Berliner Philharmoniker
Alan Gilbert

Thomas Zehetmair

  • Witold Lutosławski
    Symphony No. 4 (00:23:13)

  • Leoš Janáček
    Violin Concerto Putování dušičky (The Pilgrimage of a Little Soul) (00:20:08)

    Thomas Zehetmair Violin

  • Béla Bartók
    The Wooden Prince, Ballet Music (01:04:23)

  • free

    Thomas Zehetmair in conversation with Eva-Maria Tomasi (00:13:14)

“The man at the conductor’s desk ... bristled with musicality and interpretive single-mindedness,” wrote the Berliner Morgenpost after Alan Gilbert conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2006. The American, who today is music director of the New York and Stockholm Philharmonic, stepped in at short notice for an indisposed Bernard Haitink. His debut was so successful that further invitations followed in 2009 and 2011.

In this concert, Alan Gilbert conducts works whose creators contributed significantly to the musical identity of their country: Witold Lutosławski rose after the Second World War to become Poland’s leading composer. Stylistically, he initially looked to Bartók and Stravinsky, and later also to John Cage. His Fourth Symphony shows that he has roots in yet another tradition, the music of Claude Debussy.

For the Hungarian Béla Bartók, melody, rhythm and folk music harmonies were a major source of inspiration. However, the references are often – as in his ballet The Wooden Prince – rather subtle. The composer deals with an existential theme: the contrasting natures of men and women. The Czech Leoš Janáček was at the height of his fame when, in 1926, he started to write a violin concerto with the title The Wandering of a Little Soul. The work remained a fragment and was reconstructed for performance decades later. Major themes from this highly expressive piece were used by Janáček in the overture of his final opera From the House of the Dead.

Symphonic No-Man’s-Land?

Lutosławski reinvented the symphony. Janáček and Bartók were masters of other genres.

Was it sheer defiance of death that made Witold Lutosławski tackle a symphony in 1941? The chances that the composer would survive the war, that there would even be a Poland or a Polish culture afterwards, were extremely slim. Even at best, Lutosławski could have ended up in the “field of dishonour” with his symphony – like nearly every Polish composer before him. It was by no means a compositional suicide mission that Lutosławski embarked on in 1941, however. He did not see himself in an explicitly Polish tradition but intended to break new ground. Work on his First Symphony dragged on until 1947, but then the inevitable happened: the work was denounced as “formalist” by the new rulers and taken off concert programmes. Lutosławski’s abstractly progressive Second Symphony met with incomprehension for the most part in 1967. After years of work, the Third Symphony was completed in 1983, at a time when martial law was in force in Poland and Lutosławski shunned all public appearances in order to avoid being photographed with General Jaruzelski’s functionaries. Only the Fourth Symphony (1988–1992), his penultimate work, was composed in an atmosphere of freedom, without avant-gardist pressure to conform or political reprisals. You can hear that in the work.

Witold Lutosławski: Fourth Symphony

The Fourth Symphony fulfils the desire that Lutosławski had already expressed while composing his First Symphony and that may also have been his strongest impetus for turning to this musical genre, which was so problematic in Poland. He wanted to combine the harmonic colour of Debussy and Ravel with more sophisticated formal elements. The mere fact that the Fourth Symphony opens with a melody (in the clarinet) indicates a return to expressiveness, which was long subordinate to structural processes in Lutosławski’s works. The first movement gives way to an “ad libitum” section in the thirteenth bar. During these sections it is left to the discretion of the orchestra or individual instrumentalists to decide when and how often the notated passages will be played – the conductor is directed to lower the baton. After a passage characterized by feverish string sounds and trumpet calls, the orchestra briefly returns to the earlier tone with the entrance of the piano. This is followed by another – this time longer – ad libitum section with harp and woodwind solos, then, after another caesura by the piano, the strings bring the main theme to an emotional climax rarely encountered in contemporary music. A vehement, convulsive staccato motif in nearly every instrument and a chaotic ad libitum section culminate in three abrupt tutti blows.

The second movement, more than twice as long as the first, follows without a break. Its opening – featuring ecstatic, jubilant woodwinds over harmonically straightforward, falling string figures – has a wonderfully magical effect. This movement is a highly complex, densely woven contrapuntal fabric combining animated solos with fatalistic brass hymns and expressive sostenuto singing in the strings. A brisk coda concludes the work – not exactly optimistically, but a far cry from the dark-hued clarinet melody of the opening, which is heard several times during the second movement.

Leoš Janáček: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Although he was an ardent supporter of Dvořák, whose symphonies he conducted several times in Brno, the symphonic tradition had no importance for Leoš Janáček whatsoever, not even the Czech nationalist tradition. During his student days in Leipzig, when he pursued the ideals of academic conservatism, he briefly hit upon the idea of composing a symphony himself but did not get further than a scherzo, completed in 1880. He did not approach this genre again until the final years of his life, but these later works also represented a distancing from the form, as is clear from the Sinfonietta (1926), which is a divertimento-like, five-movement homage to his adopted city of Brno. The unfinished four-movement symphony entitled Danube (1923–1925) would have differed significantly from the model of Viennese Classicism in its final form; it was intended as a programmatic alternative to Smetana’s Moldau.

