Semyon Bychkov conducts Berio and Walton
24 Sep 2011
Rendering for orchestra (37 min.)
Sequenza VII for oboe (13 min.)
Albrecht Mayer Oboe
Symphony No. 1 in B flat Minor (53 min.)
Semyon Bychkov in conversation with Sarah Willis (24 min.)
What musical direction would Franz Schubert have taken had he not died in 1828 when he was only 31 years of age? One possible answer is Luciano Berio’s symphonic collage Rendering, which assembles Schubert’s sketches from the last weeks of his life. However, Berio does not attempt to either complete or reconstruct these fragments, which were originally intended for a symphony in D major. Rather, he creates a web of varying texture in which Schubert’s presence is felt – sometimes more, sometimes less – interwoven with echoes of later music.
The concert opens with a work that owes everything to Berio’s own inventiveness: Sequenza VII for oboe. In his 14 Sequenzas for various solo instruments, Berio demonstrates their endless tonal possibilities. During the 2011/2012 season, a total of four of these works were presented by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, beginning with Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1992.
William Walton’s First Symphony is a work full of fire and colour, revealing occasional flashes of the influence of Bruckner and Hindemith. In both its tumultuous and its tender moments, it may reflect events in the life of the composer around the time of its composition, when a long-standing relationship had come to an end and a new woman entered his life. One of the main advocates of the symphony today is Semyon Bychkov, this evening’s conductor. The Financial Times recently wrote about a performance in London: “Bychkov gave it space, time to breathe and luxuriate in its orchestral textures, and explored a third dimension of background colours and emotions.”
Yesterday’s Music in Today’s
Classicism and traditional modernism in William Walton and Luciano Berio
What musical vision moved William Walton to compose a fugue in the finale of his First Symphony? His biographer Michael Kennedy writes that in April 1935 he still did not know what to do about the middle of the movement and rang up his close friend, the composer-conductor Constant Lambert, who suggested a fugue. “But I don't know how to write one,” Walton claimed, to which Lambert replied: “There are a couple of rather good pages on the subject in Grove's Musical Dictionary.” And so Walton immersed himself in the Grove entry and completed the movement at the end of August.
The finale’s fugue was one of the last additions that Walton made to his Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor before the complete work’s premiere at the Queen’s Hall in London on 6 November 1935. A partial premiere of the symphony’s first three movements had already taken place at the same venue barely a year before. Walton’s progress on his symphonic first-born was halting in the extreme. By this stage of his career he already had earned the reputation of a slow, painstaking composer – according to one anecdote, while writing Belshazzar’s Feast it took him seven months just to find an appropriate musical setting of the world “gold”.
Walton undertook his first large symphonic composition as a conscious approach to the Beethovenian ideal, and the opening bars of the first movement may be construed as a reminiscence of the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth. Still more pronounced, however, is the obvious musical kinship with Jean Sibelius, whose works were so enthusiastically received in the Anglo-Saxon countries: although the structure of Walton’s opening movement largely adheres to the principles of sonata-allegro form – only the recapitulation’s truncation to half the exposition’s length deviates markedly from classical practice – the development of the material rather suggests the idea of organic growth that marks the late symphonies of Sibelius in particular.
Following the scherzo, marked Presto, con malizia, there comes a slow movement whose godfather could have been Schubert – at least if one is to believe the recollection of Walton’s friend Angus Morrison, according to whom the composer here “said he wanted to write a movement like the one in the Schubert C major Quintet”. The relationship to Schubert, Morrison maintained, can be detected less in its timeless serenity than in its bittersweet pain. Indeed the F sharp major of the expressive flute solo that gives rise to the melancholy third movement, marked Andante, con malinconia, is a bitter major, whose disillusioned quality is underlined by the marking doloroso. Walton had originally intended this melody for the fast main theme of the first movement, and as the symphony’s initial inspiration it can virtually be considered the germ cell of the entire symphony.
Luciano Berio worked with musical “germ cells” in a significantly more concrete manner in the composition of his Sequenzas for various solo instruments: “The title Sequenza underlines the fact that the construction of these pieces almost always takes as its point of departure a sequence of harmonic fields, from which spring ... the other musical functions.” Each of the 14 Sequenzas Berio wrote between 1958 and 2002 is derived from its own row-like pitch resources. In the case of Sequenza VII for oboe, composed in 1969, the row – and with it the piece – begins with a sharply articulated then long-sustained “b” – in German “h”, a homage to the work’s dedicatee and first performer, Heinz Holliger. Before Berio began composition, Holliger compiled for him a compendium of every imaginable and highly virtuosic playing technique of his instrument – from double trills and flutter-tonguing to multiphonics and glissando trills.
