Claudio Abbado conducts works by Schumann and Berg

11 May 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado

Anne Sofie von Otter, Isabelle Faust

  • Robert Schumann
    Genoveva, op. 81: Overture (10 min.)

  • Alban Berg
    Altenberg Lieder (13 min.)

    Anne Sofie von Otter Mezzo-Soprano

  • Alban Berg
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “To the Memory of an Angel” (31 min.)

    Isabelle Faust Violin

  • Robert Schumann
    Symphony No. 2 in C Major, op. 61 (46 min.)

  • free

    Isabelle Faust on Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (14 min.)

Whenever Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker performed works by Robert Schumann, it was mostly rarities that were to be heard: the Szenen aus Goethes Faust, or the melodrama Manfred. The overture to Schumann’s opera Genoveva, which Abbado conducts in this performance at the Philharmonie, is also likely to be a discovery for most. On the other hand, the concert ends with one of the composer’s most popular works: his Second Symphony.

Schumann composed the symphony at the end of 1845, when he was suffering from the effects of severe depression. “It seems to me that one must hear that in it,” was how he judged it himself. And in fact this is highly sensitive music that seems, for example in the Adagio espressivo of the third movement, as if the real world is left ever more behind. Other sections come across as more robust, more confident – but a fragile nervousness constantly emerges. However, the symphony should not be understood as a “musical medical report,” but as a particularly impressive document of Romantic sensibility.

The second composer in the programme is Alban Berg, who repeatedly devoted himself to the works of Schumann. Many of Schumann’s characteristics have since been revealed in Berg’s own style. For the listener, the influence is provided rather by the authentic sensitivity which is inherent to both composers. In Berg’s case, this is exemplified in the Altenberg-Lieder and in the Violin Concerto, which is performed in this concert. To explore the emotional depth of these works, the services of two outstanding soloists were secured: the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the violinist Isabelle Faust.

Elective Affinities

Robert Schumann and Alban Berg

The conviction that music’s aesthetic autonomy and its relevance are not mutually exclusive, but are to be considered together, connects Alban Berg to Robert Schumann. Both composers loved to play with musical ciphers, quotations charged with significance and coded messages. At the same time, their instrumental music speaks for itself and is not dependent on programmatic elucidation. Schumann’s Second Symphony and Berg’s Violin Concerto are powerful examples of this association of musical autonomy and its relation to the external world. Both works elude the distinction between “absolute” and “programme” music that was codified in the musical partisan dispute of the mid-19th century.

The fruit of a “dark time” – Schumann’s Second Symphony

Since summer 1844, Schumann had been struggling with phases of deep depression and severe physical exhaustion. In December these induced him to move his family from Leipzig to Dresden and brought his intermittent creative powers to an almost complete standstill. A way out of the creative crisis proved to be his preoccupation with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For the composer, slowly regaining his powers, the “passion for fugues” was not only a form of creative self-therapy but also the path to a different approach to composition, among whose first fruits was the Symphony No. 2 in C major Op. 61, completed in October 1846.

Schumann’s contemporaries were impressed by the work’s contrapuntal sophistication, ingenious thematic treatment and dramatic power. The emphatically displayed synthesis of poetic invention and craftsmanship in developing the musical ideas is already apparent in the symphony’s opening passage. The slow introduction to the first movement begins pianissimo with a brass chorale that seems to be wafting its way from a distance. The fanfare-like 5th motif on trumpets, horns and alto trombone with which the chorale begins and the simultaneous layer of counterpoint on the strings serve as a thematic germ cell. The various themes of the slow introduction as well as those of the Allegro ma non troppo can all be traced back to this double-headed opening idea.

As the symphony proceeds, it becomes evident that the chorale idea will be of central importance for the entire composition. The opening fanfare motif returns at the end of the first movement and the end of the scherzo, which follows. It also comes back in the finale’s extended coda, where it introduces a monumental final chorale, which represents both the end-point and the goal of the symphonic developmental process.

The introverted slow movement, on the other hand, is dominated by a tone of melancholy. An emotionally charged principal theme in varying instrumental colours pervades the entire Adagio espressivo as it moves through different harmonic regions of expression. A letter that Schumann wrote in April 1849 suggests that the music’s sombre tone is related to the crisis he faced during its creation: “I wrote the symphony in December 1845, still half sick; it seems to me that one must hear this. Only in the last movement did I begin to feel myself again; I became really well after completing the entire work. But otherwise, as I’ve said, it reminds me of a dark time.”

Literary impressions captured in music – Schumann’s Overture to Genoveva

Schumann had considered and then rejected over 40 opera subjects, including numerous works from world literature. The breakthrough after his 17-year search finally came in reading Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy Genoveva. After returning from a concert tour of several months, Schumann noted in his diary on 1 April 1847: “Ideas for an overture and decision for this text.”

In the Genoveva Overture, already drafted a few days later, the composer attempted to capture the impressions of his reading directly in music. Central themes such as the motif of chivalry and the forest realm are characterized musically, but the instrumental prelude also adumbrates the dramatic trajectory of the drama of redemption: the sounds of the dissonant opening chord transport the listener to a sombre world full of entanglements and threats. In the fast section that follows, the sonorities brighten, finally reaching triumphant redemption in the coda.

