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.