Christian Thielemann conducts Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”

11 Mar 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Jane Archibald

  • Claude Debussy
    Nocturnes (28 min.)

    RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Hans-Christoph Rademann Chorus Master

  • Olivier Messiaen
    Poèmes pour Mi (21 min.)

    Jane Archibald Soprano

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74 “Pathétique” (54 min.)

  • free

    Christian Thielemann on passion and nobility in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (13 min.)

Whether he is performing Wagner in Bayreuth or Bruckner with the world’s major orchestras, Christian Thielemann’s interpretations of late German Romanticism always receive high praise from the critics. All the more interesting then is this concert which sheds light on this same period from a Russian perspective: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s stirring Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique.

Tchaikovsky himself declared the symphony to be the “keystone of his whole creative works”; while composing it, he was repeatedly reduced to tears. The idea of the Pathétique as Tchaikovsky’s highly emotional legacy is still given credence by the fact that he died nine days after the premiere. Contemporaries report, however, that the composer worked on the piece no differently than on any other, and turned immediately after its completion to other projects. And in fact, it probably needs a minimum of serenity in order to create such a soulful, but also ingeniously constructed work in which there is, for example, a waltz in the complicated 5/4 time.

The way in which music developed after Tchaikovsky’s death can be seen in Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes, which were completed shortly afterwards. Although they have the subtitle “symphonic triptych”, they leave the traditional symphony far behind, and in their shimmering Impressionistic pictures, they point more in the direction of the new genre of the tone poem. With his intensive tonal colours, Debussy inspired countless subsequent French composers, including Olivier Messiaen. His song cycle Poèmes pour Mi, dedicated to Messiaen’s first wife, is a brilliant profession of faith and of the sacrament of marriage – and as such stands in striking contrast to the resignation and rebelliousness of the Pathétique.

The Psyche – Nature – God

Orchestral Works by Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Messiaen

Petrushka and the Rich Widow

The connections between French and Russian music are manifold: think of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or the fact that many French composers wrote for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Connecting Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Claude Debussy, however, requires a bit of imagination. The two were acquainted in fact, at least indirectly: the young Debussy got to know Nadezhda von Meck, whose husband had once set Russia’s trains rolling. As his widow, she let the rubles roll, primarily in the direction of her adored Tchaikovsky. M. “de Bussy” was Mme von Meck’s summer travel companion from 1880 to 1882. He tutored her daughter and was the pianist of her resident piano trio. She called her younger protégé “Petrushka” and sent her older protégé Tchaikovsky all of Debussy’s compositions, which the Russian master found “lovely, but much too short”.

An uncomfortable end

Not long after the widow, for reasons unknown, turned off the funding tap, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed his last symphony, the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”. The great surges of emotion in the work are as hard to explain as Tchaikovsky’s sudden death in October 1893. Perhaps the break with his friend of so many years was a trigger for the crisis – it would seem impossible to forget a relationship of that nature from one day to the next. In any event, the composer died just days after the première of the “Pathétique”. Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to his beloved nephew Vladimir (“Bob”) Davidov and announced the work as a programme symphony, “but its programme will remain a mystery to everyone ... This programme is imbued with subjectivity ... While composing it in my thoughts, I often wept a great deal”. The critic Nikolay Kashkin wrote in 1896, however, that while many believed they heard in this symphony “the expression of a premonition of death ... In my last meeting with Tchaikovsky there was not the slightest indication of anything which could have implied that.”

In fact Tchaikovsky seems to have turned more positively towards life in his last year: he travelled across Europe for concerts and honours, and was gratified by his progress on the Sixth, its profound melancholy notwithstanding – stark contrasts that mark even the final Adagio lamentoso with its vacillation between defiance and resignation. An essential feature of this symphony is the alienation of familiar types. The first movement with its peaceful B major ending suggests a finale, which one then waits for in vain through the rest of the work. The second movement transforms the waltz into a rakish dance in 5/4: two crotchets (quarter notes) are inserted into each bar of triple time, creating an effect the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick found “unsettling” and “uncomfortable”.

