A Schumann evening with Simon Rattle and Mitsuko Uchida

13 Feb 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida

  • Robert Schumann
    Concert Piece for four horns and large orchestra in F major, op. 86 (21 min.)

    Stefan Dohr Horn, Radek Baborák Horn, Stefan de Leval Jezierski Horn, Sarah Willis Horn

  • Robert Schumann
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, op. 54 (34 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Symphony in one movement (second version from 1953) (17 min.)

  • Robert Schumann
    Symphony No. 4 in D minor, op. 120 (first version from 1841) (28 min.)

  • free

    Mitsuko Uchida in conversation with Sarah Willis (17 min.)

Robert Schumann’s D minor Symphony is one of the works which he revised in later years, thus depriving it of several brilliant ideas in the opinion of some critics. The original version was composed in 1841, immediately following the First Symphony. Schumann set it aside after the unsuccessful premiere, however, and did not publish the revision until ten years later, as his fourth and last symphony. Johannes Brahms published the original version after Schumann’s death, against the will of his widow Clara: “Anyone who hears it is of my opinion that the score has gained nothing from being revised; it has certainly lost grace, lightness and clarity.” An opinion shared by Sir Simon Rattle, who has preferred the first version of the work for several years and also conducted it at this concert in February 2009.

Several features of the symphony, such as the thematic connections between movements and the unconventional new emphasis on elements of sonata form, also characterize Schumann’s only piano concerto, composed in 1841 as well, which has been interpreted as a poetic declaration of love to Clara. Mitsuko Uchida, for many years one of the most loyal and closest musical partners of Sir Simon and the Philharmoniker, is heard as soloist in this recording.

The Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, the third Schumann work on this programme, is rarely heard, despite its beauty and originality, because it is not easy to find four hornists for the demanding solo parts. As in several other programmes during the 2008/2009 season, compositions by Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann were also juxtaposed in this concert. The Symphony from 1953 is one of Zimmermann’s early works inspired by Arnold Schoenberg, and integrates the elements of the symphonic model with several movements into a single movement. Schumann strived for something similar in his Fourth Symphony. Thus, the two composers on this concert programme resemble each other not only because of their sometimes depressive temperaments but also in their relentless search for new forms.

Two Originals

Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann

They have much in common, these two composers. Their lifetimes are separated by 100 years, yet a sort of recapitulation is suggested when the later of the pair like the earlier is constantly deprived of recognition by his contemporaries, when both seek a role in the formative events of their respective times only to withdraw in discouragement, when both are left with only one possible solution: suicide. Then, of course, there are also their similar multiple-personality structures, the Faustian “two souls”: Schumann slipped alternately into the roles of the impulsive Florestan and the pensive Eusebius, while Zimmermann described himself as “a mixture of monk and Dionysius, a typical Rhinelander”.

Creating a concrete musical work, however, requires some external stimulus. In the case of the Konzertstück (Concert Piece) in F major for 4 horns and orchestra, op.86 by Robert Schumann, it came from the horn players of the Dresden Court Orchestra. Just preceding this work were the Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, composed in a few days in February 1849 and performed by Julius Schlitterlau with Schumann’s wife Clara at the keyboard. The next day, Schumann tackled a “4-horn piece”, quickly sketched it and, by 11 March, scored it. Rudolph Levy, the senior member of the Court Orchestra’s horn section, had assembled a quartet for the purpose, but it took them until mid-October to come to terms with the work’s enormous technical demands. When the premiere with orchestra finally took place on 25 February 1850, it was in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and its horn quartet. The good feeling that Schuman had while composing it – in April 1849 he wrote that it seemed to him one of his best pieces and “made with passion” – was confirmed: “friendly reception”, entered the composer in his diary.

Astonishingly, Schumann conceived only a single concerto for “his” instrument. There were already a number of trial runs during his early years in Zwickau and in 1839 the Konzertsatz (Concerto Movement) in D minor. Then, two years later, came the Phantasie in A minor, to which he added two movements in 1845, creating the Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54. His hesitation can be explained by a predilection for single-movement form as the most suitable means of unifying symphonies, concertos and sonatas. In fact, the first movement, the aforementioned Phantasie, represents a self-contained cycle (introduction, two fast outer movements and a slow middle section), based on a single theme derived from the Italian form of Clara’s name: CH(i)A(r)A (in English usage, the notes C B A A). The reference to his beloved wife also extends to a second motif: the threefold upbeat which not only completes the theme of the first movement but also assumes a thematic function in the following movements. This figure quotes the middle movement of Clara’s Piano Concerto op.7 of 1835, also in A minor. There are other musical associations as well: with her Soirées musicales, with Robert’s own Novelletten and to Florestan’s aria “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” from Beethoven’s Fidelio.

