John Eliot Gardiner conducts Stravinsky
04 Jun 2016
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Andrew Staples, Jennifer Johnston, Bruno Ganz
Apollon musagète, ballet in two tableaux (revised 1947 version) (34 min.)
Oedipus Rex, Opera-Oratorio for speaker, soloists, male chorus and orchestra (59 min.)
Andrew Staples Tenor (Oedipus), Jennifer Johnston Mezzo-Soprano (Iokaste), Ashley Riches Bass Baritone (Kreon), Gianluca Buratto Bass (Tiresias), Alex Ashworth Baritone (Messenger), Gareth Treseder Tenor (Shepherd), Bruno Ganz Speaker, Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin (Priests, Guards, Folk), Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master
John Eliot Gardiner in conversation with Jonathan Kelly (17 min.)
Igor Stravinsky created a central work of neoclassicism with his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex – a ritual drama with a Latin text that tells the story handed down by Sophocles of the desperate hero of ancient times who unwittingly kills his father and without realizing it marries his mother. Kurt Weill pointed out the “form in the style of an oratorio”: the composition consists of recitative and arias, as well as duets and choral pieces with a static plot – “the categorical rejection of the form of the music drama” and “the inclusion of a purely vocal operatic style in which the action, drama and optical movement are completely repressed in favour of a purely musical form”. (Stravinsky declared: “The strict form of this language has in and of itself so much expressive value that it is not necessary to enhance it through the music.”)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner is guest conductor of the Philharmoniker at this concert. The internationally renowned representative of historically informed performance practice performs the broadest repertoire basis imaginable, ranging far into the 19th and even 20th centuries, and has always devoted himself to the works of Stravinsky and his music between various genres.
A neoclassicist masterpiece is performed at the beginning of the concert as well: Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète (Apollo, leader of the muses), in which after a prologue that depicts the birth of the ancient God with extremely delicate music, there is a series of allegorical dances “in the traditional style of the classical ballet (Pas d’action, Pas de deux, Variations, Coda)” (Stravinsky).
Finally, Apollo leads the muses onto Mount Parnassus: “In admiration for the linear beauty of the classical dance,” the composer stresses, “I decided for the strict form of ballet, and thought first and foremost of the ‘ballet blanc’, in which in my opinion the essence of this art manifests itself most clearly.” The renunciation of dissonant harshness corresponds to the plot without any conflict by using a pure string orchestra; the contrast in instrumental colours that is found otherwise is substituted for by dynamic contrasts, a process Stravinsky had already tested in his Pulcinella ballet.
The Antiquity of the Roaring Twenties
Mythical Stravinsky: Praise for a God and Royal Drama
Apollo and the Muses: A Ballet without Plot
In summer 1927 the American patron of music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge asked Igor Stravinsky to compose a thirty-minute ballet for the Festival of Contemporary Music in Washington. The Russian composer worked on the score in Nice from July 1927 to January 1928. Apollon musagète sparkles and shines as a major work by the “neoclassical” Stravinsky, with the choice of allegorical subject matter, the abstract ideal of beauty, its austere formal discipline grounded in ancient prosody, 17th-century French music and the art of the classical quartet, and its imaginative “discovery of the past”. And yet it flirts with the urbane sound, nonchalance and cosmopolitan elegance of the Roaring Twenties.
“Apollon musagète is a piece without plot,” Stravinsky explained. “It is a ballet whose choreography follows the theme of Apollo, in other words, the leader of the muses, inspiring each of the others with their art. The ballet begins with a short prologue representing the birth of Apollo. Leto is seized with childbirth. She throws her arms around a tree, she kneels on soft grass, and the child leaps into the light. Two goddesses run forward to greet Apollo, giving him as swaddling clothes a white veil and a gold belt. They give him nectar and ambrosia and lead him towards Olympus. End of the prologue; a new setting. Apollo, left alone, dances (Variation). At the end of his dance Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore appear. Apollo bestows a gift upon each one (Pas d’action). Thus Calliope becomes the muse of Poetry, Polyhymnia of Mime, and Terpsichore of Dance. Each in turn exhibits her art to him (Variations). Apollo receives them with a dance in honour of these newborn arts (Variation). Terpsichore, uniting Poetry and Mime, finds herself in the place of honour beside Apollo (Pas de deux). The other muses join Apollo and Terpsichore, thereby grouping all three around their leader (Coda). These allegorical scenes end with an apotheosis in which Apollo leads the muses, with Terpsichore first, towards Parnassus, which in future will be their abode.” The premiere of Apollon musagète took place at the Library of Congress in Washington on 27 April 1928.
