Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kožená with songs by Dvořák and Mahler

27 Jan 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Magdalena Kožená, Olaf Maninger

  • Maurice Ravel
    Le Tombeau de Couperin (28 min.)

    Klaus Wallendorf Presentation

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Biblical Songs, op. 99 (31 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano

  • Gustav Mahler
    Rückert-Lieder (24 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano

  • Franz Schubert
    Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D 759 “Unfinished” (31 min.)

  • Luciano Berio
    Ritorno degli snovidenia for cello and 30 instruments (23 min.)

    Olaf Maninger Violoncello, Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Maurice Ravel
    Shéhérazade, song cycle after Tristan Klingsor (21 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano

  • free

    Magdalena Kožená and Sir Simon Rattle in conversation and in rehearsal (8 min.)

Delicate melancholy in various forms characterises this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. In addition to orchestral works by Ravel and Schubert, this concert includes late songs by Dvořák and Mahler. The soloist is the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, who has been married to Simon Rattle since 2008. 

The songs in the programme come from composers who are usually associated with more extrovert sonorities, but who, in this case, find the greatest intensity of expression through concentration and restraint. Thus, the driving force in Antonín Dvořák’s Biblical Songs is not so much the folkloric verve of earlier vocal works as the intimate immersion in the psalm texts which underlie the songs. Also in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, we are confronted not by the creator of gigantic symphonies, but by the sensitive philosopher, who – as it says in one of the songs – “is lost to the world.”

The concert opens with Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which was written in memory of the composer’s fallen war comrades. As the title suggests, the work also pays homage to François Couperin (1668–1733), explaining the interesting mixture of mourning with Baroque grace. Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony stands in contrast to such controlled expression. The shrouded mood portrayed in the opening bars soon turns into unbridled despair. While there are moments of rebellion and lightening of mood, the world-weariness of this music is all the more intense when set against this background.

Some special features are worth noting regarding this concert: First, that the live broadcast on 27 January 2012 was not only shown in the Digital Concert Hall, but also in more than 100 cinemas all over Europe. For the cinema relay, the services of the orchestra’s horn player Klaus Wallendorf were secured to present the concert live from behind the scenes. His informative and humorous remarks are also included in this recording. As an added extra, there are two bonuses by Luciano Berio and Maurice Ravel, recorded at concerts on 25 and 26 January, which were performed as part of a change of programme. The concert opened with Berio’s Ritorno degli snovidenia (“The return of dreams”) for solo cello and chamber orchestra – a musical treatment of the destruction of revolutionary ideals during Stalinism. The solo part, composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, is played in our recording by Olaf Maninger, principal cellist of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He is accompanied by students of the Orchester-Akademie of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The second item is Ravel’s magical, exotic song cycle Shéhérazade, sung by Magdalena Kožená.

Gateways to the “Other World”

Works by Ravel, Dvořák, Mahler and Schubert

It was Gustav Mahler’s firm conviction that one could philosophize eloquently using notes – in the “language” of music – with far greater depth and substance than in the language of words. “As for me,” he insisted, “I know that so long as I can sum up my experience in words, I would never write any music about it. My need to express myself symphonically begins where the obscure perceptions hold sway, at the gate that leads into the ‘other world’.”

Maurice Ravel’s conception of music was by no means as ideologically charged, but in his almost fanatical perfectionism he yielded nothing to Mahler, some 15 years his senior. His skill at orchestration – his capacity for exploiting the instruments’ colour palettes to the limits – was uncanny, as was his knack for devising compositional structures for his works that made possible brilliant dramatic effects. Ravel’s art was sustained by his delight in the artificial detail, in making bold points, concocting musical masquerades and precisely calculated structures.

Ravel’s invention and compositional creativity were repeatedly stimulated by already existing music and traditional historical models. He arranged works by other composers and, even more often, treated his own scores to new instrumentation. In 1914 he told a friend of his plans for a French suite, but “no, it isn’t what you think: La Marseillaise will not be in it, but it will have a forlane and a gigue; no tango, however.” The product of his announced compositional undertaking was his suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, in which Ravel was taking up a genre whose origins went back to the 16th century: the instrumental tombeau as homage to a famous artist or ruler.

