Seiji Ozawa returns to the Berliner Philharmoniker

10 Apr 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Seiji Ozawa

Peter Serkin

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Serenade for winds in B flat major, K. 361 “Gran Partita” (52 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Egmont, op. 84: Overture (11 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, op. 80 “Choral Fantasy” (28 min.)

    Peter Serkin Piano, Rundfunkchor Berlin

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    Seiji Ozawa becomes honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker (8 min.)

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    Seiji Ozawa in conversation with Daishin Kashimoto (14 min.)

Whenever Ozawa – who was head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 2002 and music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010 – took to the podium of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and he did often and regularly, he would assemble a Classical-Romantic programme often seasoned with a pinch of Modernism. In his last concerts with the orchestra in May 2009, he conducted Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, whose Romantic reading impressed audiences and critics alike. In preparation for the performances, the Japanese revealed what he loved about the Berliner Philharmoniker in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall: “Each member plays like a chamber musician. This is very important. I think that is what makes the tradition of the orchestra.”

This concert from April 2016 was dedicated to the First Viennese School: Mozart’s Gran Partita is followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and his Choral Fantasy. The latter is an unusual piece which at that time had no precedent. It unites a variety of musical forms: Piano fantasy, symphony, concerto, string quartet, choral work, improvisation, variation, march, song, hymn – and last but not least, it is also a preliminary study for the Ninth Symphony.

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Compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven

Premonitions and recollections in Mozart’s “Gran Partita” K. 361

Among Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s divertimenti and serenades, the Wind Serenade K. 361 – also known as the “Gran Partita” (although the nickname was not Mozart’s invention) – occupies a special place. Its scoring – two oboes, two clarinets, two basset horns, two bassoons, four horns and double bass – is the most opulent of his works in the genre. Mozart’s friend, the clarinettist Anton Stadler, was probably referring to this opus when, in conjunction with a “musical academy for his benefit” on 23 March 1784, he performed four movements from a B flat major Serenade and described them as “a grand wind music of the most remarkable nature”. The autograph, however, is of a self-contained composition comprising not four but seven movements, which recent research indicates as dating from 1783–84. The “remarkable nature” refers both to the instrumentation and to the movement structures. A double bass added to the twelve wind instruments reinforces the harmonic foundation. Eventually individual colours and specific characters dominate the sound as the individual instrumental groups are amalgamated into a homogeneous entity. Compositionally this conception is supported by significant motivic-thematic ideas and their varied working out. In the process, the thematic building blocks reveal themselves to be facets of one and the same idea, one that requires leaving behind the normally light-hearted tone of a serenade. An epic quality and, with it, melancholy settles into the work – here and there a shadow is cast over the music. The timbral possibilities expand – already discernible in the development section of the first movement, whose very beginning anticipates the atmosphere of the Magic Flute. Preceded by a weighty Largo introduction, the Molto allegro – whose springy main theme is launched by the clarinets – creates one kind of ambience. A second arrives in the B flat major Minuet with its two Trios: the first of these is in the Magic Flute’snuminous basic tonality of E flat major, while in the second Trio, in G minor, we glimpse on the horizon Pamina’s aria “Ach, ich fühl’s”.

The Adagio takes up this nocturnal atmosphere, but in the already familiar key of E flat. One of the two horn pairs is silent, and this movement almost sounds like a scene of Tamino standing beneath the firmament with whispered longing, lamenting and love emerging from his beating heart. A feudally measured Minuet officially rebuffs him, but we again perceive a burdened soul in the first of the two Trios. Why else would Mozart have chosen for it the extremely rare key of B flat minor? Thankfully, the second Trio brightens up the situation with its pastoral F major. Emotionalism persists in spite of all the music’s Enlightenment gestures. The Romance confirms this. It starts out intimately and then turns capricious, like a flighty female character from a Mozart opera buffa. Cut from a quite different cloth is the sixth movement (Andante con variazioni), which does not conceal its model: the Mannheim C major Flute Quartet K. 285b. As for the finale, a blustering Rondo in B flat headed Molto allegro, Mozart went back to a very early work for its thematic material: the last movement of his youthful sonata for piano four hands K. 19d.

Portrait of a mindset: Beethoven’s Egmont Overture op. 84

So much for one genius. We move now to two others: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ludwig van Beethoven. In autumn 1809 the composer was commissioned by the Court Theatre in Vienna to provide incidental music for a new staging of Goethe’s Egmont. Conceived as an occasional work, it opened a door to Beethoven’s deeper understanding of the heroic nature. A letter to Goethe from 12 April 1811 speaks to this concept: “You will shortly receive from Leipzig through Breitkopf and Hertel sic my music for Egmont, that glorious Egmont on which I have again reflected through you, and which I have felt and reproduced in music as intensely as I felt when I read it. – I should very much like to have your opinion on my music; even your censure will be useful to me and my art and will be welcomed as gladly as the greatest praise.” Beethoven stresses his involvement by waiving remuneration: this work shall come from the heart and go to the heart.

