Gustavo Dudamel conducts Beethoven, Schubert and Stravinsky

06 Dec 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustavo Dudamel

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Suite No. 1 for small orchestra (5 min.)

  • Franz Schubert
    Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 (39 min.)

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Suite No. 2 for small orchestra (8 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60 (43 min.)

  • free

    Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with Sarah Willis (8 min.)

  • free

    Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with Edicson Ruiz (9 min.)

Gustavo Dudamel has two completely contrasting role models: “Herbert von Karajan because of his discipline. And Leonard Bernstein – a man who took risks and was full of emotion.” The charismatic Venezuelan is now known around the world for precision and emotional expression – a thoroughbred musician who is praised to the skies by his mentors Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle – “the most talented and fascinating conductor I know,” says Sir Simon.

In addition to Igor Stravinsky’s Suites No. 1 and No. 2 with “Valse”, “Polka” and “Galop”, Gustavo Dudamel conducts two symphonies at his guest performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker: Franz Schubert’s Fourth in C minor D 417, in which the composer, by returning to Haydnesque models, consciously wanted to distance himself from Beethoven’s symphonic works, in which the slow middle movement unfurls an unending flow of melody in song-like cantabile, a typical moment in Schubertian composition.

The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in B flat major op. 60, which in Robert Schumann’s words appears like a “svelte Greek maid between two Nordic giants” (the Symphonies Three and Five), whereas “Greek” may stand in the first instance for “classical”, thus “in keeping with the known form”, which is by all means the case here. The attribute “svelte” also appropriately describes this music because the work makes use of fewer voices than all other Beethoven symphonies and deploys the woodwind instruments in a truly intimate manner reminiscent of chamber music.

Grecian Beauty, Pathos and Wit

Substantial symphonies and amusing miniatures

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony: an often-undervalued work

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60 was largely written in 1806, the remarkably productive year that also saw the composition of other outstanding works such as the “Appassionata” Sonata (op. 57), the Fourth Piano Concerto (op. 58), the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (op. 59) and the Violin Concerto (op. 61). The symphony was first heard at a private concert in March 1807 at the Vienna palace of Prince Lobkowitz. Its first public performance took place at one of the “Concerts for Music-Lovers” given later in the year in the auditorium of Vienna University. Reviewing the work in January 1808, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig wrote: “Beethoven’s symphony ... received a great deal of ... well-deserved applause. The first Allegro is very beautiful, fiery and rich in harmony, and the minuet and trio also have a distinct, original character. In the Adagio one might sometimes wish that the melody were not so much divided up between the various instruments ...”

When one regards the Fourth – which was often characterized by such harmless attributes as “slender Grecian”, “homage to the 18th century” and “unalloyed bliss” – as a link between the “revolutionary” Third and the “dramatic” Fifth, it can be interpreted as the composer’s retreat from symphonic expansiveness. In the “Eroica”, Beethoven had made unprecedented demands which his listeners were not always able to meet; the work elicited many negative reactions. This time he opted for more modest dimensions, while relying more heavily on the Viennese Classical tradition and cleaving again to Haydn and Mozart with smaller orchestral forces.

The first movement is introduced by a dark-hued, mysterious Adagio that contrasts starkly with the main Allegro vivace. The following gently treading Adagio, with its four “passes” through the opening melody, is based on a highly individual treatment of “concatenation”, the formal chain principle. Its indication in the first printed versions notwithstanding, the third movement is a scherzo, not a minuet. Here, too, Beethoven handles the traditional form freely, repeating the trio as well as the main section before the coda and thereby lending the trio more weight. The finale is dominated by semiquaver (16th-note) perpetual motion. In his book On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies (1906), the conductor-composer Felix Weingartner warns against a “wrong” interpretation of this lively Allegro, ma non troppo: “The humour of this delightful piece is quite destroyed however if the ‘ma non troppo’ is not observed and it is played like the final Presto of one of Haydn’s last symphony movements. It must not only be begun at a comparatively quiet tempo, but this tempo must be maintained throughout so that the piquant play of the semiquavers does not degenerate into banality. The great charm of this movement lies precisely in the contrast between the moderate tempo and the animated figuration. It gives an impression of speed without really being played quickly.”

Schubert’s Fourth Symphony: a work by one who matured young

Franz Schubert composed the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 in Vienna in April 1816, but it was not performed until 19 November 1849, at the Leipzig bookseller’s exchange, where it was conducted by August Ferdinand Riccius. Schubert biographer-scholar Alfred Einstein described the Fourth Symphony as “a work of his unsettling by Beethoven – the Beethoven of C minor works, especially the String Quartet op. 18 No. 4 and the Coriolan Overture”. Whereas Mozart and Haydn were clearly the models for Schubert’s first three symphonies – Rossini’s influence has also been detected – in the Fourth he confronts Beethoven. The subtitle “Tragic” that the composer later added to the autograph score has led to differing interpretations of the work.

