Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Maurizio Pollini and Christian Thielemann

16 Jan 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

Maurizio Pollini

  • Robert Schumann
    Genoveva, op. 81: Overture (10 min.)

  • Frédéric Chopin
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E minor, op. 11 (42 min.)

    Maurizio Pollini Piano

  • Aribert Reimann
    Sieben Fragmente für Orchester in memoriam Robert Schumann (Seven Fragments for orchestra, in memoriam Robert Schumann) (19 min.)

  • Richard Strauss
    Intermezzo: Four symphonic interludes (29 min.)

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    Christian Thielemann in conversation with Albrecht Mayer (16 min.)

Maurizio Pollini has by now been a musical partner and indeed friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker for many decades. And Christian Thielemann has also been closely associated with the orchestra since his Philharmonic debut in 1996. The grandseigneur among the pianists of our time and the acting chief conductor of the Dresdner Staatskapelle have already repeatedly proven that they get along swimmingly as artists – not least on the podium of the Berlin Philharmonie.

In December 2012, together with the Berliner Philharmoniker, they gave a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major K. 467 that was acclaimed equally by press and audience. And this sets the course for a reunion with Thielemann and Pollini in the Berlin Philharmonie. This time, the artists placed Frédéric Chopin’s First Piano Concerto on the programme, a work that has accompanied the pianist since the beginning of his career, when he played it at the final concert of the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1960 after winning first prize.

The Berlin composer Aribert Reimann has never made a secret of his admiration for the music of Robert Schumann. Reimann’s Seven Fragments for Orchestra from 1988 are dedicated “in memoriam Robert Schumann” and can be seen as compositional meditations about the Romantic whose person and music Reimann so admires. Schumann himself can be heard in these three concerts with the overture to his only opera Genoveva, composed in 1847-49. The composer wrote the overture even before writing the libretto based on dramas by Friedrich Hebbel and Ludwig Tieck. In it, he already presents all the themes of the figures acting in his opera in free sonata form.

With four symphonic interludes from Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo, premiered at the Semperoper in 1924, Christian Thielemann also brings a musical greeting from Dresden to his home town of Berlin, thus concluding a concert whose programme is just as exquisite and multi-faceted as its interpreters!

Fantasies about Art

Compositions by Schumann, Chopin, Reimann and Strauss

Emotion rather than black romanticism: Robert Schumann’s Genoveva Overture op. 81

A letter – passionate, effusive – like others from the writer, addressed to his mother: “The grand opera has been settled on; I am on fire and revel the whole day long in sweet, marvellous tones. The opera is called ‘Hamlet’ – the thought of fame and immortality gives me strength and fantasy.” Robert Schumann wrote these lines in 1830. There is no doubt that opera fascinated him, but he could not find the right approach to it. Not until Maundy Thursday of 1847 did Schumann discover a play that he felt was worthy of setting to music. After reading Friedrich Hebbel’s Genoveva he immediately sketched the music for the overture to an opera. It bore the title of Hebbel’s tragedy but also made use of elements from Ludwig Tieck’s tragic drama Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (Life and Death of Saint Genevieve) from 1799.

The story is a work of black romanticism, which in Schumann’s setting becomes secondary to the psychological structure, however. During the dazzling overture, which anticipates the action on the emotional level rather than unfolding it chronologically, it already becomes clear that we are hearing a song of pain – a song whose power is so enormous that the opera which follows can scarcely compete with such tremendous intensity. We can agree with Schumann’s student Louis Ehlert, who, after the premiere of Genoveva in Leipzig on 25 June 1850, felt that the overture was the highlight of the entire opera.

Sadness, melancholy, clarity: Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, op. 11

Frédéric Chopin’s instrument was the piano, and he composed music for it which Schumann described as “cannons concealed among flowers”. But that is only one aspect. The other is found in a comment by Honoré de Balzac: “Like the song of a soul that speaks to the senses – much of what Chopin composed can be heard and felt just as exquisitely.” That also applies to the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, op. 11, which, despite its official designation, was probably composed shortly after his second work of the genre – the F minor Concerto, op. 21. The formal conception, the melancholy, rapturous tone and the style are virtually identical in both works.

Chopin poetically described the middle movement of his Opus 11, which alternates between E major and C sharp minor, in a letter to his friend Titus Woyciechowski: “It is not meant to be powerful, but rather like a romance, calm, melancholy; it should give the impression of someone gazing tenderly at a place that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of dreaming in beautiful spring weather, but by moonlight.” Yes, it is a nocturne immersed in emotion, in which a distant Arcadia is imagined, although with light clouds and constantly new melodic ideas over a scarcely changing bass figuration. “Melancholy, my love” one could call it or, with a Schubertian accent, “Laughing and crying”. Everything is enveloped in veils of fog – music that is removed from the world.

