Beethoven and Bruckner with Christian Thielemann and Rudolf Buchbinder
17 Dec 2016
Ludwig van Beethoven
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C major, op. 15 (38 min.)
Rudolf Buchbinder Piano
Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Bagatelles, op. 33: No. 5 in C major (3 min.)
Rudolf Buchbinder Piano
Symphony No. 7 in E major (80 min.)
Christian Thielemann in conversation with Christoph Streuli (19 min.)
In his early years, Ludwig van Beethoven drew attention to himself above all as a pianist particularly proficient at the art of improvisation. As early as 1787, Mozart was impressed by the then 17-year-old Beethoven’s extemporising, and eleven years later the Vienna Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote that Beethoven “showed himself to fullest advantage in the free fantasia. The ease as well as the cohesiveness of the succession of ideas that he produces on the spot from each prescribed theme is truly quite extraordinary.” That the composer’s keyboard technique was, however, anything but beyond all doubt, is proven by other sources: the pianist Johann Baptist Cramer described Beethoven’s piano playing as “only inadequately trained, not rarely tumultuous”, while his composer colleague Luigi Cherubini found it simply “rough”. And yet what was fascinating about Beethoven’s playing was his distinct sense of tone. As his pupil Carl Czerny observed, Beethoven “manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of”. He also incorporated passages that occasionally suggest improvisation into the rhapsodically free First Piano Concerto, composed in Vienna in 1795. With Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist, the solo part is in the hands of one of the most renowned interpreters of piano music in the Viennese classical period.
Anton Bruckner early on enjoyed a reputation as one of the most brilliant organ players of his time. But he wanted nothing to do with a permanent career as a travelling virtuoso: “I have neither time nor the will to concern myself unduly in this regard”, Bruckner wrote in 1864: “Organists are always poorly paid.” For this reason, four years later the composer presented himself to the public with his First Symphony. Nonetheless, another 20 years were to pass before Bruckner had his real breakthrough as a composer of symphonies. After the Leipzig premiere of his Seventh, Bruckner was gratified in December 1884 that “at the end they applauded for a quarter-hour”. Performances of the work in Munich and Vienna in the two subsequent years turned into real triumphs for the composer. Thanks to its extended melodic breath and richly coloured instrumentation, Bruckner’s Seventh is the composer’s most popular symphony through the present day, and the one played most often. With Christian Thielemann at the helm, these Berliner Philharmoniker concerts are headed up by a conductor for whom the music of Beethoven and Bruckner is his core repertoire.
Intensified Return in Concerto and Symphony
Early and late Vienna successes
Beethoven’s Viennese beginnings and his first piano concerto
Shortly before he settled in Vienna, the 21-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven received an autograph album in which friends and patrons from his Bonn days immortalized themselves with congratulations and aphorisms. Count Waldstein’s entry would later be commonly interpreted as prophesying the great trinity of Viennese Classicists: “With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Probably the overriding hope in October 1792 was for Beethoven, already a highly sophisticated composer, to acquire from his new teacher Haydn in Vienna the musical style that had proved so successful for Mozart, who had died the previous year.
Recommendations from the Bonn court and Count Waldstein eased Beethoven’s introduction into Vienna’s aristocratic circles, and within a year he had become one of the capital’s most sought-after pianists. During the following period, he composed largely sonatas and piano pieces which he dedicated to his aristocratic benefactors and (mostly female) piano pupils: to Babette von Keglevics (later Princess Odescalchi), he dedicated not only the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, op. 7, of 1797 but also the First Piano Concerto, op. 15, drafted two years earlier and completed in 1798. There was already a performance of the early version on 29 March 1795 in which Beethoven, as soloist, improvised large portions of the piano part. The premiere of the final version took place on 2 April 1800 at the Burgtheater.
In the B flat major Piano Concerto, op. 19, evidently composed earlier, the lyrical Mozartian model is still clearly apparent, but now in the C major work Beethoven finds his own voice with a virtuosic piano part and, in the outer movements, a potent forward drive. The concerto opens with a kind of summoning formula on the single note C simply repeated three times an octave higher. This motivic idea of repeated notes and rising lines isn’t particularly original, and the continuation and repetition of this fanfare a tone higher also seems quite straightforward. It is the dramatic instrumentation of this flourish that makes it such an impressive principal theme. The initial presentation is on strings playing pp, but then it is sounded by the full orchestra, ff with timpani and trumpets. The upwardly directed heroic, melodic gestures in C major are answered by smaller forces – strings and woodwind – in distant E flat major, now with grace notes and downwardly directed, before the marchlike third theme is established in C major, with accented notes and horn 5ths suggesting jolly hunt music. This triad of “heroic” – “lyric” – “scherzando” character determines not only the themes of the first movement but also represents an overarching idea that marks all three: the intimate A flat major middle movement as well as the swashbuckling rondo finale with its Hungarian-flavoured, dancelike middle section.
