Andris Nelsons conducts Wagner and Bruckner

29 Apr 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

  • Richard Wagner
    Parsifal: Prelude to Act 1 and Good Friday Spell from Act 3 (28 min.)

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889 version) (65 min.)

  • free

    Andris Nelsons in conversation with Gunars Upatnieks (5 min.)

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    Wagner and Bruckner: an introduction by Susanne Stähr (14 min.)

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    Musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker talk about Anton Bruckner (8 min.)

Andris Nelsons says that Richard Wagner is his favourite composer. “Wagner’s music goes beyond the intellect, beyond an explanation in words. It is transcendental. When I conduct this music, I feel like I’m in a perfect world,” the conductor waxed lyrical in an interview. Even at the beginning of his career, as principal conductor of the Latvian National Opera in Riga, Nelsons attracted attention with the musical direction of a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. In 2010 he debuted at the Bayreuth Festival with Lohengrin.

In his Berlin concert Nelsons performs the Prelude to the First Act and the Karfreitagszauber from the Third Act of Parsifal. Wagner called this sacred festival drama with its religious symbolism and expressive musical language his “farewell to the world work”. The theme of redemption, a basic theme in the composer’s work, experiences a transcendental exaltation here: “Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor” “Through compassion made wise, the pure fool” – his hero Parsifal renounces the sensual temptations of this world and in that way becomes the compassionate saviour. The work’s premiere in July 1882 earned Wagner one last great success a few months before his death.

Anton Bruckner, who boundlessly revered Wagner, was also in the audience at the premiere. For the Austrian, he was the “master of all masters”. With good reason. Only after Bruckner got to know Wagner’s music and was profoundly affected by it, did he find the way to his own personal style. Bruckner dedicated his monumental Third Symphony, in which the composer linked together concepts of the First and Second, to his great role model Richard Wagner, “the unattainable, world-famous and sublime master of poetry and music, with the most profound respect”.

Crossroads – Crossed Paths

The Meetings of Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner

Bayreuth I

Anton Bruckner left Marienbad, where he had taken refuge from the cholera epidemic that was raging in Vienna, in September 1873. He travelled to Bayreuth, taking his Second Symphony and the still unfinished Third with him, fiercely determined to dedicate one of them to his revered “master” Richard Wagner. He had an uneasy feeling as he stood unannounced on Wagner’s doorstep, but he was persistent and did not leave until he had been assured that Wagner would look at his scores. He was to return at noon.

Zurich I

Wagner fled to Switzerland as a political exile in 1849. He took up residence in Zurich with his wife Minna. At the end of April 1857 they moved to a house near that of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, which – much to Minna’s chagrin – led to a certain amount of “neighbourly embarrassment” between Wagner and Mathilde. The composer had been working on the story of Tristan und Isoldesince August of that year, and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval epic poem Parzival also began to interest him. The Overture to Parsifal, the “festival play for the consecration of the stage” he composed twenty years later, opens with a unison triad motif in a darkened timbre – the theme later accompanies the Holy Communion scene. Untypically, Wagner separates the sections of the Prelude with tension-filled general pauses. It is also remarkable that his writing is reminiscent of organ stops here, contrasting sections with each other – a principle that one generally associates with Bruckner’s compositional style!

Bayreuth II

Bruckner spent the hours in Bayreuth until noon full of anticipation. Finally he was able to see Wagner. “For two and a half hours I had the good fortune to sit beside the Master, while he talked about musical affairs in Vienna, offered me beer, took me out in the garden and showed me his grave!!!” he later recalled in a letter to Hans von Wolzogen. Wagner, for his part, was more than pleased with the D minor Symphony: “My dear friend, the dedication is quite all right. The work gives me uncommonly great pleasure.” The alcohol consumption was not without consequence, and the next morning Bruckner was not certain which should be the “Wagner symphony”. He sent a note with the words “Symphony in D minor, where the trumpet begins the theme” and received the reply: “Yes! Yes! Cordial greetings! Richard Wagner.” From then on the dedicatee urged that the Third be performed soon and publicly supported his new friend. Wagner’s declaration that “I know of only one who approaches Beethoven, and that is Bruckner!” boosted Bruckner’s self-confidence.

Zurich II

“The garden was blooming, and the birds singing ... Filled with this sentiment, I suddenly said to myself that this was Good Friday ... Ever since that stay in Marienbad 1845, where I had conceived Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken another look at that poem Parzival; now its ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama.” Wagner later admitted that this Zurich “epiphany” of 1857, which he described in his autobiography, did not happen on a Good Friday; nevertheless it retains its validity as a source of inspiration.