1841 figures in the Schumann chronology as a “symphonic year”. The composer had overcome the “symphonic scruples” that had grown out of his respect for Beethoven and felt free enough to complete not one, but two projects within a few months: the “Spring” Symphony in B flat major and a “new symphony in a single movement” in D minor. The premiere of the work in B flat, conducted by Mendelssohn at the end of March 1841 in the Gewandhaus, was actually a major success: subsequent performances in Weimar, Bremen, Hamburg, Berlin, The Hague and Rotterdam at last carried Schumann’s name as an orchestral composer far beyond the borders of Saxony. The D minor Symphony, however, suffered a very different fate. Premiered in December 1841, it “paled” alongside another, more spectacular item on the concert programme, performed on two pianos by Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann: variations on a theme of Bellini with the title Hexameron, a pasticcio by six different composers. The symphony’s score was put aside and had to wait ten long years before Schumann returned to and revised it. Not until March 1853 in Düsseldorf did it receive a performance, as the Symphony No.4 in D minor.

Although the original version of 1841 being performed here may lack the revised version’s final polish, that actually helps to reveal more clearly traces of the moment in which the work was created: the indefiniteness of the opening, the restlessness of circular motions, truncated phrases, and the melodic arches’ lack of closure. The main theme of the first movement only attains its full stature in the finale – all of which demonstrates the basic idea: “in a single movement”. That is also borne out by the “tentativeness” of the first three movements, their open endings and, not least, the sense of expectation awakened by fermatas and fanfare signals. The present is no more than a transition; but there is also no shortage of flashbacks (most of them in the last movement), the Trio section of the Scherzo refers back to the Romanze, which itself was already announced before the coda of the first movement. With this new sense of time Schumann emancipated himself from the Classical symphony.

That the “present” is only a fleeting point on the time continuum which is constantly being shifted ahead, the ungraspable intersection of past and future, was already posited around the year 400 by St. Augustine, who explored the subject at length in his Confessions and put forward the distinction between the “objective” and “subjective” experience of time. This philosophical concept of time came to occupy the heart of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s aesthetic and compositional thinking, and in 1957 he elucidated it at length in an essay entitled Intervall und Zeit. Music, according to Zimmermann, is particularly well suited to transcending time, bringing it to a standstill. Two structural processes are the most striking visual and aural results of this approach: one is the simultaneity of multiple manifestations of experience; the other is the collage of quotations of music other than his own. Textbook examples of this pluralistic method of composing are Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten (1958/60; first produced in 1965) and his “imaginary” ballet Musique pour les souper du Roi Ubu (1966; reworked as a concert piece in 1968). Other enduring achievements include the Requiem for a Young Poet of 1969 and the “ecclesiastical action” Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne, completed only a few days before he took his own life on 10 August 1970.

Included on the programme is an early work by Zimmermann, his Symphony in one movement, composed between 1947 and 1951, and revised to its definitive form in 1953. The features later regarded as original to the composer are here only suggested. The point of departure is a twelve-note row out of which Zimmermann develops a spectrum of extreme expressive qualities: “from apocalyptic threat to meditative immersion”, as he himself said. The work corresponds to his later definition of time in embodying an encounter with the traditional symphony – perceptible as a process of extensive exploration, filled with self-doubt and the hope of overcoming the past. As with Schumann, everything should be contained “in a single movement”, and accordingly the five readily detectible sections merge seamlessly into a unified whole.

Mitsuko Uchida, who is affiliated to the Berliner Philharmoniker during the present season as the orchestra’s pianist in residence, is admired throughout the whole world for performances that are marked by both intellectual acumen and profound musical insight. Although she specializes in the piano music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, her repertory also takes in works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Messiaen. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1984 performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and has returned on many occasions since then. Among the orchestras with which Mitsuko Uchida also appears regularly are the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia of London. She is additionally active as a chamber musician, notably with the Hagen Quartet and the tenor Ian Bostridge. Together with the pianist Richard Goode, she currently runs the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. She also does much to support young artists through her work with the Borletti Buitoni Trust.


DeccaMitsuko Uchida appears by kind permission of Decca.

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