A Czech evening with Magdalena Kožená and Tomáš Netopil

02 Oct 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Tomáš Netopil

Magdalena Kožená

  • Bohuslav Martinů
    Three Fragments from the Opera Juliette (46 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Julietta), Steve Davislim Tenor (Michel), Michèle Lagrange Soprano, Barbara Berg Sopran, Isabelle Voßkühler Soprano, Christina Seifert Mezzo-Soprano, Bettina Pieck Contralto, Fréderic Goncalves Bass Baritone, René Schirrer Bass

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Symphony No. 7 in D minor, op. 70 (44 min.)

  • free

    Magdalena Kožená in conversation with Jonathan Kelly (18 min.)

A Czech evening in the Philharmonie in Berlin – but with a certain sadness. Sir Charles Mackerras was to have conducted this concert from October 2010, but this great conductor died on 14 July of the same year. Tomáš Netopil took his place at the conductor’s stand of the Berlin Philharmonie for the first time – a young, up-and-coming conductor who at the time had already celebrated debuts at the Salzburg Festival and with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Our star guest this evening was the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, singing the title role in three symphonic fragments from Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Juliette, composed in 1939. For a long time, this surreally magical stage work was hardly ever performed, but it has experienced several revivals in the last few years. A recording of the fragments from Prague, also with Magdalena Kožená as Juliette was awarded the Echo Klassik award from the Deutsche Phonoakademie in the “World premiere recording of the year” category.

This concert certainly demonstrates the diversity of Czech music. Firstly, in Martinů’s fragments, we hear a compelling mixture of French impressionism and modern angularity, then after the interval we immerse ourselves in the world of Slavonic music with Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, a work which radiates anything but cosy nostalgia. Quite the opposite: with its frequently sombre, brittle expression, there are few other of his works which give us such a profound, authentic insight into the inner life of the composer.

Prague or Vienna? Or directly to Paris?

Antonín Dvořák and Bohuslav Martinů are the two greatest Czech symphonists. They also share being caught between two cultures.

Like so many other composers from northern and eastern Europe, Antonín Dvořák wrestled with a singular symphonic dilemma: how far could he go in accommodating the forms developed by Viennese Classicism and still do justice to his own idiom? Or, put another way, to what extent could he go along with nationalist, ethno-Romantic trends without being ridiculed in the West as a backward folklorist? The problem had been squarely facing musical Europe since around 1840 and had been solved by only a few Scandinavian composers. East Europeans were confronted by far greater challenges. German Classicism, shaped by the melodic patterns of the German language, was alien to them, and Russia, Poland and Hungary offered no opportunities for formal training.

Conditions were better in Prague, encouraging a Czech composer to produce the first Slavic symphonies to enter the repertoire. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor op. 70, completed in 1885, is not only one of the most significant achievements of the nationalist-Romantic conflict; it also represents both the embodiment and overcoming of that conflict. For Dvořák that had been underway since 1865 when, at the age of 24, he undertook his first two symphonies. Only beginning with the Sixth Symphony do folk features become prominent: the melancholy ballad known as the dumka and the furiant in 3/4 time. With the Sixth, Dvořák believed he had achieved his goal, but Johannes Brahms told him otherwise: “I still envisage your symphony writing as something quite different from this one.” Brahms got his wish: the Seventh offered up symphonic conflict potential of unprecedented concentration and put to rest all preconceptions about the naïve “Bohemian music purveyor” Dvořák.

The Seventh was regarded from the beginning as Dvořák’s most ambitious orchestral work, as well as his darkest. However, its craggy, severe tone and pathos – alternately pained and angry – are by no means new to his allegedly ever-optimistic art. What makes the work an exception in symphonic terms is the predominance of demonic energy, of upheaval and despair in all four movements. The opening Allegro maestoso’s menacing, creeping main theme holds sway over the entire movement, while the gentle, barely viable secondary theme unmistakably recalls Brahms in its harmony and instrumentation. The powerful climaxes and outbursts of surprising pathos also show the influence of Dvořák’s great model. In the end, we are left with resignation and renunciation. The second movement, marked “Andante sostenuto” in the original version, was reworked as a Poco adagio following the London premiere. Its peaceful bucolic opening mood does not last long, the pent-up anguish discharging itself fortissimo in a pounding, striding march. Not even the Scherzo is granted its habitual flight into carefree realms. The key, like that of the opening movement and finale, is dark D minor. The wonderfully light-footed 6/4 rhythm is disturbed from the outset by a countermelody on the bassoons and cellos. Gruff, almost aggressive accents characterise this music – the most positive spin one could come up with to describe its tone is fatalistic joviality. The Trio, a light idyll with more than a tinge of Bohemian flavour, leads back to the dramatic Scherzo section. It attempts at the end to yield to melancholy but is wrenched back into raw reality by a furiously swaggering dance theme. The Allegro Finale begins with threatening gestures, and then uncanny woodwind calls presage a general state of emotional ambivalence which comes to the surface several times in the course of the movement. The overall impression is one of fierce determination, but at the end of the coda, following an archaic plagal cadence, the proceedings lighten for a conclusion in D major.

