Peter Eötvös conducts the premiere of his Cello Concerto Grosso

18 Jun 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Peter Eötvös

Miklós Perényi, Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Ferruccio Furlanetto

  • Modest Mussorgsky
    St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (13 min.)

  • Peter Eötvös
    Cello Concerto Grosso (première) (30 min.)

    Miklós Perényi Cello

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Four Russian Peasant Songs (6 min.)

    Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Blanka Juhaňáková Chorus Master

  • Modest Mussorgsky
    Boris Godunov: Coronation Scene · Death Scene (29 min.)

    Ferruccio Furlanetto Bass, Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Blanka Juhaňáková Chorus Master

  • free

    Peter Eötvös in conversation with Sarah Willis (20 min.)

For Peter Eötvös, composing is “the enchantment of the listener through sound. I am interested in the technique of turning the unbelievable into music.” In developing this concept, he was assisted by many outstanding composers. As a 14-year-old, he was accepted for Zoltán Kodály’s composition class at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest; he later worked closely together with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. With the premiere of his Cello Concerto Grosso, another of Peter Eötvös’ “enchantments” was performed in the Philharmonie in 2011.

The work is a play on old forms. From the Baroque concerto grosso, Eötvös adopts the combination of orchestra and a group of soloists, in this case of eight cellists. In a way that is reminiscent of the classic solo concerto, one single cellist is placed in front of the group of soloists, presenting the complete virtuoso potential of his instrument. This solo part is played by Miklós Perényi, a close associate of Peter Eövös for many years who once said of him that Perényi is “like nature, like the trees and the flowers: he just exists and radiates”. 

The premiere is framed by music of Modest Mussorgsky. The concert opens with St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, a wild representation of a witches’ sabbath, which the composer himself described as “hot and chaotic”. The end of the evening is equally energetic with two scenes from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, with a choir portraying the stirred up Russian people. With tempestuous music, it appears as an uncontrollable force, forming the greatest imaginable contrast to the psychological drama of the Tsar Boris, here performed by Ferruccio Furlanetto.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Peter Eötvös in league with Stravinsky and Mussorgsky

Igor Stravinsky spent the summer of 1914 at his family’s estate at Ustilug in the western Ukraine, which had long served him both as a refuge and a place of inspiration. Two years earlier there he had worked on The Rite of Spring and in 1913 he was occupied with The Nightingale. Now his thoughts revolved around “a cantata about a peasant wedding”, stimulated by Pyotr Kireievsky’s great collection of Russian folksongs and poems which he had come across on a visit to Kiev; another trip, planned for autumn 1914, was thwarted by the outbreak of war. On his return to his Swiss domicile at Clarens in August, “faced with the nervousness prevailing in Central Europe”, Stravinsky already “had a clear sense that we were on the eve of grave events. Fourteen days later war was declared. I was rejected as unfit for service, so I had no need to go back to my fatherland. I didn’t suspect in the least that I would never see it again, in any case not as I had left it.”

On arriving in Clarens, Stravinsky began to explore his findings from Kiev, but large-scale projects were ruled out by increasingly limited performance possibilities resulting from the war. Only works for small forces could be considered. Along with traditional formations such as string quartet, piano four hands, and voice and piano, one finds in his new pieces such unusual combinations as voice and three clarinets, in the Cat’s Cradle Songs, and a “miniature orchestra”, in Pribaoutki and Renard. What they all have in common is musical concentration: terse diction, simple material in complex combinations, variation of a pre-existing or newly devised pattern – a process of paring down and radicalization.

The works he specifically headed “Russian songs”, however, seem to have been exempted from radicalization and exaggeration. These miniatures resonate with impressions reaching back to the composer’s childhood: the singing of the peasant girls of Ustilug, country life with its daily activities and centuries-old rituals – experiences that are reflected in the Four Russian Peasant Songs. Based on texts that Stravinsky attributed to Alexander Afanasyev’s anthology of Russian folk tales and originally for women’s voices a cappella, the songs were revised in 1954 with the addition of four horns, which take over the polyphony while the chorus is reduced to unison almost throughout. This music that seems so Russian is actually original Stravinsky. When asked about it, he repeatedly insisted that he had “made no borrowings from folksongs”, but that “the music was determined by the words and syllables of the texts”.

Whereas Igor Stravinsky, far from home, recollected his Russian roots, Peter Eötvös ventures a recollection of pre-Classical music. He has entitled his newest orchestral work Cello Concerto Grosso, which at first calls to mind models like Corelli and Vivaldi, not to mention Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. But prefacing the genre name with the world “cello” suggests the work’s special feature: the solo group is set against the traditional tutti, here consisting of eight cellos, but additionally there is a solo cello. In other words, we have here both a solo concerto and a concerto grosso, combined in a double form. Clearly the division into three constituents – soloist, concertino group and orchestra – expands the possibilities for making and manipulating sonorities, but it also guarantees the music’s lucidity and intelligibility to the listener. Thus the solo cellist is by no means “leader” of the other eight, and the orchestra only rarely imposes itself as a solid tutti, more often contributing its ideas by means of chamber groupings.

These formal connections are, however, as far as the music goes in its retrospection. There is also no classical dramatic development, but rather a sequence of scenes in each of the three movements assembled out of a precise basic situation. Instead of “themes” in the familiar sense, there are linear processes constructed from a restricted supply of intervals, either embedded or flanked by selected chordal information. The composer’s most individual effects are to be found in his invention of specific sounds out of widely diverse playing techniques – ranging from piano harmonics to an unusual use of pizzicato and having the strings play behind the bridge. Tension is generated by the overlaying of varied musical levels in which each participant seeks to assert his own position. The concertante principle of alternating questions and answers here seems to be broken up in favour of a dialogue marked largely by mutual unfamiliarity. The cello part’s exceptional virtuosity, however, always enables it to defend the prominence of its position.