After a long odyssey, the “pure fool” Parsifal returns to the company of the Grail shortly before the end of the third act. In an atmosphere of eloquent tranquillity a delicate oboe melody blossoms over a shimmering carpet of strings. “How fair seem the meadows today!” Parsifal sings with astonishment, and Gurnemanz solemnly explains: “That is the magic of Good Friday, my lord!” Parsifal is confused; should nature and mankind not “mourn, ah, and weep” on Good Friday? The key words of the drama and a kind of essence of Wagnerian theology follow: “No more can it nature see Him Himself on the Cross; / it looks up to man redeemed, / who feels freed from the burden of sin and terror, / made clean and whole through God’s loving sacrifice. / Now grasses and flowers in the meadow know / that today the foot of man will not tread them down, / but that, as God with divine patience / pitied him and suffered for him, / so man today in devout grace / will spare them with soft tread.” Nature is redeemed by humanity as man was through the death of Christ. At the heart of this ecological theology is the motif of redemptive compassion, around which Wagner weaves a semantic fabric of Christian symbolism (the Fall of Man, Grail, spear, Communion), Buddhist ideas (salvation in nirvana instead of eternal life) and Schopenhauerian philosophy (salvation through denial of the will, especially (insatiable) erotic desire).

Vienna I

Bruckner longed for salvation on the evening of 16 December 1877. Weeping, he still held the baton in his hand while the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic made fun of him. The audience had already left the hall during the concert. What had happened? After Bruckner’s visit to Bayreuth he made the initial changes to his Third Symphony but failed twice in his attempt to convince the Vienna Philharmonic to perform it: the vast work was “unplayable”. Finally the conductor Johann Herbeck became interested in the Third and scheduled its premiere for 3 December 1877. Herbeck’s unexpected death on 28 October forced Bruckner to conduct it himself. Totally inexperienced, he stood before a hostile orchestra on 16 December – the concert had been postponed. The fact that the symphony was played after a Beethoven overture, a Spohr violin concerto and arias by Mozart and Peter von Winter for an already weary audience sealed the fate of this premiere. The disaster had one positive outcome, however; the publisher Theodor Rättig agreed to publish the work at his own expense. Bruckner began revising the symphony once more.

Bayreuth III

On 24 July 1882 Bruckner arrived at Bayreuth by special train to attend the premiere of Parsifal. The solemn atmosphere of the work suited his taste perfectly. He had grown up with music for the celebration of the Mass, and composing masses logically paved his way to the symphony. Whereas Wagner built a Festspielhaus for his works, Bruckner composed the cathedral-like architecture for his Third Symphony into the music, as it were. Large intervals open up, while small intervals pass through exposed soundscapes, which Bruckner separates from each other like blocks with extreme contrasts. His waves of tension intensify until they are almost unbearable, often imploding in a climax of complete silence. Archaism and misterioso characterize the religious texture, in which the brass instruments make a fundamental contribution to the overall motivic and thematic structure. In the Finale Bruckner even simulates the reverberation of a church interior with quaver after-beats.

Vienna II

Bruckner met Wagner, who was already ill, for the last time in 1882. Shortly afterwards the master of Bayreuth died in Venice. In his place, the conductor Hermann Levi now championed Bruckner’s progressive idiom. Bruckner had in the meantime composed four more symphonies. The Seventh, conducted by Levi in Munich in 1885, brought the crucial breakthrough for the 60-year-old composer. The Third benefited from this success as well; it went through a second baptism of fire in Vienna, although not in the published version from 1878 but another revision, this time with the assistance of Bruckner’s pupil Franz Schalk. The final version was published in November 1890 and premiered on 21 December with Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, marking the cathartic end of Bruckner’s personal symphonic ordeal: “I am still so very moved by the reception given to the work by the Philharmonic audience, which called me back on stage twelve times, and how!”

Susanne Ziese

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Andris Nelsons was born in 1978 into a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his conducting studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; besides attending masterclasses with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, Mariss Jansons is his most important mentor. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, from 2006 to 2009 principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, and from 2008 to 2015 he took on the same role with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Starting with the 2014/15 season, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. He has returned to the Bayreuth Festival as conductor of Lohengrin, in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels, every year since its premiere in 2010. Andris Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the New York Philharmonic. He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in October 2015 in three concerts including Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (soloist: Baiba Skride) and the Alpine Symphonyby Richard Strauss.

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