Past and present flow into one another

Ravel’s choice of title suggests a musical commemoration of the great Baroque master François Couperin, but, as he revealed, the focus of his interest was actually the whole of 18th-century French music. The work takes on a further dimension in that the movements of his Tombeau were all dedicated by Ravel to friends who had fallen in World War I, and in fact the work has its feet in both centuries. Ravel took old dances and forms and “translated” them into his own time. Past and present seem to flow into one another in this music. Concealed beneath the surface, the harmonies and sonorities of modernism occupy the terrain of distant music history.

Antonín Dvořák was, in the truest sense of the word, also exploring distant terrain when at the height of his career he responded to the call of the “new world”, acclaimed as the great white hope for creating a national American art-music style. In 1894, during his second year as director of the National Conservatory in New York, he composed his Biblical Songs for voice and piano, regarding them as his finest achievement to date in this form. Of that there can be no doubt. Dvořák would surely have concurred with his younger colleague Gustav Mahler when he insisted that a song melody must always proceed from the text and that the intertwining of words and notes must be as close as that of “body and soul”.

Unlike his earlier large sacred works, settings of Latin texts, his ten Biblical Songs are based on Czech translations of verses from the Psalms. They inspired him in this, his final song cycle, to deeply felt music of direct imagery and expression. A matter of months after completing them, Dvořák orchestrated the first five songs and conducted them in Prague at the Rudolfinum with the Czech Philharmonic. The remaining five songs were scored by the conductor Vilém Zemánek, who directed the premiere of all ten songs with orchestra in 1914.

Lyrical and introverted

The orchestral versions of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs date from the golden age of a genre that was only “invented” in the middle of the 19th century. Strictly speaking, this phenomenon represented a somewhat paradoxical reversal of relationship, because, of all genres, the art-song – an intimate musical form that lives from nuance and the slightest stirring of emotions – was now opened up to large concert halls and “mass” audiences. A leading contributor to the new genre was Gustav Mahler, whose lieder were always marked by a close connection to the orchestra and symphonic composition. Then in 1901/02, Mahler opened a new chapter in his song writing with the Five Lieder on poems by Friedrich Rückert. Their markedly lyrical, introverted character, their subtle chamber-musical invention, their reduced orchestral forces, and their “tone” of inwardness and contemplation are all signs of Mahler’s intention to penetrate the innermost layers of the sung word with the greatest possible economy of means. Whereas he had previously conceived his lieder and symphonies as own self-contained “worlds”, reflecting the real world with all its disruptions and contradictions, its beauties and its cruelties, its absurdities and unchanging mechanisms, the Rückert Lieder reverse the viewing direction and feel their way to self-discovery and the inner world. As Mahler claimed: “It’s the feeling that rises to our lips but does not pass them” and “It is my very self”.

Franz Schubert and his circle cultivated a completely different view of music. For him it was neither a reflection of the world nor a window to introspection. Instead that “lovely art” offered him as a Romantic artist a place of refuge; it was the longed-for, dreamt-of antithesis to “a miserable reality, which I endeavour to beautify as far as possible by my imagination (thank God!)”. Music, with its “magic tones”, Schubert noted in his diary with reference to Mozart, “shows us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance”.

Beautiful, idyllic and dreamlike

It is as though this fundamental conflict between reality and the world of art, one that Romantic musicians experienced more oppressively than any generation before them, was incorporated by Schubert into the heart of his Seventh Symphony, the “Unfinished”. Whole worlds of expression clash in this epitome of the symphonic fragment. Moments of indescribable beauty, idyllic and dreamlike, are confronted with the most violent outbursts and releases of tension. The symphony’s gloomy opening theme in the low strings already portends the craggy, fissured developments to come – a musical migration between disconnected worlds. That Schubert composed both completed movements in ¾ time, with its suggestions of dance, only intensifies the internal contrasts.

In its “fragmentary perfection”, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony became a symbol, a sign of the 19th century’s search for the symphony after Beethoven. Schubert struck out on his own path to the “grand symphony”, and nowhere more than in his Seventh. Never before was a contribution to this genre so concentrated on instrumental song, on “inner singing”. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick spoke of a “stream of melody” – indeed a symphonic “song without words” that never shakes off its fragility and vulnerability to the forces prevailing in the “Unfinished”.

Torsten Blaich

Translation: Richard Evidon

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and Lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman, Malcolm Martineau and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. Since September 2003 she has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in a Late Night concert in October 2011 with Manuel de Falla’s Psyché and Folk Songs by Luciano Berio, conducted by Simon Rattle.


Deutsche GrammophonMagdalena Kožená appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

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