When you hear the Overture to the drama, it becomes clear that it is not only a portrait of Egmont but of an entire mindset. We should not expect a concentrated synopsis of the ensuing action, but rather the imago of events inspired by the spirit of Goethe’s tragedy, the content of which is derived from independent musical constructs. The beginning of the Sostenutointroduction, a solemn, heavily treading unison in 3/2 time, recalls the atmosphere of the Coriolan Overture. From the dungeon scene of Fidelio we recognize the dark F minor mood out of which the strings develop the leaden principal theme. The Allegro main section is then dominated by the will to confrontation. The Overture’s compact instrumental architecture, however, allows for hardly more than a dualistic exposition, a concise development and a brief recapitulation. Then, at once, things come to a head. The principal motif, which until now has been stomping relentlessly, breaks off abruptly. For seconds the musical drama is suspended. Finally a triumphant, ecstatic victory march is launched, tearing down every wall as it anticipates the incidental music’s “Victory Symphony”. This is typical of Beethoven. Out of darkness the music struggles upward into the light. Goethe must have sensed it, for when the work was played to him on the piano, he commented: “Beethoven has conformed to my intentions with admirable genius.”

A musical triptych: Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy op. 80

“Per aspera ad astra” – Through adversity to the stars: this principle also applies to a work that was performed during a musical academy given on a December evening in 1808 at the Theater an der Wien. This is the Choral Fantasy op. 80, an occasional work in the best sense of the word, aimed at bringing together all of the concert’s participants. That was no mean undertaking when one considers that the programme on this remarkable evening also included his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the G major Piano Concerto, parts of the C major Mass and the aria Ah! Perfido. In the Choral Fantasy, Beethoven himself took the piano part, which was also an advantage in that he hadn’t yet completed the composition and, besides, the beginning needed to be freely improvised. The analogues between the Fifth Symphony and the Fantasy are readily apparent: both begin in the “fate” key of C minor; both end in radiant C major. “From darkness to light” is the motto here as well – with the small but significant difference that the Choral Fantasy ends in musically underlaid verses celebrating nature and art. They were penned for the occasion by the poet Christoph Kuffner.

Strictly speaking, this work is conceived as a fantasy only in the introduction. That is followed by a theme and variations for piano and orchestra based on Beethoven’s setting of the poem Gegenliebe by Gottfried August Bürger. In the last part of this musical triptych – a choral apotheosis in C major – the theme is taken up by the chorus. Attentive ears will surely notice its close resemblance to the “Joy” theme of the Ninth Symphony, composed 15 years later. Music history has long since forgiven Christoph Kuffner for not possessing an iota of Friedrich Schiller’s gifts. In any case, Beethoven’s heroism drowns out everything – or everyone – else at this moment.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Since his celebrated debut in 1966, Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker have held a close artistic partnership now lasting 50 years. Born in 1935 in Shenyang, China, to Japanese parents, Seiji Ozawa studied conducting and composition in Tokyo. The winner of several international competitions and the holder of many major scholarships, he attended Herbert von Karajan’s masterclasses in Berlin before becoming Leonard Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic during the 1961/62 season. This was followed by positions as music director of Chicago’s Ravinia Festival (1964–69) and as principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony (1965–69) and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1970–76). His major successes at the Tanglewood Festival led to his appointment as the Festival’s artistic director in 1970. In 1973 he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and held this post for almost three decades. Over this long period the orchestra’s reputation rose considerably, making it one of the top orchestras in the world. Seiji Ozawa was music director of the Vienna State Opera from the autumn of 2002 until 2010. In 1984 he founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra and since then had done much to promote the orchestra’s work, performing a similar function for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto since 1992. In 2004 he formed the International Music Academy in Switzerland with the aim of helping young musicians to develop as chamber recitalists and to give concerts. Among his numerous awards are his appointment as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2001 and honorary doctorates at Harvard University (2000) and the Sorbonne (2004), Japan’s Order of Culture (2008) and the Praemium Imperiale (2011). Seiji Ozawa most recently conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2009 in performances of Mendelssohnʼs oratorio Elijah.

The American pianist Peter Serkin is considered a profound and passionate musician, whose repertoire ranges from early polyphony to contemporary compositions. Peter Serkin’s musical pedigree goes back several generations: his grandfather was the violinist and composer Adolf Busch, and his father the pianist Rudolf Serkin. Peter Serkin entered the Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia) at the age of just eleven, and in 1959, he made his debut at the Marlboro Festival and in New York when he was only 12. Since then, he has performed with leading orchestras around the world and has worked with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, James Levine and Sir Simon Rattle. Highlights of recent seasons include performances with the orchestras in Boston, Chicago and Saint Louis, the New York Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He has appeared on several occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in early February 1980, most recently in two concerts in March 2008 with Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, and Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies (conductor: Reinbert de Leeuw). Peter Serkin’s chamber music partners include Yo-Yo Ma, Alexander Schneider, Pamela Frank, the Budapest String Quartet and the Guarneri Quartet; he is a founding member of the TASHI ensemble, and he forms a piano duo with pianist Julia Hsu. A committed advocate of many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Peter Serkin has premiered numerous works, including several which were composed especially for him by composers such as Tōru Takemitsu, Peter Lieberson, Oliver Knussen and Alexander Goehr. Peter Serkin teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music (New York).

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 in late March and early April in two concert performances of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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