Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” works

22 Oct 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Pablo Heras-Casado

Marc-André Hamelin

  • Felix Mendelssohn
    The Hebrides, overture in B minor, op. 26 (12 min.)

  • Karol Szymanowski
    Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra, op. 60 “Symphonie concertante” (32 min.)

    Marc-André Hamelin Piano

  • Luciano Berio
    Quatre dédicaces for orchestra (15 min.)

  • Felix Mendelssohn
    Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56 “Scottish” (48 min.)

  • free

    Pablo Heras-Casado in conversation with Madeleine Carruzzo (16 min.)

If you want to meet a versatile musician, you should not miss this concert, with Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado who made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2011. The website of the artist contains an impressively long repertoire list of music from all eras and countries – from Tielman Susato (c. 1510–70) to the latest generation of composers. The global response of critics to this “superb new podium talent” (San Francisco Chronicle) shows Heras-Casado’s skills are characterised not only by breadth but also depth.

Heras-Casado opens and closes the concert with works by Felix Mendelssohn which were inspired by a trip to Scotland in 1829: the overture The Hebrides and the “Scottish” Symphony. Mendelssohn himself stated that the intense colours and moods of this music were a reflection of his impressions of the trip. However, anyone who imagines they are hearing quotes from real folk music here – such as in the bagpipe pentatonic in the second movement of the symphony – is mistaken: the composer did not think much of the genuine folk music, writing from Scotland, “Unfortunately it gives me toothache”.

Embedded between these works are two compositions from the 20th century: Luciano Berio’s virtuoso orchestra miniatures Quatre dédicaces, which are played here for the first time by the Berliner Philharmoniker, and Karol Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony. Szymanowski, a father figure of modern Polish music, here creates a refined Impressionistic work that invokes the great tradition of the Romantic solo concerto with its virtuosic piano part, played by the celebrated Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

Early and Late Works plus a Glimpse into a Varied Œuvre

Compositions by Mendelssohn, Szymanowski and Berio

Felix Mendelssohn: Inspired by Scotland

In spring 1829, the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn travelled to Britain for the first time. In London, he appeared as a concert pianist to great acclaim and presented himself as a composer, conducting his own works. Then in July he travelled to the northern Highlands, first visiting Edinburgh. From the Scottish capital, he wrote to his family in Berlin: “In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace of Holyrood where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there with a spiral staircase at its door. That is where they went up and found Rizzio in the room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I found there today the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

Almost 13 years elapsed between the first sketches of 1829 and the symphony’s completion. The composition of the concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) was also protracted. Its inspiration was a visit to the island of Staffa in the Hebrides, where Mendelssohn jotted down the first 20 bars of the overture in short score. In Italy in 1830, he produced a first version but was not happy with it. In February 1832 he finished a second version and in May performed it in London; but he was only satisfied with the third version, which he presented at a concert in Berlin on 10 January 1833.

For both works Mendelssohn devised an individual structural context. In the case of the Hebrides Overture this is thematic in nature. The work “is an extended first-movement sonata form in Mendelssohn’s typically individualized handling of this formal scheme. The central motif is treated as a germ cell appearing in various transformations” (musicologist Wulf Konold). The Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 56 is a single unit: the four movements are performed without a break, in order, wrote Mendelssohn to Johann Georg Droysen, “to do away with those mood-destroying pauses between movements”. The symphony’s four sections consist of an extended introduction and fast opening movement (Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato), an agitated scherzo, a slow third movement (Adagio) and a finale, originally marked Allegro guerriero (“warlike”), which begins Allegro vivacissimo and ends triumphantly in a broad Allegro maestoso assai.

Karol Szymanowski: “Adrift” between the traditional and progressive

“Between eras may well have been a more exciting place to be than the midst of one”, wrote Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich in 1982 in the Frankfurter Rundschau – when the music of the “zones, breaches and seams between late Romanticism and modernity” were being discovered. He characterized the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, born in 1882, as a “typical threshold artist, adrift between the traditional and progressive (or, better, empty territory)”. At first influenced by Wagner, Reger and Strauss, he associated himself with the literary movement known as “Young Poland”, yet always pursued his own distinctive path. He avoided incorporating folk elements into his music until relatively late in his career when they became a source of inspiration. Szymanowski’s last creative period (1921 – 1934) is thus often referred to as his “Polish” or “nationalist” phase.

The Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra Op. 60 was composed in 1932. Formally the work is a hybrid of (symphonic) piano concerto and symphony, as indicated by the subtitle “Sinfonia concertante”. The piano is treated at times as a solo instrument in the classical sense, at others as “only” an accompanist; other instruments are also given soloistic prominence. Szymanowski wrote the piano part with his own virtuosity in mind. His numerous performances of the work during his impoverished last years were among his few sources of income.

