Bernard Haitink conducts Schubert and Mahler

08 Oct 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

Christian Elsner, Christian Gerhaher

  • Franz Schubert
    Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D 759 “Unfinished” (29 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Das Lied von der Erde (75 min.)

    Christian Elsner Tenor, Christian Gerhaher Baritone

  • free

    Interview
    Christian Gerhaher in conversation with Knut Weber (19 min.)

Schubert’s “path to the great symphony” was long and difficult: he completed only seven of the total of 13 works that he wrote – or rather began writing – in the genre; only with the “Great” C major symphony composed in 1825 did he achieve a breakthrough, making him the initiator of the romantic symphony after Beethoven. Schubert had already got quite close to this aim with his Unfinished, as in the two movements handed down completely he resolved a central compositional problem of the time in a highly original way (the form of the sonata movement focussed on expansion with one self-contained, songlike theme), by re-defining the function of the themes and their periodic structure in the scope of the traditional sonata movement – a process that later Gustav Mahler also used, a composer who recognised the path-breaking potential of Schubert’s oeuvre at an early stage: already at one of his first concert performances in Iglau on 31 July 1876 he programmed Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy; later Mahler regularly conducted symphonies such as the Unfinished and the “Great” C major, and performed numerous Schubert Lieder at the piano.

While in his song cycles Mahler picked up compositionally directly on Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin, he took up the mood of the Winterreise in his Lied von der Erde – an exceptional work that makes the finiteness of human existence its central theme, composed in a time in which the composer stood, in his own words, “vis-à-vis de rien”. Bernard Haitink, guest conductor of the Philharmonic since 1964 and one of the outstanding Mahler interpreters of our time, turns, after Schubert’s Unfinished, to Mahler’s work. It bids farewell to the world, and after the catastrophic climax of the last movements seems to fade away into infinity with an open ending: the text flows into the word “ewigeternal, accented by gently floating tone lines; the music seems to gradually dissipate while the word is repeated a multitude of times. The tenor is Christian Elsner, while baritone Christian Gerhaher takes on the second solo, which is usually sung by an alto: as early a conductor as Bruno Walter at the first performance in Vienna substituted the alto with the baritone Friedrich Weidmann, who was esteemed by Mahler – after all, the composer himself, originally unsure about the distribution of the voices, subtitled the Lied von der Erde on the engraver’s copy “A Symphony for Tenor and an Alto or Baritone Voice and Orchestra”.

Only those who know longing ...

Franz Schubert’s Unfinished und Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth

Inspired to strive for the highest beauty: Franz Schubert’s Seventh Symphony

The poet speaks, fabulating as though narcotized in the nocturnal space. This much is already indicated by the title, My Dream, though it was added later by another hand. What this allegorical tale, penned by Franz Schubert on 3 July 1822 and published by Robert Schumann in 1839, formulates in words could be taken as a programme for his composing: “Through long, long years I sang my songs. But when I wished to sing of love, it turned into sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it turned into love. I was divided so between love and sorrow.” He could also have said: (unquenched) longing.

Longing. By the second part of the tale, the passionate wish is manifested to be close to others, to be part of a circle resembling Schumann’s Davidsbündler. And in a letter of 21 September 1824 to his friend Franz von Schober, Schubert writes: “I would exclaim with Goethe: ‘Who will bring back just one hour of that sweet time!’...that time when we filled one another with enthusiasm, inspiring us all to unite in our striving for the highest beauty.”

Reality cannot offer this highest beauty. The Metternich era is defined by repression and depression, Biedermeier principles and the repudiation of poetry. Compensating for this striking deficiency is the utopian “lovely art”, the “holde Kunst” given expression by Schober in An die Musik, written in 1817 and immediately set to music by Schubert (D 547). In the poem, music is characterized as a medium that “transports one to a better world” but even there it reflexively perpetuates idealistic form.

No other composer presents this dialectical construction as clearly as Schubert. The poetic equivalent is found in the writings of Theodor W. Adorno: “In the presence of Schubert’s music”, he wrote, “tears fall from our eyes without questioning the soul.” This applies to many of his works, but especially to the symphony of which the composer began his fair copy on 30 October 1822: the so-called Unfinished. It is practically surrounded by myth: that of the universal in the particular and of the eternal in the finite. In other words, the myth of the perfectly finished in the unfinished.

Right from the beginning of the opening movement, it is hard to avoid the word revolutionary. Cellos and basses murmur in unison, not knowing what to opt for: the music insists on the interval of a 5th. The violins, too, gyrate dimly in the depths at first before something resembling a harmonically consistent first theme emerges, but it is spun out almost amorphously, like the beginning of an endless melody. Only the expansive, almost sumptuous G major theme achieves the degree of contour expected, but then it is abruptly halted. The tutti forces’ loud intervention suggests a ban on singing, indeed on any form of further progress. These two ideas dominate through to the development section. Thereafter Schubert bases the movement and its tensions above all on the extraterritorial opening motto, including some violent eruptions.

The Andante con moto which follows takes up the idiom of the first movement but is domiciled in unclouded E major. The magic inherent in this musical portrait is that of the compositional substance per se: it is no longer the working-out in the Beethovenian sense here that determines the symphonic process, which is dominated rather by the instrumentation of the moment itself and represents probably the greatest single emancipatory act in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism.

There is a striking similarity of tempo and gait between the two movements, as though Schubert understood them as a single unit, a twinlike totality. This is also an indication of the composer’s increased self-confidence: a creation, he may have thought to himself, must not necessarily satisfy classical demands in order to be finished and self-contained. And so the B minor Symphony probably remained intentionally unfinished – perfectly unfinished.

