Manfred Honeck and Matthias Goerne
01 Oct 2016
Rusalka Fantasy, suite (arr. by Manfred Honeck, orch. by Tomas Ille) (22 min.)
Franz Schubert · Richard Strauss
Orchestral Songs (44 min.)
Matthias Goerne Baritone
Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88 (43 min.)
Manfred Honeck in conversation with Martin Menking (18 min.)
When you hear the Shakespeare setting An Silvia, you cannot but regret that Franz Schubert did not set many more texts by the English playwright to music: with instinctive sureness he sets the gallant poem to music; one could scarcely imagine another solution. Matthias Goerne commences his guest appearance with the Philharmonic with this lied, whereby the excellent Schubert interpreter has programmed the work in the orchestral version by pianist Alexander Schmalcz, premiered at Vienna’s Musikverein in mid-April 2015: “Goerne sings Schubert so that you cannot but follow him into those distant spheres where the romantic view rules. … It is the triumph of sensitivity” (Frankfurter Rundschau). Besides Fischers Liebesglück and the Goethe lied Grenzen der Menschheit (also set for voice and orchestra), the renowned baritone with a soft timbre and admirable legato technique performs Schubert’s Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, based on a poem by Johann Georg Jacobi. The singer is supported on the podium by Manfred Honeck and the Berliner Philharmoniker; the conductor began his musical career as a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic before becoming Claudio Abbado’s assistant.
Matthias Goerne juxtaposes the Schubert transcriptions with genuine orchestral songs by Richard Strauss – works which (according to the music publicist Richard Specht) contain “everything fervent, zestful, child-like and at the same time lightning-quick, everything ecstatic, witty, cultivated and sensitive” from Strauss’s musical language. After the interval, Manfred Honeck makes orchestral colours shine vividly in Antonín Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony; the Austrian conductor, who has worked, inter alia, as head of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm and music director of the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and who since the 2008/09 season has held the position of music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is known for his stirring interpretation of just this work. In its first two movements, Dvořák presents an almost inexhaustible abundance of themes (“the melodies just surged upon me”), the third of which is a wistful waltz, reminiscent in its sinuous melodies of ballet music by Tchaikovsky. The symphony ends with a rhythmically animated finale in which Dvořák once again pays his respects to his native folklore. The opening piece on the programme is also music by the Czech composer: Manfred Honeck has compiled an orchestral fantasy from his opera Rusalka.
Romantic Music by Dvořák, Schubert and Strauss
Longing for Unconditional Love: Dvořák’s Rusalka as an Orchestral Suite
“It is possible for man to explore the essence and qualities of every single work that God has created” – Paracelsus considered it important to emphasize that. The Swiss physician, alchemist, astrologist, mystic and philosopher clearly placed his theory of elemental creatures in a Christian context: since human beings can “explore” elemental creatures, they must also be creations of God. But, according to Paracelsus’s Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibusBook on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders and Other Spirits, published in 1566, these divine creatures are of a special kind: they are soulless! “The water people come out of their waters to us, make themselves known, act and deal with us, go back to their water, come again – all this to allow man the contemplation of the divine works. Now, they are men, but on the animal side alone, without the soul.”
The most fervent wish of water creatures is to acquire a soul, and it can be fulfilled in only one way: through the love of a human being. This love must be unconditional, of course – infidelity means death for the water creature. That is particularly cruel, however, since infidelity also results in the loss of the soul, which was only acquired through sacrifice. The fate of water creatures is thus that of all soulless creatures: outside the Christian conception of death, all that remains for them is to wander around aimlessly. Hans Christian Andersen described the state of the now dead mermaid in a way that reveals why her fleeting death provided a tremendously exciting motivic core for the music. The mermaid, who “had given up her beautiful voice and suffered endless pain every day”, now regained a voice that hardly seemed human or individual but was “so melodious, but so ethereal that no human ear could hear it, just as no mortal eye could see these lovely creatures”.
What an incentive for composers to imagine such a voice and allow human ears to hear it! When Antonín Dvořák composed the opera Rusalka, it was particularly important to him to portray nature as animated and alive. In his music for Rusalka, he thus depicted the natural world using forms and sounds that “civilized ears” associate with natural things: circular and rondo forms, melodies that seem almost improvised and orchestration that attempts to capture natural acoustic phenomena.
The fairy tale requires Rusalka to be silent for a long time – a challenge for the main character of an opera! Only at the moment of death can she reveal herself to her beloved in song. This is the moment in which the vocal and instrumental elements are allowed to merge, in which the “beautiful voice” is heard both in the soprano part and the orchestra. The appeal of Dvořák’s opera lies in Rusalka’s audible and inaudible intermediate state. In an orchestral arrangement, the effect created by a soulless character that is audible to the audience as a voice but must remain silent for the prince is lost. Manfred Honeck, who arranged a suite from Dvořák’s Rusalka, and Tomáš Ille, who orchestrated it, resolve this problem entirely in keeping with the long tradition of mermaid voices. At the moment of its musical climax in the opera – the “Song to the Moon” – Rusalka’s voice is given to the solo violin, which, along with the harp, had already been used convincingly as a “voice” by many composers. Amid the surging waves of the full orchestra, the solo violin seems to reproduce most impressively the voice “so melodious, but so ethereal that no human ear can hear it”.
