Simon Rattle conducts Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

13 Sep 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Angela Denoke, Lars Vogt

  • Alban Berg
    Lulu Suite: Adagio (10 min.)

    Angela Denoke Soprano

  • Paul Dessau
    Les Voix for soprano, piano and orchestra (16 min.)

    Lars Vogt Piano, Angela Denoke Soprano

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43 (69 min.)

  • free

    Angela Denoke and Lars Vogt in conversation with Helge Grünewald (17 min.)

When Shostakovich once again cancelled the première of his Fourth Symphony in 1951 – he had completed the work some 15 years earlier – he complained it suffered from “grandiosomania”. Whether he genuinely had reservations about the music or was really more afraid of the Stalinist censor cannot be determined today with certainty. The Fourth is in fact a grandiose, not to say, gigantic opus. But its greatness is flawed, slipping again and again into the surreal, including dance and march motifs. In this sense the symphony is with regard to its style clearly akin to Mahler’s providing us with the opportunity to try to identify these similarities.

The spirit of Mahler also pervades the work which opens this evening’s concert with Simon Rattle once again at the helm: Berg’s Symphonic Suite from “Lulu”, whose whole conception amounts almost to a Mahler symphony with its lied elements and its phases of musical sublimation of decline and decay. There is a real discovery to be made in the central part of this concert with Dessau’s cantata Les Voix, with Angela Denoke and Lars Vogt as soloists. Dessau (1894–1979) was one of the most versatile composers of his age, writing twelve-tone works alongside film music (for Disney and Hitchcock, for example). His music has only been included in a concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker once before, when one short work was performed in 1970.

Expressive music of a special kind

Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu

Alban Berg worked on his opera Lulu between 1927 and his death in 1935. It is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, that in their own day were regarded as offensive. Both of them describe the upward mobility of a young woman who is idolized by men and who shoots the only man she truly loves. She escapes from prison and flees first to Paris and then to London, where she works as a prostitute and is finally murdered by Jack the Ripper together with her lesbian lover.

Berg died on 24 December 1935 without having completed the opera. The first two acts were finished in their entirety, but only 268 bars of the third act had been instrumented, together with two orchestral passages that constitute the two Symphonic Pieces Nos. 4 and 5. The two completed acts were staged in Zurich on 2 June 1937, when the performance ended with the music to the Symphonic Pieces accompanied by actors miming their roles. The world of music had to wait several decades to hear the completed opera. Although the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha completed the instrumentation of the third act during the 1960s, it was not until after the death of Berg’s widow in 1976 that this version could finally be staged in Paris in 1979.

The five Symphonic Pieces last some thirty-five minutes and may be analysed as a suite or, better still, as a symphony. The opening piece (Rondo: Andante and Hymn) relates to the opening scene of Act Two, at the end of which Lulu learns that her stepson is in love with her. This is followed by the great orchestral interlude of the second act (Ostinato: Allegro) that illustrates Lulu’s descent into the pit and that Adorno described as “breathlessly condensed film music, as virtuosic as a career and as fleeting as a firework display, stopping in the middle”. At the heart of the suite is Lulu’s Song (Comodo). Her jealous husband discovers her surrounded by her admirers and demands that she take her own life, whereupon she launches into a great plea in her own defence, after which she shoots her husband. The penultimate number is made up of four variations on Wedekind’s Bänkellied (Moderato) that in the opera constitute the transition between the two scenes in Act Three.

The final section that is heard at today’s concert is a summation of the principal passages from the closing moments of the opera: the monologue of the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who is in love with Lulu (Sostenuto); the expressive music associated with Lulu’s feelings for her husband (Poco lento); and the music that accompanies the Countess’s sordid death (Grave). In the words of Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, “the otherwise deliberately tawdrily refracted expressionism of the score is here transformed into expressive music of transcendent immediacy, an expression of implacable anguish in the twelve-note outburst in the full orchestra that accompanies Lulu’s death and the selfless gestures of pity on the part of the Countess Geschwitz in the final bars of the score”.

The expressive delineation of destructive forces

Paul Dessau’s orchestral song Les Voix

Paul Dessau was one of the leading figures on the musical scene in the former German Democratic Republic. He was born in Hamburg in 1894 and was still a young boy when he discovered his love of singing and the violin. He studied the violin, piano and composition both privately and at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin, but initially worked as a conductor, before turning to composition in the mid-1920s. In 1933 he was forced to flee Nazi Germany and sought refuge in Paris, where he met the composer and conductor René Leibowitz, who introduced him to Schoenberg’s method of composing “with twelve notes related only to each other”. When the Second World War broke out, Dessau travelled to the United States, where he got to know Brecht, Schoenberg and the latter’s pupils, Hanns Eisler and Ernst Krenek, as well as Bartók and Stravinsky. His contacts with Schoenberg and his school, his collaboration with Brecht, his commitment to Communism and his renewed links with his Jewish ancestry all characterized Dessau’s years of exile. Returning to Germany in 1948, he settled in the eastern half of his divided homeland. In spite of perhaps inevitable conflicts with the authorities and with their cultural representatives, Dessau felt morally, politically and artistically committed to the German Democratic Republic until his death in 1979.

