Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Tugan Sokhiev and Boris Berezovsky

21 Jan 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Tugan Sokhiev

Boris Berezovsky, Amihai Grosz

  • Albert Roussel
    Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2 (18 min.)

  • Franz Liszt
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat major (19 min.)

    Boris Berezovsky Piano

  • Isaac Albéniz
    Tango in D (3 min.)

  • Luciano Berio
    Sequenza VI for viola (15 min.)

    Amihai Grosz Viola

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (42 min.)

  • free

    Boris Berezovsky on Liszt’s First Piano Concerto (14 min.)

“If it were possible to cross conductors with one another, then Tugan Sokhiev would perhaps be the perfect blend of Christian Thielemann, Gustavo Dudamel and the Russian school.” This was how one critic described the debut of the young Ossetian with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2010. In this concert from 2012, Philharmoniker audiences once again have the opportunity to experience the multi-faceted qualities of this conductor.

In the Berlin Philharmonie, Boris Berezovsky is at his side – “surely the true successor to the great Russian pianists of the past,” according to Gramophone magazine. In Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the musicians perform a work that moves confidently between raging fury and delicate cantabile. Liszt at the same time achieves one of his major artistic goals: namely, to extend the expression and tone of the piano to the limits of possibility.

The potential of various solo instruments is also fully exploited in Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas. In the case of Sequenza VI, it is the viola, played here by Amihai Grosz, who has been principal violist with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010.

In the two remaining works of the evening on the other hand – Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Albert Roussel’s ballet music Bacchus et Ariane – the whole broad colour spectrum of the orchestral sound is revealed. Roussel proves to be a composer who combines gorgeous impressionistic sophistication with unbridled temperament and certainly deserves a stronger presence in the concert world.


Fantastic Imaginings by Roussel, Liszt, Berio and Rachmaninov

Now and again an alert conductor, a resourceful Dramaturg or sharp-eared musicians succeed in drawing attention back to something that has been swept aside by the tide of music history. How rewarding these rediscoveries can be is shown in the present concert by the works of Roussel and Rachmaninov, music of unexpected inventiveness, of atmospherically concentrated narrative art. They are joined in this enterprising programme by Liszt and Berio. What connects these four pieces is left to be explored by attentive listeners.

Dionysian Love, Bacchanalian Ecstasy

“I wish only to make music”, explained Albert Roussel, while stressing his commitment to a music “which seeks to eliminate all picturesque and descriptive elements and that distances itself from any determination of locale.” That artistic creed may apply to the composer’s four symphonies and chamber music, but some of his other works, befitting their titles, steer the listener’s perception into imaginary spaces: for example, his ballet music Bacchus et Ariane Op. 43. The story’s locale is the Cycladic island of Naxos, where Ariadne has been taken by Theseus after he vanquished the murderous Minotaur. Although Ariadne is in love with Theseus, the gods have other plans for her: it is Bacchus whom they have ordained to wed the seductive beauty. And so Theseus is sent back to Athens and Ariadne into the slumber of forgetting. When she awakens, she sees her beloved’s ship vanish on the horizon and in desperation resolves to hurl herself from the cliff. But she falls gently into the arms of Bacchus, who gives her an ardent kiss, invites her to dance, and summons up nymphs, fauns, satyrs and other fun-loving followers.

Roussel divided the ballet music into two acts and then formed them into orchestral suites. Suite No. 2 begins with a tenderly sensual observation of the sleeping then gradually awakening Ariadne. After Bacchus saves her from falling to her death, Ariadne recalls her earlier encounter with him from the first act, offering an opportunity for musical reminiscence. In a dance of increasing passion, the god calls attention to his adoration of Ariadne, climaxing in the kiss, a sensuous high-point of Roussel’s score. A second intensification follows, beginning with the procession of Bacchic revellers, leading to the pas de deux of the two protagonists, and culminating in the frenzied bacchanal (in 10/8 time!). At the end Ariadne is crowned queen of Naxos by Bacchus.

“A born revolutionary”

Unlike Roussel, Franz Liszt did not suffer from a lack of exposure in contemporary concert life. Also ubiquitous were the diverging judgements on both his works and the man himself. Alfred Einstein, for example, in his 1947 book Music in the Romantic Era, vouchsafed him two simultaneous appraisals: “Liszt was a born revolutionary” but also “a born libertine, a born bohemian.” To hear the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major today is an opportunity to associate oneself with one verdict or the other – or simply to give oneself over to the music free from bias.