Journeys of the Soul: Schubert and Strauss Songs with Orchestral Accompaniment
The song dialogues of this concert programme also embark on journeys of the soul. The texts of these songs by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss wander between love, death and the question of which land the soul inhabits in the two states. Otto Julius Bierbaum’s poem, which Strauss set to music in 1895, speaks of the “broad meadows in grey dusk” through which the lyrical persona passes: “I do not go fast, I do not hurry; / I am drawn by a soft velvet ribbon / Through grey dusk into the land of love, / Into a gentle blue light.”
Strauss decided to depict this love journey of the soul using a slowly striding scalewise motion across an octave in the vocal part, in which we can hear the irresistible pull of the soft velvet ribbon. The journey of a soul in love. The twilight realm, where dead souls can rest and be looked after and remembered by the living on All Souls’ Day, also alludes to the journey of the soul. Schubert expressed this solicitous love as a sensitive musical litany; Strauss subjectivized All Souls’ Day by linking the beginning of love in May with the gate to the realm of the dead in November. Strauss set the symbols of love and death in the top notes, like musical jewels. But can the listener believe the rest that the soul is supposed to come to after its long journey? Or does it perhaps find that final peace only at the last note, when the harmonic restlessness and sonorous threats of its long journey of remembrance seem to have vanished into oblivion? Journeys of the soul encourage us to eavesdrop on distant worlds – whether they are filled with the sound of roaring waves or clearly contoured litanies, with delicate tonal landscapes for the happiness of a fisherman in love or chimerical sounds culminating in a single note – including the final silence.
Off the Beaten Track: Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony has a much more worldly character than Rusalka’s musical journey of the soul. It has the usual four movements in the order expected of this genre and was extremely popular from the beginning. The composer conducted it in Cambridge in 1891 as thanks for the honorary doctorate he was awarded there by Cambridge University. The Eighth Symphony was perplexing at first, however, since Dvořák seemed to abandon the compositional path he had consistently and successfully taken in his previous symphonies. Even Johannes Brahms, Dvořák’s greatest supporter and champion, was completely bewildered: “The work has too much that is fragmentary and incidental hanging around in it. Everything is fine, musically gripping and beautiful – but there is no substance!” No substance? The musical narrative that Dvořák based his Eighth Symphony on actually does not aim for a clear symphonic concept – perhaps too clear at the end of the century – or focus on its “substance”, such as large form, harmonic coherence and thematic-motivic work, but on the rhapsodic element. Dvořák develops the material, interweaves musical ideas with principal and secondary strands, strings them together, takes time for his narrative. Although the semantic element – in the form of a programme, for example – plays no role in the symphony, it is the nature of the narrative that gives this work its character.
Dvořák’s rejection of a symphonic concept in the style of Brahms may have been motivated by his encounter with Peter Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky had visited Prague during a concert tour, and his Bohemian colleague had exchanged views with him on his Fifth Symphony. It is likely that Dvořák offered his new work in the genre as an artistic dialogue with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, particularly since he planned to make a concert tour to Russia. Dvořák was an extremely pragmatic composer, however. Immediately after he completed the Eighth Symphony, England became the focus of his attention, and he took this new work, which was premiered in Prague at the beginning of February 1890, along with him on his journey to England, where it was published and performed many times with great success.
Manfred Honeck studied violin and viola at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic for many years. The Austrian began his conducting career during this time as assistant to Claudio Abbado with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. In 1991 he became principal conductor at the opera house in Zurich and two years later, he was awarded the European Conductor’s Award. Manfred Honeck then worked with the MDR Sinfonieorchester in Leipzig and in Oslo, where he not only took over at short notice as musical director of the Norwegian National Opera for one year in 1997, but also, after a highly successful European tour, was engaged for several years as principal guest conductor of the local Philharmonic Orchestra. From 2000 to 2006 he was chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm, and principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague from 2008 to 2011, a position he will take over again from 2013 to 2016. Moreover, Manfred Honeck was general music director of the Staatsoper Stuttgart from 2007 to 2011, where he conducted works including premieres of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Verdi’s Aida, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal. Guest performances in opera have taken him to the Semperoper in Dresden, the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, the “White Nights Festival” in St. Petersburg and the Salzburg Festival. During his extensive activities, he has conducted leading international orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since the 2008/2009 season, he has been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and in February 2012, his contract was extended for a second time, now to the end of the 2019/2020 season. Manfred Honeck made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2013 and last conducted the orchestra in March 2016 at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival with works by Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky.
Matthias Goerne was born in Weimar and studied singing with Hans-Joachim Beyer in Leipzig and subsequently with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He is equally acclaimed as an opera singer, concert artist and lieder recitalist in musical capitals all over the world as well as at international festivals. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Christoph Eschenbach, Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel and Seiji Ozawa. Since his operatic debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, Matthias Goerne has also sung at, among others, the Royal Opera House in London, the Opéra national de Paris, Vienna State Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Zurich Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Semperoper in Dresden and at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan. His carefully chosen roles range from Pizarro (Fidelio), Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Amfortas (Parsifal), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde) and Orest (Elektra), to the title roles in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeardʼs Castle, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Among the artists who have accompanied his lieder recitals are Daniil Trifonov, Markus Hinterhäuser and Alexander Schmalcz as well as the Quatuor Ebène. A fellow of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Matthias Goerne taught as an honorary professor of song interpretation at the Robert Schumann Academy of Music in Düsseldorf from 2001 to 2005. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1998 and has returned on frequent occasions since then. His most recent appearance was in June 2015, when he performed a selection of songs by Robert Schumann with pianist Piotr Anderszewski.