Nicola Luisotti conducts Poulenc’s Gloria and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony

23 Dec 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Nicola Luisotti

Emmanuel Pahud, Leah Crocetto, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Claude Debussy
    Syrinx for solo flute (5 min.)

    Emmanuel Pahud Flute

  • Francis Poulenc
    Gloria for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra (31 min.)

    Leah Crocetto Soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Robin Gritton Chorus Master

  • Luciano Berio
    Sequenza I for flute (8 min.)

    Emmanuel Pahud Flute

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, op. 100 (51 min.)

  • free

    Nicola Luisotti in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (16 min.)

Composing works which were both modern and understandable – that was the supreme discipline for not just a few composers of the 20th century. Nicola Luisotti, music director of San Francisco Opera, presents works which realise this concept most beautifully with the Berliner Philharmoniker: the Gloria by Francis Poulenc and Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The concert also includes works for solo flute by Claude Debussy and Luciano Berio.

Francis Poulenc was one of the most important figures of the Les six, a group who committed themselves to rectilinear, light and intellectually stimulating music, in which sounds from everyday life were also to find a place. This ideal is also evident in Poulenc’s Gloria. Meditative prayer here goes hand in hand with an exuberant joy in the glory of God. As a result, this music makes the judgment of a contemporary critic quite plausible, describing Poulenc as “half monk, half thug”.

Sergei Prokofiev considered it a prerequisite of great music that it be “simple and comprehensible, without being repetitive or trivial”. The Fifth Symphony can be seen as a culmination of this idea, and is one of Prokofiev’s most frequently performed works. It is catchy, raw and distinctive – while below the surface, extremely sophisticated.

The two flute pieces in the programme have a complex structure on the one hand and, on the other hand, convey the impression of spontaneous improvisation. The soloist is the Philharmoniker’s principal flute Emmanuel Pahud, described by the BBC as “one of the world’s leading flautists, and an exceptionally charismatic ambassador for his instrument.”

Flute Playing and “New Simplicity”

Music for God, the gods and fortunate humans

Audiences at the Berliner Philharmoniker’s concerts generally expect to be able to revel in the full rich sound of the whole orchestra. Yet an ensemble like this one is made up of a variety of individuals, and the Berliner Philharmoniker can rightly claim that each and every one of its members is a virtuoso and master of his or her own instrument. Today’s programme, therefore, ventures a change of perspective – in cinematic terms, zooming in from a long shot to the close-up of a single musician. That individual is the flautist Emmanuel Pahud, who opens both halves of the concert with a solo work for his instrument. This theatrical gesture, which may seem boldly unconventional, actually harks back to a programming pattern that prevailed well into the 20th century: the coupling of dissimilar genres and instrumental formations on the same evening.

Looking back to an example from 1913, which originated when the poet, translator and art critic Gabriel Mourey asked his friend Claude Debussy for incidental music to his three-act verse drama Psyché: Debussy agreed but then delivered only a short piece for solo flute, to be played at the beginning of the third act. In this scene, nymphs dance to the pipes of the shepherd-god Pan, concealed in a grotto. With its convoluted arabesques, seeming metrical freedom and fleeting, dissolving figuration, it strongly recalls the flute solo from the orchestral work Debussy composed 20 years earlier, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

In its originally intended theatrical context, however, the piece called La Flûte de Pan received only a single performance: on 1 December 1913 in a private setting with the flautist Louis Fleury. But in his own concerts, Fleury regularly played the miniature dedicated to him by Debussy.Because he also possessed the autograph, which he guarded like a hawk and reserved for his own exclusive use, La Flûte de Pan was not published until 1927, a year after the flautist’s death. In order to avoid confusion with the song by that same name in Debussy’s cycle Chansons de Bilitis, the publishers Jobert decided on the title Syrinx, the Greek name for panpipes.

Not for an empty head

“I’ve every respect for virtuosity,” confided the Italian composer Luciano Berio, “even if that word can give rise to scornful sniggers, and may even conjure up the image of an elegant and rather diaphanous creature with agile fingers and an empty head.” In the course of 44 years, Berio created his series of Sequenzas, 14 solo pieces for various instruments, ranging from accordion to cello, from guitar to trombone. The great project was launched in 1958 with Sequenza Ifor solo flute.

The flute, a melody instrument designed for monophony, a single line, presented Berio with the paradoxical assignment of spelling out a harmonic progression and thus evoking the impression of polyphony. He realized this idea through a constant process of transformation: structures become more or less concentrated, new figures succeed one another, and the tonal colours, modes of articulation and instrumental character are similarly subjected to permanent change. Nonetheless, the texture always remains specifically tailored to the capabilities of the flute. “In all my Sequenzas,” declared Berio, “I’ve never tried to change the genetic inheritance of the instrument, nor sought to use it ‘against’ its own nature.”

In August 1936, the 37-year-old Francis Poulenc experienced a Damascene conversion, rediscovering his Catholic faith. During his summer holiday in the Massif Central, he received the news that his friend and colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud had been killed in a car accident in Hungary. The stunned Poulenc visited the chapel of the Black Virgin in the abbey church of Rocamadour. There he procured a booklet of prayers recited by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela: the Litanies à la Vierge noire. That same evening he sat down and wrote a work for women’s chorus and organ based on some of these texts. It was the beginning of an imposing series of sacred compositions that would henceforth form a main emphasis of his work.

