Vladimir Jurowski conducts Mahler and Stravinsky

12 Jun 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Vladimir Jurowski

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm‘ ich her” (arr. for choir and orchestra by Igor Stravinsky) (13 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Requiem Canticles for soloists, chorus and orchestra (22 min.)

    Iris Vermillion Contralto, Markus Brück Baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Das klagende Lied (69 min.)

    Christine Schäfer Soprano, Iris Vermillion Contralto, Michael König Tenor, Markus Brück Baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey on Mahler, Bach, Stravinsky (16 min.)

Vladimir Jurowski has been an unmistakeable great on the international music scene since at least 2007. That was when the just 35-year-old was made principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – a position whose predecessors include Kurt Masur and Georg Solti. What in particular is praised about Jurowski’s interpretations is that they combine what are actually contradictory qualitites; astute analysis and emotional fire. Moreover there is his engaging physical presence, leading one London critic to write that Jurowski is “the most sheerly elegant conductor I’ve ever seen”.

For this guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Jurowski conducts Das klagende Lied by the young Gustav Mahler, a cantata which combines both horror and fantasy: a young man murders his own brother, but his crime is revealed by the song of a magical flute. The composer was happy with this work, even in his later years: “The first work where I found myself as ‘Mahler’ is a fairytale for choir, soloists and orchestra: Das klagende Lied!” And indeed there is a wealth of forest murmurs and leitmotifs in the best Wagner style, but there is also that difficult to describe but unmistakeable Mahler sound.

In this concert, Mahler’s early work is contrasted with two late compositions by Igor Stravinsky. Firstly, a new version of Bach’s organ variations on “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her”, which Stravinsky enriches with additional musical colour and an individual playful charm. The Requiem canticles are equally rich in variety, but are bound together by an elusive seriousness. These coolly detached yet moving songs, Stravinsky’s final large-scale work, became his own requiem; they were sung at the composer’s own funeral in Venice in 1971.

“Where the dark feelings hold sway”

Late Stravinsky and early Mahler

Only once did their paths cross. In November 1907, a few weeks before his resignation from the Vienna Court Opera, Gustav Mahler conducted his Fifth Symphony in St. Petersburg. He was completely unknown as a composer in Russia, so it was not surprising that the audience was perplexed by the work. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was downright negative in his critical pronouncement. What Rimsky’s former private pupil Igor Stravinsky made of the symphony is not recorded. In a 1956 conversation with Robert Craft he recalled only Mahler’s external appearance and conducting; about his music he said nothing.

It is hard to imagine a sharper aesthetic contrast between two composers. On the one hand, there is the Bohemian-born, assimilated Austrian Jew, among the leading conductors of his day, a master of every orchestral technique; at the same time, firmly rooted in the tradition of the Romantic genius, with its belief in the mystery of spontaneous inspiration and in the unfathomable “parallelism between life and music”; driven, moreover, by the need in his music to express himself “where the dark feelings hold sway”, beginning at “a door that leads into the ‘other’ world, in which things are no longer separated by time and space”. The quest for transcendence and the sheer monumentality: in Mahler they are two sides of the same coin.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Stravinsky, the cosmopolitan Russian shuttling back and forth between Europe and America, avowed enemy of all aesthetics based on content and emotion, completely mistrustful of pathos and subjective “expression”, and thus all the more relentless in his pursuit of clarity, precision and sobriety. Not surprisingly, in his Poetics of Music, Stravinsky’s theoretical chef d’oeuvre based on his Harvard Lectures of 1939/40, the craft of composition takes centre stage – the “making” and fabrication of a work. Subjective self-expression remains anathema to Stravinsky; the ritual aspects of music, on the other hand, become increasingly important. Essentially, he said in the Poetics, “I was born out of due time in the sense that by temperament and talent I should have been more suited for the life of a small Bach, living in anonymity and composing regularly for an established service and for God”. While Stravinsky’s strong Christian faith is never in question, there is an element of coquetry in this verbal gesture of modesty. The seemingly passionless, utterly Apollonian works of his late period always betray a feeling for extravagant musical effects and exquisite artistic fragrances.

