Britten’s Violin Concerto with Janine Jansen and Daniel Harding

17 Oct 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

Janine Jansen

  • Béla Bartók
    Divertimento for string orchestra, Sz 113 (30 min.)

  • Benjamin Britten
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 15 (36 min.)

    Janine Jansen Violin

  • Richard Strauss
    Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), op. 24 (30 min.)

  • free

    Janine Jansen and Daniel Harding in conversation with Sarah Willis (21 min.)

Daniel Harding is not only a gifted artist but clearly a bold one, too. When he was just 17, he put together a group of musicians, made a recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and sent it to Sir Simon Rattle for his opinion. Sir Simon then spontaneously took on this promising conductor as his assistant at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He was later Claudio Abbado’s assistant at the Berliner Philharmoniker, making his conducting debut with the orchestra in 1996.

In this concert, Harding and Janine Jansen perform Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto – one of those works which makes you ask why it is not heard in the concert hall more often. Jansen is one of the work’s most passionate champions of the concert described by Jascha Heifatz as “unplayable” and underlines here its outstanding qualities: its demonic virtuosity, refined textures and captivating atmosphere. In the words of one critic, “She maintains the passionate tone right through to the very end, molto espressivo, forming the arduous ups and downs of the trajectory of the three movements from one single fervent breath”.

The concert opens with Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings: a rare case of a classical composition from the 20th century, whose intention, according to its title, is above all to entertain. Richard Strauss’s tone poem Tod und Verklärung, on the other hand, conjures up a life’s end but without metaphysical reserve, taking a worldly pleasure in luscious sound and ecstatic climaxes.

The Fates of Men and Musicians

Works by Bartók, Britten and Richard Strauss

Europe in 1938: Nazi Germany was in the process of subjugating much of the continent and meeting with little resistance on the part of the major powers. Even the annexation of Austria produced little more than a slight tremor on the international political stage. But for Béla Bartók this act of imperialism marked a momentous turning point in his life, as he explained in one of his letters: “I think it is quite superfluous to write about this catastrophe. There is one thing I want to add, concerning what is at this moment the most terrible aspect. That is the imminent danger that Hungary will surrender to this regime of thieves and murderers. The only question is – when and how? And how I can then go on living in such a country or – which means the same thing – working, I simply cannot conceive.”

Two years later, in October 1940, Bartók emigrated to the United States and it became clear just how accurate his prophecy had been. He died there in 1945, never having found true happiness. During his American years he wrote two works that represent a volte-face within his overall output: his Sixth String Quartet and his Divertimento for Strings. This last-named work was a commission from the founder and conductor of the Basle Chamber Orchestra, Paul Sacher, who had already commissioned two other pieces by Bartók, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

In comparison to the two earlier commissions, the Divertimento for Strings is strikingly moderate in tone. The layers of sound have been smoothed out, melody takes precedence over rhythm, and the large-scale form is classical in its inspiration: the opening Allegro adopts sonata procedures and is followed by a four-part Adagio and a dance-like Rondo. But to describe the work as a divertimento is misleading, for it is notable for an almost liturgical seriousness, and not even the Rondo really lets itself go.

Bartók’s Divertimento was conceived at the same time as another work that can claim to contain a political subtext: Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto op. 15. Britten was emphatic in his support of the Spanish Republic and felt that the victory of Franco’s fascism was a disaster that would merely be the beginning of far greater horrors. His Ballad of Heroes was inspired by an eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War by his friend W. H. Auden and is a setting of texts by socialist writers. It was the last work that he completed before emigrating to America and is arguably his most politicized composition.

Britten left England on 29 April 1939 and, like Bartók, he headed for America, taking with him the sketches for a violin concerto that he was writing for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. Even though the finished work contains no obvious political allusions, its frequent tone of entreaty is difficult to ignore. When Brosa gave the work’s first performance in 1940, he insisted that the opening motif on the timpani, which is entrusted to the solo violin in the recapitulation, was a pointer to the Spanish Civil War. It recalls Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, while at the same time implying a sense of confrontation between the static writing for the percussion and the strings’ expressive harmonic line. The middle movement is a lively Scherzo that demands considerable technical brilliance from the soloist, and yet there is a constant undertow of tormenting doubt that stems from the rumbling solo for the tuba. The movement’s final bars include a chorale theme that underpins the concluding Passacaglia, which represents a dialectic sleight of hand, a kind of synthesis of all that has gone before it. The earlier Song of Sorrow now acquires a counterpart in the form of a Song of Songs to Hope clothed in the pastoral key of D major. But the Song of Songs fails to drown out the Song of Sorrow, and the music dies away in the coda, abandoning the world of fixed tonality and appearing to dematerialize. As such, it recalls a Utopia which, becoming increasingly remote, finally fades away completely.