Just as Dvořák – his predecessors notwithstanding – personifies the beginning of Czech symphonic composition, Martinů – a few successors notwithstanding – marks its end-point. Unlike Dvořák, he did not find his way to composing large symphonic forms until very late: he was already 52. The nationalist Romantic trend was long past, and the hegemony of Austro-German musical culture even longer – at least for the young Martinů. He rejected Wagner, preferred during his studies to scribble floral patterns in his counterpoint books and was twice expelled from the Prague Conservatory. His idol was Debussy and his goal Paris. He got there. Settling in France in 1923, he returned to Czechoslovakia only for summer holidays, for the last time in 1938. Similar to the young Dvořák, Martinů was initially influenced by foreign traditions: by Roussel, Stravinsky and jazz. Around 1930 he entered a new phase and synthesised a new, personal style that combined French and Czech elements.

His opera Julietta, completed in 1937, is a mature work and marks a turning point in Martinů’s creative output. The Czech libretto, in which the boundary separating dream from reality is blurred, was written by the composer himself who based it on a surrealistic theatre piece, Juliette (La Clé des songes), by Georges Neveux. The story is at once suspenseful and profound. A man named Michel is in search of a woman named Julietta whose voice he had heard years before in a small port town. He returns but is able to find her only with great difficulty because the town’s inhabitants cannot remember anything – they have lost their memories. In a series of desperate albeit comic actions, they attempt to recall the lost woman: they produce old letters, bring in a fortune-teller to predict the past and recount made-up memories in the hope of rediscovering their own story in them. Even Julietta behaves this way after her reunion with Michel. In the forest scene in Act II, the situation comes to a head: Michel has become exasperated by Julietta’s conjured memories, and she claims never to have encountered him before. They part in anger, and Michel even fires his pistol. In Act III, he finds himself in an obscure bureau of dreams and discovers that he is not the only one who has been looking for Julietta. All manner of individuals are here to book dreams with her for a night. But if they tarry longer, they must for ever wander through a dream world as grey phantoms. Behind a door, which Michel is not permitted to open, Julietta pledges her undying love to him and pleads with him not to abandon her. He is unable to tear himself away, and the opera ends as it began, with their encounter in the little port town.

Following the successful Prague premiere of Julietta in March 1938, Martinů extracted three fragments from the opera in April 1939, in French translation as Juliette. This manuscript, discovered only a few years ago, begins with the forest scene of the second act, but without the row between the lovers or the pistol shot. The second fragment flashes back to the so-called reminiscence scene, also from Act II. The last fragment is the finale of Act III, the end of the opera. But here again Martinů has softened the tragic element: it is not made clear that this scene takes place in the bureau of dreams – that Michel is destined to live without time or memory if he yields to Juliette’s enticements.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

The Australian tenor Steve Davislim initially studied French horn before starting his vocal studies with Dame Joan Hammond at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. He then continued with courses by Gösta Winberg, Neil Shicoff, and Irwin Gage’s Lieder masterclasses in Zurich. After his first stage appearances at the International Opera Studio in Zurich, Steve Davislim was taken on in 1994 as a permanent member of the ensemble at Zurich Opera House, where he remained until 2000. His roles there included Count Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) and the Painter in Alban Berg’s Lulu, as well as the Prince in the world premiere of Heinz Holliger’s opera Schneewittchen. Guest appearances have taken him to, among others, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and to the Festivals in Schwetzingen, Ludwigsburg and Salzburg. In December 2005, Steve Davislim appeared as Idomeneo at La Scala in Milan under the direction of Daniel Harding. He also celebrated other successful debuts at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in the title role of Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge in 2007, and as Belmonte at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2008. On the concert stage, he has performed with leading orchestras in Europe, the USA and Australia, working with conductors such as David Zinman, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Lorin Maazel and Sir Charles Mackerras. This will be Steve Davislim’s first appearance in concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Frédéric Goncalves, born in Paris, studied commercial law at Paris-Sorbonne University before starting his vocal studies at the Conservatoire de Paris. At the Paris Opera Ecole d’Art Lyrique, he continued his training with Anna-Maria Bondi, completing his studies with masterclasses by José van Dam, Vera Rozsa, Régine Crespin and Kurt Moll. After winning the “Chambre Syndicale des Directeurs de Théâtre” competition, he made many stage appearances all over France. A concert at the Théâtre du Châtelet where he performed excerpts from Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro together with Jane Berbié and José van Dam met with a tremendous response. Frédéric Goncalves has performed at, among others, the Opéra de Marseille, and in Paris at the Palais Garnier, the Bastille Opera and the Opéra Comique. He has been heard in many premieres, for example, in En attendant Richelieu by Rémi Gousseau, Le dernier jour de Socrate by Graciane Finzi and Angels in America by Peter Eötvös. His recent activities have included performing in Offenbach’s Le Voyage dans la lune and La Belle Hélène in the role of Agamemnon in Saint-Etienne, as well as a tour under the direction of Jacques Merciers in Mozart’s Zaïde. A successful interpreter of Lieder and concert performer all over the world, Frédéric Goncalves is now making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Hendrik Heilmann, born in Berlin, was initially a student of Dieter Zechlin (piano) and Paul-Heinz Dittrich (composition). He later studied with Alexander Vitlin and Susanne Grützmann at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin. When he was 16, he won the Steinway competition, and in 2005 he won the special prize for Lieder accompaniment at the Bayerischer Rundfunk “La Voce” competition. In 2007, Hendrik Heilmann completed his postgraduate studies in Lieder accompaniment with Wolfram Rieger. He has also gained valuable experience from masterclasses with Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Irwin Gage and Thomas Quasthoff. In 2005, he was offered teaching positions in both music academies in Berlin – in solo accompaniment at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin, and in Lieder accompaniment at Berlin University of the Arts. The pianist has made guest appearances at the Salzburg Festival, the Munich Opera Festival and at the chamber music festival in Bad Reichenhall; since 2003 he has been regularly invited to the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. As Lieder accompanist he works with, among others, Julie Kaufmann and Hanno Müller-Brachmann; he is also a chamber music partner of members of the Konzerthausorchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. As an ensemble pianist, he has performed in symphonic concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions.

