Chopin’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 with Daniel Barenboim und Asher Fisch

04 Oct 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Asher Fisch

Daniel Barenboim

  • Karol Szymanowski
    Concert Overture in E major, op. 12 (14 min.)

  • Frédéric Chopin
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in F minor, op. 21 (36 min.)

    Daniel Barenboim Piano

  • Witold Lutosławski
    Overture for strings (6 min.)

  • Frédéric Chopin
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E minor, op. 11 (57 min.)

    Daniel Barenboim Piano

  • free

    Daniel Barenboim and Asher Fisch in conversation with Stanley Dodds (13 min.)

Over the many decades that Daniel Barenboim has worked with the Berliner Philharmoniker, he has performed countless major piano concertos – but for a long time not one by Chopin. This omission is fully rectified in this concert from 2009 when as soloist he performed both of Chopin’s contributions to the genre in just one evening.

The subtle yet extravagant outpourings of beauty of his music have made Chopin into Poland’s most popular composer. A further two composers represented this evening show, however, that he is no longer the sole embodiment of Polish music. Szymanowski made his breakthrough with a concert in 1906 which included the Concert Overture op. 12 – a work of rich chromaticism and effervescence reminiscent of Strauss’s Don Juan. Just as Szymanowski became the most prominent Polish composer of the early 20th century, Lutosławski was regarded as the seminal musical figure of his native land after the Second World War. The multifaceted composer is represented at this concert by his neoclassical Overture for Strings.

In this concert, Asher Fisch made his début with the Berliner Philharmoniker a conductor who so far has made a name for himself primarily in the world’s opera houses, including the Vienna and Bavarian State Opera houses, the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, Milan.

Talent as national property

Three Polish composers in search of themselves

Was this the new tone of Polish music? The end of a style that for decades had languished beneath the mildewed layer of the sort of “national” clichés that were associated with the world of folk music suddenly seemed to be in sight, now that a few intrepid composers of the younger generation had proved responsive to current trends in Germany and France. The Concert Overture by the then twenty-three-year-old Karol Szymanowski that received its first performance in Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall on 6 February 1906 marked a clear, if by no means unproblematic, departure in this regard. After all, it almost seems that in adopting the effusive language of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, the composer had also taken over his Wilhelmine grandiloquence. A stark chord of E major gives way at once to six horns and strings intoning a kind of fanfare. Syncopatedly tiered, the fanfare strives upwards in small steps, driven by such force that it seems to culminate at once in the chord of the ninth surrounded by rustling harp sounds. But the chord is immediately resolved, encouraging the music to surge forward with all the greater inhibition. At the same time Szymanowski shows supreme care in his handling of the work’s sonorities, pointillist colour effects ensuring that the massive instrumentation still remains translucent. Succinctly contracted motifs combine with each other in elaborate imitative procedures, and the writing, with its increasingly dense chromaticisms, is channelled into clear harmonic structures. No less lucid is the composer’s use of first-movement sonata form, which at least on a subliminal level flirts with Liszt’s idea of several movements welded together within a single structure.

For the generation of Witold Lutosławski, the cosmopolitan Szymanowski was regarded as a supreme authority: almost alone, he had opened up Polish music to the 20th century. In later years, it is true, Szymanowski began to take an interest in the folk music of the Tatra mountains, but he never ceased to insist that only by looking beyond their own native confines could Polish composers hope to develop. In his early works, Lutosławski did indeed take his cue from the music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Roussel and also, in part, from the New Objectivity in art. But the war intervened and interrupted this development. After escaping from German detention, he kept his head above water in Warsaw by accepting occasional commissions. As a leading member of the younger generation of Polish composers, he was offered a series of influential positions in the post-war musical life of the new socialist state, but the debate over formalism that reared its head in 1948 led to a further setback. His thrilling First Symphony, in which he had engaged with new trends in western music, was inevitably proscribed, the first victim of his country’s newly illiberal regime. It was only behind closed doors that Lutosławski was able to continue his attempts to ask questions on the subject of compositional technique.

Lutosławski’s Overture for Strings (1949) lasts some five minutes and was his only relatively abstract work from this period to receive a public airing. With its constantly changing non-duple metres, the careful organization of its modal material and its neoclassically austere tone, the work is audibly influenced by Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings of ten years earlier. The work opens with a statement of three subject-groups with clear harmonic closure followed by a lengthy development section and a coda that resembles nothing so much as a recapitulation. But while hinting at first-movement sonata form, Lutosławski uses the occasion to develop his ideas more freely. His Bartókian interest in folk music was to culminate in his Concerto for Orchestra, which he completed in 1954.

