Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Lisa Batiashvili

23 Jun 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Lisa Batiashvili

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1, Sz 36 (28 min.)

    Lisa Batiashvili Violin

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, op. 113 “Babi-Yar” (70 min.)

    Mikhail Petrenko Bass, Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars Chorus Master

  • free

    Yannick Nézet-Séguin in conversation with Sarah Willis (14 min.)

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, first guest conductor of the London Philharmonic and chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, debuted with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010, the press wrote that it had been a “memorable evening” with a “rising star in the conducting firmament”. At this guest appearance with the Philharmoniker, the effervescent Canadian conducts Béla Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. The soloist is Lisa Batiashvili, who gave a “brilliant debut” with the Philharmoniker in 2004: The young Georgian found her way – free of all technical troubles – to a “luminous inward quality; it is gripping and inspired, virtuosic and intelligent” (Der Tagesspiegel).

After the interval, Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes on Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony together with the bass Mikhail Petrenko and the male voices of the Rundfunkchor Berlin. The work was composed in 1962, and is a confessional work against anti-Semitism, which was increasingly gaining ground in the USSR in the 1960s. The textual basis of the symphony is Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem Babi Yar, in which the poet recalls the mass murder of 34,000 Jews by the SS in September 1941 and in the last stanza identifies himself with the victims. “At the premiere,” the Russian music historian Boris Schwarz writes, “the government’s box remained empty, and the planned television broadcast did not take place. There was spontaneous applause after the first movement; when the work, an hour in length, was over, an enthusiastic storm of applause broke out in the audience such as one experiences only rarely.”

Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony was officially hushed up. The Soviet press wrote that the “content of the ideas contains fundamental errors”; in addition, the composer had “lost his feeling for the time”. A score was published in the USSR only in 1971, but with the vocal text changed in places. Today Babi Yar, a vocal-symphonic masterpiece of the 20th century that since then has lost none of its shattering impact, is among Shostakovich’s best-known compositions.

Hidden, Withheld, Forbidden

Unheard Music by Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich

The Secret Admirer: Bartók’s First Violin Concerto

She could not complain about a shortage of admirers: Stefi Geyer, a young Hungarian violinist, the daughter of a police doctor, who was born in Budapest in 1888. She was introduced to an astonished public as a “child prodigy” at the age of only nine; at 14 she began her international concert career. Stefi was thus accustomed to adoration, but the admirer who forced his way into her life in 1907 did not fit the usual stereotype: it was Béla Bartók. The composer, who was seven years older than Stefi, met her during a concert at the Academy of Music in Budapest and from then on did not want to be parted from her. When Stefi set off on her summer holidays with an aunt in the country, Bartók did not hesitate to follow her. Although he said he wanted to search for folk songs there, that was undoubtedly a pretext. Nevertheless, the two of them, accompanied by Stefi’s brother for the sake of appearances, seem to have spent a few happy weeks there. At any rate, that is how the violinist recounted it in retrospect in 1953: “The three of us amused ourselves by singing canons that Bartók wrote for us, which he intentionally made quite difficult with chromaticism and complicated intervals.”

Another work that Bartók tackled during that time was more important artistically than these canons, however: a violin concerto, which he planned as a portrait of the adored artist. Bartók said that the highly expressive first movement, with its sweeping melodic arcs, depicted “the musical portrait of the idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward”. This Andante sostenuto opens with the unaccompanied solo violin playing an augmented seventh chord – Bartók referred to this sequence of notes as “Stefi’s leitmotif”. The second movement, on the other hand, shows a “cheerful, witty, amusing” likeness of the “lively Stefi Geyer”, Bartók wrote. The character of this movement is more energetic and graceful, the texture more concerto-like and the solo part extremely demanding technically.

After Bartók had completed the orchestration, on 13 February 1908 Stefi Geyer terminated the relationship and informed him that she wanted no further contact with him in the future. She asked only one more thing of him: that he send her the manuscript of the violin concerto. Bartók did what she asked of him. Stefi Geyer kept the autograph until her death in 1956, without ever playing it herself or having it published, thus it was not premiered until 1958. The work was not entirely new to Bartók aficionados, however, because the composer had provided the first movement with a new context as the opening of his Two Portraits op. 5 from 1911. The title is “One Ideal”, and this monument of idealization and delusion is followed by its companion piece, “One Grotesque”, the malicious caricature of his beloved. Thus, the end of this unrequited love also went down in music history.

