Simon Rattle conducts a concert “à la française”

20 Feb 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars

  • Francis Poulenc
    Figure humaine, cantata for double mixed choir a capella (20 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master

  • Charles Koechlin
    Les Bandar-log (Scherzo des singes) after Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (18 min.)

  • György Kurtág
    Petite Musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez 90 (German première) (8 min.)

  • Maurice Ravel
    Daphnis et Chloé, Symphonie chorégraphique in three parts (60 min.)

    Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Francis Poulenc
    Figure humaine, (version for 12 cellos by David Riniker, recording from 19 Feb 2016) (20 min.)

    The 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Maurice Ravel collected music boxes. Nothing fascinated the composer more than childlike dream worlds that took shape within a short time in the form of precision mechanics. Whether Sergei Diaghilev was aware of that when he asked Ravel in 1909 to musically arrange a bucolic epic written between the second and third centuries A.D. for performances by the Ballets russes? We don’t know – but we do know what ideas the composer let himself be guided by when working on Daphnis et Chloé: “My intention was to compose a vast musical fresco,” Ravel confessed, “less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies willingly with that imagined and depicted by late 18th-century French artists.”

Thus a game with images and sounds, captured in a score that turns into music states of intoxication all the way to total exhaustion, characterized nevertheless by a rather distanced, sometimes cool stance. More than almost any other, Ravel knew how to filter emotions through intellectual reflection and compositional precision. Not for nothing did he call himself a musical “master watchmaker”.

Just about a quarter of a century younger than Ravel, Francis Poulenc was described once by a critic as someone who is both “monk and naughty boy”. With Figure humaine, his choral cantata composed in 1943 based on texts by his fellow Frenchman Paul Éluard, the Janus-faced composer wrote a striking hymn to freedom under the impression of the German occupation of his homeland. Our concert opens with the original vocal version, and closes with an arrangement for 12 cellists (which for organisational reasons was recorded on 19 February 2016). Charles Koechlin’s symphonic poem Les Bandar-log inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book takes us to a completely different realm: a monkey dance that is both virtuoso and enigmatic poking fun at, among other things, representatives of a self-proclaimed compositional avant-garde: “These monkeys believe themselves to be creative geniuses; but they are nothing but vulgar imitators,” Koechlin wrote, “whose aim is to be fashionable and up-to-date.”


Works by Francis Poulenc, Charles Koechlin, Maurice Ravel and György Kurtág

Liberté: the root of the great triad of liberty, equality and fraternity has lost none of its currency or power since the French Revolution. On the one hand, something as trivial as the slogan for a cigarette advertisement – “liberté, toujours” (freedom forever) – on the other, so exalted that libertéis still invariably invoked when France faces great difficulties. Most recently, in January and November of last year, after the violent terrorist attacks in Paris at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoanda Jewish supermarket, the Bataclan concert hall, several cafes and restaurants and the Stade de France stadium.

Francis Poulenc: Figure humaine

Libertéwas also the rallying cry of protest and hope in occupied France in 1942 – for example, in the poem by the surrealist Paul Éluard, which ends 20 four-line stanzas with the words “J’écris ton nom”(I write your name), like a mantra, until the 21st and last stanza brings resolution. “To conclude the poem I thought to reveal the name of the woman I loved, to whom this poem was dedicated. But I quickly realized that the only word I had in my mind was ‘liberty’.” Thus, the eighth and final movement of the cantata for double choir Figure humaine(The Face of Man), which Francis Poulenc set to music within a few weeks during summer 1943, ends with the lines “And by the power of a word / I begin my life anew. / I was born to know you, / to name you: / liberty.” Éluard was part of the underground Resistance movement at that time and sent his poems, which were published in the collection Poésie et Vérité 42(Poetry and Truth 1942), as anonymous typescripts to several close friends, including Poulenc, with whom he had formed a friendship in 1916/1917. The composer, who was three years younger than Éluard, had withdrawn to the village of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the free zone and enthusiastically set to work. “While beholding the bell tower of the village church, so strong and so very French, I composed the music of Liberté,” he wrote in a letter to Geneviève Sienkiewicz. “I asked my publisher and friend Paul Rouart to publish the cantata secretly, so that it could be performed at once after the eagerly anticipated day of liberation. The music was actually sent to London immediately after the liberation, and before the end of the war ... the BBC Chorus gave the first performance” – in an English translation – on 25 March 1945.