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and Lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. She has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in Berlin in April 2010 in performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. On 1 November she will perform works from the 17th century with the Private Musicke ensemble as part of our Original Sounds series in the Chamber Music Hall.

Michèle Lagrange began her singing career at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, where she sang the role of Fiorilla in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia. Shortly afterwards she made her debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires as Teresa in Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz, and as the Countess in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. Michèle Lagrange has specialised particularly in “dramatic soprano” roles, and her repertoire includes Lady Macbeth, Norma and Maria Stuarda. At the Opéra National de Paris, her successes include the title role in Manon Lescaut, Elisabeth in Don Carlos, Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Electra in Idomeneo. She has appeared on the stages of, among others, the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, the Bastille Opera in Paris and the Festival in Montpellier. The soprano has a special interest in works for the concert hall: under the direction of conductors such as Marek Janowski, Yutaka Sado and Jiří Bělohlávek, she has performed Les Nuits d’été by Berlioz, Ravel’s Schéhérazade, the Vier letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. With these concerts, Michèle Lagrange will be making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Tomáš Netopil studied violin and conducting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek, Radomil Eliška and František Vajnar. Later, he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Jorma Panula. In 2002 he won the first International Conductors’ Competition Sir Georg Solti at the Alte Oper Frankfurt. Following his debut with the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo and a concert with the Staatskapelle Dresden in the 2007/2008 season, he has had numerous engagements with the world’s major orchestras such as the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Genève, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Filarmonica della Scala in Milan. Tomáš Netopil made his opera house debut in March 2004 at the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville with Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. In June 2008 he conducted a new production of Busoni’s Doctor Faust for the Munich Opera Festival. He has also conducted opera productions at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Valencia (The Bartered Bride), at the Opéra national de Paris (Kátja Kabanová) and at the Semperoper in Dresden (Salome), a company with which he is closely associated. Since the 2009/2010 season, Tomáš Netopil has held the position of music director at the National Theatre in Prague, where he has continued the theatre’s Mozart tradition with productions of Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Don Giovanni. These concerts will be his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

René Schirrer began singing while studying literature in Strasbourg. Later, he continued his vocal studies with Derrick Olsen at the Musik Akademie Basel, and with Heinrich Pflanzl and Kim Borg at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. After working with the Groupe Vocale de France, he became a member of the Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Lyon at the end of the 1980s. Since then, he has appeared on all the major stages in France under the direction of conductors such as Yannis Kokkos, Sir Charles Mackerras, John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie. At the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, where René Schirrer makes regular guest appearances, he has had particular success in the role of Raimondo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. His wide-ranging repertoire includes roles in the operas of Janáček in particular, including From the House of the Dead, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek and The Makropulos Case, and also roles in contemporary works such as Pollicino by Hans Werner Henze. He has also participated in many world premieres: in Tristes Tropiques by Georges Aperghis (1996) at the Festival Musica in Strasbourg, and in Héloïse et Abélard by Ahmed Essyad (2000). As a concert soloist and Lieder singer, René Schirrer has to date performed works from the Baroque to the Romantic period. This will be his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Magdalena Kožená appears by kind permission of Deutsche Grammophon.

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