Simon Rattle conducts “Bluebeard’s Castle”

18 Mar 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Emanuel Ax, Rinat Shaham, Gábor Bretz

  • HK Gruber
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (German premiere) (27 min.)

    Emanuel Ax Piano

  • Béla Bartók
    Bluebeard’s Castle, Sz 48 (concert performance) (68 min.)

    Rinat Shaham Mezzo-Soprano, Gábor Bretz Bass, Ulrich Noethen Speaker

  • free

    HK Gruber in conversation with Knut Weber (18 min.)

The music of HK Gruber, which has been described with labels like “neo-romantic”, “neo-tonal”, “neo-expressionist” and “neo-Viennese,” defies categorisation. The oeuvre of the composer, who was born in Vienna in 1943, is simply too diverse and individual; the most varied of stylistic worlds coalesce seamlessly. Gruber studied double bass, French horn, piano and composition at the Viennese Conservatory, was a double bass player in the ORF Symphony Orchestra, and worked as a conductor with many internationally renowned orchestras. In his work he initially aligned himself towards the techniques of the avant-garde, until being advised by his colleague Kurt Schwertsik: “Write the music you want to hear.” Even as late as 1992, Gruber called this sentence the “simplest and at the same time most important answer to the question of my existence”. He had his breakthrough with the “pan-demonium” Frankenstein!!, premiered in 1978, characterised by typically Viennese black humour. Gruber has now composed a new piano concerto that can be heard for the first time conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. The soloist is none other than Emanuel Ax, whose interpretations have stimulated many reviewers to comparisons with the most famous piano virtuosos of the 20th century. Ax, who was the pianist in residence of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the 2005/06 season and who has been working together with the orchestra for about 25 years, has in recent years turned in particular towards contemporary music, and has premiered new works by John Adams, Christopher Rouse and Thomas Adès.

The programme continues with Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, with Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano) and Gábor Bretz (bass): a symbolist psychological drama in which the external action is reduced to a minimum in favour of the “drame interieur”, since, in his own words, the composer furnished the mystery play by the Hungarian avant-gardist Béla Balázs, which is based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s theatre fairy tale Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, with “a symbolic timbral dimension of depth”. Accordingly, the actual drama, the psychological confrontation between the two players Bluebeard and Judith, also takes place principally in the orchestra: besides descriptive-narrative passages and musical images, which in the course of the opera create a fantastically coloured dream world, there is also a series of longer symphonic passages that accompany and complement the dramatic opera plot, continuing the vocal aspect extremely vividly.

Light and Shadows of the Night

HK Gruber and Béla Bartók Find New Paths off the Beaten Track

Vienna and Budapest, solo concerto and opera, 2016 and 1911 respectively. And what a contrast of tones and moods. HK Gruber’s new work, the first piano concerto by the composer, who was born in 1943, is an exuberant, bustling work that is ambiguous from the start, but high spirits prevail. It changes its pace constantly. Béla Bartók’s one-act, two-character drama Bluebeard’s Castle, on the other hand, leads to a world within damp old walls, to rooms in which only tentative, solemn movements seem possible, while every glimmer of light from outside becomes an event. One can scarcely imagine temperaments more different than those of the inspired communicator and sensuously subversive “extreme musician” Gruber and the reserved, always penetratingly serious ascetic Bartók. And yet, what unites the two masters is their determination to bridge the gulfs between entirely different musical cultures.

Symphonically interwoven solo and orchestral parts: HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto

Heinz Karl Gruber’s artistic breakthrough can be dated precisely. It was in Liverpool at the end of November 1978, when the 23-year-old Simon Rattle conducted the sensational premiere of Frankenstein!!, Gruber’s “pan-demonium” based on bizarre children’s rhymes by the poet H. C. Artmann. “Nali”, as he is still generally known, composed equally satirical, easily accessible music for the surreal distortions of naïve verses, behind which more or less covert political statements were hidden. Black humour and Dadaistic boisterousness were combined with a delight in brilliantly skewered triviality.

As a child Gruber travelled throughout the world with the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He took up an orchestral position as a double bassist at the age of 17 and served as principal bassist of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra until 1997. The highly talented young musician studied composition with Gottfried von Einem, coming of age at a time in which the authoritarian attitude of the avant-garde with its “structural tyranny” had almost become an “ersatz religion”, as Gruber saw it. He was also influenced by serial composition techniques, which he still uses at times. But the desire for simpler, tonal, more communicative forms of expression and his affection for jazz, pop music and blues were stronger. Gruber describes the suggestion of his colleague Kurt Schwertsik that he should simply write music that he wanted to hear himself as the best piece of advice he ever received. In 1968 Gruber, Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan founded the ensemble MOB art & tone ART, in which they explored new forms of staged musical performances; Gruber’s career as a chansonnier began in this group.

