Alan Gilbert conducts landscape scenes by Mendelssohn and Nielsen

22 Nov 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Alan Gilbert

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid”, cantata, BWV 58 (15 min.)

    Christina Landshamer Soprano, Michael Nagy Baritone

  • Felix Mendelssohn
    Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56 “Scottish” (44 min.)

  • Carl Nielsen
    Symphony No. 3, op. 27 “Sinfonia espansiva” (44 min.)

    Christina Landshamer Soprano, Michael Nagy Baritone

  • free

    Alan Gilbert in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (14 min.)

“Without any real purpose, just for my enjoyment,” Felix Mendelssohn travelled around the Scottish islands after a guest performance in London in 1829. Their wild nature, still to a large extent pristine, which Mendelssohn also recorded in drawings in his travel journal, and his encounter with evidence of Scottish history inspired the young composer to two of his best-known orchestral works.

With his concert overture The Hebrides op. 26, Mendelssohn paid musical tribute to a group of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland; his visit to Edinburgh provided the impetus for him to compose his Third Symphony: “We went in the deep twilight to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved,” Mendelssohn wrote to his parents on 30 July 1829. “The chapel next door is lacking a roof; grass and ivy grow abundantly on it; and before the altar, now in ruins, Mary was crowned Queen of Scots. Everything around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines through. I believe I found today the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

For this 2014 concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Alan Gilbert combines this work by Mendelssohn with Symphony No. 3 by the Dane Carl Nielsen, premiered with the composer conducting in 1912. The work, which he gave the enigmatic title Sinfonia espansiva, is a perfect example of symphonic traditions beyond the German-speaking cultural sphere – and thus worth discovering time and again!

Beyond Scotland and Lolland

Regionally inspired music of international significance

Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata »Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid« BWV 58

The opening movement of his cantata BWV 58 from 1727 actually represents Bach’s second setting of the text “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (Ah God, how much heart-suffering). This chorale, which had enjoyed great popularity since the end of the 16th century, has been attributed to the mystic Martin Moller, one of the founders of the Lutheran devotional literature, though his authorship is now disputed. The first movement of the cantata begins with an instrumental ritornello that returns in the middle section. The chorale melody is entrusted to the solo soprano while the bass presents a richly ornamented arioso. The two parts also interact in this duet. Following tradition, the human soul is embodied in the soprano while the bass represents the vox Christi. The texts of the recitatives – movements 2 and 4 – are of unknown origin, as is that of the soprano aria “Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden” (I am happy in my suffering), a typical example of the Christian devotional literature to which Bach was partial. We may perhaps gather from the restless violin accompaniment and the D minor tonality that the “happiness” isn’t unalloyed. The final duet returns to the first movement’s C major and is also similar to it in structure. Here Bach has set a strophe from the hymn “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” (O Jesus Christ, light of my life), written in 1610 by a certain Martin Behm.

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 A minor op. 56 “Scottish”

Does Bach’s music owe its survival entirely to Felix Mendelssohn? Surely not. But Mendelssohn was the cantor of St. Thomas’s great heir. He was responsible for the epoch-making revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 and for writing the two most influential oratorios of the 19th century, St. Paul and Elijah, as well as nearly 100 further sacred vocal works and 60 organ pieces. In the symphonic genre, Mendelssohn’s Christianity even set off a small revolution – or, perhaps better, counter-revolution – when the composer crowned his Fifth with the chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God), but the “Reformation” Symphony has been overshadowed by the “Scottish” and the “Italian”.

In a letter of 1829 to his parents, he cited as his source of inspiration for the “Scottish” a visit to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, with its sombre connections to Mary, Queen of Scots. The fate of Mary Stuart may thus be responsible for the gloomy A minor of the opening movement’s Andante introduction, whose first four notes return in the Allegro. Violent eruptions and tempestuous bass figuration, copied by Wagner in the Flying Dutchman, combine with passages of dreamy contemplation to generate an almost narrative vividness of expression.

In a letter from Wales, written a month after visiting Holyrood, Mendelssohn condemned fashionable folk music of every description: “Anything but nationalist music!” Nonetheless, there has been an endless search for influences and quotations in the “Scottish” Symphony. The only real find has been a pentatonic bagpipe melody in the scherzo first played by the clarinet. However, its final cadence should by no means be considered a “Scottish snap” because similar features – for example, the pentatonic scale – have been identified in many different cultures. The cantabile theme of the Adagio, accompanied by pizzicato strings, rules out any inference of folk musical roots, as does the ballad-like second theme. Those still determined to find local colour in this movement will have to content themselves with a tone painting of generalized Scottish atmosphere. The same is true of the final movement, although Mendelssohn’s original tempo indication “Allegro guerriero” would seem to offer them a better opportunity. Nothing, however, can be verified here – those “warring clans” are a pure fantasy of some critics. The four movements flow into one another without a break, though each of the first three is preceded by an introduction marking a caesura. Then the finale bursts in on the listener fortissimo, and the conjectural battles are followed by an epilogue that brings back the symphony’s melancholy principal motive in majestic A major. Beneath the easily approachable “Scottish” there lies a complex structure. Mendelssohn worked for 13 years on this, his last completed symphony, longer than on any other work.

Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 op. 27 ”Sinfonia espansiva“

Mendelssohn’s symphonies were even better known in the 19th century than Beethoven’s. Countless German and foreign composers drew upon his style. His most famous imitator was the Danish composer Niels Gade, who directed the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts from 1844 to 1848, afterwards transforming all of Danish musical life into an outpost of Leipzig. At the beginning of 1884, the 18-year-old Carl Nielsen was admitted to the Copenhagen Conservatory. Gade, the institution’s director, may have seen in the young man a potential Danish Mendelssohn, and there are certain points of reference between the two composers: the sophisticated treatment of thematic material, the stormier aspects of their style, and an irrepressible optimism.

These features mark Nielsen’s Third Symphony, the Sinfonia espansiva, completed in 1911, named after the tempo indication of its opening movement, “Allegro espansivo” (i.e. extrovert). Its first movement opens with accelerating forte blows on strings, brass and timpani. What might seem merely a device intended to make a big effect in fact contains the basic idea of the entire movement: the rhythmically springy, indeed athletic vitality and the immediate, unforeseen ascendancy of ¾ metre. That choleric opening leads directly to a rising and falling, readily mutable main theme. Driven by a repetitive, stuttering quaver (eighth-note) figure, it soon takes off, assuming constantly new forms. The second theme, played by flute and clarinets, seems at first to contradict it but soon enough develops the same grandiloquence. A series of constantly fresh, sanguine outbursts follow until at last the climax is reached: the full orchestra throws itself into a waltz spiced with crunching brass interjections.

The Andante pastorale leads us into an enchanted world. The horns provide a frame and the strings paint a backdrop, then a not entirely carefree tune is presented by the woodwind in imitation. Twice they are cut off by a string melody of passionate, almost Brucknerian intensity. The alternation culminates in a song of the great Pan: the low strings and brass remind us that nature is not some beach retreat on Lolland, Nielsen’s favourite holiday idyll, but an unpredictable force. Out of the dark, striding motif, however, emerges the most tranquil of scenes: with their vocalises, a baritone and a soprano evoke an earthly contentment far removed from all conflict. The Allegretto that follows is initially loath to depart from such enchantment, but even here there are those energetic disruptions characteristic of the composer’s later works, which prevent the oboe theme from unfolding in full. Opening the finale is a broad flowing variant on strings of the first movement’s principal theme, with a five-fold appoggiatura. This jubilant repeated note assumes such importance during the ingenious working out of the material that it has been called a symphonic chicken run. In any event, the composition’s regional aspects are more pronounced than those of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, but in no way does this undermine its international significance. Nielsen was no less averse to narrow-minded provincialism than Bach or Mendelssohn.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

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 February 2014, with works by Antonín Dvořák and Magnus Lindberg. 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; he was named a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 2010 he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. .” In 2014 he was elected to The American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Christina Landshamer, a native of Munich, studied under Angelica Vogel at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, and later under Konrad Richter and Dunja Vejzović at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart. After several awards (scholarship from the German Music Council in 2003; International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in 2004), she had her first engagements at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, the Staatsoper Stuttgart, the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, and at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In 2009, the soprano made her debut at the Theater an der Wien in Haydnʼs Il mondo della luna, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In 2011, she appeared for the first time at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in a staged production of Handelʼs Messiah and at the Salzburg Festival in Die Frau ohne Schatten under the direction of Christian Thielemann. At the end of 2012, she made her debut as Pamina at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam conducted by Marc Albrecht, and at the Glyndebourne Festival the same year, she appeared in Handelʼs Rinaldo. Together with her accompanist Gerold Huber, she is a keen lieder recitalist. In concert, she has performed with the Munich Philharmonic, Collegium Vocale Gent, the Orchestre des Champs Elysées and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. She has also sung in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Musikverein in Vienna and at the Berliner Festspiele under the baton of conductors such as Marcus Creed, Philippe Herreweghe and Riccardo Chailly. With the Berliner Philharmoniker, she first appeared as Frasquita in Georges Bizetʼs Carmen under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle at the end of April 2012.

Michael Nagy was born in 1976 and received his first musical training with the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben. He studied singing and conducting in Stuttgart, Mannheim and Saarbrücken where Rudolf Piernay and Irwin Gage were among his teachers. Master classes with Charles Spencer, Rudolf Piernay and Cornelius Reid completed his training. In 2004, Michael Nagy won the International Art Song Competition Stuttgart. After two seasons as a member of the ensemble at the Komische Oper in Berlin, he joined Oper Frankfurt where from 2006 to 2011, in addition to the lyric Mozart roles, the baritone made many role debuts, including Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Valentin (Faust), Jeletzki (Pique Dame), Marcello (La Bohème), Albert (Werther) and Frank (Die tote Stadt). Michael Nagy continues to maintain his connection with the Frankfurt opera house: In 2012 he returned there for productions of Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot and Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Guest engagements have also taken the singer to the opera house in Oslo, Deutsche Oper Berlin and to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In summer 2011, he made his debut at the 100th Bayreuth Festival as Wolfram in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. As a concert singer, Michael Nagy has a broad repertoire which includes Baroque music and with which he has appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. In this field, he has close artistic ties to Helmuth Rilling and Philippe Herreweghe. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 2013 at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival and subsequently in concert performances in Berlin as Papageno in Mozart’s Zauberflöte.

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