Daniele Gatti conducts masterworks of French modernism

24 Sep 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniele Gatti

  • Arthur Honegger
    Symphonie liturgique (Symphony No. 3) (36 min.)

  • Henri Dutilleux
    Métaboles for large orchestra (20 min.)

  • Claude Debussy
    La Mer, trois esquisses symphoniques for orchestra (30 min.)

  • free

    Daniele Gatti in conversation with Bruno Delepelaire (17 min.)

With La Mer, “three symphonic sketches for orchestra” premiered in Paris in 1905, Claude Debussy created a work that many classical music lovers consider a high point of impressionism in music. The composer himself, however, reacted sensitively when the term, first used in 1874 in connection with a painting by Claude Monet, was applied to his compositions: “It is only journalists doing their job who call them that,” he had his literary alter ego, the self-titled anti-dilettante Monsieur Croche, proclaim: “That’s of no importance”. It was less fear that his compositions would be compared with paintings than a general aversion to overly facile categorisations that inspired Debussy to call for an attack against all “-isms”. Nonetheless, precisely a piece like his compositional seascape La Mer contributed to the word “impressionism” soon being used in the field of music without negative connotations.

Like many French composers of the following generation, Henri Dutilleux was also influenced by Debussy’s music – at times more to distinguish his own from it. Thus the composer, who died in 2013 at the age of 97, once confessed: “I have a tendency – it’s almost entirely intuitive – not to present the theme in its definitive state at the beginning. It is not cyclic form, that is different; in cyclic form, the theme is a given from the beginning, as for instance in Debussy’s Quartet. It’s different in my music: I use small cells which develop bit by bit.” The orchestral composition Métaboles from 1964 that is played in this programme is considered a milestone in Dutilleux’s compositional development. Daniele Gatti, who took up his duties as chief conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra at the beginning of this season and who could last be experienced conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2014, kicks off the evening with Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Third Symphony, the so-called Liturgical. Composed in the years 1945-46, inspired by psalm texts and passages of the mediaeval requiem mass, the work, according to the composer, represents “an unabashedly personal dialogue with the specific liturgical texts”, but nonetheless has a clear message to his listeners: “It is the inner peace of mind that faith gives, the peace of the heart, nature, life – how things could be if humanity had the goodwill.”

Forming, Transforming

Works by Arthur Honegger, Henri Dutilleux and Claude Debussy

The Day of Judgement: Arthur Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique

The wind blows where it pleases. Arthur Honegger’s new symphony took him by storm, unexpectedly, unprepared, on a train journey from Basle to Berne. The musical “tornado” raging in his imagination tore open a dreadful vision of the “Dies irae”, the wailing and shrieking of the Last Judgement. That evening, after his arrival, Honegger sought to capture this sudden idea – more an assault – on paper. But what he noted down was not a setting of the Sequence from the Latin Mass for the Dead but rather the sketch of the first movement of a symphony inspired by the medieval verses of the Catholic Requiem, by the horrifying images of a perishing world. He drafted the outline of a sonata movement, but the spirit shook and tugged at the foundations of the finished form. “In the Dies irae, I was concerned with depicting human terror in the form of divine wrath, with expressing the brutal, unchanging feelings of oppressed peoples, delivered to the whims of fate and seeking in vain to escape the cruel snares of destiny. Day of Wrath! The violent themes crowd in upon each other without leaving the listener a moment’s respite. No room for breathing or thinking. The storm sweeps all before it, blindly, furiously.”

In January 1945, in Paris, even before the spirit haunted him en route from Basle to Berne, Honegger had begun the second movement of his symphony, a gripping lament, “the sorrowful meditation of mankind abandoned by the divinity”, as the composer referred to it. This three-part Adagio at the centre of the three-movement symphony bears the title “De profundis clamavi”, words from Psalm 130 that turn towards hope, a fragile, timid optimism. The chorale-like theme, first heard in the coda of the “Dies irae”, returns transformed, floating weightlessly in a flute solo.

In the finale of his symphony, which Honegger entitled “liturgical” after its sources and movement headings, the prayer for peace from the “Agnus Dei” resounds like an angry scream, a rebellion, an act of desperate resistance. “I had the idea of a heavy march, and for this I deliberately wrote a tune that is idiotic,” Honegger disclosed. What he composed was a hopeless, soulless procession, a triumphal march of all the forces and ideas that he attributed to the abuse and exploitation of mankind: nationalism, militarism, despotism, tariffs, taxes (!) and war – that selection in that order. Opposing this victory celebration of human folly and baseness is the concentrated antipathy, the pent-up outrage, of the eternal victims: “Dona nobis pacem”, a virtually apocalyptic uprising. And a complete collapse. Lighting up a few bars at the end of the symphony, completed in April 1946, is a consoling utopian vision of peace, an unearthly musica coelestis, a promise without guarantee, open-ended, precarious, tentative, encouraging. And once again, the faint and distant voice of the lark can be heard, in the piccolo’s song: fragile, visionary, not of this world.

