Andris Nelsons conducts sumptuous works of the 20th century

11 Sep 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Jan Schlichte, Gábor Tarkövi

  • Hans Pfitzner
    Palestrina: Prelude to Act 2 (7 min.)

  • Heinrich Kaminski
    Dorian Music (30 min.)

  • Wolfgang Rihm
    Marsyas, Rhapsody for trumpet with percussion and orchestra (second version) (21 min.)

    Jan Schlichte Percussion, Gábor Tarkövi Trumpet

  • Richard Strauss
    Der Rosenkavalier, suite (28 min.)

  • free

    Winrich Hopp in conversation with Helge Grünewald (16 min.)

For the Berliner Morgenpost, it was a “sensational debut”, when Andris Nelsons performed in concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time last October. For his return, he put together an equally interesting and rich programme. It shows that the composers of the early 20th century were inspired not only by a faith in progress and modernity, but also looked to the past.

Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina is, as the subject of the opera suggests, permeated by echoes of Gregorian chant, and is given a distinctive archaic flavour with its crashing fanfares, such as in the prelude to the second act. The main work of the first part of the concert is Heinrich Kaminski’s Dorian Music, written in 1933 and is likely to be known to only a few music fans. Kaminski, born in Germany in the Black Forest and trained in Berlin, creates an atmospheric work in which Baroque grace and late-Romantic sonorities form a successful synthesis. 

Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, evokes the world of Viennese rococo, without resorting to the music of that time. Velvety lines, unusual accents, now and then a waltz: these are the ingredients of the sometimes glittering, sometimes ironic scenes of the opera. Composed in 1999, Wolfgang Rihm’s Marsyas is the only work in this concert to find itself musically in its own time – a working of an ancient myth, an exciting interchange of free rhapsody and high drama. Two members of the Berliner Philharmonker are to be heard in the solo parts: Gábor Tarkövi, principal trumpet since 2005, and the percussionist Jan Schlichte who has been a member of the orchestra since 1998.

“Bearing Witness to the Light”

A late return to the Philharmonic: Heinrich Kaminski, forgotten antipode of Strauss and Pfitzner

Music history is like outer space. We don’t know where it begins or ends. All we can see are a few stars. And where eternal night seems to hold sway, we imagine emptiness or the void. But even the darkness is filled with light. The biggest dark star in the firmament of German music is named Heinrich Kaminski. He took his place there in 1925 and shone brightly for ten years; then, virtually overnight, he was swallowed up by the forces of darkness. When the Berliner Philharmoniker play his Dorian Music again after 77 years, it is implicitly a belated affirmation of the world-view to which he subscribed and which nowadays is referred to, at best, with a quiet smile: the view that mind is stronger than matter. The spirit cannot be killed – nor is it possible to eradicate music of this stature.

Kaminski was born in 1886 in the Black Forest and after 1921 spent most of his life in a cabin in Ried, Upper Bavaria. In 1933 and again in 1938 he fled to Switzerland but then returned to his family of six. Although initially he was tolerated by the Nazis, they eventually banned his works because of his dubious Jewish origins. Even under the eye of the Gestapo, he maintained contact with the “White Rose” resistance group. Then, after the end of the war, his music fell victim to the avant-garde.

Kaminski’s allegiance to Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner seems oddly old-fashioned, yet it denotes neither aesthetic backwardness nor provinciality. He adhered to this tradition because of its unredeemed humanistic content. Music, according to his philosophy, must be more than entertaining or dazzling – it should motivate people to “trace the roots of life and the meaning of human existence”. The composer saw his duty in “bearing witness to the light”.

Completed in 1934, Kaminski’s Dorian Music is in three movements. A toccata is followed by a lyrical middle section dominated by a string-trio concertino group, and the work concludes with a pulsating, thrusting movement that integrates several Adagio sections. The composition only apparently belongs to the neo-Baroque revival then underway in Germany. From its polyphonic concentration – there are virtually no parts that merely fill in the texture – Kaminski develops a free-flowing spatial music characterized by extreme tempo and rhythmic shifts and constantly changing expression markings. It is a genuinely forward-looking work, gripping in its unique mix of eruptive energy and mystical immersion.

Hans Pfitzner’s 1917 opera Palestrina, occasional harmonic astringencies in Act II notwithstanding, is irretrievably backward-looking. Pfitzner’s mission was to defend the legacy of tradition against the “musical impotence” of modernity. From a look at the opera’s subject, one might suppose it to be the work of a conservative, though not a reactionary: the Renaissance composer Palestrina attempts to defend polyphonic church music against the Pope’s decree of reversion to Gregorian liturgical setting. The means that Pfitzner employs, however, speak a different language: that of Wagner, liberally seasoned with ingredients derived from the church modes.

The Prelude to Act II of Palestrina begins with a depiction of turmoil at the Council of Trent in 1563, where representatives of various factions stake out their conflicting positions. It is noisy and spiked with dissonance, a caricature of contemporary music. Before long, however, we hear the Council theme, already introduced in the first act but now dramatically expanded, a glorification of the Catholic Church. Unlike Kaminski, Pfitzner wrote no church music. He saw Rome solely as a secular power, fitted out with alluring aesthetic attractions. Thus even the “sacred” elements of Palestrina abstain from anything that might suggest the world to come – there is nothing here of revelation, resurrection or redemption. In every respect, Pfitzner the composer took to heart the directive of Pfitzner the librettist: “Be ready to add the keystone to the edifice – that is the sense of our time.”

