A Beethoven evening with Nikolaus Harnoncourt

29 Oct 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Mass in C major, op. 86 (58 min.)

    Julia Kleiter Soprano, Elisabeth von Magnus Mezzo-Soprano, Werner Güra Tenor, Florian Boesch Bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (41 min.)

  • free

    Nikolaus Harnoncourt in conversation with Olaf Wilhelmer (17 min.)

This Beethoven evening from October 2011 marks Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s final guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker – the end of an exceptionally happy and fruitful collaboration. From his debut in 1991, Harnoncourt conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 90 concerts in Berlin and at the Easter Festival in Salzburg. For his services, the orchestra presented him with the Hans von Bülow Medal in 2000, and appointed him as an honorary member in 2014.

This concert demonstrates the undiminished vitality of this partnership with a rousing interpretation of the Fifth Symphony, which for Simon Rattle amounted to the “effect of a volcanic eruption”. Nikolaus Harnoncourt was convinced that this is “the only truly political Beethoven symphony”, which takes as its theme the struggle against slavery and tyranny.

The C major Mass, composed at more or less the same time, comes from a completely different world, and its appeal lies in its intimacy and fine rhetoric. However, for Harnoncourt there was a deep connection between the two works: the first deals with Beethoven's battle with the real world, while the second sets to music his struggle with the ultimate questions of faith.

From Dogma to Freedom

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the C major Mass

The idealization of Ludwig van Beethoven as a “titan” is nowadays dismissed as bourgeois hero worship, yet this honorific is still worth debating: Beethoven created music that stirred up his contemporaries more than any other. The disruption, overturning and reassessment of all musical values was something that neither Haydn nor Mozart had imposed on the public, nor did they take their audiences into the moral and spiritual realms that Beethoven did. “Titanic” indeed is the effect of his music, its concentrated drama and almost superhumanly painful struggle. Many proponents of the Romantic image of Beethoven were unaware that a concrete mythological figure lay behind the characterization: in the Eroica, the composer evoked Prometheus, the Titan who rebelled against Zeus, father of the gods, by stealing fire and bringing that life-sustaining element to mankind. For a time, Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to Beethoven to correspond to Prometheus in the political sphere. The composer also saw himself as playing this role: he bestowed upon humanity the visionary sounds of a still unattained free society.

As an explanation of the Eroica or the Fifth Symphony, however, this is clearly inadequate. Anyone seeking to understand their epoch-making innovations, the historic quantum leap that took place in the early years of the 19th century, needs to address the issue of Beethoven the “Titan”, not only the composer. Old Haydn instinctively sensed the strangeness in his pupil’s nature and his music. He referred to his bristlingly self-confident junior colleague as a “Grand Mogul” and rejected Beethoven’s political views. Haydn hated the Revolution, and he was even out of sympathy with the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, on whose death Beethoven composed a funeral cantata in 1790. For Haydn, the so-called era of the Frenchman meant primarily a time of war and overturning the old order. Some of his works comment on these events: the “Military” Symphony composed in 1794, which eschews anything resembling a march, the mysterious “Drumroll” Symphony of 1795, the Mass in Time of War, written in 1796 as Napoleon’s army was approaching Vienna, and the “Nelson” Mass of 1798 – all works that strictly avoid the élan terrible, loved by Beethoven, of Paris composers like Gossec, Méhul and Cherubini.

In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony this is hard to miss, yet his contemporaries managed to close their ears to central messages in the work. Beethoven allegedly said that the Fifth Symphony’s principal theme represented “fate knocking at the door”. Even if the words were not actually uttered by the composer himself, they are apt. Advancing deafness, isolation, lack of recognition, but also a lack of freedom, the war and the forces of Napoleon – formerly admired, now the enemy – in the heart of Vienna: the fate that gave the Fifth Symphony its nickname had to do not with Herr van Beethoven alone but with whole nations. Other composers also paid the emperor tribute, and one of them, Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, even struck the same note of fate in his G minor Symphony, premiered in 1808, six weeks before Beethoven’s Fifth. It was no longer only Revolutionary propaganda that was coming out of France.

Beethoven’s C minor Symphony, nonetheless, is not a commentary on current events. It reflects the struggle for freedom on a symbolic, meta-historic level. In spite of the triumphal finale, the emphasis is more on the “struggle” than on “freedom”. To this conception of per aspera ad astra – “through hardship to the stars” – Beethoven would remain true in the Ninth Symphony: even the greatest outburst of euphoria cannot efface the suffering that has been overcome or the memory of it.

