Bernard Haitink conducts Schubert and Shostakovich

30 May 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

  • Franz Schubert
    Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D 485 (29 min.)

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 15 in A major, op. 141 (55 min.)

  • free

    Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker remember Lorin Maazel (19 min.)

Beginnings and endings – this could be the theme of this concert with Bernard Haitink: The 19-year-old Schubert’s B-flat major Symphony, composed in the autumn of 1816, belongs to his youthful symphonies in which the composer follows the traditional form model of Haydn and Mozart. The playful lightness of the themes, the cheerful dialogue between instrumental groups and the transparent orchestration clearly display a Mozartean character. But the often surprising harmonic progressions already reveal Schubert’s Romantic sound aesthetic.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, the last written by the Russian composer, also comes across as light and cheerful. But this cheerfulness is only superficial. Shostakovich works with irony and ambiguity, uses musical quotes from his own works and from others’, such as Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and includes twelve-tone series that are not heard as such, all of which together create a musical picture puzzle, a subtle network of profound symbolic relationships. With this symphony – it is said – Shostakovich left behind his musical autobiography.

The Berliner Philharmoniker dedicated this concert to Lorin Maazel who died on 31 July 2014 and who was originally to conduct the evening.

A New Beginning and a Look Back

Early and Late Symphonic works by Franz Schubert and Dmitri Shostakovich

The Fifth: Schubert’s Mozartian Symphony

The plan was to earn his living with music. The 19-year-old Franz Schubert wanted to make his fortune as a freelance musician in Vienna and, after breaking off his education at the Konvikt (boarding school) earlier, he now was no longer a teacher at his father’s school. When he left his family home at the end of 1816 and moved to the lodgings of his friend, the young poet Franz von Schober, he had already received paid commissions. We know of the first from his diary, in which he proudly noted on 17 June 1816: “Today I composed the first time for money.” The name of his artistic ideal appears only four diary entries earlier: “This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear and lovely one. Gently, and as from a distance, the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. ... O Mozart, immortal Mozart!” The lines read almost like the motto of the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D. 485, composed in less than four weeks during autumn of that year, which, despite its Schubertian originality, exudes a distinctly Mozartian lightness and transparency.

Dispensing with his usual slow introduction, Schubert raises the curtain quickly and in pianissimo. The first movement opens with only a wind cadence and a scampering staccato run in the first violins during the first four bars, the galant Allegro theme spreads high spirits and an exhilarating summer carriage ride begins amid insistent quavers in the strings. The light-heartedness is only superficial, however, as revealed by the first still sporadic shadows with cloudy moments in minor.

In the Andante con moto, with its delicate balance and songlike theme, the now more frequent momentary modulations to minor are clearly perceptible as a melancholy undertone. Like a song without words, the lyrical E flat major theme is symmetrically constructed in the traditional two plus two bars, but already in the first it hesitates for a brief moment in minor at the deceptive cadence. An abrupt key change introduces the middle section with a dialogue between the oboe and bassoon, a brilliant but unorthodox idea. Schubert also deviates clearly from every rule with the key of the minuet, setting it in G minor rather than B flat major. In its key and triadic theme, including the chromatic conclusion, the Allegro molto resembles its obvious model; Mozart’s minuet from the G minor Symphony, K. 550, a copy of which was found in Schubert’s estate, serves as the backdrop before which this music dances in Classical style. The brief finale in sonata form is no less dancelike or charming and demonstrates the astonishing compositional maturity of the 19-year-old.

The Fifteenth: Shostakovich’s Introspection and Review of His Life

The first symptoms of the mysterious illness which increasingly weakened his arms and legs already appeared in the late 1950s. One can scarcely imagine how hard the diagnosis of a progressive paralysis of his limbs, as the result of a chronic inflammation of the spinal cord, must have hit Dmitri Shostakovich. The illness began in his right hand, then the legs of the football fan and devotee of his home team, Zenit Leningrad, also failed him repeatedly. He suffered a serious leg fracture in a fall in September 1960 and had to remain in the hospital for three months. Shostakovich’s ironic sarcasm did not suffer as a result, however, as his reaction shows: “All my life the party has taught me to look ahead, but I should have been looking ahead of my feet!” After a heart attack in May 1966, a second collapse followed a year later, with another leg fracture. The first effective help came at the beginning of 1970, when he entrusted himself to the care of the prominent orthopaedist Gavriil Ilizarov in the city of Kurgan in Western Siberia. Shostakovich brought the initial sketches for a new work with him, which he told a young composer colleague about at the beginning of the year, calling it “a cheerful symphony”. He composed it within only four weeks and completed the orchestration in the Leningrad suburb of Repino a month later, on 29 July.

