Daniel Barenboim conducts Strauss and Carter

13 Jun 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Barenboim

Emmanuel Pahud, Nicolas Hodges

  • Richard Strauss
    Don Juan, op. 20 (20 min.)

  • Elliott Carter
    Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (European première) (16 min.)

    Emmanuel Pahud Flute

  • Elliott Carter
    Dialogues for piano and orchestra (16 min.)

    Nicolas Hodges Piano

  • Richard Strauss
    Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), op. 28 (20 min.)

  • free

    Emmanuel Pahud in conversation with Lydia Rilling (16 min.)

It is probably unique in the history of music that a prominent composer would live to celebrate his own 100th birthday in good health and as productive as ever. That happened in 2008 to the American Elliott Carter, who still composed many inspired new works during his tenth and eleventh decades. One of the composer’s greatest champions for many years was Daniel Barenboim, who conducted the premieres of many of Carter’s works, including his only opera, What Next?. According to Barenboim, Carter is unique in his ability to combine such different models as Schoenberg and Stravinsky in his music. He also admires Carter’s commitment to music of uncompromising substance. At the same time, says Barenboim, “As complex as his music may be, it is always ‘in good humor’. If Haydn were alive today, he might compose like Carter did in his last years.”

During a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2009 Barenboim conducted the Flute Concerto and the Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra, which, in contrast to some of his highly complex earlier works, represent the composer’s more accessible late style. The soloists for the premieres of the two concertos are also heard on this recording. Nicolas Hodges gave the premiere of the Piano Concerto in 2004, and Emmanuel Pahud, principal flute of the Berliner Philharmoniker, played the Flute Concerto for the first time under Barenboim in Jerusalem in September 2008. Two tone poems by the young Richard Strauss provide a contrast to these works, which Carter composed at the age of 90. Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks concentrate less on expression but instead display youthful energy, an admirable command of the art of orchestration and, not least, joy in sweeping listeners off their feet.

The Impetuosity of Youth and the Creative Frenzy of Age

Richard Strauss and Elliott Carter

The one, barely turned 24, sketches a brilliant portrait of an insatiable seducer and, a few years later, sets another one alongside it – this time depicting a legendary prankster. The other, at the age of 80, experiences such a creative spurt that he adds another 30 works to his catalogue by his 100th birthday, each one a surprise. What connects the two composers is an unstoppable urge to communicate. What separates them, on the other hand, isn’t simply their birth years, 1864 and 1908, but also their fundamentally different idioms. Juxtaposing them in today’s concert highlights two music-historical rallying points: Late Romanticism and Late Modernism – a combination made all the more stimulating by the less familiar latter concept!

In 1889 Richard Strauss took up his appointment as Weimar court conductor and in the season’s second concert directed the world premiere of his Op. 20, Don Juan, composed a year earlier in Munich. The conductor Hans von Bülow wrote to his wife: “Strauss enormously beloved here. His Don Juan the evening before last was an unprecedented triumph.” That performance indeed marked the young composer’s breakthrough and motivated him to complete two further “tone poems” which he’d already begun: Death and Transfiguration and the lesser-known Macbeth. The great popularity of Don Juan owes muchto the eponymous figure’s two themes, inspired by youthful impetuosity, as well as to the vividly depicted love, ball and duel scenes, and to the surprising tragic ending, deriving from the work’s literary source: Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem Don Juan, one of numerous Romantic adaptations of the original Castilian story. Lenau portrays Don Juan as a torn individual, relentlessly driven by his insatiable longing for the woman with whom he can find fulfilment. But he also recognizes that possession brings only emptiness and tedium. This Don Juan is overwhelmed by world-weariness: in Lenau’s version of the story – unlike earlier ones – he is not destroyed by the intervention of higher powers. In the duel with Pedro – who seeks to avenge his father, killed by Juan – after acknowledging that “my deadly enemy has been given into my hands, yet even this bores me, as does the whole of life”, Don Juan allows himself to be mortally stabbed by his challenger.

After Strauss’s Weimar contract runs out and his friend and champion Bülow dies in February 1894, he receives a timely offer to take over the court conductorship in Munich. This engagement, however, is overshadowed by factionalism brought about by the “overly modern programmes” and general resistance to Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, which is premiered in Weimar to only moderate success in 1894 and, following its subsequent fiasco in Munich, disappears from the repertoire. Strauss’s self-confidence is unscathed, however, thanks to a growing number of invitations from abroad and the directorship, “inherited” from Bülow, of the Philharmonic concerts in Berlin. He defends himself after his fashion by taking aim at the gaggle of “Philistines”, putting on cap and bells and writing perhaps the most light-hearted orchestral score of his life: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks: after an old picaresque legend, in rondeau form. Franz Wüllner conducts the premiere in November 1895 in Cologne, but Strauss also presents it later to his Munich adversaries – who very probably understand what’s meant and become even more irritated.

The “programme” of this orchestral scherzo can be followed even without the indications left behind by the composer. After a few leisurely bars of “Once upon a time...” introduction, the rollicking story is underway with solo horn intoning the rogue’s main theme, which, in spite of considerable variation, becomes the entire work’s connecting link in the “pranks” that follow. Till’s actual motif appears later, a cheeky gesture introduced by the high-pitched D clarinet. Each episode in the story is accorded appropriate instrumental garb: Till on horseback scattering the market women, Till disguised as a priest, Till as rejected suitor, Till lecturing the scholars... But when he carries on with a popular street-ballad, Till meets his fate: a painful, fourfold interrogation, sentencing to the muffled sound of trombones, stringing up on the gallows. The gloomy scene is brightened again in the epilogue: the voice of people is heard and manages to re-awaken Till. Thus the piece’s listener is left with the certainty that this Eulenspiegel was a real hell-raiser.