Is this what he wanted to tell us? If so, he has achieved his goal completely, even though the darkly rumbling first movement has always been understood as the symphony’s primary message, indeed as the epitome of classical music altogether. In the case of a complex personality like Beethoven, this interpretation is unfortunately just as easily assailable as any other. A not insignificant aspect of Beethoven’s amazing many-sidedness is his piety. Simultaneously with the Fifth Symphony he composed a large work for the divine service, the Mass in C major Op. 86.

The work was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, who celebrated his wife’s name day every year with the singing of a mass. In earlier years – for the last time in 1802 – these works had been provided by Haydn. At its first performance on 13 September 1807, Beethoven’s new mass was not well received by the prince, who afterwards received him with the words: “But, my dear Beethoven, what is this you have done now?” In his private correspondence Esterházy actually called the work “insupportablement ridicule et détestable”. What had gone wrong? Had Beethoven called into question the divine world order or tormented the prince with dissonances? Not at all. The piece simply sounded too rhetorical, the music was far too complex, and the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” much too restrained.

The C major Mass gives precedence to the voice and therefore to the text, avoiding instrumental splendour and continual jubilation. Beethoven deliberately turned away from Austrian practice and thus away from his teacher Haydn. Although he had boundless respect for the older master’s mass compositions, he did not want to continue along the same path. In his sacred music, even more strongly than in his symphonic works, Beethoven showed that, even 22 years after leaving Bonn to settle in Vienna, he never really became Austrian. The young organist and choral director had been formed by a substantially different type of Catholic church music. The Electorate of Bonn, following the model of Protestant lands, permitted the use of sacred lieder in the service, in other words, of psalms, hymns etc. in German translation as well as newly created texts of religious character. These were prohibited in the Austrian Empire, as was the performance of Latin liturgical works in the bourgeois concert hall. It was, however, possible to circumvent the rule if the work had a German title, and this is what Beethoven did. In December 1808 in Vienna, two movements from the C major Mass were performed under the titles “Hymne” and “Heilig”, along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Choral Fantasy”. To facilitate further performances of the mass, Beethoven expressly recommended to his publisher that the entire Latin text should be underlaid by one in German.

Whereas the religious impulse in Haydn’s masses is still so strong and steadfast that they could actually dispense with the text, the rather non-sectarian Beethoven with his North German austerity attached far greater importance to the word – although increasingly deviating from orthodoxy in the course of his compositional career. The creator of sacred works followed the same path as the symphonist: concrete, dogmatic content, whether religious or political, is suppressed in favour of universal messages for mankind. Beethoven’s artistic life suggests that same notion of per aspera ad astra to which he paid homage in so many of his works. The Titan did not extinguish his torch but rather elevated it to higher spheres, visible and comprehensible to people of all classes, races and religions. And presumably even Haydn.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

