Season opening 2015: Simon Rattle conducts Britten and Shostakovich

28 Aug 2015
Opening of the 2015/2016 season

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Benjamin Britten
    Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, op. 10 (31 min.)

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43 (70 min.)

  • free

    Welcome to the 2015/2016 season! (8 min.)

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle count on the strength of contrasts for the opening concert of the 205/2016 season: Benjamin Britten’s parodic chamber music Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge encounters Dmitri Shostakovich’s confessional, monumental Fourth Symphony. Two composers and their music – one might think – could hardly be more different. And yet there are strong connections between these two: for Britten and Shostakovich were kindred spirits in music; they very much admired each other and felt a bond through their shared joy in musical irony and parody.

A concert performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District deeply impressed the young Britten and became an important source of inspiration. In 1960, the composers got to know each other personally when the Russian came to England for the London premiere of his First Cello Concerto, and they became friends. Britten visited Shostakovich in Russia several times; the latter then dedicated his Symphony No. 14 to the Englishman.

The works on this programme were composed at almost the same time: Britten wrote his Variations in the summer of 1937 for the debut of the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival, achieving an international breakthrough. The composition is a humorous homage to his revered teacher Frank Bridge, whose character traits Britten presents in the individual variations, while at the same time masterfully paying tribute to composers such as Rossini, Ravel, Stravinsky and Mahler with stylistic parodies.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was also inspired by Gustav Mahler’s musical language. The composer completed it in 1936, in a period when he was accused of formalism in the Soviet Union and almost declared an enemy of the state. Although in the Fourth Symphony he returned to a traditional form compared to the Second and Third, Shostakovich only dared to premiere the work in 1961. The Berliner Philharmoniker first played the Symphony in 1976 under the direction of the Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

An Entire Lifetime in One Evening

Orchestral Works by Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich

“With affection and admiration”: Britten’s Bridge Variations

Beni was a blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked little boy with blond curls, the pride and joy of his mother, who absolutely adored her youngest child. She did not merely hope, she knew that her darling was predestined for a glorious future as a composer. She prophetically talked about the three Bs of music history, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, who would be followed by a fourth B: Britten. It could not have been an accident that her son was born on 22 November, the feast day of St Cecilia, the patroness of musicians.

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 in Lowestoft, in Suffolk county, on the east coast of England. The sheltered Beni showed unmistakable signs of early talent, not only in heaven but also on earth. “The first time I tried composing, I was an extremely small boy,” Britten recalled in later years. “I had started playing the piano and wrote elaborate tone poems usually lasting about 20 seconds, inspired by terrific events in my home life such as the departure of my father for London, the appearance in my life of a new girlfriend, or even a wreck at sea.” Within a few years Britten had already composed a substantial oeuvre: string quartets, piano sonatas, choral and orchestral works.

As Britten later recounted during a school radio broadcast: “This was all very well, and I enjoyed writing music in a very childish, carefree manner. But one has to grow up, and I was extremely lucky at this age to meet a composer whose pieces I hope you know, because they are so good.” Whether Britten’s young listeners knew the name at that time cannot be verified. In Germany, at any rate, almost no one knew or knows him: Frank Bridge (1879-1941), a very unorthodox composer from Brighton, incredibly talented, an eccentric character, garrulous and haughty, an artist in the most colourful sense of the word. Bridge met the much-praised young musician from Lowestoft in 1927. He recognized Beni’s phenomenal talent at once and accepted the 14-year-old as his composition pupil.

Britten was never one of those artists who think they have to demonstrate their originality by criticizing their teachers. On the contrary, the devoted and warm-hearted character of this musician is reflected in his desire to indelibly express his gratitude for the time with Bridge. The composition that first spread Britten’s name beyond the circle of English specialists is dedicated to his revered mentor with heartfelt words: “To F. B. A tribute with affection and admiration.”

The ten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge form a kaleidoscope of various genre and character pieces. The first variation is characterized by the contrast between slow, heavy movement in the low strings and light, gracefully swaying motifs in the violins. A bizarre, ghostly march and a lovely, sentimental Romance follow, after which Britten launches into an homage to Rossini with the Aria italiana – accompanied in the style of a guitar. The fifth variation, Bourrée classique – an old French dance popular at the court of Louis XIV – pays its respects to the neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète, but it also contains unmistakable echoes of Vivaldi. After the Wiener Walzer and a highly charged flight of the bumblebee (Moto perpetuo), every trace of irony and humour disappears with the heart-wrenching music of a funeral march: Britten’s mother had died only a few months earlier. The penultimate variation (Chant) is unsettling, with suspended, surreal sounds in which the song promised in the title can only be perceived as helpless stammering. The cycle of variations concludes with a fugue, at the end of which the theme is heard again, “slow and solemn”.

Nothing but the truth: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

During the 20th century one symphonic composer became the chronicler of his age, a contemporary eyewitness and accuser: Dmitri Shostakovich, who endured the cruellest years of the Soviet dictatorship – Stalinist terror, bans, persecution, arrests. Shostakovich found himself subjected to the worst despotism; the party praised and condemned him, premiered his works and had them removed from programmes, burdened him with official functions and relieved him of his duties. His music was attacked as alien, formalist and decadent; the composer himself was forced to degrading rituals of public apology and atonement. Yet the Communist rulers could not prevent him from bearing witness to the era to which he belonged. In his compositions he expressed what could neither be said nor sung, not even thought.

The Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, which Shostakovich completed in May 1936, is the first of an impressive series of epochal symphonies in which the composer holds up a mirror to his age, at times with ironic alienation and aggressive sarcasm, at times in an unambiguous and subjective language of sorrow and pain – without words yet unequivocal. “I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death,” Shostakovich declared. “There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. The war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible pre-war years. That is what all my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about.”

The conductor Rudolf Barshai once said that a good performance of the Fourth Symphony gave him deep emotional fulfilment – “as if you had gone through an entire lifetime in one evening.” The 29-year-old Shostakovich displays the lavish abundance of his exceptional compositional talent in this symphony. He is able to convey triumph and collapse as well as quiet, introverted monologues in the winds and solo violin or the satirical dance episodes in the last movement. His confrontation with the tradition of the symphonic genre dominates the score; Shostakovich cannot and will not deny his admiration for Gustav Mahler in particular. The finale, above all, exhibits distinctly “Mahlerian” characteristics, beginning with the funeral march in the largo introduction. But Shostakovich the symphonist enters into an alliance with the inspired musical dramatist in this composition – and with the film composer who specializes in abrupt transitions and unexpected modulations. Although the listener can discern the outlines of sonata form in the opening Allegretto poco moderato, at the next moment he is again carried away by the unforeseeable momentum of the musical developments.

The conclusion of the symphony recalls a death scene: static tones during the alternation of the instruments, a sombre, gloomily insistent “heartbeat” in the double basses, harps and timpani and, finally, an enigmatic sequence of surreally transparent notes in the celesta. The music dies away mysteriously, barely comprehensible, as though in a trance. “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones,” Shostakovich said. “Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone.”

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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