In 1955/56 Igor Stravinsky arranged Johann Sebastian Bach’s Organ Variations on the Christmas song “Vom Himmel hoch” for mixed voices and small orchestra, “with the master’s consent”, as he noted self-deprecatingly in the manuscript. The five Canonic Variations from 1746/47 are a high point of Bach’s late works, but Stravinsky is not inhibited by a sense of awe. He doesn’t shy away from prefacing the first variation with a six-voice setting of the chorale on brass. Unlike Bach, who leaves all the variations in C major, Stravinsky wanders from C to D flat via G and back again, lending each section its own characteristic orchestration. Starting with the second variation, he sometimes gives the chorale melody to the chorus. In addition to slight alterations to the phrasing and accentuation, Stravinsky discreetly weaves additional contrapuntal entries into the complex texture. While the work’s dedicatee Robert Craft felt that Stravinsky essentially grafted his own personality on to Bach’s, the musicologist Volker Scherliess recognized in the arrangement “an analytical interpretation and approach to the music with his own means” which had nothing to do with alienation. Stravinsky’s version is undoubtedly more playful than the original. The colouristic appeal of the instruments and the chorus automatically divert attention from Bach’s fascinating compositional art.

Along with a preoccupation with music from the Middle Ages to Bach, Stravinsky’s late works are known for his adoption of serial techniques. It was Craft, his amanuensis since 1948 and profoundly knowledgeable on the subject of twelve-note masters, who familiarized the composer with the techniques of serial writing. He quickly determined that its rules and restrictions differed little from the strictness of the old contrapuntal schools. The quarter-hour Requiem Canticles of 1955/56 is based on two different rows. Although technically one of the strictest of Stravinsky’s late works, it impresses the listener as enormously vibrant and flexible.

Like Stravinsky’s late works, which – especially compared to his famous early ballets – are performed only occasionally, Das klagende Lied by the barely 20-year-old Gustav Mahler is still not a fixture in the repertoire, in spite of the composer’s vast popularity. Yet the cantata, which plays for just over an hour, not only anticipates a fair amount of motivic material from his symphonies, it also speaks unmistakably in that tone of fragile, ironic melancholy that would henceforth characterize Mahler’s music. The echoes of Weber and Wagner and a certain unevenness notwithstanding, the familiar features are mostly present and accounted for: constant alternation between major and minor and between distant and nearby sounds, the montage-like juxtaposition of disparate elements. In addition, there is the immediacy of the motifs, whether in the character of marches, fanfares or stylized sounds of nature.

Along with the astonishingly assured handling of massed vocal and instrumental forces, it is especially the original combination of lyrical, narrative, dramatic and genuinely symphonic elements that testifies to Mahler’s “natural gift” (Pierre Boulez). Like a ballad, the text is delivered by the soloists in alternation without the assigning of individual roles. The chorus’s predominant function is to comment on the story. A densely woven network of pithy but adaptable motifs sets up anticipations and reminiscences and provides overall unity.

Mahler wrote the text himself, basing it on the fairytale of the same name from Ludwig Bechstein’s 1856 German collection, but he also incorporated elements of the Brothers Grimm’s The Singing Bones. In typical fairytale fashion, the story revolves around two brothers, “one who was kind and gentle, the other who could only blaspheme”. Both go in search of a “red flower” in the woods with which to win the favour of the “proud queen”. The younger brother finds the flower and unsuspectingly lies down to rest in the green meadow with it fixed to his cap. When the elder brother finds him asleep he kills his rival and steals the flower. In Part II, a minstrel discovers a bone of the brother buried there and cuts himself a flute from it. When he goes to play it, the lamenting, accusing song of the murdered young man is heard. In Part III, the minstrel goes to the castle where the wedding festivities are already underway. When the pale king hears the song of lamentation, he takes the flute and plays the melody that accuses him of the evil deed. The wedding party flees in horror, the lights go out and the old walls of the castle crumble.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Richard Evidon

Markus Brück studied singing at the universities of music in Mannheim, Heidelberg and Cologne. Following engagements in Hagen, Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden, the baritone came to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2001. His roles there included Pagageno (Die Zauberflöte), Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Marcello (La Bohème), Ford (Falstaff), Beckmesser (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Donner (Das Rheingold) and Gunther (Götterdämmerung). Guest appearances have taken him to the Bavarian and Hamburg State Operas, the Semperoper in Dresden, and to Milan, Tokyo and Seoul. Markus Brück is also regularly to be heard on the concert stage, for example as a soloist in the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In February 2011, Markus Brück was awarded the title of Kammersänger of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. With these concerts, he will be making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Vladimir Jurowski, son of the conductor Michail Jurowski, was born in Moscow in 1972. He began his musical studies at the Moscow Conservatory with his father. After the family moved to Germany in 1990, he continued his training at the University of Music in Dresden and the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin. Since then, he has conducted at many major theatres, including Covent Garden in London, the Bastille Opera in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Rossini-Festival in Pesaro. He was Kapellmeister at the Komische Oper in Berlin between 1996 and 2001; in 2001 he became music director of the opera festival at Glyndebourne. In 2007, he took over the helm at the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he had been principal guest conductor since 2003. He was also principal guest conductor with the Russian National Orchestra from 2005 to 2009, where he continues to conduct. As a guest conductor, he has appeared with, among others, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and RAI Turin, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Staatskapelle in Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2003 with works by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev und Stravinsky.