References, simultaneities, dialogues – polyphony in the broadest sense, understood generally as a dialogue of diverse elements brought together in a dialogic relationship: this is Berio’s creative principle. Traditional polyphony in the best sense dominates in Sequenza VII, for example in the multiphonic harmonics and in the composer’s repeated demand for quick register changes by the soloist to produce an illusion of polyphony.
Rendering for orchestra is another story. Here the individual voices belong to different musical periods and two different composers: “Schubert – Berio” is the attribution in the score. The basis of this composition is the fragmentary sketch of a symphony in D major (D936a), first identified in 1978, that Schubert worked on shortly before his death in 1828. Soon after its discovery Berio began occupying himself sporadically with the sketches, but it was not until he was officially commissioned by the Hohenems Schubertiade that he began composition. At that point, there had already been several other attempts to reconstruct this so-called Tenth Symphony, but Berio’s approach was something else altogether.
A visual inspection of Berio’s score already indicates his scrupulous handling of the historic material. Schubert’s original pianistically conceived sketches are shown below the orchestral system. The scoring is that of the “Unfinished” Symphony and Berio has even attempted to reproduce the tonal colours of the “Unfinished” in places. He has also used orchestration to make audible developmental tendencies he perceived in Schubert’s sketches – for example in certain episodes in the first movement, which, he said, “seem to lean towards Mendelssohn”, and in the second movement, which “seems inhabited by Mahler’s spirit”.
The connective passages Berio created to bridge the gaps between the separate orchestrated sketches he referred to as “cement” – a delicate musical tissue always announced by the weightless sound of a celesta and always p, pp or ppp. Intermingled with this “distant”, constantly shifting, expressively neutral fabric – “empty spaces” was the composer’s description – are unexpected reminiscences of late Schubert, including the B flat major Piano Sonata D960 and Piano Trio D898 and songs from Winterreise. Berio chose evocative melodic fragments but initially concealed them in subsidiary parts or made them unrecognizable through polyphonic overlay: an appeal to the listener’s subconscious memory.
In the course of Rendering’s three movements, the musical dream images enter into an increasingly intense dialogue with Schubert’s actual sketch material. Several times – for example, at the beginning of the final movement – Berio adumbrates Schubert’s motifs in his own newly composed passages, and the growing number of break-offs in the original sketches require more and more short insertions, towards the end no more than individual bars: the climax of a poetic meditation on the fascination exerted by an ultimately insurmountable distance.
Translation: Richard Evidon
Semyon Bychkov, born in Leningrad, was a pupil of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire. In 1973, he won First Prize at the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Since leaving Russia in 1975 and moving to the USA, he has enjoyed a career taking him from New York’s Mannes College of Music to engagements for international opera productions (eg. in Milano, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, London, Chicago, New York, at the Salzburg Festival and Maggio Musicale in Florence), as well as concerts with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Bychkov was appointed Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (1989–98), Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1990–94) and of Maggio Musicale in Florence (1992–98). From the season 1997/98 until 2010, he was Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchesters Köln, a position he also held at the Dresden Semperoper from 1999 to 2003. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985, stepping in for Riccardo Muti at short notice, Semyon Bychkov has returned several times for guest conducting engagements. His most recent visit was in June 2010, when he conducted works by Ravel, Bartók and Brahms. His recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with the Berliner Philharmoniker was the winner of the Belgian Caecilia Award and Stereo Review’s “Record of the Year”.
Albrecht Mayer initially received piano, recorder and singing lessons before taking up the oboe at the age of ten. His teachers were Gerhard Scheuer, Georg Meerwein, Maurice Bourgue and Ingo Goritzki. Even in his youth, he was invited to perform with various orchestras, including the European Community Youth Orchestra. A winner of many prizes and scholarships, Albrecht Mayer became principal oboist with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 1990. Two years later, he took on the same position with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He regularly performs all over the world as a concert soloist. As a chamber musician, his partners have included, among others, Nigel Kennedy und Hélène Grimaud. He also teaches at major international festivals. He has already been awarded the ECHO Klassik Prize on more than one occasion, and in December 2008, he received the E.T.A.-Hoffmann Prize from his home town of Bamberg. In the search for his personal ideal sound, Albrecht Mayer recently founded his own ensemble, New Seasons.
Albrecht Mayer appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.