Bernard Haitink conducts Mozart and Bruckner

06 Dec 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

Till Fellner

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 25 in C major, K. 503 (36 min.)

    Till Fellner Piano

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 9 in D minor (71 min.)

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    Till Fellner in conversation with Knut Weber (12 min.)

He is regarded as modest, profound and completely at the service of the music – with his unpretentious, earnest manner, Till Fellner has played his way into the league of the great pianists of our time. In 2011 at a Philharmoniker chamber concert, the student of Alfred Brendel performed piano trios by Haydn and Beethoven together with violinist Corey Cerovsek and cellist Adrian Brendel, and already then established himself as a specialist for the music of the First Viennese School. Here, he makes his debut in orchestral concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker with the Piano Concerto in C major K. 503 which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for one of his concert performances in the Advent season in 1786. The first movement of the work is unusually long for that era, and is characterised by a complex, symphonic approach that extends far beyond the concert form customary at the time.

An old hand with the Philharmoniker is at the young pianist’s side: Bernard Haitink is a guest conductor who has worked together with the orchestra since 1964 on a regular and frequent basis. He has repeatedly placed Anton Bruckner’s symphonies on his concert programmes. Like virtually no other practitioner of his craft, Haitink understands how to organise the vast masses of sound of these works, and to build up the tremendous cumulations of this music convincingly and stirringly. He last performed the Fourth here, known as the Romantic, in March 2014.

The Austrian composer’s ninth and last symphony was played with the Philharmoniker only once under his direction, namely in 1989. This work, dedicated by Bruckner “to the beloved God”, remained unfinished. When he died, the composer left behind only three completed movements and extensive sketches for the Finale. This symphony is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Ninth not only because of the key of D minor; like it, the first movement of Bruckner’s work begins quasi from an archaic source, ultimately creating a musical world that opened the gates to the modern era.

This World and the Hereafter

Determining the location of masterpieces by Mozart and Bruckner

In “Piano Land”: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503

Out of nothing a palace is erected in music; scale after scale shoot heavenward like rockets; trumpets and timpani proclaim grand jubilation. The theme of the opening movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503 unfolds over the astonishing length of 18 bars; indeed the whole concerto represents the most expansive of all his compositions in this genre.

But what is this festive introduction – at once suggesting Handelian pomp and the enfolding splendour of a classical symphony – actually celebrating? It would surely have been worthy of an emperor, but no dedication – such as to Joseph II – survives. Yet Mozart, who moved to the centre of Vienna in 1781, benefited substantially from Joseph’s policies. In the capital, unlike Salzburg, he was soon viewed as a success and an artist in great demand. “My speciality is too popular here not to enable me to support myself”, he reassured his father, who had remained in Salzburg. This is undoubtedly the land of the piano!” Starting in 1784, Mozart mounted a series of subscription concerts during Advent and Lent in which he could present himself in the dual capacity of composer and virtuoso. The genre of the piano concerto offered him the most ingenious way of combining the two. As a result, he created an abundance of these works during his years in Vienna, including the present C major Concerto, which he entered in his autograph catalogue of works in December 1786.

After the imposing orchestral introduction, the soloist’s entry is rather hesitant; but after a spell of “arriving” he ensnares the orchestral part and decorates it with surging cascades of increasing virtuosity. A gently gleaming transition in distant E flat leads to the lyrical second theme. To the prominent knocking closing figure, underlined with trumpets and timpani, the piano plays a quietly questioning echo. What at first seems like a spontaneous, improvisatory inspiration on the soloist’s part is in fact compositional calculation. Punctuating the music like a colon, the figure launches a development section that wanders intoxicated through the keys. The marchlike theme that governs it was already present in the orchestral introduction. Now, as a virtuosic, never-ending canon between soloist and woodwind, it amasses astonishing power and fullness before the chordal pillars of the main theme usher in the recapitulation.

The broken major triad idea that opens the concerto also marks the beginning of the Andante – though in the gentler form of a descending F major chord lightened by the timbre of woodwind. An expansive orchestral introduction precedes the entry of the soloist. The main theme and the fleeting second theme with its murmuring accompaniment are ornamented and extended. Instead of a development section, there is an iridescent passage over a dominant pedal point in which time seems to stand still until the piano and horns finally bring the return of the main theme. The relaxed quality of the slow movement carries over into the finale. Mozart incorporates great emotional contrasts within the narrowest space while providing structural stability through strict formal symmetry. The grounded character of the jaunty gavotte principal theme encounters the pearling virtuosity of the piano’s passagework. And the engaging first couplet contrasts with the forceful second, which itself turns from minor back to radiant major.

