Zubin Mehta and Rudolf Buchbinder with Beethoven and Strauss

25 Jan 2014
In memory of Claudio Abbado

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

Rudolf Buchbinder

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 5: Adagietto (12 min.)

  • Anton Webern
    Six Pieces for orchestra, op. 6b (revised 1928 version) (14 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major, op. 73 (41 min.)

    Rudolf Buchbinder Piano

  • Richard Strauss
    Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), op. 40 (53 min.)

  • free

    Zubin Mehta in conversation with Martin Stegner (11 min.)

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Cladio Abbado who had died a few days before on 20 January 2014. A minute’s silence was followed by an addition to the programme, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The conductor is Zubin Mehta who had been a close friend of Abbado for over fifty years.

With the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the Berliner Philharmoniker pay special tribute to Abbado as a great Mahler interpreter who conducted the orchestra in many unforgettable performances of Mahler’s symphonies.

Claudio Abbado also had a deep understanding of works of the Second Viennese School. The delicate fragility of Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, which Abbado conducted several times during his Berlin years, particularly reflected his ideal of a transparent sound. The Six Pieces were inspired by the death of Webern’s mother; the fourth piece is a stylised funeral march.

In Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto – with Rudolf Buchbinder as the soloist – the mood becomes triumphantly heroic, continuing in this spirit during Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Although Abbado’s interpretations were also characterised by emphatic intensity, even in moments of musical self-certainty they never lost their sense of compassion.

Autobiography in Music?

Works by Anton Webern, Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss

Musical psychogram – Anton Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces op. 6

His mother’s death in September 1906 was a traumatic experience for the 23-year-old Webern, leaving deep imprints in his life and works. During the summer months of 1909 he composed a series of orchestral pieces that were later published as his Opus 6. A few weeks after the premiere, Webern revealed the composition’s autobiographical programme to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg: “The first piece expresses my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive. It was a beautiful day – for a minute I believed quite firmly that nothing had happened. Only during the train ride to Carinthia – it was on the afternoon of the same day – did I learn the truth. The third piece conveys the impression of the fragrance of the erica heather, which I gathered at a spot in the forest that was very meaningful to me and then laid on the bier. The fourth piece I later entitled marcia funebre. Even today I do not understand my feelings as I walked behind the coffin to the cemetery.”

The content of this private disclosure was apparently not intended for the public, and so the Vienna premiere of the Six Orchestral Pieces took place without any indication of the music’s autobiographical dimension. Two decades later, Webern penned a brief programme note that alluded to this aspect of his expressionistic musical psychogram, though, significantly, in generalized rather than autobiographical terms: “The pieces ... represent short song forms, mostly tripartite. There are no thematic connections, not even within the individual pieces. I consciously avoided such connections because I was aiming at a constantly changing mode of expression. To describe in brief the character of these pieces, purely lyrical in nature: the first expresses the anticipation of a catastrophe; the second, the certainty of its materializing; the third, the most delicate contrast; it serves as introduction to the fourth, a funeral march; five and six are an epilogue: remembrance and resignation.”

“... nothing around me but cannons …” – Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven’s attitude to the French Revolution and its palpable political repercussions throughout Europe was an uneasy mixture of patriotism and republicanism. Probably the most striking evidence of this ambivalence can be found in the famous story of the Eroica’s dedication. Originally written as a mythologizing tribute to the freedom fighter Napoleon Bonaparte, the Third Symphony’s inscription was scratched out by Beethoven in May 1804 after he learned that the First Consul of the French Republic had proclaimed himself Emperor.In spite of his profound disillusionment over this act of self-glorification, Beethoven’s attitude towards post-Revolutionary France and its great political leader remained ambivalent for a number of years.

Political circumstances explain why the score of Symphony No. 3 was finally published in 1809 without the dedication to Napoleon. In spring of that year, Bonaparte’s troops were massed at the gates of Vienna for the second time, following the French-Austrian war of 1805. Whereas the imperial family and high aristocracy had been taken to safety in time, Beethoven could only escape the ear-splitting cannon roar by fleeing into the cellar of his apartment building. Although Vienna capitulated after heavy shelling on 13 May 1809, the war went on. On 26 July Beethoven reported to his Leipzig publishers Breitkopf & Härtel: “What a destructive, desolate life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons and human misery in every form.”