Anton Bruckner, the “second Beethoven”?
“I have read through your symphony with great attention. I found the work at first strange, then engrossing, and finally I acquired enormous respect for the man who could create something so singular and significant. ... By the time of the Munich concert, half the city will know who and what Herr Bruckner is, whereas before – to our shame, it must be said – not a soul knew, including the humbly undersigned.”
In his letter of 30 November 1884, the conductor Hermann Levi thanked Anton Bruckner for sending the score of the Seventh Symphony. As conductor of the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth and Munich court conductor, Levi was an important personage for Bruckner – along with the 29-year-old Arthur Nikisch, who conducted the symphony’s premiere in Leipzig on 30 December 1884. But it was the first Munich performance under Levi on 30 March 1885 that facilitated the work’s breakthrough.
On 21 March 1886, the Seventh had its highly successful Vienna premiere. Four days later the composer reported: “After the first movement 5 or 6 rapturous curtain calls and so it continued, after the finale endless rapturous acclaim, curtain calls, laurel wreath from the Wagner Society and Banquet Table.” But he went on to predict that the Viennese press, collectively, “would do their best to spoil the success”. And, indeed, Eduard Hanslick’s review in the Neue Freie Presse was written with black bile instead of ink: “Bruckner has become a military commander and as the ‘second Beethoven’ an article of faith for the Wagner community. I confess frankly that I can scarcely judge Bruckner’s symphony fairly as it seems to me so unnatural, inflated, morbid and noxious.”
Although the Seventh, and with it Bruckner’s reputation as a major symphonist, had already found great recognition in international music capitals, it took a while longer in Vienna before such derision and polemics came to an end and his hitherto misunderstood great music could gain acceptance. Its creator calculated the overwhelming effects with dramaturgical precision, following the concept of a structure that bridged all the movements with recurring themes. Three of them are developed in the outer movements, and one of these leading ideas, which returns in the opening movement and finale in ever-larger waves of intensity, welds the entire symphony together. The noble, expansive central theme is a kind of musical sunrise on horn and cellos over the E major triad. Bruckner bathes this recurring ascent in a variety of scorings and keys, revealing it in continually changing light. At the beginning of the finale, these rising lines initially are found only in the strings, who play the E major theme in double-dotted rhythm and with just the tips of their bows. Each succeeding time this ascent becomes more sonorous until it finally achieves a dazzling effect, radiantly and grandly proclaimed ff by the full orchestra.
Within the outer movements, Bruckner sets counterpoints of “gently” flowing themes against these mountain ranges modelled in music – in the opening movement, the songlike second theme, carried by oboes and clarinets up the B minor scale, including a melodic turn; in the finale, a chorale in which the melodic line of small steps circles around itself. Shifting instrumental groups lead it into remote keys.
“I have actually composed the Adagio on the death of the Great and Unique One – partly in premonition, partly as funeral music after the catastrophe”, Bruckner recalled in 1894 to an admirer, the critic Theodor Helm. In the midst of his work on the Adagio of the Seventh, on 13 February 1883, Richard Wagner died. The inclusion of four waldhorn tubas – the so-called Wagner tubas, first used in the Ring – is an overt tribute to the deceased. The trumpet fanfare that opens the quick, energetic Scherzo leads out of the catastrophe and offers a further clear connection with Bruckner’s revered model through its similarity to the motto of his Third, the so-called Wagner Symphony. Notwithstanding the latter work’s strong spiritual ties to the Bayreuth master and the difficulties experienced by the Seventh in winning over the Viennese, the later-composed symphony soon became one of Bruckner’s most frequently performed, even before the Third.
Christian Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival where he has been a regular conductor since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). He was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010 and its music director in 2015. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). In May 2015 he was awarded the Richard Wagner prize by the Richard Wagner Society of the city of Leipzig. Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently only last week, when he conducted Anton Bruckner’s F minor Mass and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto.
Rudolf Buchbinder, who is celebrating his 70th birthday this month, has appeared in concerts all over the world for more than 50 years with all the major orchestras and conductors, and is a regular guest at the Salzburg and other important festivals. His extensive repertoire focuses mainly on Classical and Romantic works but also includes a number of 20th century composers. Rudolf Buchbinder attaches great importance to the meticulous research of source materials, and owns a large number of first editions and original documents. One particular example: the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, which he has performed as a cycle in over 40 cities (including Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Milan, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Beijing). More than 100 records and CDs document the diversity of Buchbinder’s repertoire. In particular, his recording of the complete works for piano by Joseph Haydn caused a sensation and was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque. The recording of his Beethoven sonata cycle at the Semperoper in Dresden was also awarded several prizes. Since 2007, Rudolf Buchbinder has also been artistic director of the Grafenegg Festival. By invitation of Mariss Jansons, he is this season’s artist in residence of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. As soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker he first appeared in early July 1975 with the Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. He was last heard with the orchestra in January 2014 playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, conducted by Zubin Mehta.