In 1995 Peter Eötvös summed up the relationship between his instrumental music and the dramatic imagination in a single sentence: “My music is theatre music.” This affinity could have triggered the idea of rounding off the programme with two excerpts from Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, a kindred spirit. Eötvös’s decision in favour of the original version of 1869 also connects him with Stravinsky, who in conversation with Robert Craft expressed his preference for unadulterated Mussorgsky: “His original scores always show infinitely more true musical interest and genuine intuition than the ‘perfection’ of Rimsky's arrangements”. As is well known, Rimsky-Korsakov revised not only Mussorgky’s orchestration but also the musical content.

Two years before Alexander Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov, published in 1831, received its stage premiere, Mussorgsky was already occupied with setting his own libretto adapted from this “tragedy of a guilty conscience”. Sketches were completed in 1869 and the orchestration in mid-December of the same year. Mussorgsky himself called the work a “people’s music drama”: during the seven years of his reign (1598 to 1605), the people who have raised the boyar Boris to the Tsar’s throne become his persistent corrective, capable of rapidly transforming from a cheering crowd into a destructive mob.

The two excerpts in this concert mark the beginning and end of the reign of Tsar Boris. Whereas the Coronation Scene in Pushkin’s drama has him addressing the boyars, in Mussorgsky’s opera he faces a huge crowd converged on the Kremlin. He admits to accepting the crown only reluctantly, as a saviour in time of need, and though he makes no secret of his regard for the people purely as a tool, the crowd breaks out in frenetic jubilation. Commenting on this scene, Mussorgsky said that the tritone chiming representing the swinging pendulum of a musical clock exposes the promise of future glory as demagoguery. The coronation finds its counterpart and culmination in the Death Scene, where the tritone pendulum reflects the final stage of a mental breakdown. As Boris is gripped by the memory of Dmitri, the tsarevich he had murdered, he becomes deranged and senses that his end is near. Garbed as a penitent, he decrees – his last wish – that his son shall ascend the tsar’s throne, and then he dies. As for the people? They are already hailing their next ruler...

Could it all be more topical?

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon

Peter Eötvös, born in Transylavania in 1944, is regarded as one of the great musical luminaries of our time as a result of his activities as composer, teacher and conductor. He studied at the Academy of Music in Budapest (composition) and at Cologne University of Music (conducting). He worked regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble between 1968 and 1976, and with the Electronic Music Studio of WDR in Cologne between 1971 and 1979. At the invitiation of Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös conducted the inaugural concert of the IRCAM in Paris in 1978. Until 1991, he was musical director of the Ensemble intercontemporain. He has conducted leading orchestras in the USA, Japan and Europe, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic. In 1991 he founded the International Eötvös Institute and the Contemporary Music Foundation for young conductors and composers in Budapest; from 1992 to 2008, he taught at the music universities in Karlsruhe and Cologne. Since the autumn of 2009, he has been principal guest conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Eötvös’ works (including Atlantis, zeroPoints, Three Sisters, Angels in America and Love and Other Demons) are performed all over the world; his newest opera Die Tragödie des Teufels was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2010. His awards include the Kossuth Prize from the President of the Hungarian Republic, the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award and the Frankfurter Musikpreis (2007). Peter Eötvös made his conducting debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in June 1994, directing the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin in the Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie. His most recent performance with the Philharmoniker was in April 2009 in a series of concerts with works by Bach, Wagner and Zimmermann.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, respected worldwide in particular for his interpretations of the bass roles in the works of Verdi and Mozart, also has Russian and French music in his repertoire. He has celebrated great success particularly as Philipp II. in Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the title role of Massenet’s Don Quichotte and in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov; he recently performed Boris at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the first Italian to do so. The bass has worked with the world’s leading orchestras under the baton of conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Lorin Maazel, Bernard Haitink, Semyon Bychkov, Daniele Gatti, Valery Gergiev and Mariss Jansons. Engagements have taken him to the most prestigious opera houses such as La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London, the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He has also made guest appearances at major festivals such as in Salzburg, and in Japan. Ferruccio Furlanetto is the recipient of numerous honours: he is Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations as well as Kammersänger and Honorary Member of the Vienna State Opera. In 1995, he performed together with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Richard Strauss’ Elektra at the Salzburg Easter Festival, conducted by Claudio Abbado. This will be his first appearance in the orchestra’s Berlin concerts.

Miklós Perényi, son of a Hungarian family of musicians, is one of the leading cellists of his generation. His playing is marked by a fine and nuanced sound which underlines his outstanding musicality. When he was only five, Miklós Perényi began his cello studies with Miklós Zsámboki, a student of David Popper, and gave his first concert in Budapest at the age of nine. A student of Enrico Mainardi and Ede Banda, he was a prize winner at the International Pablo Casals Cello Competition in Budapest in 1963, and in the years after 1965, he went several times to Casals himself for tuition. Both as a soloist and as a member of various chamber music ensembles, Miklós Perényi has performed in the world’s major music venues with a repertoire that ranges from the 17th century to contemporary works. He has taught at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest since 1974, where he accepted a professorship in 1980. He also composes works for instrumental ensembles and for solo cello. For his artistic work, he was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1980, and the Bartók Pásztory Prize in 1987. For his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2001, he performed Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer.

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