Whether writing in 1949, 1906 or 1829–30, none of the three composers featured in the present programme could escape from the pressures exerted by Polish audiences eager to greet a new national hero in music. All of them knew that a state repeatedly ground down by neighbouring powers needed nothing so much as artistic figures with which that state could identify, visionaries who, by exploiting the cultural resources of the people, were able to uphold at least the idea of a nation. The fact that this could not be achieved without engaging with the avant-garde art of the rest of Europe may have been regarded as an affront to the collective urge for self-affirmation, but for ambitious composers there was really no alternative. The Poland of the Vienna Congress in which Frédéric Chopin grew up was little more than the rump of a kingdom effectively ruled by Russia, but it had a handful of musical stimuli to offer, including performances of Italian operas, concerts by visiting virtuosos and the work of private individuals who actively championed music. What there was not, however, was the soil for a flourishing career that would carry the artist’s name far beyond his country’s frontiers. At the end of 1829, when Chopin, already acclaimed in Vienna, shied away from performing his own works in Warsaw, he was emphatically reminded of his quasi-political obligations: “Is Chopin’s talent not the property of his homeland?”, asked the critic of the Kurier Warszawski. “Is Poland unable to appreciate him adequately?”

If Chopin hesitated, it was not because he felt any lack of allegiance to his fellow Poles but because he was afraid of the crowd of spectators in the hall. He had completed his Second Piano Concerto op. 21 by the autumn of 1829 (it predates his First Piano Concerto by a few months), and yet it was not until March 1830 that it received its first performance at the pianist’s acclaimed debut in the Warsaw National Theatre. There were more than nine hundred listeners packed into the hall and this, together with the tremendous hullabaloo in the press, seems to have exacerbated Chopin’s aversion to events of this nature. He had initially wanted to become an international soloist, so that his concertos, written in quick succession, were designed as display pieces intended to be performed on his dazzling concert tours. As such, they belong to the now neglected genre of the “brilliant” concerto successfully cultivated by keyboard virtuosos such as Hummel, Ries, Moscheles and Frédéric Kalkbrenner, who was also the dedicatee of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto op. 11.

Chopin’s two piano concertos follow similar outlines, while also revealing numerous analogies on points of compositional detail. Both are in distinctly melancholic minor keys that later brighten and modulate to the major. In the F minor Concerto this shift to a more optimistic mood is engineered in a particularly effective way, when a signal-like passage on the horn following a chord of F major provides the cue for the rondo finale. Both works open with movements cast in large-scale sonata form structured by means of imposing tutti interludes. Their enormous length – almost seven hundred bars in the case of the E minor Concerto – is counterbalanced by skilful harmonic and thematic variants. Of the First Concerto’s second movement, Chopin himself wrote that it is “a reverie in a beautiful, moonlit spring night”. It is here that the later master of the nocturne first reveals himself in all his glory. In the Larghetto of the Second Piano Concerto, conversely, Chopin claimed to be appealing to the “ideal that I faithfully serve”, by which he meant his love for the singer Konstancja Gładkowska, a love to which he never admitted in person, of course. The movement’s recitative-like middle section in A flat minor is an indication of the extent of his inner turmoil. The final movements are both cast as an envoi and borrow from national dances – a krakowiak in the case of the E minor Concerto, a mazurka in that of the F minor Concerto. And both are intended, of course, as a homage to the composer’s native Poland. Chopin himself gave the first performance of his E minor Concerto in October 1830. It was his final appearance in Warsaw before he left the country in early November. Both politics and his own private destiny dictated that his departure would be for good. “His true homeland is the dream world of poetry”, Heinrich Heine was to say of Chopin a few years later in Paris. He omitted to mention that the most profound poetry often feeds on tormenting homesickness, but he knew this only too well.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Asher Fisch was born in Jerusalem and began his career as a pianist before assisting Daniel Barenboim and becoming a staff conductor at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, later becoming music director of the Vienna Volksoper. From 1995 to the end of the 2008/09 season he was music director at the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv. He has appeared as a guest conductor with many leading opera houses, including the State Operas of Dresden, Munich, Berlin and Vienna, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Opéra Bastille in Paris, La Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Opera Australia, with whom he won great acclaim when he conducted Wagner’s Ring in 2004. The previous summer, the new opera house in Seattle had opened with a new production of Parsifal under his direction. Since then he has conducted a number of other productions in the city. In addition to his work in the opera house, Asher Fisch has also appeared on a regular basis with many international orchestras, including the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Munich Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Toyko. Asher Fisch is making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on an artistic partnership lasting forty-five years. It was as a pianist that Barenboim made his debut with the orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez in June 1964. He first conducted the orchestra five years later. His most recent appearance as conductor with the orchestra was in June 2009; as soloist he last performed Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5 in January 2008. Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 but moved to Israel with his parents ten years later. His first piano teacher was his mother, followed by his father. He was ten when he made his professional debut in Vienna and Rome, and it was not long before he was undertaking international tours. He made his conducting debut in London in 1967 and since then has appeared with leading orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. The most important stages in his career to date have been as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975 to 1989, as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006 and as general music director of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 1992. In the autumn of 2002 the Berlin Staatskapelle appointed him principal conductor for life. Barenboim has additionally appeared as a guest conductor at many international festivals, including the Bayreuth Festival, where he conducted a number of important productions every year from 1981 to 1999. Since the start of the 2007/08 season he has also worked closely with La Scala, Milan, in the role of Maestro Scaligero.

In 1999 Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said set up the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, which every summer brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries in order that the shared experience of communal music-making may encourage dialogue between the different cultures of the Middle East. In 2002 Barenboim and Said received the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for their peace efforts in fostering international understanding. Among other awards that Daniel Barenboim has received are the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.

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