Viewed through an inverted opera-glass: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth

Scene change. Toblach (Dobbiaco), September 1908. A work – in short score – is finished, secure for all eternity. And its creator? He’s sitting in the summer house where he composes, and because he absolutely must communicate his success to the world, he picks up his pen again – this time not to compose but to write a letter in which he declares: “A beautiful time was granted me, and I believe it is the most personal thing I have yet created.” The work is based on Hans Bethge’s poetry collection Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), published in 1907, which contains German adaptations of 8th-century Chinese lyrics. Mahler was magically attracted to the aura of these poems and their supple melancholy, and he didn’t hesitate a moment: in the summer months of 1908 he set to work composing selected verses from the “Chinese Flute”.

In this music, Mahler questions life’s purpose if death awaits at its end. Perhaps the most compelling characterization of what Mahler describes here in music was formulated by Adorno, who regarded the cycle as part of an overarching conception: “Like a centre of latent energy, the Kindertotenlieder transmit their radiations across the whole of Mahler’s work, starting with the Fourth Symphony. ... Their specific relation to Das Lied von der Erde may be found in the recognition that so much in youth is apprehended as a promise of life ... while the aging person is made aware by memories that such moments of promise were, in reality, life itself. Mahler salvages these missed and lost possibilities by observing them through the inverted opera-glass of childhood, from which they could still have been realized. Those moments are signified by the choice of poems for the third, fourth and fifth songs.”

Musically these three pieces (Von der Jugend, Von der Schönheit, Der Trunkene im Frühling – Youth, Beauty, The Drunkard in Spring) correspond to the song prototype, in character as well as in length. Contrasting with them are the movements which, in terms not only of size also of their temporal dimension, expand or even burst the boundaries of song form. Whereas the introductory Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow) is eight minutes long and establishes a symphonic impression (taken up in the next piece, Der Einsame im Herbst – The Lonely One in Autumn), the finale, Der Abschied – The Farewell – definitively breaks free of the sphere of the song. This passing away, departing and disappearing lasts for half an hour, and it is not unreasonable to consider the Abschied a vocal-symphonic Adagio, such as Mahler had already composed for the Third Symphony and would soon again for the Ninth. An ornament known as the turn (in which the main note alternates with the notes one step above and below it) becomes an important motif of this last movement of Das Lied von der Erde. It dominates the increasingly karstified musical landscape in which the baritone sings of the birds “huddling silently on their branches”. It underlays the wait for the “last farewell”, and becomes the mainspring of thematic processes even where it is active only in the background. The turn becomes the symbol of bidding farewell, a terse intimate gesture, a final singable remnant: a stylized sound of nature. Perceiving it is like life itself: beautiful and sad, light and dark. Or, as Paul Valéry put it: “poésie pure”.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Bernard Haitink looks back on a conducting career lasting over 60-years. Born in Amsterdam in 1929, Bernard Haitink started his career with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, first as violinist, then from 1957 as its director. He was at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw for 27 years (1964 – 1988), and subsequently held posts as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), the Dresden Staatskapelle (2002 – 2004) and as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2010). In addition, he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979) and music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988). His close artistic partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker started more than five decades ago: in March 1964, he made his debut with the orchestra with a Beethoven programme. Bernard Haitink was awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994 and named their honorary member in 2004. He is also committed to the development of young musical talent, and gives an annual conducting masterclass at the Lucerne Easter Festival. Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He is conductor laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony, as well as an honorary member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. His last concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker were in December 2015 when he conducted works by Mozart and Bruckner.

Christian Elsner, born in Freiburg, studied with Martin Gründler in Frankfurt. Further studies took him to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Neil Semer. A winner of many international competitions, Christian Elsner appears in concert, recital and opera in the worldʼs major venues in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York and Tokyo as well as at renowned festivals such as Salzburg. As a soloist with many leading orchestras all over the world, he has worked with conductors like Herbert Blomstedt, Manfred Honeck, Mariss Jansons, Lorin Maazel, Kent Nagano, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Sir Simon Rattle. His performances as Siegmund and Parsifalat the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, Staatstheater Kassel, Vienna State Opera and Semperoper in Dresden have established him as a Wagnerian tenor. Recently, he also appeared in Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals in a Wiener Symphoniker concert under the direction of Manfred Honeck. Christian Elsner is equally highly regarded as an interpeter of lieder and has given lieder recitals with his regular accompanist Burkhard Kehring and with Gerold Huber in many European cities. Christian Elsner sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in April 2004 in Schubertʼs Mass in E flat major, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In the orchestra’s Berlin concerts, the singer’s most recent appearance was in mid-October 2015 as a soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which was performed as part of the Beethoven cycle conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He also accompanied the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle for guest performances in Paris, Vienna, New York, Taipei and Tokyo in November 2015 and May 2016. Christian Elsner teaches at the University of Music in Würzburg.

During his studies under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach, German baritone Christian Gerhaher attended the Opera School of the Academy of Music in Munich and, together with his regular piano partner Gerold Huber, studied lied interpretation with Friedemann Berger. While completing his medical studies Christian Gerhaher perfected his vocal training in master-classes given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Inge Borkh. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Pelléas(Pelléas et Mélisande),Posa (Don Carlo), Olivier (Capriccio) and Wozzeck. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared many times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003. As artist in residence in the 2013/14 season, the baritone also gave several chamber concerts. He was last heard in Berlin only a few days ago together with Gerold Huber in a recital of songs by Dvořák and Schumann. Christian Gerhaher holds the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, an honorary professorship in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music in Munich and has also given masterclasses at Yale University and elsewhere. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006 and 2015 as well as the German Record Critics’ Annual Award in 2010. For his outstanding contribution to bringing classical music to wider audiences, he was awarded the Music Prize at the 2016 Heidelberger Frühling.

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