On 11 December 2008, Elliott Carter celebrated his 100th birthday. The music world seized this opportunity to sing his praises in an unprecedentedly extravagant fashion. In addition to Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös and Oliver Knussen, the list of musicians who had already long recognized Carter and championed his compositions includes the interpreters of tonight’s concert. Daniel Barenboim has conducted Carter’s works since the beginning of the 1990s and even managed to extract an opera from him: What next?, premiered at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1999. Emmanuel Pahud and Nicolas Hodges have already given the world premieres of the two works on this evening’s programme.

Carter’s scores are complicated in several respects. First, there’s the notation: his fastidiously etched rhythms override the clearly indicated tempos, creating a sense of suspended time without ever interrupting the musical flow. Next, there’s the simultaneous and consecutive combining of heterogeneous events: multifaceted, independent lines and sounds are presented without their connection being immediately obvious. A third point: the absence of any quotes, historicism or stylistic adaption; the avoidance of literal repetition; and a refusal to obey the traditional canon of forms. Carter possesses a profound knowledge of all music, including jazz, pop, chance, electronic and minimalism, but he has maintained an aversion to any and all rigid orthodoxies. With a winning smile, he declares that, for him, one thing always leads to something else, making him closer in that respect to Mozart than to Bach, who, as he says, deals in each piece with just one thing but illuminates it from all sides.How is it that music that seems so inaccessible at first glance ends up being so convincing? Barenboim credits him with “a phenomenal ear!” And that, ultimately, is what endows his work with unity. The listener may himself not share such an ear, but he can at least have faith in the composer’s.

In his own notes on his works, Carter is not particularly forthcoming, but rather prefers to let the listener experience a performance unencumbered. About the Flute Concerto (2008), given its world premiere in the year of Carter’s 100th birthday, the composer says only that he hesitated to write one for a long time because the flute could not produce “the sharp attacks” that he so frequently uses. But he became attracted to “the different registers of the instrument” and its “extraordinary agility” and that gave him ideas for the work, conceived between September 2007 and March 2008. Dating from five years earlier, Dialogues for piano and chamber orchestra (2003) was commissioned by the BBC for the pianist Nicolas Hodges. Carter’s remarks on this work offer little more than the stock phrase “conversation between the soloist and the orchestra”, but his reference to it as a “single varied movement” derived from “a small group of harmonies and rhythms” can serve as a point of departure for guiding the listener’s expectations. What, then, can we expect? Buoyant music which, however knotty, is possessed of great beauty – a beauty that remains undemonstrable.

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on an artistic partnership lasting forty-five years. It was as a pianist that Barenboim made his debut with the orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez in June 1964. He first conducted the orchestra five years later. At his most recent appearance in April 2008 he conducted works by Busoni, Rota and Schoenberg.

Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 but moved to Israel with his parents ten years later. His first piano teacher was his mother, followed by his father. He was ten when he made his professional debut in Vienna and Rome, and it was not long before he was undertaking international tours. He made his conducting debut in London in 1967 and since then has appeared with leading orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. The most important stages in his career to date have been as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975 to 1989, as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006 and as general music director of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 1992. In the autumn of 2002 the Berlin Staatskapelle appointed him principal conductor for life. Barenboim has additionally appeared as a guest conductor at many international festivals, including the Bayreuth Festival, where he conducted a number of important productions every year from 1981 to 1999. Since the start of the 2007/08 season he has also worked closely with La Scala, Milan, in the role of Maestro Scaligero.

In 1999 Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said set up the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, which every summer brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries in order that the shared experience of communal music-making may encourage dialogue between the different cultures of the Middle East. In 2002 Barenboim and Said received the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for their peace efforts in fostering international understanding. Among other awards that Daniel Barenboim has received are the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

Nicolas Hodges was born in London in 1970. He has appeared both as a solo recitalist and as a guest with the world’s leading orchestras and ensembles and is now one of the leading pianists of his generation. Although his repertory is rooted in Classical and Romantic piano music, he is also noted for his engagement with works of the 20th and 21st centuries: he performs the “classics” of modern music and has given the first performances of many new pieces on which he has worked closely with their composers. Among the composers who have dedicated their works to him are Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, Beat Furrer and Elliott Carter, whose Dialogues Nicolas Hodges premiered in London in 2004, later performing the work in many other centres of music and at several international festivals. Other composers with whom he has worked closely include John Adams, Mauricio Kagel, Oliver Knussen, Helmut Lachenmann and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Among the conductors with whom he has appeared in the concert hall are James Levine, Jonathan Nott, Peter Rundel, Leonard Slatkin, Hans Zender and Daniel Barenboim, under whose direction he is now making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Since 2005 Nicolas Hodges has been professor of the piano at the Stuttgart Academy of Music and the Performing Arts.

Emmanuel Pahud, born in Geneva, received his first flute lessons as a six-year-old in Rome. Later he studied in Brussels, then in Paris with Michel Debost as well as in Basle with Aurèle Nicolet. He gained orchestral experience playing with the Basle Radio Symphony Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic before joining the Berliner Philharmoniker as a principal flute in 1993. Following a period of teaching at the Geneva Conservatoire, Emmanuel Pahud returned to the Philharmonic in April 2002. As a soloist he performs with the leading orchestras of the world – with the Berliner Philharmoniker his most recent solo appearance was in Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto in October 2006 – as well as in duos and larger chamber ensembles. He has won major prizes for his numerous recordings. Only a few days ago, he was made »Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres« by the French Ministry of Culture.

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