Florian Boesch is much in demand as one of the leading Lieder performers on the concert stages of international music capitals (Wiener Konzertverein, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Wigmore Hall London, Konzerthaus Berlin, etc.) as well as at prestigious festivals such as the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Oxford Lieder Festival and the styriarte Festival in Graz. With a historically and stylistically diverse concert repertoire, Florian Boesch is equally successful as a soloist with leading orchestras and in roles in the stage works of George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss and Alban Berg, with whose Wozzeck he made his role debut at Oper Köln in May of this year. The baritone has previously worked together with conductors including Gerd Albrecht, Adam Fischer, Philippe Herreweghe, Michail Jurowski, Sir Roger Norrington, Georges Prêtre, and Franz Welser-Möst; Nikolaus Harnoncourt and he have enjoyed an artistic partnership over many years. These concerts will be the first time Florian Boesch has appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The German tenor Werner Güra was born in Munich and studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and later with Kurt Widmer in Basel and Margreet Honig in Amsterdam. He joined the Dresden State Opera in 1995, enjoying particular success in Mozart’s tenor roles. But his operatic repertory extends from the Baroque to the present day. He has appeared regularly at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden since the 1998/99 season. Among other venues where he has been heard principally in Mozart roles are the Opéra National de Paris, La Monnaie in Brussels, the 2006 Innsbruck Early Music Festival and the Baden-Baden Festival, where he often performed under the direction of René Jacobs. In the concert hall he has worked with orchestras of the eminence of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France and many European radio orchestras. Conductors with whom he has sung include Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Ton Koopman, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and particularly Nikolaus Harnoncourt. As a lieder recitalist he has appeared in London’s Wigmore Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, New York’s Lincoln Center and the Schubertiade Festival in Schwarzenberg. Werner Güra first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Daniel Barenboim in May 1999 singing the tenor part of Mozart’s Coronation Mass KV 317. His most recent appearance was in January 2010 as a soloist in Bach’s Magnificat BWV 243 conducted by Ton Koopman.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was born in Berlin in 1929 but grew up in Austria. Even while he was still learning to play the cello, he had already developed an intense interest in performing practice – initially of early music – and in the importance of sonority in music-making. He founded the Concentus Musicus of Vienna in 1953, a specialist ensemble performing on period instruments or on replicas of such instruments. Under his direction, the ensemble has become a world-famous institution. Until 1969 Nikolaus Harnoncourt also played the cello with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Since the 1970s he has made more and more appearances as a conductor of traditional symphony orchestras and has also worked in the opera house, allowing him to expand his repertory to Viennese Classicism, Romanticism and, more recently, the 20th century. Between 1972 and 1992 he taught performing practice at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. His interest in the subject is also reflected in several books, including Musik als Klangrede. Among the numerous awards that Nikolaus Harnoncourt has received are the Stockholm Polar Prize, the 1997 Robert Schumann Prize, the 2002 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the 2005 Kyoto Prize, one of the highest awards in the fields of science and culture, which he received for a lifetime’s achievement in music. He has appeared frequently with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in 1991 and in March 2000 received the orchestra’s Hans von Bülow Medal. His most recent appearances were in March 2009, when he conducted performances of Haydn’s Orlando paladino.

Julia Kleiter, born in Limburg, studied with William Workmann in Hamburg and with Klesie Kelly-Moog in Cologne. She first attracted international attention as Pamina in Paris in 2004, conducted by Jiří Kout. Mozart roles have since taken a prominent place in her repertoire, which also includes roles in operas by Handel, Gluck, Johann Christian Bach, Beethoven, Weber and Mussorgsky; a further focal point of her repertoire are the Strauss roles of Sophie, Zdenka and Daphne (the last so far in concert). Thus the soprano, who makes guest appearances on the stages of the leading European music capitals and festivals as well as in the Metropolitan Opera in New York, can be heard as Sophie at the Deutschen Oper Berlin in mid-December. Equally in demand as a soloist in the concert hall, Julia Kleiter has worked together with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Semyon Bychkov, Thomas Hengelbrock, René Jacobs, Marc Minkowski, Riccardo Muti, Jonathan Nott, and, not least, also on many occasions with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In some of her regular recitals, she performs alongside the tenor Christoph Prégardien. Julia Kleiter’s first appearance as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker was in mid-May 2006 in three performances of Robert Schumann’s Manfred under the baton of Claudio Abbado.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker earlier this months in the premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Elisabeth von Magnus, born in Vienna, initially studied recorder at the Wiener Musikhochschule, founded the Ensemble Récréation, and was furthermore a member of the Concentus Musicus Wien, led by Nikolas Harnoncourt. While subsequently studying acting at what is now the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, she studied singing with Hertha Töpper at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, where she also attended the opera school. Moreover, she studied Lied interpretation with Paul Schilhawsky in Salzburg. Since her operatic debut as Polly in Benjamin Britten’s version of the Beggar’s Opera at Munich’s Marstalltheater, Elisabeth von Magnus has made guest appearances in the music capitals and festival venues of almost all European countries and in the United States and Japan, with a wide-ranging repertoire of musical theatre, oratorio and lieder. She has performed with both major symphony orchestras and the leading ensembles in the field of historically informed performance. In this field, the mezzo-soprano has worked together with conductors who include Claudio Abbado, Philippe Herreweghe, Sir Neville Marriner, Markus Stenz and Jaap van Zweden; under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, she was recently seen as Agnes (Háta) in an acclaimed production of Bedřich Smetana’s Bartered Bride as part of the styriarte Festival. Elisabeth von Magnus and the pianist Jacob Bogaart have performed together as a duo for some time. They have built up an array of variously themed programmes, ranging from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic to the 20th century. Solo performances with music by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill form a new focus of her activities. In mid-October 2000, Elisabeth von Magnus made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in four concerts of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

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