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.