After two vocal symphonies, Shostakovich returned to the purely instrumental, four-movement form, composing his last outstanding contribution to the genre with which he had established his reputation as a composer. There was and still is a great of speculation about the meaning of the Fifteenth Symphony. The juxtaposition of brief, heterogeneous motifs in different musical guises does not make itself readily accessible to the listener. This collage of an enormous wealth of musical reminiscences of his own oeuvre and quotations from works by other composers goes far beyond his announcement of a cheerful orchestral work. Humorous, grotesque, sublime and tragic elements appear in close proximity to each other.

Only the first movement (Allegretto) evokes a bright, exuberant mood; Shostakovich said he was describing “childhood – a toy shop with a clear blue sky above”. With great delight the composer tries out his orchestral instruments like various toys; a comical wind band comes around the corner with the world-famous galloping theme from Rossini’s WilliamTellOverture. The Adagio stands in strong contrast to it; a brass chorale exudes an exalted atmosphere, above which the strings play twelve-tone melodies as solos. In a dramatic gesture, first the solo cello, then the solo violin soar upwards from the low register. The effect of two mysterious, frightening chords looms like a shadow over the scene until the trombones lead a funeral march at an even slower largo tempo.

The Allegretto is the briefest scherzo in all of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Despite its twelve-tone principal theme, it has a folk character and recalls Igor Stravinsky with other tonal dance melodies in the violins and clarinets, deliberately interspersed with “wrong” notes. The finale opens with a clear quotation of the Annunciation of Death motif from Richard Wagner’s Walküre, which Shostakovich borrows in the brass and an insistent timpani rhythm. All told, there are five such outside incursions in the finale, achieving a powerfully dramatic scenic impact. From Shostakovich’s memoirs we know that “much of the Fifteenth is related to The Black Monk” by Anton Chekhov, in which the messenger of death appears as a vision to the main character five times, visible only to him. Chekhov’s monk expresses something that Shostakovich perhaps applied to himself: “You are ill because you have overworked and exhausted yourself, and that means that you have sacrificed your health to the idea, and the time is near at hand when you will give up life itself to it. What could be better?”

Did Shostakovich ask himself the fateful question about the last things with the Wagner quotations – the opening of Tristanalso appears briefly – in his last symphony? A self-reference is unmistakable in the middle section of the finale, when the “invasion theme” from his Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony becomes the bass theme of a passacaglia that ends in a catastrophe during an enormous dynamic intensification. A musical imitation of the mechanical clatter of a heart-lung machine can be heard in the percussion at the close. The word morendo (dying) written in the score beneath the high sustained note in the strings is a final, unmistakable symbol of death.

Klaus Oehl

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Bernard Haitink looks back on a conducting career lasting over 60-years. His close artistic partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker started five decades ago: in March 1964, he made his debut with the orchestra with a Beethoven programme.

Born in Amsterdam in 1929, Bernard Haitink started his career with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. He was at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw for more than 25 years (1964 – 1988), and subsequently held posts as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), the Dresden Staatskapelle (2002 – 2004) and as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2010). In addition, he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979) and music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988) and the European Union Youth Orchestra (1994 – 1999). For the Lucerne Festival, he has conducted a Beethoven and a Brahms cycle (2008 – 2011) with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He is conductor laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was named Musical America’s “Musician of the Year” for 2007 and awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker. His last concerts with the orchestra were in March 2015 when he conducted the Violin Concerto (soloist: Isabelle Faust) and the Sixth Symphony by Beethoven.

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