A sacred riddle: Métaboles by Henri Dutilleux

He missed his 100th birthday by only a few years: the late French composer Henri Dutilleux was born on 22 January 1916, died on 22 May 2013, and mourned all over the world by a music-loving minority. His work cultivated and ennobled this minority character as well: relatively few titles, but each piece exquisite, well-wrought, balanced and refined in every precious bar. What might composing be compared to in the world? Dutilleux’s answer was the “eternal metamorphoses of nature”, and his work took its inspiration from the age-old human understanding – based on the philosophy of Heraclitus – of the constant transformation of all phenomena, of variety in unity.

In his Métaboles, completed in 1964, Dutilleux devoted himself to the archetypal creative principle of renewal and metamorphosis, subjecting his musical motifs to the ultimate degree of transformation and generating in turn the “germ cell” of the next part, which follows without interruption. And yet the five sections – Incantatoire, Linéaire, Obsessionnel, Torpide and Flamboyant – are wholly unalike in sound, colour, instrumental character, physical state and atmosphere. This corresponds to the use of “metabole” in rhetoric as a characteristic and unexpected change of syntax, rhythm or choice of word. And “metabola” in biology refers to metamorphosis in animals such as insects (larva – pupa – imago) but also to the transformation of protozoa induced by external stimuli. Métaboles sounds like a statement of artistic belief in mutability, the credo of Henri Dutilleux, who never committed himself to a school, teaching or aesthetic dogma because he knew that only change creates life – the opposite of stasis and finality.

The eternal rhythm: La Mer by Claude Debussy

La Mer has been a great popular success since the day of its premiere. These three “symphonic sketches” made a deep impression in other European cities, not only Paris. The first movement, which evokes the sunrise with a majestic brass-reinforced climax, has never failed to make its effect. It must even have satisfied the composer Paul Gilson.

It is more than likely that Claude Debussy was familiar with his Belgian colleague Gilson’s “esquisses symphoniques” entitled La Mer, premiered in 1892, when he began his own identically named work ten years later, completing it at the beginning of March 1905. The attribute “symphonic” is justified by the three-movement sequence as well as by the integrating function of a cyclical theme that links the outer movements. This idea is exposed by trumpet and cor anglais (English horn) in the introduction to De l’aube à midi sur la mer and returns prominently at nodal points in the opening movement. In the finale, Dialogue du vent et de la mer, it is again presented initially by the solo trumpet, assuming the “role” of the sea in the further course of the movement and acting as the dialogue partner of the wind, represented by chromatic movements and themes.

At the same time, the qualifying subtitle “symphonic sketches” unmistakably indicates a sceptical and distanced attitude to the genre of the symphony. To Debussy its pointlessness since Beethoven seemed evident: “Watching the sun rise is much more beneficial than listening to the Pastoral Symphony.” His experience of non-European music in 1889 at the Universal Exposition in Paris had further encouraged Debussy’s anti-traditional, anti-academic leanings.

He would subsequently find himself in good company when he distanced himself from the repertoire of traditional symphonic forms and turned to that thousandfold cosmic music with which nature surrounded him. “I love the sea,” Debussy confessed, “and I’ve listened to it with the passionate respect it deserves.” And indeed, the result – a composition of constant, unpredictable interplay, of fleeting, evanescent figurations, of suddenly emerging then submerging thematic fragments, of rushing waves of sound and gently shifting, shimmering surfaces – does not obey the textbooks’ rules and regulations. It follows the “eternal rhythm of the sea” which Debussy regarded as the perfect example of musicality. Forming, transforming.

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniele Gatti studied composition and conducting at the conservatory in his home town of Milan. He was musical director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1996 – 2009) and the Orchestra dellʼAccademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome (1992 – 1997), principal guest conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1994 – 1997), musical director of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna (1997 – 2007) as well as chief conductor of the Zurich Opera House (2009 – 2012). From 2008 until 2016, he has been responsible for the musical direction of the Orchestre National de France with which he presented, among others, a Mahler cycle at the Théâtre du Châtelet, a Beethoven cycle (which was coupled with five world premieres by French composers) and a Tchaikovsky cycle. Starting this season he took up the post as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. In addition, Gatti is a regular guest at the worldʼs most prestigious opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan, where he has conducted works such as Simon Boccanegra, Aida, Otello, Madama Butterfly, Boris Godunov, Fidelio, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Wozzeck, Lulu and Moses und Aron. Daniele Gatti is one of the few Italian conductors to be invited regularly to the Bayreuth Festival. At the Salzburg Festival he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in productions of the operas Elektra (2010), La Bohème (2012), Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2013) and Verdiʼs Il trovatore. For his outstanding achievements, the artist has been honoured with the titles “Grande Ufficiale dellʼOrdine al Merito” and “Chevalier de lʼOrdre des Arts et des Lettres” by the Italian and French governments respectively. Daniele Gatti first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 1997 in three concerts which included works by Berlioz, Liszt and Bartók; in his last appearances with the orchestra in October 2014 he conducted works by Wagner Brahms and Berg

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