Gruber’s characteristic synthesis of cabaret songs and serious concert hall music also dominates the piano concerto for pianist Emanuel Ax. The demands on a “classically” trained soloist are high. Before the premiere in New York, Ax candidly admitted that he was not accustomed to the rhythmic complexities posed by the constantly changing bar lengths and irregular metres of the score, which is interspersed with jazz elements – although he negotiated them brilliantly in the opinion of the critics.

According to Gruber, the creative starting point of the new work was a key scene in his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods, based on the folk play by Ödön von Horváth, which was premiered in Bregenz in 2014. The scene in question takes place at Maxim’s, the legendary Vienna nightclub, where there is an unexpected encounter between the heartless “magic king” and his daughter Marianne, the one-time “sweet Viennese girl” who now works there as a nude dancer. “Watching the opera on stage I was intrigued how the ‘shimmy’ music played by the cabaret band is itself simple and emotionless, but forms an effective counterpoint to the powerful drama in the foreground,” Gruber observed. This contradiction between the two levels was the bud from which his instrumental work could grow, said the composer. Following the concerto tradition of symphonically interwoven solo and orchestral parts, Gruber uses the orchestra as “an echo chamber for the material of the pianist, whose ‘factual’ discourse is resonated through tuned percussion and harp”. He describes the formal development in relatively brief sections and changing tempos as a “chain of developing variations” resulting in “a sinfonietta with piano solo”.

Bluebeard’s Castle – a psychological drama

Béla Bartók’s transformation of archaic elements derived from Balkan folk cultures to a decidedly modern expressive idiom is consistent with a general tendency in classical modernism. Béla Balázs, the librettist of Bluebeard, pursued similar goals as a writer. He took the material itself from the well-known collection of fairy tales Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault, published in 1697. In search of a specifically Hungarian declamatory style, in his stage version he drew on the “raw material of Székely folk ballads”, on “dark, weighty, uncarved blocks of words”, as he put it, in order to “form modern, intellectual inner experiences” from them. Bartók translated the work into a reciting tone in close intervals with a pentatonic element and the typical Hungarian accent on the first syllable.

As a strong opponent of realism, Balázs advocated a dramatic type which, above all, explores the psychic powers that have an effect on people. “My ballad is the ballad of the inner life,” the author explained. “Bluebeard’s castle is not a real castle of stone. The castle is his soul. It is lonely, dark and secretive: the castle of closed doors.” All Judith wants to do is bring light and warmth into the inner world of her mysterious beloved. In return, she demands access to the seven rooms behind the heavy doors of his hall.

Bartókhandles the large-scale form of the hour-long drama, which was written in 1911, superbly. He connects the scenes as in a suite, capturing the sensory impressions presented behind the seven doors with illusionistic expertise. Although the musical means of representation may seem relatively conventional in the case of the armoury (brass fanfares) or in the gardens (delicate sounds of nature), the refinement of the orchestration is invariably surprising. The relationship of light and darkness is precisely balanced: the gloominess of the opening F sharp minor is gradually lightened as the doors open. This increasing light is depicted by a harmonic ascent, until C major is reached with the fifth door and the view of Bluebeard’s kingdom. Parallel major triads in the orchestra, reinforced by the organ, reflect Bluebeard’s boastful pride; the sumptuous sound of the orchestra confronts a simple pentatonic melody.

