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Andris Nelsons conducts Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

30 Oct 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Baiba Skride

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in A minor, op. 99 (op. 77) (47 min.)

    Baiba Skride Violin

  • Richard Strauss
    Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64 (61 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Baiba Skride in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (12 min.)

Richard Strauss is said to have claimed that he could depict even a glass of beer in music so accurately that his listeners would be able to tell whether it was a Pilsner or a Kulmbacher. Well, the composer’s Alpine Symphony, premiered in Berlin in 1915, is not about beer: it is the musical representation of an alpine mountain hike with all its beauties and dangers. Strauss had originally planned a four-movement symphony based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s polemic book The Antichrist. But while composing it he discovered that the musical themes flowed from his pen “just as a cow gives milk”. So Strauss abandoned the planned project, devoted himself completely to the exuberant wealth of musical ideas, and wrote a highly virtuoso mood painting that brings 130 musicians to the stage – without an ideological superstructure.

Soviet composers were not supposed to devote themselves to what they did with such abandon – that, at least, was the opinion of the Stalinist cultural authorities, who had more or less concrete ideas of how artists were intended to contribute to building a socialist society. Dmitri Shostakovich was repeatedly reprimanded for the allegedly “formalistic” and “foreign” tendencies of his music, including in 1948. As a consequence Shostakovich’s A minor Violin Concerto, completed that year, lay in the drawer for seven years: only Stalin’s death and the political thaw that began in the USSR as a result started the process for a delayed premiere of the work on 29 October 1955 in Leningrad.

With this programme full of contrasts, the Berliner Philharmoniker enjoy a reunion with two long-standing musical partners: Andris Nelsons is responsible for the musical direction; the solo part in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto – technically and emotionally difficult to handle – is played by the violinist Baiba Skride, who, like Nelsons, was born in Latvia.

Silhouettes of the Setting Sun

Orchestral works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Richard Strauss

A profound synthesis of soloistic and symphonic conceptions: Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto

It is, as the poet has said, a broad subject: the changeable, always – especially in the 20th century – precarious relationship between music and politics, between aesthetic discourse and social reality. Not infrequently, composers feel what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek recognized as the greatest problem of postmodernism: the harsh collision of the individual with the totality of existence. Dmitri Shostakovich not only understood the phrase but surely also subscribed to it. It is almost miraculous that he didn’t perish or disappear in one of the countless purging excesses that repeatedly took place in the Soviet Union following the Bolshevist Revolution.

Shostakovich could have been the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s explosive Berlin-set novel The Gift (Dar), which also deals with an extraordinary talent. This character possessed the “gift” that distinguishes the normal mortal from the genius, who – as Kant posited – does not follow rules. In this context, it may be surprising to learn that Shostakovich sometimes allowed a long time to elapse before undertaking a subsequent work in a particular genre. For example, 14 years separate the widely acclaimed Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra op. 35 and his second concerto composition, the Violin Concerto in A minor op. 77, begun in 1947. He completed it on 24 March 1948, but the first public performance did not take place until seven years later, on 29 October 1955. The delay was principally caused by the so-called Zhdanov Decree issued in 1948 by the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, which practically banned serious instrumental music: only proletarian, patriotic music – preferably used to underscore texts or films of that nature – were considered to toe the party line and qualify as aesthetically correct. Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 finally made possible a modicum of artistic freedom.

Shostakovich’s Opus 77 is a truly majestic and profound instrumental concerto, which makes its particular impression as a synthesis of soloistic and symphonic conceptions. The four-movement layout alone signifies a large format, although Shostakovich inverts the traditional Classical and Romantic tempo relations. The opening movement is an Adagio, a mysterious, mournful Nocturne marked by the absence of vivid thematic contrasts. We hear a lyrical improvisation, the first theme of which (introduced by cellos and double basses) is virtually treated as a ritornello – particularly striking is the passage in which it is taken up by the celesta.

The stark contrast formulated in the following scherzo is already demonstrated by the choice of key – B flat minor. The proceedings in this swiftly paced movement are seasoned by a musical impulse that drifts from sparkling high spirits to the diabolically enigmatic to the grotesque as well as by the juxtaposition of a pair of incongruent themes that grow together somewhat in the movement’s course. They lead to a compressed recapitulation that culminates in the cascading rush of the Presto coda. Woven into this Allegro – extraordinarily eccentric both in form and in content – is an epigrammatic motif closely related to the composer’s famous musical monogram D-S-C-H that permeates the Tenth Symphony and Eighth String Quartet.

