remained a cornerstone of his repertoire in which works by Bach, Schumann and Debussy are also given a prominent place. Maurizio Pollini has also been very committed to contemporary music; he is as familiar with compositions by Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen as he is with the piano works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In 1993 and 1994, he performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for the first time in Berlin and Munich; he later repeated this cycle in other cities. The pianist, whose awards include the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1996) and the Premio Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (2000) as well as the Grammy for best solo instrumental performance (2007), has also shaped several festivals and concert series in the role of artistic director, such as the 1999-2001 project “Perspectives: Maurizio Pollini”, with 30 concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. Maurizio Pollini has regularly appeared both as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker as well as a solo performer at the Philharmonie since 1970.

Anna Prohaska began her vocal studies with Eberhard Kloke when she was 14 years old. She later studied at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin with Norma Sharp and Brenda Mitchell as well as attending Wolfram Rieger’s Lieder interpretation classes. She also attended the Académie Européenne de Musique in Aix-en-Provence in 2003 and the International Handel Academy in Karlsruhe in 2006. Anna Prohaska’s stage repertoire includes roles in works by Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Debussy, Strauss and Britten: she was to be heard in the roles of Fora in The Turn of the Screw and Harry in Albert Herring at the Komische Oper in Berlin. She has also performed the roles of Tebaldo (Don Carlo), Papagena (Die Zauberflöte), Barbarina (Le nozze di Figaro) und Mercédès (Carmen) at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where she has been a member of the ensemble since the 2006/07 season. Furthermore, she has appeared in theatres in Aachen and Paris as well as at the Lucerne and Salzburg festivals. Since making her debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in June 2007, she has appeared regularly with the orchestra and its chamber music ensembles, most recently in the middle of February this year, when she sang the soprano part in Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor Op. 10.

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