Judith, by now extremely frightened, responds in monosyllables with a dissonant phrase. At the opening of the sixth door, the passage to the lake of tears, the scene begins to darken again. The initial F sharp minor becomes the inevitable goal of the development. Harmony and lighting dramaturgy join forces and finally combine in a symmetrical structure. Bluebeard’s previous wives are not dead, as the blood everywhere in his castle seemed to suggest, with harsh dissonant clashes of seconds as the leitmotif. “They are living, living, all are living!” Judith realizes when she opens the seventh door. They are nothing more than cold status symbols for their owner, however, weighed down with crowns and jewellery. Now she can become one of them herself. All the doors have closed again – the endless night of marital tragedy can begin.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Emanuel Ax, born in what is now Ukraine in 1949, started his musical training as a child in Warsaw before studying with Mieczyław Munz at the Juilliard School after his family emigrated to the USA. At the age of 25, he won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition (Tel Aviv), and the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize (New York) five years later. Emanuel Ax is regularly to be heard as a concert soloist with leading orchestras, in piano recitals, and as a passionate chamber musician at major music venues and festivals all over the world: For many years he was Isaac Stern’s duo partner, and he plays with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as the violinists Jaime Laredo and Itzhak Perlman; he performs in a piano duo with Yefim Bronfman. Emanuel Ax’s repertoire includes not only major Classical and Romantic works but also numerous contemporary compositions; he has premiered works by John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bright Sheng and Melinda Wagner. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary doctorates of music from Yale and Columbia Universities. Emanuel Ax has been awarded several Grammys for his recording work. He has performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since 1988, and in the 2005/06 season, he was the orchestra’s pianist in residence. His last appearance with the orchestra was in June 2016 with works by César Franck and Maurice Ravel, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Rinat Shaham, born in Haifa in Israel, graduated in singing from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. An award winner of many singing competitions, a close artistic collaboration forms a strong bond between her and Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. While still a student she made her operatic debut as Zerlina (Don Giovanni) with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. This was followed by engagements in a variety of US American theatres. On the international stage, her interpretation of Carmen at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2004 was particularly well received by both the public and critics alike and she has since portrayed the role in many cities worldwide. She has equally convinced with her interpretations of Rosina (Ilbarbiere di Siviglia), Dorabella in Così fan tutte and as Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites which she has performed on the stages of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, the Palau de Reina Sofía in Valencia and the New York City Opera. Equally highly-regarded on the concert platform, the mezzo-soprano has performed together with many orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic and Les Arts Florissants, working together with conductors such as André Previn, Christoph Eschenbach, Leonard Slatkin and William Christie. Rinat Shahan made her Berliner Philharmoniker debut in June 2005 with Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. She last appeared in the orchestra’s Berlin concerts at the end of March 2011 as the Page of Herodias in two concert performances of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, also conducted by Sir Simon.

Gábor Bretz received his vocal training in Los Angeles under Stephan Czovek, and in his home town of Budapest at the Béla Bartók Conservatory of Music and the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. In 2004, he was a prize winner at the Gian Battista Viotti International Music Competition, and in 2005, at the International Maria Callas Grand Prix. The bass is a regular guest at the Hungarian State Opera, and other engagements have taken him to New York, Moscow, Zagreb, Milan, Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, and to the festivals in Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence. His repertoire includes roles such as Leporello (Don Giovanni), Banquo (Macbeth), Kothner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Antonio (Le nozze di Figaro), Don Basilio (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Sparafucile (Rigoletto) and Don Fernando (Fidelio) plus the title roles in Bluebeard’s Castle, Mefistofele and Don Giovanni. At the Bayerische Staatsoper, Gábor Bretz sang the role of Escamillo (Carmen) in 2014. On the concert stage, he has sung in works as diverse as the Bach Passions, Mozart’s Coronation Mass (under Helmuth Rilling), Berlioz’ L’ nfance du Christ (under the direction of Sylvain Cambreling), and Tippett’s A Child of our Time. In these concerts, Gábor Bretz makes his first guest appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Ulrich Noethen, born in Munich in 1959 and raised in Augsburg, studied acting at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart. Following initial stage experience as a member of the ensemble of Theater Freiburg, he went to Cologne in 1988, where he worked under the direction of Frank Castorf and Max Färberböck, among others. From there he moved to the Staatliche Schauspielbühnen Berlin. Here Noethen attracted attention in productions of Faust,Tod und Teufel and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the mid-1990s, he has also been known to a wider audience for television roles. In 1997, Ulrich Noethen made his cinema debut in the role of the musician Harry Frommermann in Joseph Vilsmaier’s Comedian Harmonists, for which he was awarded the Deutscher Filmpreis and the Bayerischer Filmpreis. In the years since, he has become one of German cinema’s most versatile actors in roles in such diverse productions as the children’s film Das Sams (Bayerischer Filmpreis 2001 for Best Actor), Dani Levy’s relationship drama I’m the Father and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (as Heinrich Himmler). Recently, in addition to several TV productions, the actor appeared on the big screen in The Diary of Anne Frank (2016) as her father Otto Frank. Ulrich Noethen appears for the first time in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

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