Listeners may hear the presence of death in this movement, or at least its herald. When asked in 1894 about the programmatical character of Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Richard Strauss chose to invest the work with negative, albeit unavoidable, qualities of considerable emotional force: “It was six years ago that it occurred to me to write a tone poem recalling the final hours of a man – maybe even an artist – who has striven for the highest ideals. The dying man lies in bed, asleep, his breathing irregular; in spite of his suffering, pleasant dreams bring a smile to his face; his sleep grows lighter; he wakes up; he is again racked with terrible pain; his limbs shake with fever – as the attack passes and the pain abates, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before him, the period of his youth with its aspirations and passions and then, as his pain begins to return, there appear to him the fruits of his path in life, the idea, the ideal that he tried to realize and depict through his art but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to accomplish such things. The hour of his death approaches and the soul leaves the body in order that it may find in the glorious perfection of boundless space all that could not be achieved here below.”

Although Strauss was later to distance himself from this reading, it is still possible to use it as a scene-by-scene listener’s guide to the “story” of Tod und Verklärung. But we do not have to do so. We can equally well see in this emotionally charged piece a depiction of the struggle between the Nietzschean world and its Christian counterpart or the contest between the human and the divine principles. But we shall probably come closest to the truth if we interpret Tod und Verklärung as a work that is dialectically unresolved. Youthful mastery and the desire to dazzle as a composer encounter the spirit of an age grown weary. Strauss is aware of the signs of wear and tear in a century that “brings great sadness to all our activities,” as he explained to Hans von Bülow. His music tells of this process. But it does not merely describe psychological processes, it also follows a clear formal structure.

Formally speaking, Tod und Verklärung is a single symphonic movement divided into three sections. The slow introduction is a Largo whose final chords, veiled in a minor tonality, contain within them the motif later associated with the idea of transfiguration. This opening section is followed by the main part of the piece, in which the essential ideas are contrasted with one another, before an expansive epilogue brings the work to an end. It is significant that Strauss introduces the main theme only in the middle of the work and that he treats it as the culmination of the piece. No less impressive is the ending, which has a sense of Wagnerian mysticism to it. A powerful final climax is followed by a lyrical passage from which all energy is drained away.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Daniel Harding was born in Oxford and began his career by assisting Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After holding appointments as principal conductor with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway, as principal guest conductor with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden and as music director of the Deutschen Kammerphilharmonie (German Chamber Philharmonic) in Bremen, Daniel Harding is now principal guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and artistic partner of the New Japan Philharmonic. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the Vienna and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared with the orchestra in mid-September 2008, when he conducted Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras in Hangar 2 of Berlin’s Tempelhof airport as part of the 2008 Berlin Festival.

Janine Jansen was born in the Netherlands and studied the violin with Coosje Wijzenbeek, Philippe Hirshhorn and Boris Belkin. Her debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London under Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2002 launched her on her international career. Since then she has appeared in many of the world’s leading concert halls with orchestras of the eminence of the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo and the great North American orchestras in New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at a Waldbühne concert in mid-June 2006, when she performed works by Massenet and Saint-Saëns under the direction of Neeme Järvi. Among the other conductors with whom she has worked are Riccardo Chailly, Sir Roger Norrington, Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev and Marek Janowski, while her chamber music partners include Leif Ove Andsnes, Mischa Maisky, Julian Rachlin and Hélène Grimaud. Janine Jansen also runs the International Chamber Music Festival in Utrecht, which she herself helped to found. Since 1998 she has been actively involved with the Spectrum Concerts in Berlin and since the start of the 2006/07 season she has additionally been associated with the “Junge Wilde” series of concerts in at the Konzerthaus in Dortmund.

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Deutsche GrammophonDaniel Harding appears in the Digital Concert Hall courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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