Those terms could also be applied to the scherzo, opening with bustling activity that delays the emergence of a cohesive theme and ending on a note of triumph that elicits an untimely ovation from the audience. The main idea of the finale, introduced immediately by the strings, sounds utterly different from the way it is notated: to the ear, chords descending in parallel; on the page, lines crossing up and down. The parts are literally wedged into one another, making it impossible to distinguish melody and accompaniment. The disparate qualities of this work are also seen in the fissured dynamics, ranging from ffff in the first movement to a passage in the concluding Adagio lamentoso in which the low brass must sustain a stepwise diminuendo from mp to ppppp.

A study in grey

In 1893, the year Tchaikovsky produced his final masterpiece, Claude Debussy conceived a work that would occupy him for a decade: he sought to compose “three scenes of night and dusk”, or, as he put it, “an experiment in the different combinations that can be obtained from one colour – what a study in grey would be in painting”. Although the symphony as a genre could still accommodate Tchaikovsky’s visions, for Debussy it existed solely as a challenge to produce further large orchestral compositions. At most, the genre was alluded to only obliquely: he called the Trois Nocturnes a “symphonic triptych”.

Although his preferences were international, Debussy could have found the impressionist painters with whose works his music would soon be associated living in Paris at that time: for example, the American-born James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who referred to many of his paintings that were exhibited in London in the 1870s as “nocturnes”. It was to them, rather than to Chopin’s piano pieces by that name, that Debussy was referring when he wrote: “It is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturno, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. Nuages renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. Fêtes gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light ... Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”

Bright string sounds

“The most colourful of them all was Debussy. But he didn’t have the same colours as I do; he loved delicate colours, the colours of the setting sun, of nightfall, of reflections in the water, the colours of the sea, not the strong colours. I love the strong colours as well, for example strong red, strong violet. Something that has greatly influenced me in my music are cathedral windows.” Thus in 1979 did Olivier Messiaen reveal the impulses that had caused him to become a musician: encounters with Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande and with the windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. For three decades Messiaen appeared together almost symbiotically with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, making it easy to forget that before her he was married to another woman, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. She too played an important role in his work as muse and interpreter, but she died in 1959 after a long, debilitating illness. Messiaen called her “Mi”, after the Italian syllable for the note “e”, analogous to the highest violin string. Poèmes pour Mi, the song cycle in nine parts, divided into two books, that he composed in 1936 on his own texts and orchestrated in 1937, is dedicated to her.

The cycle is framed by two prayers, the Action de grâces (Thanksgiving) and the Prière exaucée (Fulfilled Prayer). The thanksgiving prayer presents the tritone as leading interval as well as – in the expansive “Alleluia” – the key of F sharp major. In this harmonically free work the latter serves as a stylistic device, representing the tonality of purest (holy) water, perfumed by Messiaen’s instrumentation with garlands of trills and ethereal 4th harmonics. The largely peaceful flow of these songs is broken by the fourth piece, which ends the first volume with cries of despair, the most earthly moment in the cycle. Calm returns with the mysticism of the fifth song’s message – the wife is the extension of the husband as the Church is of Christ – which stands at the heart of the work and is given such expressive markings as “extrêmement lent”, “pianissimo” und “mystérieux”.