Forgotten Graves: Shostakovich’s Symphony Babi Yar

Dmitri Shostakovich knew only too well what it is like to be exposed publicly, incriminated and declared an “enemy of the people”. He had experienced it for the first time in 1936, when his opera Lady Macbethof Mtsensk fell victim to a fierce campaign in the Soviet Union and had to serve as a typical example of “neurotic” and “cacophonous” music. Twelve years later, in 1948, the horror seemed to repeat itself when he was once again accused in a party resolution of composing works that were “formalist” and “alien to the people” and pursuing “illusory innovations”. He felt like an outcast and could identify all the more with the situation of other victims of persecution.

“I feel myself a Jew” – when Shostakovich read these words he must have immediately felt a deep sense of shock. The line is from the poem Babi Yar, which the 29-year-old Yevgeny Yevtushenko had published in the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta on 13 September 1961. In it he recalled the massacre of 33,000 Jewish men, women and children who were marched to Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, by a special operations unit of the Gestapo and shot there on 29 and 30 September 1941. Although the Soviet Union provided incriminating evidence against the perpetrators during the Nuremberg trials, nothing recalled the mass murder on their own territory, in what was then the Soviet Ukraine: no monument, no gravestone, not even a sign.

Shostakovich’s setting of Yevtushenko’s poem about Babi Yar in March 1962 was without doubt a bold statement. Although in the meantime, nine years after Stalin’s death, a general “thaw” had set in, Shostakovich still felt restricted and patronized. In particular, the fact that he was forced to join the Communist Party took a heavy toll on him; he regarded it as a moral defeat, as indicated in his letters to his close friend Isaak Glikman. Perhaps that was precisely the reason it was all the more important to Shostakovich to declare which side he was really on with his Yevtushenko adaptation. Initially he did not yet have a clear idea of what form the new work should take; he composed Babi Yar as a kind of one-movement cantata for a bass soloist, bass chorus and an orchestra of monumental forces. He did not approach the poet to ask for permission to compose the work until he had completed the score. And, since he had in the meantime developed an appreciation of the author’s work, he decided to set three of his other poems. Yevtushenko not only gave his consent but also agreed to write a fourth poem expressly for Shostakovich, which is how the one-movement Babi Yarproject ultimately became the symphony of the same name in five movements – Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony.

In this dramaturgy the resounding memorial for the murdered Jews is like a beacon at the beginning; it is not only about the massacre at Babi Yar but anti-Semitism in general. Shostakovich set Yevtushenko’s text to extremely sad music in a simple, archaic musical idiom which borrows from traditional Russian modal harmony. The following scherzo, entitled “Humour”, portrays the subversive power of humour, feared by all rulers: “They’ve hidden humour away in dungeons, but they hadn’t a hope in hell. He passed straight through bars and stone walls.” These lines offered Shostakovich the perfect opportunity to show his musical sarcasm.

The last three movements follow each other without pause. “In the Store” depicts the deprivation and difficult life of Russian women, who not only work hard but also have to queue up for hours in front of shops just to buy basic groceries. The movement “Fears”, which Yevtushenko wrote specifically for Shostakovich, refers to the composer’s severe trauma – and, at the same time, the dilemma of a dictatorship in which distrust and fear of denunciation prevail. It is an eerie, nightmarish nocturne with many unusual effects. In the finale, entitled “Career”, Shostakovich poses the question of the artist’s self-image and conscience. The final notes of this movement, and hence the entire symphony, seem enigmatic when the violin and viola first begin a peaceful duet – with a hint of spring – and the transparent, innocent sounds of the celesta have the last word. Did Shostakovich want to give a small sign of hope? Yevtushenko explained this conclusion as a flight to the “eternal harmony of life”, which rises above all that is transitory.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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