Charles Koechlin: Les Bandar-log op. 176

Poulenc’s Figure humaine, which is firmly grounded in tonality, and Charles Koechlin’s modernist orchestral work Les Bandar-log were composed at about the same time but seem to come from two entirely different eras. With the symphonic poem about a tribe of monkeys, which he finished in January 1940, Koechlin completed his six-part cycle of works based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Bookthat he had begun in 1899 with the Trois Poèmes op. 18. Upon closer listening, it becomes clear that this work is also about the spirit of freedom – or is it perhaps rather the Phantom of Liberty exposed by Luis Buñuel as harsh social satire in his penultimate film in 1974? The freedom of art, for which Koechlin struggled all his life, appears in the form of grotesque antics in this mad, brilliantly orchestrated scherzo. “These monkeys, the vainest and most insignificant of animals, believe themselves to be creative geniuses,” the composer wrote, “but they are nothing but vulgar imitators whose aim is to be fashionable and up-to-date. It is said that there is also something of the kind in the world of the arts ...”

Les Bandar-log is an incredible combination of Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, polytonality and atonality, modal passages, pseudo-twelve-tone music and a crude fugal parody of the children’s song J’ai du bon tabac(I have good tobacco), which Camille Saint-Saëns quoted in his Carnival of the Animals. In the score Koechlin noted: “Le (prétendu) ‘Retour à Bach’” The (alleged) “return to Bach”, with the performance indications “ponderous, scholastic, harsh and dry”.

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

In the final analysis, the jungle where Kipling’s and Koechlin’s monkeys perform their antics is just as unreal as the antiquity that provided the setting for Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, which was composed 30 years earlier. The Arcadian landscapes, like those we see in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and – a century later – Antoine Watteau, are a mere illusion, an imitation from the Baroque or Rococo period. The freedom to transport oneself back to this idealized world runs like a thread through Ravel’s œuvre. His first song, Ballade de la reine morte dʼaimer (Ballad of the Queen who Died of Love),composed around 1893, and his first piano piece, Menuet antique,from 1895, already sound like musical images from an earlier time.

Ravel should actually have been delighted when Sergei Diaghilev – the impresario of the celebrated Ballets Russes – commissioned him in June 1909 to compose the ballet score to a libretto which the choreographer Michel Fokine had adapted from the pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe by the late classical writer Longus. But neither Fokine’s rigid choreography nor Léon Bakst’s sets corresponded to Ravel’s ideas. “My intention was to compose a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with faithfulness to the Greece of my dreams, which is similar to that imagined and depicted by French artists at the end of the 18th century. My work is constructed symphonically according to a very strict tonal scheme by means of a few motifs; their development assures the work’s symphonic homogeneity.” In fact, Ravel initially described the work as a “choreographic symphony”.

György Kurtág: Petite musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez 90

All of these (intellectual and artistic) freedoms which Ravel, Koechlin and Poulenc invoked and allowed themselves in their works were, for Pierre Boulez, Orientations– the title of the English translation of a collection of his essays. “Composer en toute liberté” (Composing Freely) was the headline of a French cultural blog for the 90th birthday of the great composer and conductor on 26 March 2015. The orchestral work Petite musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez 90 (Brief Solemn Music in Homage to Pierre Boulez at 90) was composed by György Kurtág in Boulez’s honour – an approximately eight-minute musical fabric that is surprisingly long by the standards of the Hungarian composer, who was born only one year after Boulez. It evokes inner rather than outer freedom: now silvery, now sombre like funeral music – perhaps a foreboding of the approaching death of his old friend and colleague, who was already seriously ill at that time. Pierre Boulez died in Baden-Baden on 5 January 2016.

What all the works in this concert have in common is an unmistakable French freedom of form and sound, whether in Poulenc’s twelve-part vocal work or the large-scale but always transparent, almost pointillist orchestral compositions. There are no rules to be followed, but rather a freedom of expression that only results from the “uncertainty of the moment”. Pierre Boulez wrote: “The place for the most unstable, most transitory and richest zone of imagination and perception lies between order and chaos.” Liberté shows us how to get there.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

The Rundfunkchor Berlin(Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001-2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of January in Mahler’s Third Symphony, conducted by Iván Fischer.

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