“Like something from another world”: Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony

Although Bruckner was as a profoundly gifted organ virtuoso, he decided against embarking on a solo concert career on the instrument. “I have neither time nor the will to concern myself unduly in this regard”, he wrote in 1864. “It serves no purpose. Organists are always poorly paid.” Thus Bruckner at the age of 40 found his calling in composing symphonies.

Immediately after completing the Eighth Symphony in August 1887, he began a new work. That he carried on with composing almost without a break is surprising: Bruckner was uneasy about undertaking an entry in the symphonic genre that would bear the portentous number nine. Following Beethoven’s death, that perceived titan’s last symphony cast a gigantic shadow over the efforts of every subsequent composer of orchestral works. Bruckner’s work on his new opus dragged on for more than seven years.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Bruckner’s begins with an impression of undifferentiated chaos, gloomy, seething darkness from which a theme must first be formed out of a pedal point, 5ths, 4ths and the briefest of motifs. Finally, the D minor principal theme erupts in a unison of primeval force: a heroic gesture marked with potent dotted rhythms and Bruckner’s idiosyncratic triplets. A counterweight to this dramatic opening is provided by a tender lyrical idea that expands with Romantic emphasis, and a melancholy, oscillating third theme group that eventually takes on brass reinforcement. Following several build-ups, these “worlds” meet in a massively extended development section rutted by caesuras. At its centre is a new statement of the main theme on trombones. This makes no further appearances in the recapitulation, where the more lyrical themes dominate the proceedings. The movement ends with the thundering timpani and pulsating brass fanfares of an extended coda.

Just as at the beginning of the symphony, where everything was still coming into being, the Scherzo must also form itself – out of a surface of woodwind passages and fleeting pizzicati. A round dance begins, divested of all melodiousness and accompanied by the sound of dissonant strings suggesting diabolical laughter. Unstable harmonies, whirring semiquavers (16th notes) and a competition between block-like strings and brass all manifest an infernal atmosphere. The ghostly, surreal Trio provides a contrast to the almost machinelike stamping of the outer sections.

Bruckner makes the Adagio into the symphony’s emotional high point. The principal theme is launched with a lacerating unaccompanied lament on the violins that soon gives way to a chorale passage crowned by the trumpets. A lyrical second theme is followed by a chorale on horns and tubas. Bruckner described it in the score as a “farewell to life”, but there is as yet no trace of that. The movement unfolds in three expansive phases full of power and anguish, which are finally discharged as a sudden shriek of clustered dissonance. Following a general pause, the music manages to raise itself again into the ghostly half-light of strings and woodwind in their high registers. But soon the melody, with the consoling sound of horns, sinks back and comes to a standstill, accompanied by a violin motif suggesting the soft pealing of bells.

Just two months before his death, Bruckner was still occupied with the composition of a finale. His reference at this time to the Ninth Symphony as “homage to the Divine Majesty” clearly indicates the transcendental significance his work on it had acquired for the composer. Nevertheless, the Ninth remained a torso: Bruckner died on 11 October 1896. Already at its first performance in Vienna, there were doubts as to whether his last creation in its three-movement form was actually “unfinished”. “On the contrary,” wrote one reviewer, “one has the feeling that nothing more should or could follow the Adagio’s noble song. Its music sounds like something from another world into which the master has passed.”

Felix Werthschulte

Translation: Richard Evidon

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 awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994 and named their honorary member in 2004. His last concerts with the orchestra were in May 2015 when he conducted Schubert’s Fifth and Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony.

Till Fellner received his initial training from Helene Sedo-Stadler in his home town of Vienna; further studies took him to Alfred Brendel, Meira Farkas, Oleg Maisenberg and Claus-Christian Schuster. The winner of the first prize at the Clara Haskil Competition in Vevey (Switzerland) in 1993, he is a sought-after performer with prestigious orchestras in the major music centres of Europe, the US and Japan as well as at many major festivals. Among the conductors Till Fellner has worked with are Claudio Abbado, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Neville Marriner, Kent Nagano, Jonathan Nott, Kirill Petrenko and Hans Zender. In the field of chamber music, he has an ongoing partnership with the British tenor Mark Padmore; this season he performs Brahmsʼ Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 in a series of concerts with the Belcea Quartet. Between 2008 and 2010, Till Fellner played a cycle of all Beethovenʼs piano sonatas in New York, Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris and Vienna. Moreover, he has devoted himself intensively to Bachʼs Well-Tempered Clavier. The performance of contemporary works is another of his major interests; he has premiered works by composers such as Kit Armstrong, Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Larcher and Alexander Stankovski. Since the autumn of 2013, Till Fellner has been a professor at Zurich University of the Arts. His first appearance at the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation was in mid-April 2011 when he performed in an evening of piano trios in the chamber music hall; in these concerts, he makes his debut with the orchestra.

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