Less than half a century separates the widely divergent works on this programme, whose trajectory – atypical of the period – is one of gradual brightening: from Tchaikovsky’s hopeless despair by way of Debussy’s objectifying observation of nature to Messiaen’s radiant profession of faith.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Jane Archibald was born in Canada and studied at the Wilfrid Laurier University, the Orford Arts Centre and the Tanglewood Music Center. She made her United States debut in 2003 as Poppea in Handel’s Agrippina at the Chicago Opera Theater and two years later made her European debut as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail within the framework of the Antibes and Lacoste Summer Festivals. Her readiness to take over at the last minute from an ailing colleague and perform the part of Costanza in a staged production of Vivaldi’s Griselda with the Ensemble Matheus in Spain proved little short of a sensation. Jane Archibald was a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble from 2006 until 2009 performing roles such as the Queen of Night in Die Zauberflöte, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Musetta in La Bohème and the Italian Singer in Capriccio. Her repertory also includes the title roles in Lakmé, Alcina and Ibert’s Angélique as well as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Guest appearances have taken her to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Milan’s La Scala, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Metropolitan Opera in New York and San Francisco Opera. Jane Archibald is equally successful as a concert singer; she made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2009 as Angelica in two concertante performances of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The RIAS Chamber Choir was founded in 1948 and was the first professional concert choir to apply the findings of historically informed performance practice to early music. The choir’s earliest recordings were intended to meet RIAS’s needs in Berlin and as such were largely restricted to the radio. Today, by contrast, the RIAS Chamber Choir works as a concert choir with many international commitments. Throughout its history, it has championed the music of the present day and has given the first performances of many works written specially for it by composers of the eminence of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Hans Werner Henze. Former music directors include Herbert Froitzheim, Günther Arndt and Uwe Gronostay, all of whom turned the RIAS Chamber Choir into an internationally acclaimed ensemble, a position consolidated by Marcus Creed, who led the choir from 1987 to 2001 and who introduced it to orchestras such as Concerto Köln, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Creed’s successor, Daniel Reuss, focused on 20th-century classics, while Hans-Christoph Rademann, who has been the choir’s principal conductor since 2007, has extended the Classical and Romantic repertory, promoting for example the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka and his circle. The RIAS Chamber Choir has worked closely with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1949. Their last joint undertaking was in April 2011, when they performed music by Purcell and Mahler under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Christian Thielemann, designated principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden from autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 2013, has been general music director of the Munich Philharmonic since the start of the 2004/05 season. He previously held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from the autumn of 1997 to the summer of 2004. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. Since then he has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he has concentrated increasingly on a relatively small number of opera houses, most notably the Vienna State Opera and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, while at the same time limiting his concert appearances to a select group of world-class orchestras. Since 2000 he has been particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertory are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods – above all the music of Wagner and Strauss – as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. From 2006 until 2010 he conducted Tankred Dorst’s new production of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth. Christian Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently only a few days ago, when he conducted works by Strauss and Bruckner. In October 2011, he was awarded the honorary membership of the Royal Academy Music in London.

Christian Thielemann ist der designierte Chefdirigent der Staatskapelle Dresden und der Semperoper für die Zeit von Herbst 2012 an; außerdem übernimmt er 2013 die künstlerische Leitung der Salzburger Osterfestspiele. Seit Beginn der Saison 2004/2005 steht er als Generalmusikdirektor an der Spitze der Münchner Philharmoniker; zuvor war er in gleicher Verantwortung der Deutschen Oper Berlin verbunden. Der gebürtige Berliner hatte in seiner Heimatstadt an der Hochschule der Künste studiert und anschließend zunächst umfassende Erfahrungen an kleineren Bühnen gesammelt, bevor er Erster Kapellmeister an der Deutschen Oper am Rhein und danach Generalmusikdirektor in Nürnberg wurde. Tragende Säulen in Thielemanns Repertoire bilden Werke der Klassik und Romantik – vor allem die Musik von Wagner und Strauss – wie auch das Œuvre Hans Werner Henzes. Zwischen 2006 und 2010 leitete er in Bayreuth eine Produktion von Wagners Ring des Nibelungen in der Regie von Tankred Dorst. Den Rang Christian Thielemanns als Interpret von Weltgeltung spiegelt nicht zuletzt seine Aufnahme als Ehrenmitglied in die Royal Acadamy of Music in London Mitte Oktober 1011 wider. Als Gastdirigent konzentriert sich der Künstler auf Bühnen wie die Wiener Staatsoper, die Festspiele in Bayreuth und Salzburg sowie auf ausgewählte Spitzenorchester, beispielsweise die Philharmoniker in Wien und Berlin, die Staatskapelle Dresden, das Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, das Israel Philharmonic Orchestra und das Philharmonia Orchestra London. In den USA arbeitet Christian Thielemann regelmäßig mit den Orchestern in New York, Philadelphia und Chicago zusammen. Die Berliner Philharmoniker hat er seit seinem Debüt im Jahr 1996 wiederholt dirigiert – vor wenigen Tagen erst stand er mit Werken von Richard Strauss und Anton Bruckner zuletzt bei ihnen am Pult.

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