The catalogue of Janáček’s orchestral works lists no titles in traditional genres at all. The closest it comes is a Concertino (1925), which is actually a piano septet. He stopped work on a violin concerto, for which he began making sketches in 1924, as soon as he became interested in the subject of his last opera, From the House of the Dead. Two musicologists and composers completed the violin concerto in 1988 and published the work under the title Janáček gave it, The Wandering of a Little Soul.

The theme, presented immediately in the opening Andante by the violin, which is joined by the double basses and percussion, takes the form of a chirping melody in the march section, before giving way to a melody with the exuberant character so typical of Janáček. The second half of the movement is dominated for the most part by a majestic theme that is well-known from the overture to From the House of the Dead. We are dependent on hearsay in the search for a thematic relationship between the opera and the concerto: Janáček supposedly saw a man die during a strike as he was working on the concerto in London in 1926.

Béla Bartók: The Wooden Prince

Béla Bartók composed six string quartets and six solo concertos, and he also explored the symphonic genre more extensively than Janáček. He broke off work on a symphony in E flat major that was influenced by classical models and Richard Strauss in 1903, and the symphonic poem Kossuth from the same year again paid homage to the composer of Heldenleben, but Bartók then began to choose other forms for his orchestral works.

From 1904 onwards, this development was dominated thematically by a stronger interest in peasant folklore, although it did not preclude avant-gardist tendencies. In 1911 Bartók composed his music drama Bluebeard’s Castle, which was rejected by the Budapest Opera as unplayable. As compensation Bartók was commissioned to write a ballet. He took his time in fulfilling this promising commission; the ballet The Wooden Prince was not performed until 1917. This score also presented the performers with almost insurmountable challenges, however. The musicians were defiant, no Hungarian conductor could be found who was willing to take charge of the rehearsals for the ballet, and no choreographer was available. Fortunately, the Italian conductor Egisto Tango, who happened to be in Budapest, could be enlisted for the work. Out of necessity, the librettist Béla Bálazs, who had also written the libretto for Bluebeard’s Castle, took over the direction. After the ballet’s enormously successful premiere, the way was also clear for Bartók’s opera.

Bartók fashioned a highly idiosyncratic score for The Wooden Prince from the stylistic trends of his day. Impressionistically refined tone and expressionistically intensified atmospheric colour, the late Romantic sumptuousness of the strings and shrill, grotesque effects of the winds and percussion instruments ensure that the listener follows the work as attentively as a symphony – as with Stravinsky’s ballets, an understanding of the extramusical programme is not essential for listening pleasure.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Alan Gilbert has been music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season, the first person to hold the post born in New York. He was taught the violin by his parents from an early age, then Gilbert first studied composition at Harvard and at the New England Conservatory of Music. After completing his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School in New York, he worked for several years as a violinist and violist before taking to the conductors stand in 1995. From January 2000 until June 2008, Alan Gilbert was chief conductor and artistic advisor at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom, as conductor laureate, he still has close ties. From 2003 to 2006, he was music director of Santa Fe Opera, and in 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg. Alan Gilbert has conducted productions at leading opera houses and has performed with orchestras such as the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Orchestre de Paris, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin as well as the most prestigious orchestras in the USA and Japan. Alan Gilbert conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2006, and most recently in April 2011, with works by Berg, Mozart and Strawinsky. In September 2011, Alan Gilbert became Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, where he is also the first holder of Juilliard’s William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies. His awards include the Georg Solti Award, the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, and was named a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music; in 2010 he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Curtis Institute of Music.

Thomas Zehetmairstudied at the Mozarteum in his home town of Salzburg and was a student of Max Rostal and Nathan Milstein. At the age of 16 the violinist made his debut at the Salzburg Festival, and the following year, he won first prize at the International Mozart Competition. Since then, Thomas Zehetmair has appeared in the major concert halls in Europe and the U.S., and has worked as a soloist with internationally leading orchestras and conductors. The performance of contemporary music is a key area in the work of the violinist: In recent years, he has premiered violin concertos by Heinz Holliger, James Dillon, Hans-Jürgen von Bose and Hans Christian Bartel. Among Thomas Zehetmair’s many chamber music activities are appearances with the Zehetmair Quartet which he founded himself, and as a duo with the violist Ruth Killius. The musician, who enjoys equal success as a conductor, has led the Northern Sinfonia in England since the autumn of 2002, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra since the beginning of the 2010/2011 season. In 2011, he conducted at the Salzburg Festival for the first time. Both the Liszt School of Music Weimar and Newcastle University have awarded him an honorary doctorate. Since 1985, Thomas Zehetmair has appeared on many occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in 2009, when he played Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin Concerto (conductor: Heinz Holliger).

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