These extraordinarily vexing external circumstances did not, however, keep Beethoven from his work. Most of the Fifth Piano Concerto, familiarly known as the “Emperor”, was written in the first half of 1809. The manuscript reflects the composer’s patriotic emotions heightened by the occupation. Under the opening bars of the slow middle movement is the entry “Österreich löhne Napoleon” (“May Austria get even with Napoleon”). And even in the music there seems to be an underlying reverberation of war. While a vision of celestial peace appears in the Adagio’s hymnlike song – a sort of antithetical counterpart to the violent reality – warlike sounds can repeatedly be heard in the outer movements. This play with elements of military music is already in evidence at the work’s opening. The monumental first movement’s heroically thrusting main theme exhibits essential features of a march. And the sense of menace is still present at the end of the final rondo. The last written-out piano cadenza in the codetta is accompanied by a barely audible but relentlessly throbbing timpani rhythm.

“… admittedly without a funeral march, but it is in E flat” – Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben

The continuing impact of Beethoven’s Eroica and his heroic style in the 19th century and beyond can hardly be overestimated. Webern, under the influence of a concert performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony in November 1904, commented: “An Eroica would inevitably appear again, one that is younger by 100 years.” While Webern’s diary entry formulated something utopian, Richard Strauss had already begun to explore the category of heroism in music a few years earlier. He was, of course, perfectly aware that in doing so there was no getting around Beethoven. So he took the bull by the horns and in July 1898 explained in an ironic letter to the critic Otto Leßmann: “As Beethoven’s Eroica is so very unpopular among our conductors and therefore seldom performed any more, I’m composing a large tone poem to fill the urgent need. It’s called Hero’s Life (admittedly without a funeral march, but it is in E flat and has plenty of horns, which are just the thing for heroism).”

In composing this work for huge forces, playing for some three quarters of an hour, Strauss devised his own programme, evidenced by numerous indications in the sketches associating the musical content with the fate of a hero. The energetic, aspirational main theme represents the protagonist, while his adversaries are depicted in the parodying use of woodwind and brass in the second formal section. Strauss’s annotations confirm that the drafted programme was not limited to fictitious elements but also has an autobiographical dimension. The composer calls the hero’s two opponents “yappers” and “critics”, terms suggesting that he was ironically portraying hostile reviewers and conductors as well as envious composers. The autobiographical reading is reinforced musically as the work progresses: in the reprise-like fifth large section Strauss quotes numerous themes from his earlier works. He also, however, assured the writer Romain Rolland that Ein Heldenleben could be understood without any extensive programmatic explanations. It suffices completely to be aware of the work’s basic constellation: the hero versus his enemies.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Richard Evidon

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961; he last conducted the orchestra only a few days ago in works by Bruckner and Crumb. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to Western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a new project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rudolf Buchbinder performs worldwide with all the major orchestras and conductors, and is a regular guest at the Salzburg and other important festivals. His extensive repertoire focuses mainly on Classical and Romantic works but also includes a number of 20th century composers. Rudolf Buchbinder attaches great importance to the meticulous research of source materials, and owns a large number of first editions and original documents. One particular example: the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, which he has performed as a cycle in over 40 cities (including Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Milan, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Beijing). More than 100 records and CDs document the diversity of Buchbinder’s repertoire. In particular, his recording of the complete works for piano by Joseph Haydn caused a sensation and was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque. In the 2010/2011 season, the pianist was artist in residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden. The recording of his Beethoven sonata cycle at the Semperoper in Dresden was also awarded several prizes. Since 2007, Rudolf Buchbinder has also been artistic director of the Grafenegg Festival. He first appeared as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in early July 1975 with the Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. At the invitation of the Foundation, he performed Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie under the baton of Lawrence Foster in the Berlin Philharmonie in April 2009.

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