As so often in Shostakovich, uninhibited, ecstatic precipitousness is followed by inner reflection. The path here leads from the major-mode variant that concludes the B flat minor Scherzo to F minor and directly to the deeply expressive Passacaglia. Its dynamic curve extends to a fortissimo quotation of the theme by the solo violin before retreating again into the realm of stillness. Out of that stillness emerges an intense, intimate solo cadenza which leads without break into the final Burlesque. With its subtle breath of folk music and the distinct character of a last dance, this movement strongly contrasts with the measured dignity of the Passacaglia. Yet there is an element connecting the two movements: the winds in the finale quote the theme of the Passacaglia. Only then does the whole orchestra whirl with dancelike verve across the dance floor, finally – in a furious Presto – rushing out of the ballroom door.

A reflection of his visual experiences in Garmisch? – Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony

Like so many of Shostakovich’s fast movements, this Burlesque leaves the impression of having been dashed off in a frenzy. For his colleague Richard Strauss, four decades his senior, the process was quite different. When he considered committing another symphonic work to paper ten years after completing the bourgeois-autobiographical, extravagantly scored Sinfonia Domestica, the idea instantly became a burden. We know this from a letter to Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1911 in which Strauss describes the trouble his new tone poem is causing him. He is referring to the Alpine Symphony, which only really began to take shape in 1914. The premiere was on 28 October 1915.

The basis of this work is Strauss’s experience of the world of the Bavarian mountains, an almost naïve surrender to all the natural phenomena that occur there. One might almost say that he “perceived” the Alpine Symphony while looking out of his window in Garmisch. What he consecrates and aspires to with these visual sensations is nothing more or less than a musical, quasi-naturalistic Alpine panorama. The aesthetic imperative underlying the work was impressively described by the composer: “I wanted for once to write music the way a cow gives milk.”

That notwithstanding, it turned out to be a significant work: a tone painting par excellence, truly lavish with its playing time of over 50 minutes, and that luxuriance corroborated by the concentration of orchestral forces. The musical depiction of “Night” frames this grandiose panorama, whose scoring more than slightly approaches gigantomania and whose “plot” is relatively easy to follow. Beginning and ending with a mysterious nocturnal shiver, the Alpine Symphony is not as strictly constructed as a symphony: although it is loosely divided into four parts (including a variation movement), the work consists of 18 episodes crocheted into one another. The murky atmosphere of the opening gives way to the A major radiance of the “Sunrise”. Before long “The Ascent” is underway. Hunting horns are heard in the distance, and the climbers enter the forest. While “Wandering by the Brook” they come to a “Waterfall”, depicted with violins, celesta and harp. From the “Flowery Meadows” the imaginary heroes ascend to the “Mountain Pasture”, proceeding through a fugato thicket until they arrive at the summit. Congratulated by trumpets in their highest register, the climbers stand “On the Glacier”, but their sense is not of triumph but rather – as insinuated by an oboe melody – of apprehension. This leads to a “Vision” in the face of nature’s sublimity and then to the realization that “The Sun is Gradually Clouding Over” – and so markedly that the cor anglais sings an “Elegy” and “The Calm before the Storm” becomes unbearable. There follows a tumultuous orchestral thunderstorm, with violent lightning flashes, which approaches, if not exceeds, reasonable decibel limits and leaves the climbers trembling during their “Descent”. Thankfully, they reach the Waterfall unscathed, witness the “Sunset”, and remain rapt at the “Waning Tones” as the music glides by way of B flat minor back into “Night” and finally fades into complete darkness.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Andris Nelsons was born in 1978 into a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his conducting studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; besides attending masterclasses with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, Mariss Jansons is his most important mentor. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, from 2006 to 2009 principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, and from 2008 to 2015 he took on the same role with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Starting with the 2014/15 season, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. He has returned to the Bayreuth Festival as conductor of Lohengrin, in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels, every year since its premiere in 2010. Andris Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the New York Philharmonic. He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in April 2015 in three concerts including the Trumpet Concerto by HK Gruber (soloist: Håkan Hardenberger) and Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Baiba Skride, originally from Latvia, grew up in a musical family and began studying the violin in her hometown of Riga. From 1995 she was taught by Petru Munteanu at the Rostock University of Music and Drama, and in 2001 she won first prize at the Concours Reine Elisabeth in Brussels. Since then, she has made guest appearances with the world’s greatest orchestras including the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; she made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010 performing Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Baiba Skride has worked with conductors such as Paavo Järvi, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Kirill Petrenko, Simone Young, Donald Runnicles, Thierry Fischer and Mikko Franck. During the 2015/16 season the violinist is artist in residence at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her chamber music partners include Alban Gerhardt, Brett Dean, Daniel Müller-Schott, Sol Gabetta, Bertrand Chamayou, Xavier de Maistre and her sister, the pianist Lauma Skride. The artist plays the “Ex Baron Feilitzsch” violin by Antonio Stradivari from 1734, generously on loan to her by Gidon Kremer.

Sony ClassicalBaiba Skride appears by courtesy of Sony Classical.

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