Diffusion, unravelling, pulverization: Aribert Reimann’s Sieben Fragmente

Robert Schumann regarded the chorale-like theme that came to him during a night in February 1854 as a gift of angels’ voices. He immediately notated it as the theme of the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) in E flat major, his final work for piano. We encounter this theme again in Aribert Reimann’sSieben Fragmente für Orchester in memoriam Robert Schumann(Seven Fragments for Orchestra in Memory of Robert Schumann), composed in 1987/1988, although in fragmented form – as an allusion, an homage, an intimate musical message. The title of the work already suggests the affinity between the two compositions. Everything is torso, outline, sketch, and what we hear is the result of a previous event unknown to us. “Something has already happened earlier,” says Reimann, “as we can hear in the first Fragment. You open a window or a curtain, and you are suddenly in a situation. You have to imagine what has happened before.”

Diffusion, unravelling, pulverization – that can be regarded as the general underlying principle of the fourteen-minute work. Only Fragment I at least hints at a fixed form, but it has a strongly associative character and makes a logical transition – attacca, without pause – to Fragment II. It contains music like passing clouds, lyrical, with blurred transitions, thinning out – and with explicit Schumann quotes in the corresponding passages. For example, at the beginning of Fragment III, where only the first bar of the Schumann theme is heard, or the beginning of Fragment V, where a snippet is taken from this theme, and finally in Fragment VII, which quotes the fifth variation of the work from Schumann’s breakdown, his last thoughts. Above it all is the colourful magic we know from many of Reimann’s works, produced by the superimposition of sustained notes, a wide range of tonal colours and various playing techniques as well as flights to the solitary heights of the flageolet.

Diary pages amusingly set to music: Intermezzo op. 72 by Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss takes us to an upper middle-class milieu in his opera Intermezzo; the composer himself called it a “domestic comedy with symphonic interludes”. It demonstrates the composer’s attempt to find a conversational style for opera that more or less corresponds to the natural flow of speech of the comedy. It is based on life – that of him and his family, depicting “three very difficult days” that took Strauss “almost to the point of insanity”, as he acknowledged. But one should not take these amusingly illustrated diary pages too seriously in order to understand Intermezzo; they are full of satirical wit and a good deal of subtle self-irony.

The work contains thirteen scenes from the everyday life of the Storch family, connected by musical interludes. The basic conflict of the story arises when Christine, the quarrelsome but charming wife of court music director Storch (in whom we clearly recognize Strauss’s wife Pauline), is upset by a telegram that is addressed to her husband but actually intended for a Berlin colleague with a similar name, Stroh. This leads to turmoil and confusion, until the couple’s world finally returns to its bourgeois order at the breakfast table – with coffee, rolls and jam.

The highlights of the work are unquestionably provided by the music, which is divided into dramatic, recitative-like and symphonic passages. The husband’s motif, in particular, is altered in a variety of ways and contradicted by the wife’s theme until a common marriage motif is found. What is especially fascinating is the fast pace at which everything happens. Tempo serves as the driving force in the virtuosically composed score of Intermezzo, keeping the comedy moving with its charming allegro gracefulness and versatility. As always, Strauss shows himself to be a master of musical characterization. The dream theme in the A flat major interlude is extremely delicate, the waltz, with its interwoven cantilenas – rustically Bavarian and fancifully elegant – sparkles brilliantly, and the E major interlude shortly before the end of the marital row is thrilling! The force of the music is so dominant that one can certainly agree with the clever fellow who suggested with gentle sarcasm that Intermezzo is a “symphonic poem with domestic interludes rather than a domestic poem with symphonic interludes”.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

The exceptional global career of Maurizio Pollini began in 1960 when he won first prize at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Born in Milan in 1942, Pollini studied piano, composition and conducting at the Milan Conservatory and later continued his studies with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He made his debut at La Scala with Chopin’s First Piano concerto in a concert conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. Chopin has remained a cornerstone of his repertoire in which works by Bach, Schumann and Debussy are also given a prominent place. Maurizio Pollini has also been very committed to contemporary music; he is as familiar with compositions by Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen as he is with the piano works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In 1993 and 1994, he performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for the first time in Berlin and Munich; he later repeated this cycle in other cities. The pianist has also shaped several festivals and concert series in the role of artistic director, such as the 1999-2001 project “Perspectives: Maurizio Pollini”, with 30 concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. Similar cycles consequently took place in the Cité de la Musique Paris, in Lucerne, Rome, Milano, Tokyo and Berlin. Pollini‘s awards include the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1996) and the Premio Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (2000) as well as the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Award. Maurizio Pollini has regularly appeared both as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker as well as a solo performer at the Philharmonie since 1970; most recently he gave a piano recital of works by Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann here in May 2015.

Christian Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival where he has been a regular conductor since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). He was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010 and its music director in 2015. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). In May 2015 he was awarded the Richard Wagner prize by the Richard Wagner Society of the city of Leipzig. Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently only a few days ago, when he conducted works by Chausson, Debussy and Fauré’s Requiem.

Maurizio Pollini appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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