From Compulsion to Freedom: the Tragedy of Oedipus
A few years earlier, in autumn 1925, Igor Stravinsky had come across a biography of St Francis of Assisi at a bookstall in Genoa. He began reading it that night and was surprised to discover a clarification and confirmation of a long-contemplated but vague idea: “It is common knowledge that the familiar speech of the saint was Italian, but that on solemn occasions, such as prayer, he used French (Provençal? – his mother came from Provence). I have always considered that a special language, and not that of current converse, was required for subjects touching on the sublime.” The “language problem” had by his own admission bothered the Russian emigrant since he had become “déraciné” (rootless). It inhibited and troubled him when he thought about new vocal works: “Russian, the exiled language of my heart, had become musically impracticable, and French, German, and Italian were temperamentally alien.” The not yet fully developed plan for an opera-oratorio based on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was filled with life and inspiration when Stravinsky – as a result of his “illumination in Genoa” – found the only truly sublime language that would be appropriate for his monumental composition: Latin. “What a joy it is,” Stravinsky declared in his memoirs, “to compose music to a language of convention, almost of ritual, the very nature of which imposes a lofty dignity! One no longer feels dominated by the phrase, the literal meaning of the words. Cast in an immutable mould which adequately expresses their value, they do not require any further commentary. The text thus becomes purely phonetic material for the composer. He can dissect it at will and concentrate all his attention on its primary constituent element – that is to say, on the syllable. Was not this method of treating the text that of the old masters of austere style? This, too, has for centuries been the Church’s attitude toward music, and has prevented it from falling into sentimentalism, and consequently into individualism.”
Oedipus rex, which he began composing in January 1926, should thus not simply be an “operatic opera”, Stravinsky emphasized, since “no one ‘acts’, and the only individual who moves at all is the narrator, and he merely in order to show his detachment from the other stage figures.” As subject matter Stravinsky chose the ancient tragedy of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, who wants to escape the oracle’s terrible prophecy – that he will kill his father and marry his own mother – and for precisely that reason cannot avoid his fate. He finds what he is fleeing from, he commits the crime he wants to prevent and rushes headlong into disaster. Stravinsky chose this universal and well-known tale for one reason in particular – so that he could begin the story without further ado and, without onerous dramaturgical obligations, concentrate on the most important thing: the music. “I wished to leave the play, as play, behind,” Stravinsky acknowledged, “thinking by this to distil the dramatic essence and to free myself for a greater degree of focus on a purely musical dramatization.”
For the nevertheless essential vocal text of the male chorus and soloists he engaged the French writer Jean Cocteau, a literary and artistic multitalent whose libretto, a condensed version of Sophocles’ tragedy, was translated into Latin by the Jesuit priest and later Cardinal Jean Daniélou – with the exception of the role of the narrator, who is to inform the audience about the ritualized events on the stage in the language of the country of performance, for example, at the very beginning, with the words: “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to hear a Latin version of King Oedipus. In order to spare you all effort of ear and memory and as the opera-oratorio preserves only a certain monumental aspect of the play, I shall recall Sophocles’ drama as we go along.”
Stravinsky’s “opera-oratorio” was not staged at all to begin with but was premiered at a concert performance in Paris on 30 May 1927. Not until the following year did productions follow in the theatre, in Vienna and at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin with Otto Klemperer, who conducted Oedipus rex and also directed it, strictly as the composer intended it: “Chorus and individual performers should be nothing but ancient statues come to life. The carriers of the story and the chorus remain on the stage in the same position during the entire sequence of scenes. Only head and arms are moved. The only dramatic movement is the entrance and exit of the messenger and other figures. The internal movement shall result purely from the music,” Klemperer said during an interview with the Berlin Schallkiste, an illustrated music magazine. Many years later he was asked whether the performance of Oedipus rex at the Kroll Opera had suited Stravinsky: “He liked Ewald Dülberg’s stage design very much, and he wrote about it. Naturally, he criticized musical details – this tempo was too slow and that too fast. But then he played Apollon musagète for me on the piano; it was composed but not performed yet. I was delighted with the piece.” And so everything could begin anew: Stravinsky ad infinitum.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in September 1997 as part of the Berliner Festspiele, is regarded internationally as one of the most versatile conductors of our time. His work with the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, whose founder and artistic director he is, has made him a pioneer in historical performance practice. A regular guest of the world’s leading symphony orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Gardiner conducts a repertoire ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries; in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, he most recently conducted works by Chabrier, Debussy and Franck at the beginning of April 2002. The whole spectrum of his wide-ranging repertoire is revealed in his more than 250 award-winning CD recordings which, in addition to works from the Renaissance and Baroque, also include music by Mozart, Schumann, Berlioz, Elgar and Weill. Sir John Eliot Gardiner has conducted operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala in Milan, and he was artistic director of the Opéra de Lyon from 1983-1988. An expert in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, he wrote the book Music in the Castle of Heaven:A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (published in October 2013). In 2014, Gardiner became the first president of the executive board of the Leipzig Bach Archive, and in 2014/2015 was the first “Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Scholar” at Harvard University. Sir John Eliot Gardiner is an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, an Honorary Fellow of King’s College London, the British Academy, and King’s College Cambridge where he studied, and which awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 1990 he was appointed “Commander of the British Empire” and knighted in 1998 for his services to music. In 2005, he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and in 2011, Gardiner was also made a Chevalier of the Légion dʼhonneur.
