Donald Runnicles conducts works by Strauss and Elgar

10 Dec 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Donald Runnicles

Amihai Grosz, Ludwig Quandt

  • Richard Strauss
    Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, op. 35 (47 min.)

    Amihai Grosz Viola, Ludwig Quandt Cello

  • Edward Elgar
    Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, op. 55 (54 min.)

  • free

    Ludwig Quandt in conversation with Götz Teutsch (14 min.)

Both works in this concert with Donald Runnicles represent the brilliance of the art of orchestration at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century – and yet they could be hardly more contrasting in terms of expression and attitude. For while Edward Elgar’s First Symphony impresses with its nobility and sensitivity, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote is, not least, a biting satire.

Don Quixote’s skewed perception of the world, the clash of his dreams and an incomprehensible reality give Strauss the opportunity for wonderfully ironic effects – but also to create a differentiated characterization of the tragicomic hero. Strauss’s Don Quixote is represented by a solo cello, played here by Ludwig Quandt, principal cellist with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1993. Amihai Grosz, principal violist with the orchestra since 2010, gives voice to Sancho Panza.

As in Don Quixote, in Elgar’s First Symphony we experience a wide range of expression: triumphant grandeur, delicacy, and even the hymn-like rapture which helped Elgar’s march Pomp and Circumstance to world fame. Elgar’s personality shines through again and again as a unifying element – the sensitive gentleman who with this symphony, wanted to send a message of “great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” The premiere, given in Manchester, was conducted by Hans Richter, who was also a regular guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker. For him, the symphony represented “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.”

Profoundly Human

Symphonic masterworks by Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar

In April 1897, Richard Strauss jotted down in his diary: “Symphonic poem Hero and World begins to take shape; and with it, Don Quixote as satyr-play.” Clearly the two tone poems Ein Heldenleben Op. 40 and Don Quixote Op. 35 were not only written in parallel but were intended to form a dramaturgical unit. Both protagonists do battle – with themselves and with the world.

The (anti-)hero in Opus 35 is from the Spanish poet Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, published in 1605. Strauss’s symphonic poem is in variation form but also contains obvious elements of a sinfonia concertante for cello, viola and orchestra. The cello represents the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” while themes (or motifs) on the tenor tuba, solo viola and bass clarinet portray his squire Sancho Panza. The “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” convey an inspired musical depiction of the tragicomic fortunes of the Spanish would-be knight and his companion.

An Anti-hero

The work begins with a long prologue (Introduction and Theme) in which we find Don Quixote, an impoverished landed aristocrat, absorbed in reading stories of knight-errantry, wavering between euphoria and confusion. When he finally becomes completely disoriented, it seems to him “fitting and necessary”, as we read in Cervantes, “in order to win a greater amount of honour for himself and serve his country at the same time, to become a knight-errant and roam the world on horseback, in a suit of armour; he would go in quest of adventures, by way of putting into practice all that he had read in his books.” With his servant Sancho Panza, he ventures forth to “right every manner of wrong”.

Strauss has selected an episode from the novel for each of the ensuing variations. First comes the “Adventure of the Windmills” (Variation I), in which Don Quixote charges what he believes to be giants, then the “Battle of the Sheep”, in which he mistakes a herd for the enemy army of the Mussulman emperor Alifanfaron (Variation II). Strauss marvellously depicts the bleating of the attacked herd with flutter-tonguing muted brass and tremolo strings. Next is an extended dialogue between the fantasizing knight and his squire, who is more in touch with reality (Variation III). Quixote then goes after – and ends up with a good thrashing from – what he perceives as a band of rogues, in fact a procession of chanting penitents (Variation IV). During his night vigil, Quixote muses on his beloved Dulcinea, whom he is prepared to defend until death (Variation V). The reality is sobering: Sancho Panza attempts to pass off a country wench as Quixote’s true love (Variation VI). With Sancho, Quixote sits blindfolded on a “magic” wooden horse and imagines himself flying through the air. Strauss employs a wind machine to represent his fantasy, though timpani and basses clearly indicate that the knight never leaves the ground (Variation VII). Drifting downstream in a boat towards a mill that Quixote imagines to be a fortress, knight and squire inevitably capsize in the mill-race (Variation VIII) and are tossed into the water. Don Quixote next falls upon two evil “magicians”, in fact harmless monks riding mules (Variation IX). The climax of his heroic deeds comes in the form of combat with the Knight of the White Moon (actually a friend trying to bring him to his senses), after which the defeated Quixote returns wearily home (Variation X). The foolish, naïve, but above all intensely human Don Quixote, now restored to sanity and resigned, dies peacefully in his bed (Finale).

A Master of Instrumentation

The 34-year-old composer here proved himself a master of instrumentation. In spite of his immense orchestral forces, Strauss has filled Don Quixote with a wide range of soloistic, even chamber-musical effects, always giving precedence to the poetic source and avoiding superfluous massive tuttis. The individual variations are not transformations of a musical theme (which is instead constantly being set in a new instrumental context) but rather depictions of the hero’s situation at any given time. As Strauss summed it up in his diary: “Don Quixote, the battle of one theme against a nullity.”