Commentators will have found the epithets “tragic” or “pathetic” (musicologist Harry Goldschmidt) especially applicable to the weighty introduction (Adagio molto), modelled after those in Haydn’s mature symphonies. Although Schubert’s distinctive voice is more apparent in the ensuing main movement (Allegro vivace), with its lyrical subsidiary theme, that section also exhibits a stylistic dualism, especially noticeable in the dynamics: “This is not yet Beethovenian”, wrote Alfred Einstein “but rather Haydnesque or Mozartian in the stark alternation of loud and soft.” Einstein found the Andante, which dispenses with trumpets, timpani and the second pair of horns, expansive and too lyrical, “yet, for all its breadth and weaknesses, a foretaste of the slow movement of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony”. The brief third movement (Allegro vivace) is still labelled “Menuetto” but is in fact a scherzo, clearly indebted to Beethoven’s, in particular the scherzo movement of his Fourth Symphony. This and its playful cross-rhythms, alternating groups of two and three crotchets (quarter notes). But Schubert’s great model is most strikingly recalled in the final Allegro, “full of Beethovenian rhythms and emphatic orchestral crescendi” (Einstein).

Formally and technically, Schubert is in full command of his craft in this symphony, and any reservations or critical judgements should be tempered by recalling that this is the creation of a 19-year-old, one who matured early and was working his way towards producing a “grand symphony”. To measure it against perceived milestones by predecessors is questionable and does an injustice to Schubert’s composition. Rather one should bear in mind Stefan Kunze’s observation: “It is sometimes difficult, particularly in Symphonies Nos. 1 to 4, to detect a specifically Schubertian touch, the compelling power of his melodies and harmonic language. These works of youthful genius are, however, not at all empty or academically conventional.”

Stravinsky’s Suites for Small Orchestra: musical finger exercises

The two suites that Igor Stravinsky arranged for small orchestra in 1921 and 1925 are occasional works and musical finger exercises for a composer who loved instrumentation. They originated as piano pieces for children. In 1914–15, Stravinsky wrote Three Easy Pieces for piano duet: March, Waltz and Polka. He supplemented them in 1916–17 with another Five Easy Pieces for piano duet: Andante, Española, Balalaïka, Napolitana and Galop – with a simplified right hand for the first player.

In his Dialogues with Robert Craft, Stravinsky revealed: “I wrote the Polka first, as a caricature of the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, whom I saw as a circus animal-trainer cracking a long whip.” In 1915 he played the Polka to Diaghilev and the composer Alfredo Casella in a hotel room in Milan, and later he remembered “how amazed both men were that the composer of Le Sacre du printemps should have produced such a piece of popcorn ... But Casella was so genuinely enthusiastic about the Polka that I promised to write a little piece for him, too. This, the March, was composed immediately on my return to Morges.” The “ice-cream wagon” Waltz à la hurdy-gurdy was created in homage to Erik Satie. Stravinsky wrote the Española after a visit to Spain, the Napolitana following a trip to Naples. Balalaïka and Galop are recollections of the composer’s Russian homeland, the latter being “a caricature of the St. Petersburg version of the Folies Bergères”.

Stravinsky orchestrated the Waltz in 1917, the March, Polka and Galop in 1921, and these four pieces were later published as the Second Suite. The First Suite, published around the same time, comprises orchestrations of the Andante, Napolitana, Española and Balalaïka that he made in 1925. The instrumentations, which turn the children’s pieces into “grown-up” music, are good examples of the wit and light touch in Stravinsky’s French-inflected style. They are undeservedly seldom heard in concert, but tonight they function as an overture and entr’acte to a “Classical” programme.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Gustavo Dudamel was only twenty-three when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition organized by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Since then he has become an iconic figure in the world of classical music. He was born in Barquisimeto in Venezuela in 1981 and trained as a conductor, violinist and composer: he studied the violin with José Francisco del Castillo at the Latin American Academy for the Violin and took lessons in conducting with Rodolfo Saglimbeni and José Antonio Abreu. Since 1999 he has been music director of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and together they have appeared four times in the Berlin Philharmonie. He is honorary conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, where he served as principal conductor from 2007 until 2012. Since the 2009/10 season he is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel is actively involved in the education programmes of both these orchestras. In addition, he is a regular guest conductor with the Philharmonia of London, Milan’s La Scala and the Vienna Philharmonic. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its annual Waldbühne Concert in June 2008; he last appeared with the orchestra at the beginning of February 2013 conducting works by Barber, Bartók and Strauss. His many distinctions include the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Music Award for Young Artists (2007). Dudamel was inducted into “l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” as a Chevalier in Paris in 2009 and into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 2011. He has been named Musical America’s 2013 Musician of the Year.

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