Andrew Staples sang as a boy in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London before studying music at King’s College in Cambridge. With a grant from the Britten Pears Foundation, he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Britten International Opera School; he is currently a student of Ryland Davies. With a repertoire which includes works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Britten and Tavener, Andrew Staples is a guest artist at leading opera houses and concert halls, and at renowned festivals. He made his debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London as Jaquino (Fidelio); since then he has appeared several times in different roles there. He has also sung the role of Contino Belfiore (La finta giardiniera) at the National Theatre in Prague and at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) at the Salzburg Festival. On the concert stage, Andrew Staples has sung with orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, working with conductors such as Andrew Manze, Semyon Bychkov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, where the singer made his debut in early February 2009, Andrew Staples was to be heard in mid-December 2013 in performances of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, conducted by Daniel Harding.
Jennifer Johnston was born in Liverpool and received her vocal training at the Royal College of Music in London. Opera performances have taken the multi-award-winning dramatic mezzo-soprano to the festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Aix-en-Provence, Aldeburgh and Beijing, and to opera houses such as La Scala in Milan, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Opéra de Lille, Scottish Opera and Opera North. Her repertoire includes roles such as Fricka / Waltraute / Wellgunde / 2nd Norn (The Ring of the Nibelung), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly), Giovanna Seymour (Anna Bolena), Hansel (Hansel and Gretel), Hedwige (Guillaume Tell) and Jocasta (Oedipus Rex). Jennifer Johnston has appeared with leading international orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and has worked with conductors such as Andrew Davis, John Eliot Gardiner, Bernard Haitink, Kirill Petrenko, Ingo Metzmacher, Kent Nagano, Donald Runnicles and Jaap van Zweden. Much in demand as a recitalist, she has performed at the Cheltenham, City of London, Perth and Aldeburgh festivals, and at the Wigmore Hall, together with accompanists such as Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau, Alisdair Hogarth and Joseph Middleton. Jennifer Johnston is now making her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.
Ashley Riches gained his first musical experiences in the choir of King’s College Cambridge. He later studied at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and subsequently joined the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where he appeared as Morales (Carmen), Mandarin (Turandot), Baron Douphol (La Traviata), Officier (Les Dialogues des Carmelites) and Osmano (L’Ormindo), and also performed in the premiere of Søren Nils Eichberg’s science fiction opera Glare. Garsington Opera engaged him as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, English National Opera as Schaunard in Puccini’s La Bohème; the British baritone has also appeared with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (conductor: Robin Ticciati). Ashley Riches’ concert repertoire includes numerous Handel roles, the solo bass parts in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Britten’s War Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Shostakovich’s satirical opera fragment Orango, in whose British premiere Riches performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The singer has given recitals at London’s Wigmore and Barbican halls, and has performed at the City of London Festival, the Chelsea Schubert Festival and the Ludlow Festival in Shropshire, England. He is now making his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.
Bruno Ganz, born in Zurich in 1941, trained as an actor in his home town at both the Hochschule für Musik und Theater and the Bühnenstudio. In 1962, he came to Germany and began working with directors such as Peter Zadek, Klaus Michael Grueber, Wim Wenders and Peter Stein at the Berlin Schaubühne, and Claus Peymann at the Salzburg Festival. Alongside his unparalleled career in the theatre, Bruno Ganz has also enjoyed success in film including roles in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Faraway, so close! (1993). He has also delighted audiences in literary adaptations such as Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck (1976). One of his major international cinema successes was in 2000, the comedy Bread & tulips, directed by Silvio Soldini. In 2004 he was seen in the role of Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall. These were followed by films such as The Reader (2008, directed by Stephen Daldry), Colours in the Dark (2010, directed by Sophie Heldmann) Unknown Identity (2010, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra), Night Train to Lisbon (2013, directed by Bille August), The Counselor (2013, directed by Ridley Scott), Heidi (2015, directed by Alain Gsponer) and Remember (2015, directed by Atom Egoyan). Bruno Ganz has received numerous awards including the Hans-Reinhart- and Iffland-Rings, the Adolf Grimme Prize, the European Film Award for lifetime achievement and the Carl Zuckmayer Medal. Together with the Berliner Philharmoniker, he has appeared in the role of speaker on several occasions, most recently in May 2006 in a performance of Robert Schumann’s Manfred, conducted by Claudio Abbado.
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 April this year in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.