Richard Strauss and Pfitzner detested each other, but their differences were not artistic in nature: Strauss (in Vienna) even conducted Palestrina, Pfitzner (in Strasbourg) Der Rosenkavalier. In a sense they were competing for the bourgeois public’s favour, the one a pessimist, the other dancing above the abyss, artistically speaking. After 1945 the political entanglements of VIP composers in the Third Reich hardly ever became a topic of discussion. Pfitzner’s music was sidelined because of its full-blooded Romanticism, while Strauss’s ultimately ascended to join the pantheon of 20th-century classics.

It was probably the Polish-American conductor Artur Rodzinski who compiled the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier under the composer’s name in 1945. It brashly strings together scenes from Strauss’s opera, which had its premiere in 1911. The first twelve bars are identical to the beginning of Act I. Then follow the Presentation of the Rose, Baron Ochs’s favourite waltzes, brief excerpts from ensembles, and finally a quick waltz. In his ostentatiously brilliant evocation of a past that never actually existed – a waltz-besotted Viennese rococo – Strauss proved to be a forerunner of post-modernism.

For a politically enlightened composer like Wolfgang Rihm, Strauss the man and his late works understandably pose a problem. Rihm holds in high esteem Elektra and the early symphonic poems, but he prefers Pfitzner’s lieder to Strauss’s. He’s also familiar with Kaminski. Such a comprehensive historical cultivation doesn’t necessarily promote creativity, but Rihm constantly finds new paths in his recourse to tradition. In this regard, like Kaminski, he does not adhere to traditional forms, but rather allows each work to develop its own appropriate shape.

Marsyas for trumpet, percussion and orchestra was composed in 1998 and revised the following year. Of the story of Marsyas, the legendary player of the aulos (a Greek wind instrument) who challenged Apollo, we do not learn much, instead finding ourselves on the level of symbolic interpretations. Marsyas is an allegory of the musician of emotion and sentiment forced to capitulate to the rational intellect of Apollo. The god of the muses orders Marsyas to play and sing at the same time, obviously problematic with an aulos in his mouth though feasible for the harp-playing Apollo. Marsyas, unsuccessful and punished by flaying, also seems to represent Apollo’s shadow side as the primordial experience of suffering that marks every art form.

The composition begins with a painful sforzato crash and then the trumpet’s entry with the principal theme, which ascends in fanfare-like intervallic leaps over a pacing string figure. Its beauty is that of transitoriness: the theme is broken down and quoted in fragmentary form by brass and strings. Accompanied by balefully swelling orchestral sonorities, the soloist heads towards the catastrophe, but not without conjuring up once more the dazzling beauty of the main theme.

A kind of slow movement is repeatedly torn apart by the trumpet’s panic attacks. Then the finale, stealing in without a break, repeats the opening sforzato before the percussion seizes control; the orchestra accompanies with gruff interjections and menacing rushing passages, while the soloist hectically strays through the uproar. Finally, quite unexpectedly, a jazz bar opens its door, though the sound is devoid of any archaizing aura. What’s this about – does it signify the overcoming of the classical antagonism of Apollo and Marsyas, of intellect and emotion, through popular music? It is nothing less than a squaring of the compositional circle. Rihm’s music offers sensuous pleasure without dwelling on it. Under the appealing surface there’s always a message. Discerning which message – as with Kaminski – is left to the listener.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

Andris Nelsons was born to a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; since 2002 he has been a student of Mariss Jansons. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, taking on the same role the year after with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, he completed his tenure as principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford. Last season, Andris Nelsons conducted performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper, and has been invited to return by all three. In summer 2010, he made his conducting debut at the Bayreuth Festival in a new production of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuenfels. Andis Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras. In October 2010 he made his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in three concerts with works by Alban Berg and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Jan Schlichte began his studies in 1991 at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule and continued at the Trossingen Musikhochschule, where his teachers included Franz Lang and Rainer Seegers, the timpanist of the Berliner Philharmoniker. In 1997/1998 he was a scholar in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Orchestra Academy, where he continued receiving instruction from Rainer Seegers. Before joining the orchestra in September 1998, Jan Schlichte acquired extensive experience playing in, among other ensembles, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and Southwest German (SWR) Radio Orchestra. His particular interest in contemporary chamber music with piano and percussion led him, after concerts at various festivals, to become a founding member of the Berlin ensemble KlangArt. Jan Schlichte also plays in the Berlin Chamber Ensemble for New Music as well as the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. As a teacher, he has been involved in a music-pedagogical project in Venezuela.

Gábor Tarkövi was born in Esztergom, Hungary, in 1969. In 1987 he began a course of study in Budapest with György Geiger at the Franz Liszt Music Academy’s training college and then continued his studies with Frigyes Varasdy at the Academy proper. Tarkövi also cites György Kurtág and Hans Gansch among his most important teachers. First engagements took him to the Württemberg Philharmonic of Reutling and, as principal trumpet, to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (now Konzerthausorchester) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Along with his orchestral activities he is a member of the Austrian ensemble Pro Brass, the Austrian Brass Connection and the Wien-Berlin Brass Quintet. As a chamber musician and soloist Gábor Tarkövi played concerts in many countries of Europe, in the USA and in Japan. He also teaches in the Philharmonic’s Orchestra Academy and gives masterclasses in Hungary, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

musikfest berlinIn co-operation with the musikfest berlin 11

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