Les Voix was written between 1939 and 1943 and according to Peter Petersen it is “a classic example of a work of exile”: the “theme and the world of images of Verlaine’s poem and – as a reaction to it – the violence and expressionist emotions of the music may be interpreted as an expression of the plight of an exile and of the catastrophic state of the world”. The words are taken from Verlaine’s Sagesse, a collection of poems first published in 1881 and generally considered to afford evidence of what Petersen has called a “genuine experience of piety” on the poet’s part. But Dessau takes a broader view of the subject and relates it to the political situation of his own time, adding the line “Voix de Mars” (“voice of Mars”, the god of war). He retains the eight verses of Verlaine’s original, while permitting himself a number of liberties in his handling of metre and rhyme.

Even as late as 1993 Petersen was forced to concede that Dessau’s setting of Verlaine’s poem was still condemned to a life of “exile”, for it was never performed in the concert hall and was unavailable on record. And yet its composer’s free approach to Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique was well calculated to “correct our grotesquely distorted picture of a composer known only for his song Die Thälmann-Kolonne”. With the present performances by the Berliner Philharmoniker, this necessary correction can finally be made seventy-six years after Dessau went into exile.

Daring, modern and “devilishly complicated”

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor op. 43 is one of the Soviet composer’s most unusual, most modern and most audacious works. Scored for lavish forces, it can perplex its listeners not least because of its sheer length: each of its outer panels is an expansive movement that generates tremendous energy and lasts almost thirty minutes. Between them comes a shorter fast movement barely ten minutes long. In spite of its many motifs, variants and reinterpretations of its musical material, it is still possible to analyse the introductory Allegretto poco moderato as an example of first-movement sonata form. The rondo-like second movement is headed “Moderato con moto” and functions as an intermezzo of a highly ambivalent kind: parts of it are tranquil, whereas other parts are agitated, while others again are laid out along the lines of a waltz. For the final movement, Shostakovich chose a much freer form. It opens with a dark-toned funeral march (Largo) that is followed by an unusually long Allegro with scherzo-like episodes that are grotesque and sarcastically witty by turns. After an extended and particularly violent coda, the movement and, with it, the work ends on a note that eschews all sense of triumph, the hushed conclusion entrusted to sustained strings and to a celesta that repeats the same motif no fewer than nine times in total.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony attests to its composer’s engagement with the developments that were taking place in new music in Europe – the avant-garde and Futurism – but also with the music of Gustav Mahler. It was written in 1935/36 at what was a difficult time for the composer: Shostakovich had just been violently attacked over his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and was outlawed as both a modernist and as a formalist. One of his closest friends, the musicologist Isaak Glikman, reports that according to rumours that were rife in musical circles at this time, Shostakovich simply ignored the criticisms of Lady Macbeth and wrote a “devilishly complicated” symphony “bristling with formalism”. But the composer then withdrew the work, presumably in the face of intense pressure. The score was lost during the war but was reconstructed on the basis of the surviving parts. A quarter of a century after it had been written, the work received its acclaimed first performance on 30 December 1961, when Kyrill Kondrashin conducted the Moscow Philharmonic in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

Krzysztof Meyer – composer, musicologist, friend of the composer and author of what remains the most important biography of Shostakovich – has described the Fourth Symphony as “one of Shostakovich’s most harrowing and tragic works, a reflection of his psychological frame of mind and undoubtedly a highly personal, almost autobiographical work”. Shostakovich himself is said to have described it as his best symphony. However literally we may be disposed to take such comments, there is no doubt that Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony remains a fascinating, modern and frequently disturbing work.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Angela Denoke studied at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg. After early engagements in Ulm and Stuttgart she appeared to great acclaim as the Marschallin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier at the Berlin and Vienna State Operas. Since then she has been closely associated with both these houses. She made her Salzburg Festival debut in 1997 as Marie in Wozzeck under the direction of Claudio Abbado, returning to the Festival the following year and scoring a great personal success as Katya Kabanová in Janáček’s opera of the same name. In 1999 Opernwelt voted her Singer of the Year. In the autumn of 2001 she made her North American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, subsequently appearing with them in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Among other international houses where Angela Denoke has appeared are the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and the Opéra National de Paris. She first sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1997, when she performed Berg’s concert aria Der Wein under the direction of Iván Fischer. Her most recent appearance was in March 2007, when she sang Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. Also in 2007 Angela Denoke was awarded the German Theatre Prize for her performances of Strauss’s Salome. In 2009 she was appointed a Kammersängerin by the Vienna State Opera.

Lars Vogt is one of the leading pianists of his generation. He was born in Düren in 1970 and studied with Ruth Weiss in Aachen and with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling in Hanover. In 1990 he won second prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition and was launched on a meteoric career that quickly led to solo recitals and guest appearances with the most famous orchestras throughout Europe, the United States of America and the Far East. In 1998 Lars Vogt founded a chamber music festival, Spannungen: Musik im Kraftwerk Heimbach, which he has run since its inception. Here and elsewhere he appears regularly with artists such as Christian Tetzlaff, Antje Weithaas and Sharon Kam. Following an invitation from the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation to give a recital in the Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Lars Vogt made his debut with the orchestra at the 2003 Salzburg Easter Festival, playing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. During the 2003/04 season he was pianist-in-residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker; his most recent appearance was in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, in May 2009 under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

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