11 Jan 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Semyon Bychkov

Menahem Pressler

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G major, K. 453 (41 min.)

    Menahem Pressler Piano

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 11 in G minor, op. 103 “The Year 1905” (67 min.)

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    Menahem Pressler in conversation with Carolin Pirich (25 min.)

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    Semyon Bychkov in conversation with Madeleine Carruzzo (18 min.)

Pianist Menahem Pressler, co-founder of the fabled Beaux Arts Trio – which existed for 53 years, longer than any other internationally prominent chamber ensemble – is himself a living legend. At 17 this shooting star with a “talent for luck” won the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco (its distinguished jury included the recent French émigré Darius Milhaud). His debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy was followed by an impressive international solo career and, from summer 1955 with the Beaux Arts Trio’s debut – a no less impressive career as a chamber musician. In this concert, the 90-year-old grand seigneur of the piano makes a guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, dedicated to a concerto by one of his favourite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

On the rostrum accompanying Pressler is Semyon Bychkov, who in the programme’s second half conducts Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Completed in the aftermath of the suppressed Hungarian uprising, it seems to foretell a fate for the ossified Soviet Union similar to that of the ossified Russian Empire. It was Herbert von Karajan who mentioned Bychkov as a possible successor in Berlin after hearing one of his Shostakovich recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker. “I did not experience the mass terror of the Soviet Union as Shostakovich did”, says Bychkov. “But I can nonetheless imagine the conditions under which he lived, and can identify with them.”

“The unforced word of liberty”

Music by Mozart and Shostakovich

In February 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart rang in a new era, for himself. Although he had already created more than 400 compositions in his 28 years, he now instituted a volume in which he would henceforth meticulously record what he had composed and when. Mozart called this complete thematic catalogue Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke and the act of setting it up seems almost symbolic, testifying to the growth of his self-confidence and his resolve to document something that would endure beyond his own day. Mozart’s new self-image was entirely justified: since leaving the detested service of Salzburg’s prince-archbishop Colloredo on 8 June 1781 and establishing himself as a freelance artist in Vienna – “the best place in the world for my metier” – his star had indeed risen to considerable heights. Performing his piano concertos, in particular, he succeeded in delighting and dumbfounding the cream of Viennese society. In spring 1784 alone, he created the four great concertos K. 449, 450, 451 and 453 as well as appearing as pianist in 22 academies (private concerts) and burnishing his reputation as a sought-after (and extremely well-remunerated) piano teacher.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453: Artist monograms and astonishing surprises

Then 18 years old, Barbara Ployer was apparently one of Mozart’s most gifted pupils: for her he wrote not only the E flat major Concerto K. 449 but also its companion work in G major, K. 453, completed on 12 April 1784. It opens with a marchlike stylized rhythm on the violins, a trademark that Mozart especially favoured and repeatedly employed like a monogram of his art. Soloist and orchestra encounter each other in this opening movement in a harmonically advanced chamber-musical interplay: in the development section Mozart moves through the astonishing number of 13 different keys. And as if that weren’t unorthodox enough, he flouts the conventions of a classical concerto-sonata movement by granting the piano a third theme of its own. The Andante is every bit as full of surprises. A perceived idyll is undermined by sudden minor-key episodes with the effect of painful incursion. Such abrupt transformations are Mozart’s very own speciality. By contrast, the high-spirited, almost farcical finale, especially its coda, would do credit to any opera buffa.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony – a timeless plea for the ideals of equality, freedom and fraternity

Dmitri Shostakovich once declared that most of his symphonies were gravestones for all those compatriots who lost their lives in the Stalinist terror. Music became a filter for his own anxieties: “Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life. Many pages of my music are devoted to it.” He repeatedly had to endure the party’s approval of his works followed by their sudden disappearance from the repertoire, the bestowal of prizes followed shortly by dismissal from his official posts. Bullied by the omnipresent Soviet cultural bureaucracy, the composer saw himself forced into a double strategy. On the one hand, he was obliged to deliver music that complied with the maxims of socialist realism, for example the oratorio Song of the Forests or the cantata The Sun Shines over our Motherland. On the other, it was only by paying this tribute that he could buy himself the freedom to compose what he really cared about as well.