Michael König studied singing with Rudolf Piernay at the Mannheim University of Music and Performing Arts. He also attended masterclasses, including those held by Waltraud Meier und Semjon Skigin. In 1994, he made his operatic debut in Ludwigshafen in Giuseppe Verdi’s I due Foscari. Winner of the 6th Meistersinger Competition in Nuremberg in 1997, and of the European Union Opera competition in 1998, he has made guest appearances in major European opera houses, including in Basel, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Stuttgart, Paris, Vienna and Zurich. Michael König’s repertoire includes roles such as Lenski (Eugen Onegin), Narraboth (Salome), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Boris (Kát´a Kabanová), Max (Der Freischütz) and Florestan (Fidelio). At the Opéra national de Paris in 2007, he sang the tenor role in Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared in a co-production with the Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus, a production which was also seen in Barcelona and Tokyo. Michael König will be making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker with these concerts.

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 March 2011 under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt in Bruckner’s Mass in F minor.

Christine Schäfer was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. She received her vocal training at the Berlin University of the Arts with Ingrid Figur and in classes with Aribert Reimann und Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Arleen Augér and Sena Jurinac also played an important role in her artistic development. Her international career really took off following her appearance as the soloist in the premiere of Aribert Reimann’s Nachtträume at the Berliner Festwochen in 1988. Christine Schäfer’s repertoire includes both early and contemporary music as well as lyrical and the great coloratura roles. Whether on the opera stage, the concert platform or in chamber concerts and lieder recitals, her appearances are enthusiastically received all over the world. The magazine Opernwelt named her “Singer of the Year” in 2006; in the same year, she won the music critics’ award as “Star of the Festival” for her performances in the Mozart roles of Cherubino and Donna Anna at the Salzburg Festival. A recipient of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2008), she was also appointed a member of Berlin’s Academy of Arts in the autumn of 2009. Since 1995, Christine Schäfer has been making regular guest appearances in both orchestral and chamber concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Most recently she gave a lieder recital in March 2011, accompanied by Eric Schneider, with works by Bach, Mahler, Wolf and Webern.

Ralf Sochaczewsky received his training as a choral and orchestral conductor with Christian Grube and Marc Piollet at the Berlin University of the Arts, and with Rolf Reuter and Jörg-Peter Weigle at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin. In 2003/2004 he was assistant at the Netherlands Radio Choir. Since then he has worked together with many choirs including the RIAS Kammerchor, the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the Chœur de Radio France and the Prague Philharmonic Choir. From 2008 to 2010, he was assistant to Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Opera (in 2008 for the premiere of Peter Eötvös’ opera Love and other Demons, and in 2010 for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress). Since then, Ralf Sochaczewsky has conducted concerts with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Cappella Cracoviensis and the Minsk Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. He is chief conductor of the two Berlin choirs Cantus Domus and Ensemberlino Vocale.

Iris Vermillion initially studied flute in Detmold, then singing in Hamburg. In 1988, she was engaged by Götz Friedrich at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Since her international breakthrough as Dorabella and Cherubino under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Amsterdam, she has been a much sought-after singer at important theatres such as the Staatsoper in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, and la Scala in Milan. Iris Vermillion initially sang Mozart and Handel roles; today she is known in particular as an interpreter of Strauss (Capriccio, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome) and Wagner (Fricka, Waltraute, Adriano and Brangäne), but is also to be heard in works such as Werther, Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Lulu. For her performance in the title role in Othmar Schoeck’s Penthesilea at the Semperoper in Dresden in 2008, Iris Vermillion was awarded the German theatre prize »Der Faust«. In her equally extensive worldwide concert activity with famous conductors and orchestras, the music of Gustav Mahler is of particular importance. Numerous CD recordings document the diversity of Iris Vermillion’s artistic activity. Since her debut in a chamber concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 1993, Iris Vermillion has performed in several of the orchestra’s symphonic concerts, most recently in September 1999 under the direction of Kurt Masur as the soloist in Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

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