In a letter to the musicologist Zdzisław Jachimecki, Szymanowski provided some description of the Fourth Symphony: “1st movement (F major – 3/4 Alla moderato): close to sonata form (but not quite the same), in other words, first theme, subsidiary theme, second theme, shortened development and recapitulation; brief coda. The general mood is very cheerful, almost joyful… 2nd movement (4/4 Lento sostenuto). Extraordinarily lyrical, almost sentimental (beginning). A broad melody for solo flute, later solo violin – the piano really just accompanies. After that (the piano by now independent) the big crescendo and ff almost dramatic – then subsiding and, towards, the end, recall of 1st movement’s main theme. Complete transition to 3 Finale (3/8) Alla agitato – non troppo in the rhythm of an oberek Polish folk dance. One could find in it a loose analogy with rondo form. In the character of an extremely lively – at times almost orgiastic – dance. In the middle a brief episode (piano solo), a kind of mazurka (andantino), very ‘brillante’ coda. On the whole, the piano dominates, almost to the extent of a concerto (except for the beginning of the 2nd movement where for a moment it becomes an accompanying instrument). The scoring is classical (double woodwind, 4 horns, 3 trumpets and harp – much percussion, especially in the finale). The orchestration is very transparent – many sections for solo instruments (flute). The general character is – as you might say – very Polish.”

Luciano Berio’s Quatre Dédicaces – Bagatelles only at first glance

Between 1978 and 1989 Luciano Berio – one of the 20th century’s most original and undogmatic composers – produced four short works for similar occasions, scored for large orchestra. Encore, written in 1978 and revised in 1981, was commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, Entrata was written in 1980 for the San Francisco Symphony and principal conductor Edo de Waart, and Fanfara in 1982 for the RAI Orchestra of Rome. Festum was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1989 for the opening of Myerson Symphony Center. His assistant Paul Roberts suggested to the composer that he put the four pieces together as a cycle. The idea was realized only after Berio’s death (2003) by Pierre Boulez, who determined the order of the cycle and gave it an appropriate title, Quatre Dédicaces (Four Dedications).

Berio himself said of two of the four pieces: “Encore … is a short ‘jeu d’esprit’, a miniature of orchestral bravura particularly suited, as indicated by the title, for the closing of a concert. It was later integrated into La vera storia where it became the opening episode of the second part. The text by Italo Calvino, which had been incorporated into the first part of the work, undergoes transformation und ‘deconstruction’ in the second part. Entrata is intended as a brilliant exhibition of orchestral sonorities. The term ‘entrata’ indicates a short introductory piece with a festive, ceremonial character.”

Even at first hearing there is much to discover in these four miniatures. Fanfara seems to emerge from nowhere and takes shape only gradually. The composer “frustrates” our expectations by not delivering the festive, ceremonial brass sounds evoked by the title. But there is much brass writing, as well as various forms of heterophony, to be heard in the more playful, strongly pulsating inner pieces, Entrata and Festum, and even in the closing Encore, which exhibits motor rhythms and jazz allusions but ends like a expiring breath.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Marc-André Hamelin was born in Montreal in 1961. His often extraordinary concert programmes show a preference for rarely performed works by little-known composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Pieces by Godowski, Catoire, Bolcom, Ives, Ornstein, Kapustin, Sorabji and Rzewski are also to be found in his repertoire along with works by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Schubert, Scriabin and Rachmaninov. His interpretations of the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan and Paul Dukas have attracted particular attention. Marc-André Hamelin regularly appears at major international music centres such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London and La Monnaie in Brussels. As a concert soloist, he has worked with, among others, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI (Italy). He gave the premiere of Claude Baker’s Piano Concerto From Noon to Starry Night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the end of 2010. Marc-André Hamelin’s chamber music partners include the violinist Midori and the musicians of the Takács Quartet. The pianist has been honoured on many occasions for his recordings; just a few weeks ago he was awarded the annual German Record Critics’ Prize 2011 for his CD Études of his own compositions. The artist is a member of the Royal Society of Canada; he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003 and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec in 2004. Following his debut recital at the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the Chamber Music Hall in 1998, and a joint appearance as a piano duo with Leif-Ove Andsnes as part of our Pianist in Residence series in mid-December 2010, Marc-André Hamelin now performs as a soloist with the orchestra for the first time.

Pablo Heras-Casado was born in Granada. The young conductor can look back on a meteoric international career and works with such renowned orchestras as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has also worked with specialist ensembles such as the Freiburger Barockorchester. Pablo Heras-Casado has developed long-term relationships as a guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. His repertoire ranges from Renaissance to contemporary compositions, from chamber music to opera literature of all kinds: He conducted the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in May 2011 in a production together with Sasha Waltz & Guests and the Vocal Consort Berlin, which was subsequently seen in Warsaw, Luxembourg and at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. Pablo Heras-Casado’s particular interest in contemporary music is also reflected in his collaboration with the Ensemble ACJW at Carnegie Hall, the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt, the Klangforum Wien and the Collegium Novum Zurich. With his interpretation of Stockhausen’s Gruppen, he won the Lucerne Festival Conducting Competition with Pierre Boulez and Peter Eötvös heading the jury in 2007. With these concerts, Pablo Heras-Casado makes his debut at the conductor’s desk of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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