Contemplative and spiritual

Poulenc’s most popular sacred piece is probably the Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra. From its inception intending it for the concert hall, not the church or divine service, he limited himself to a cornerstone of the liturgy, setting the Gloria in six, cantata-like movements. Compositionally, too, Poulenc went his own way – most obviously in the final “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, traditionally a fugue but here set homophonically, giving way to a return of the contemplative soprano solo, and then recapitulating the words “miserere nobis” (“have mercy upon us”). In this finale, Poulenc brings back motivic material from the opening movement, and elsewhere too he fashions cross-references between pairs of movements: a high-spirited, almost secular atmosphere connects the “Laudamus te” (No. 2) with the “Domine Fili unigenite” (No. 4), while the two “Domine Deus” movements (Nos. 3 and 5) are marked by spiritual intimacy and slow tempi.

1936, the year in which Poulenc rediscovered his Catholic faith, also represented a turning point for his older Russian colleague Sergei Prokofiev. In May he returned with his family to his homeland, which he had left after the October Revolution. The nearly two decades that Prokofiev had spent in the USA, Germany and France caused increasing disillusionment: “Foreign air doesn’t agree with my inspiration”, he realized, “because I’m a Russian and the most unwholesome thing for a person like me is to live in exile. I have to go back. I have to settle back into the atmosphere of my native land.”

The Homecomer

If Prokofiev was reckless in believing he could find the Promised Land in, of all places, Stalin’s Soviet Union, he was punished harshly for his naïveté. The Communist party’s cultural bureaucrats soon came to regard him along with Shostakovich as the “most suspect” composers, accusing him of writing music that was decadent, “formalistic” and “alien to the people”, and in 1948 they banned some of his works. In spite of that, Prokofiev found his way to a different aesthetic in his new-old homeland, one that seemed more comfortable. No work provides more impressive evidence of this stylistic development than the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major Op. 100, composed in summer and autumn of 1944.

In this symphony Prokofiev realizes the concept he referred to as a “new simplicity”: melodically more straightforward, accessible and powerful, with greater formal clarity and orchestral brilliance, but also with a tendency to gestures of monumentality and pathos. He sought to strike up “a song of the free and happy people”, Prokofiev once said, and, if one so chooses, this idea can already be associated with the opening movement’s main theme. The second movement is a highly virtuosic scherzo with grotesque features, whose whimsical figures and rhythms increasingly turn towards the diabolical, into a danse macabre. A similar transformation of character informs the Adagio when the lyrical nature of the opening bars, with its striding movement, turns into a funeral march in the middle of the movement, before the finale brings the triumph of light over darkness and a mood of boisterous jubilation.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Richard Evidon

Emmanuel Pahud, born in Geneva, received his first flute lessons in Rome when he was six years old. He later studied in Brussels, then in Paris under Michel Debost and also in Basel under Aurèle Nicolet. Pahud has been the winner of many important international competitions. He gained his orchestral experience as principal flautist with the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic before coming to the Berliner Philharmoniker as principal flautist in 1993. After a period teaching at the Geneva Conservatoire, Emmanuel Pahud returned to the Philharmoniker in 2002. As a soloist he has performed with the world’s leading orchestras – he was heard most recently with the Berliner Philharmoniker performing ...explosante-fixe … by Pierre Boulez in September 2010 – as well as a performer of chamber music in various duos and larger chamber ensembles. Emmanuel Pahud has won major prizes for his many recordings and was awarded the “Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Minister of Culture in June 2009.

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 in October this year in three concerts with Beethoven’s C major Mass, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Leah Crocetto studied acting and singing at the Siena Heights University in Adrian (Michigan) and at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. The former student of the Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists Program and the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program had the opportunity to represent the U.S. in this year’s BBC Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff. She is also a winner of major singing competitions such as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2010, the People’s Choice 2010 and the José Iturbi International Music Competition 2009. As a member of the Adler Fellowship Program of San Francisco Opera, Leah Crocetto sang in productions of the operas Aida, Il trittico and Cyrano de Bergerac. In the 2009/2010 season, she performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Last season, Leah Crocetto was to be heard in Europe for the first time, singing the role of Leonora (Il trovatore) at the Opéra National de Bordeaux. With these concerts, she makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Nicola Luisotti, born in Tuscany, has made a name for himself mainly as a conductor of 19th century Italian opera. The artist, who was awarded the “Premio Puccini” by the Fondazione Festival Pucciniano di Torre del Lago in 2010, has been music director of San Francisco Opera since autumn 2009 and is principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Nicola Luisotti studied piano, composition, trumpet and singing in Lucca; later he was a repetiteur and assistant conductor to Riccardo Muti and Lorin Maazel at La Scala in Milan. His debut as a conductor, acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, was with Verdi’s Stiffelio in Trieste in December 2000. A further success was with a new production of Il trovatore in Stuttgart in 2002. Nicola Luisotti now receives invitations from the most prestigious opera houses around the world such as the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he gave his debut with Tosca in 2006. He also conducts renowned orchestras, including the San Francisco and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras, the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo, the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in Turin. Nicola Luisotti conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in December 2007 in concerts of Antonín Dvořák’s Requiem.

EMIEmmanuel Pahud appears by courtesy  of EMI Classics.

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