“... let poetry lead one back into music ...” – Berg’s Altenberg Lieder

“You shouldn’t let your talent rest so long,” was Arnold Schoenberg’s recommendation to Alban Berg in a letter of January 1912. “Write a few songs at least. It’s a good idea to let poetry lead one back into music. After that: something for orchestra.” Berg seems to have already had similar thoughts himself. In March 1912 he reported to his friend and teacher: “I’ve finally composed something again, a short orchestral song on a picture postcard text by Altenberg (from his last book), to which I will add several more soon.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Five Orchestral Songs after Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg Op. 4, apart from an advanced tonal language, is the work’s incredibly rich colour palette. The 27-year-old Berg opted for a huge orchestra but deploys it with extreme subtlety. It is clear from the beginning of the cycle that he is not limiting himself to traditional timbral mixtures and modes of playing: the first song, “Seele, wie bist du schöner”, ends on a delicate harmonium chord with a barely audible harmonic glissando on the violins and a toneless sound on low strings. The score calls for this to be produced by “drawing the bow over the holes of the tailpiece”.

“Dedicated to the memory of an angel” – Berg’s Violin Concerto

On 22 April 1935 Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, died unexpectedly. The 18-year-old girl’s death came as a terrible shock to Berg, who was a close family friend. In an undated condolence letter he wrote to Alma: “I will not attempt in a letter to find words where language fails ... And yet: one day – even before this frightful year ends – in a score to be dedicated to the memory of an angel, may you and Franz Werfel perceive the sounds of what I am feeling but find no expression for today.”

Berg’s Violin Concerto consists of two parts, each divided into two movements connected without break. The introductory Andante, whose beginning suggests the origin of music itself, is followed by a scherzo with two Trios. The movement, recalling Mahler, plays artfully and ambiguously with elements and characteristics of Carinthian (Austrian) folk music while – as Berg’s erstwhile pupil and biographer Willi Reich put it – capturing “the vision of a lovely girl”.

The second part of the concerto begins with a shattering outburst. Taking the form of a written-out cadenza with orchestral accompaniment, the Allegro passes through divergent expressive areas and, after a massive build-up, culminates in the catastrophe – the death struggle. “At the moment of highest suspense and anxiety” (Reich), the solo violin enters with the melody of the final Adagio, which Berg borrowed from the closing chorale of Bach’s cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60).

The chorale exposition is followed by two elaborate variations. While the melody is developed first in its original form then inverted, the solo violin begins a lament in which it is gradually joined by all the orchestral violins and violas. After an “indescribably melancholy reprise of the Carinthian folksong” (Reich) from the scherzo, the work dies away with a reminiscence of the open-string 5ths with which it began.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Richard Evidon

Claudio Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1966. In October 1989 he was appointed the orchestra’s artistic director, and between then and 2002 he fashioned its artistic profile and shaped its concert programmes in many decisive ways, granting the music of the 20th century a status equal to that of the Classical and Romantic periods and helping to decide which areas of the repertory should receive particular attention each season. In 1994 he also assumed the artistic direction of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Prior to taking up his post in Berlin, Claudio Abbado had held a number of other important positions. From 1968 to 1986 he was director of music of La Scala in his native Milan, where he had made his conducting debut in 1960. Between 1986 and 1991 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera and from 1987 was also general music director of the city. In 1988 he established the Wien Modern Festival. He has always been keen to foster new talent, and it was this desire that led him to form the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra) and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Since 2005 he has also worked with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. Among Claudio Abbado’s awards are the Gold Medal of the International Mahler Society and the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, and in the summer of 2005 he was given the freedom of the city of Lucerne, where in 2003 he had revived the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first desks of this last-named orchestra are filled with international soloists of the eminence of Kolja Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Sabine Meyer and the members of the Hagen Quartet. Since 2004 Claudio Abbado has returned to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker regularly, most recently in May 2012 with a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, when he presented the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.

Isabelle Faust gained her first important musical experience in a string quartet which she herself founded when she was eleven years old. After winning the International Violin Competition “Leopold Mozart” in Augsburg in 1987, she became a student of Christoph Poppen, the long-time leader of the Cherubini Quartet. Winner of the 1993 Premio Paganini in Genoa and recipient of the Gramophone Award “Young Artist of the Year” four years later, Isabelle Faust has since performed as a concert soloist with, among others, the Munich Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Conductors such as Giovanni Antonini, Jiří Bělohlávek, Daniel Harding, Marek Janowski, Mariss Jansons and Sakari Oramo value working together with the violinist. In addition to the established repertoire, Isabelle Faust is also much in demand as a performer of contemporary works for the violin. Olivier Messiaen, Werner Egk and Jörg Widmann are among the composers whose works she has premiered. She is also passionately committed to the music of György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi, and for long neglected works such as the Violin Concerto by André Jolivet. The pianist Alexander Melnikov is a prominent partner for the artist’s many chamber music activities. Isabelle Faust made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-January 2009 under the baton of Sakari Oramo as the soloist in Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. She plays the Stradivarius known as the “Sleeping Beauty” from 1704, which is on loan to her from the L-Bank Baden-Württemberg.

Anne Sofie von Otter initially studied in her home town of Stockholm, and then later in Vienna and London. Her first engagement was at the opera in Basel. In 1985, she made her debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, followed by among others the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1988) and the Vienna State Opera (1994). Today, there is hardly a renowned opera house or concert hall where she has not already sung, and hardly a genre of vocal music that she is not familiar with. Anne Sofie von Otter’s repertoire ranges form the baroque period well into the 20th century, from Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss to songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, making her one of the most versatile and significant singers of her generation. She has worked together with renowned orchestras and artists such as Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado and Thomas Quasthoff. In her recitals she is regularly accompanied by Bengt Forsberg at the piano; she has recorded a CD of well-known pop songs with Elvis Costello, and an album entitled Love Songs with the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Since 1988, Anne Sofie von Otter has performed on many occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker; most recently in December 2011, when she sang in works by Leoš Janáček and Gustav Mahler in a concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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