Edward Elgar, born in 1857 near Worcester to a Protestant music dealer father and a Catholic mother, was not only the leading musical figure in Britain during the early decades of the 20th century. He also became the first composer from his homeland to win fame on the Continent: for the Enigma Variations (1899) and his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (1900), both performed in Germany as early as 1901. In 1902 Richard Strauss hailed him as “Meister Elgar, the first English progressivist”. In the winter months of 1907-08, the 50-year-old Elgar completed his First Symphony Op. 55, which had its premiere on 3 December 1908 in Manchester under the baton of its dedicatee, Hans Richter. The great German conductor was euphoric as he introduced the new work to Manchester’s renowned Hallé Orchestra and, a few days later, the London Symphony Orchestra, to whom he exclaimed: “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.” Audiences and players were no less enthusiastic: in Manchester after the slow movement, Elgar was called up to the platform to acknowledge a standing ovation from the orchestra and members of the audience. His publisher friend August Jaeger from Novello compared the slow movement with those of Beethoven, and Richter too was of the opinion that it represented “a real Adagio, such as Beethoven would have written”. This is unquestionably the beating heart of the symphony.

Bold harmonic turns, vivid rhythms

With his First Symphony Elgar sought to compose an “abstract work”. Or did he? To the composer Walford Davies, he wrote: “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” With its enormous variety of mood, elegance of musical expression, rich spectrum of colours and enchanting orchestral sonorities, the symphony immediately captivates listeners. It is a work of bold harmonic turns, vivid and varied rhythms and a wide range of dynamics.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction: a marchlike theme that becomes a motto appearing repeatedly in varied forms throughout the work. The opening movement’s main section is marked by extreme outbursts and two competing themes, one in the home key of A flat major, the other in distant D minor. The second Allegro is an agitated symphonic scherzo; the contrasting Trio section is gentle and pastoral. Without a break we are led into the Adagio, deeply moving music of sustained, dignified intensity that represents the climax of the symphony. In the restless finale, the material of earlier movements is revisited before the final peroration, in which the motto finally seems to prevail. Elgar’s wife Alice heard the ending of the symphony as a triumphant victory for human rights.

Patrick Kast/Richard Evidon

Amihai Grosz began his viola studies at the age of twelve, initially with David Chen at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, later continuing with Tabea Zimmermann in Berlin at the Academy of Music “Hanns Eisler” and with Haim Taub at the Keshet Eilon Music Center in Israel. In September 2010 he was appointed first principal viola of the Berliner Philharmoniker. As a concert soloist he has already appeared with various renowned orchestras like the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel and the Munich Chamber Orchestras and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Amihai Grosz is a founding member of the Jerusalem String Quartet. His chamber music partners include Mitsuko Uchida, Yefim Bronfman, Tabea Zimmermann, Guy Braunstein, Emmanuel Pahud, Steven Isserlis as well as the Guarneri and the Vermeer Quartets.

Ludwig Quandt was born into a family of professional musicians and began to play the cello when he was six. He later studied with Arthur Troester at the Lübeck Academy of Music where he earned his diploma in 1985 and passed his graduate exam with distinction in 1987. During and following his studies he attended masterclasses with Boris Pergamenschikow, Zara Nelsova, Maurice Gendron, Wolfgang Boettcher and Siegfried Palm. Among the competitions and prizes that he has won are the ARD Competition in Munich and the Premio Stradivari in Cremona. He twice took part in the Federal Republic’s Concerts for Young Artists. He joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and has been the orchestra’s principal cellist since 1993. Alongside his orchestral work he also performs all over the world as a soloist and a chamber recitalist, not least as a member of various Philharmonic ensembles, including the 12 Cellists, the Philharmonic Stradivari Soloists and the Berlin Philharmonic Capriccio.

Donald Runnicles has been General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since August 2009 and Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since September 2009. He is also Music Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival and Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Donald Runnicles was born in Scotland and educated in London and Cambridge. After first engagements at the theatres of Mannheim, Hanover and Freiburg, he became Music Director and Principal Conductor of the San Francisco Opera in 1992, a post he held until 2009. Since 1991 he works each year at the Vienna State Opera and has also led productions in the opera houses of Munich, Hamburg and Berlin, Milan, Paris and Zurich, and at festivals such as in Salzburg, Bayreuth and Glyndebourne. In concert, he is a frequent guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the North German Radio Orchestra, Hamburg (NDR), and Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Munich, as well as the Orchestre de Paris, the Staatskapelle Dresden and leading U.S. orchestras. He appears annually in Great Britain at both the BBC London Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. Since his debut in November 2003 with Britten’s War Requiem Donald Runnicles has returned regularly as guest conductor to the Berliner Philharmoniker. His last performance with the orchestra was in December 2009, when he conducted works by Sebastian Currier and Johannes Brahms. Among his awards are the Order of the British Empire (2004) and an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

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