What you will experience is a concerto that in its own day went beyond any previous understanding of the genre. Formally it is laid out as a single, continuous movement. Although there are several distinct sections, each flows into the next without a break and there is only a single principal thematic idea: the chromatically tinted motif with which the orchestra opens the work. The piano’s very first responses, however, already point in other directions, though it isn’t clear who has the say here: the narrative set in motion has many layers. Nevertheless, it is given to the muted strings to begin an intimate nocturne, Quasi Adagio, which, continued by the piano with variations, leads to an outburst – energicamente – before the music returns to calmer waters. Dolcissimo is the indication of a passage marked by piano trills lasting 21 bars which, without warning, breaks into a scherzo. In the latter section Liszt gives a solo part to the triangle, which prompted the critic Eduard Hanslick to belittle the work as a “triangle concerto”. Towards the end, unexpectedly, the main theme returns and everything that follows is developed from it and from recollections of the other ideas. It all moves forward with single-minded concentration and conviction to the (admittedly somewhat melodramatic) ending.

A Theatrical Instrumental Work

Liszt’s output, if we leave aside the symphonic poems and vocal works, centred on the piano. He was, after all, their first interpreter (which was also true of his symphonic works after he became Kapellmeister in Weimar in 1848). Composers turning to other instruments, treating the winds, strings, harp, even the accordion as soloists, is a more recent development. Paul Hindemith provided for a dozen instruments with the series of (piano-accompanied) sonatas he composed between 1936 and 1955. Surpassing him, however, was Luciano Berio, who produced no fewer than 14 solo works, all bearing the title Sequenza. The demands Berio makes on his soloists – in level of difficulty and in compositional structure – exceed those of anything created before him.

Berio based Sequenza VI for viola of 1967 on an idea which is abstract yet highly dramatic in its presentation. A series of repeated four-note chords, which gradually move up chromatically as harmonic fields, are contrasted with short melodic phrases. The “singing” passages (which most closely resemble the viola’s normal sound) are placed as stopping points amid the fierce onslaught of tremolo chords. The verse that helpfully serves as the piece’s epigraph is borrowed from the composer’s poet friend Edoardo Sanguineti: “my capricious fury was once your livid calm / my song will be your very slow silence.”

Homesickness Made into Music

Not unlike Liszt’s, Sergei Rachmaninov’s works are dominated by the piano, and he was also their first interpreter. There is a further parallel: in the pros and cons of their critical reception. The Russian musicologist Viktor Belyayev in 1924 characterized Rachmaninov’s situation in music history as “the tragedy of a great soul expressing itself in a language and by methods which were already antiquated”. In our own day, however, Rachmaninov is no longer simply reduced to the status of a “composer of emotions”. There is a new appreciation of the formal strictness and craftsmanship he brought to his works. Bearing witness to this is his last composition of all, the suite of Symphonic Dances Op. 45 he wrote in 1940 for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At no time during the long exile that began in December 1917 did Rachmaninov’s ties to his native Russia weaken. Nostalgia for his homeland in the broadest sense is what he sought to give a shape in his final musical statement. In none of his other works did he so openly refer to his own music, including the principal theme of his First Symphony and the All-Night Vigil of 1915 with its quotations from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The search for his homeland is articulated in self-references and reminiscences of the milieu in which he grew up. Then and now are synthesized in music of surprisingly vivid contrasts, most inventively orchestrated. Rachmaninov designated the three movements “Noon”, “Twilight” and “Midnight”, while “dances”, the word that gives the piece its title, embedded in the atmosphere evoked by these times of day, can probably be best understood if the listener imagines a scenic backdrop to a story of leave-taking.

Helge Jung

Translation: 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. In early December 2011 he played the solo part in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote in concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Tugan Sokhiev has been music director of the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse since the autumn of 2008, having been the orchestra’s principal guest conductor and artistic adviser since 2005. He will take on the position of Music Director of Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with the start of the 2012/13 season. Sokhiev hails from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and studied with Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatory, while also attending the conducting classes of Yuri Temirkanov. In 2000 he won the main prize in the Third International Prokofiev Competition, an award that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the North Ossetia State Philharmonic. Among the international opera companies with whom he has appeared since 2000 are the Welsh National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Houston Grand Opera, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and the Teatro Real in Madrid. During the 2005/06 season Tugan Sokhiev conducted no fewer than four productions at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg: Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Eugene Onegin. He made his debut at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2004 with Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges. Among the orchestras with which he has appeared in the concert hall are the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Munich Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo. Tugan Sokhiev gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2010 conducting works by Hein Holliger, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninov.

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