Certain of Shostakovich’s works, however, are not so easy to classify in one group or the other. The Eleventh Symphony is such a case. The occasion of its premiere on 30 October 1957 – the Moscow celebration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution – as well as its title, The Year 1905 – dealing with the mercilessly suppressed revolt against the tsarist system– could initially arouse suspicion that Shostakovich was paying homage to the Soviet rulers. As his score quotes extensively from various revolutionary songs which anyone at the time still could have sung along with, supplying the corresponding text in his or her inner ear, he had apparently found a perfect means of fulfilling socialist realism’s demands for art being comprehensible and accessible. On second glance, however, it isn’t quite so straightforward. In principle, Shostakovich fully sympathized with the revolutionaries’ original ideals, which only became perverted in the course of Soviet and, particularly, Stalinist history, taking on an inhuman hybrid form. For that very reason, however, it was a personal imperative for him to recall the movement’s noble roots and its historical necessity. “This chapter in the chronicle of our country is very close to my heart,” Shostakovich revealed, referring to the year 1905 in the periodical Sovietskaya Muzyka: “It has found powerfully expressive resonance in the revolutionary workers’ songs.”

The Palace Square is Shostakovich’s title for the Eleventh’s very static first movement, which captures the icy atmosphere of the political climate. Three themes mark the musical proceedings. In the first, the strings intone the hymn “Lord, have mercy on us”, giving expression to whatever hope still remained. The second theme, adumbrated by the timpani and trumpet before being presented in full by the flute, quotes a song of Siberian forced labourers. In the same vein, the third main idea, first heard on the basses, is based on a tune from the 1860s called The Convict. This is music of foreboding, and in the second movement (The 9th of January), the disaster is unleashed. Shostakovich had already composed a work about St. Petersburg’s “Bloody Sunday”, a poem for a cappella chorus op. 88 No. 6, from which he now derives two melodies. A martial fugato symbolizing the fleeing masses and percussion salvos then graphically depict the brutal massacre by tsarist guards.

The Adagio headed In memoriam follows without break, a dirge in which Shostakovich cites the song “You fell as victims”. Also heard, in the movement’s middle section, is the revolutionary song “Hail, unforced word of liberty”, though in a slightly altered version that lends the musical language in this passage a more optimistic, hymnlike character. In the finale, entitled Tocsin (Alarm Bell), it becomes obvious that the brutal suppression of a demonstration could in no way frustrate the ideas of justice and freedom. Again Shostakovich introduces several relevant melodies as evidence: for instance, the Ukrainian battle song “Rage, tyrants” or Varshavyanka, best known as the Polish workers’ “Marseillaise”.

“I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history,” Shostakovich is quoted as saying by Solomon Volkov in Testimony, his publication of the composer’s memoirs. “I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” The Hungarians had just been disabused of their belief in the blessings of Communism – their uprising was famously put down by the invasion of the Soviet army. Listening to the Eleventh with this in mind, it becomes almost impossible to understand it as an obsequious 40th-birthday present to the Glorious Bolshevik Revolution.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Richard Evidon

Semyon Bychkov, born in Leningrad, was a pupil of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire. In 1973, he won First Prize at the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Since leaving Russia in 1975 and moving to the USA, he has enjoyed a career taking him from New York’s Mannes College of Music to engagements for international opera productions (eg. in Milano, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, London, Chicago, New York, at the Salzburg Festival and Maggio Musicale in Florence), as well as concerts with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Bychkov was appointed Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (1989–98), Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1990–94) and of Maggio Musicale in Florence (1992–98). From the season 1997/98 until 2010, he was Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchesters Köln, a position he also held at the Dresden Semperoper from 1999 to 2003. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985, stepping in for Riccardo Muti at short notice, Semyon Bychkov has returned several times for guest conducting engagements. His most recent visit was in September 2011, when he conducted works by Luciano Berio and William Walton. His recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with the Berliner Philharmoniker was the winner of the Belgian Caecilia Award and StereoReview’s “Record of the Year”.

Menahem Pressler was born in Magdeburg in 1923 and emigrated to Israel in 1939, where he studied piano with, among others, Eliahu Rudiakov and Leo Kestenberg. After being awarded first prize at the International Debussy Competition in San Francisco in 1946, he made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra (conductor: Eugene Ormandy). Numerous appearances with major international orchestras in the U.S. and Europe followed. Menahem Pressler had already been pursuing a successful solo career for almost 10 years when he began his unprecedented career as a chamber musician: As a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, with which he made his debut at the Berkshire Music Festival in 1955, the artist was the sole pianist associated with the trio for 55 years. The legendary piano trio, which ultimately also included Daniel Hope (violin) and Antonio Meneses, continued performing until 2008. In addition to his concerts with the Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler also played many concerts with the Juilliard String Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, the Guarneri Quartet, the Cleveland Quartet, the Israel Quartet and the Pasquier String Trio. For nearly 60 years, he has taught at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, most recently with the rank of “Distinguished Professor”. He has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Nebraska, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the North Carolina School of the Arts, to name but a few. Menahem Pressler’s further awards include the “Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award” and the “Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters”. In 2005, the musician was named “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture, and in the same year he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany 1st Class. In September 2012, Menahem Pressler was granted German nationality. This is his first appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

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