Andris Nelsons and Matthias Goerne with works by Tchaikovsky and Mahler

22 Jun 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Matthias Goerne

  • Gustav Mahler
    Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Selection (67 min.)

    Matthias Goerne Baritone

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 (54 min.)

  • free

    Andris Nelsons on his work with the Berliner Philharmoniker (15 min.)

With this concert, the Berliner Philharmoniker say their farewells for the 2011/2012 season from the Philharmonie. Andris Nelsons conducts works from the late 19th century. Firstly, Mahler’s songs based on folk poems from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which are characterised by multifaceted nuances and ambiguities. In striking contrast to this is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with its intense, unbridled emotions.

Folk music has a prominent place in Mahler’s work – not only in his lieder, but also in his symphonies. In Mahler’s own words, such elements are an echo of his childhood. Moreover, it is especially the Wunderhorn lieder that reveal the specific quality of this folk poetry: their apparent simplicity and serenity, which, paradoxically, convey happiness and sorrow just as intensely as wordy pathos. The soloist is Matthias Goerne, “one of the best lieder singers of his generation” (Die Zeit). 

In contrast to Mahler’s lieder, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a work which does not shun powerful emotions. Even after its completion, however, the composer complained that the symphony suffered from “pretentiousness”. And Tchaikovsky really does take a big risk in describing here a personal psychological drama, the struggle between his own self, destiny and hope. With the passage of time Tchaikovsky nevertheless grew to appreciate his work – which is in fact both an impressive and authentic portrayal of human emotions.

Folk Styles and Fateful Tones

Symphonic Works by Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th, opinions differed widely as to what exactly was meant by the seemingly innocuous terms “folk song” and “folk style”. Still very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment, Johann Gottfried Herder had emphasised the ambiguity of the traditional song repertoire, which manifests itself in the interplay of naiveté and dark despair, of striving for heaven and base animal instincts. By 1806 the situation had changed, however. That year Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano published the first volume of an anthology of texts under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), which would define the concept of “popularity” for decades. Arnim and Brentano wanted to promote a romantic return to seeming genuineness and simplicity with their collection, and to this end they freely modified the form of many texts. The result was a utopia – folk poetry as the form of expression of an ideal human being, so to speak, who retained a childlike, natural and holistic purity in the face of the unreasonable demands of rationalism.

When Gustav Mahler composed the first of his 24 songs on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn between 1887 and 1890, the opposition to the idealisation so effectively initiated by Arnim and Brentano could no longer be ignored. A change of perspective had begun – folk song scholars now increasingly heard the characteristics of realism, with its harsh, dismal colours of human life and suffering, in the “folk style”. The parallel chronology of this development and the reception of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs is worthy of note, regardless of how one may view the convergence of contemporary developments and personal compositional style. Mahler composed the 14 orchestral songs now generally referred to as the Wunderhorn songs between 1892 and 1901.

Imperfect Poetry for Perfect Music

Mahler’s explanation for his choice of texts sounds quite unromantic. “He always felt there was something barbaric in the way musicians chose poems of perfect beauty to set to music,” recalled Richard Dehmel’s wife Ida in a diary entry from 1905. “He, Mahler, had only taken over for his purpose a few poems from the Wunderhorn; since his early childhood, he had had a special relationship with this book. They were not perfectly finished poems, but rather stone blocks which everyone could shape as he would.” With his subjective approach to the Wunderhorn texts, which even included changes to the wording, Mahler almost seems to have a spiritual affinity with Arnim and Brentano. His adaptation of the poems is aimed in the opposite direction, however. That becomes clear in the composition of Das irdische Leben (Earthly Life). He expresses the desperate cry of the child for bread in a descending line of semitones, alluding to a rhetorical musical figure which often served to dramatise crucifixion scenes in sacred music of the Baroque period. The nightmarish orchestral epilogue rejects every conciliatory gesture. Mahler understood this text as an allegory of the destiny common to all mankind. The role of fate is given to the “mother” in the song, who consoles the child with promises so that “everything that one most needs for the growth of spirit and body is withheld – as with the dead child – until it is too late.”

The remarkably numerous songs set in the world of military life and war turn any trace of military romanticism into inscrutability. In the vision of death of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Fair Trumpets Sound), the combination of the closing stanza from which the song takes its title and the parallel thirds of the horns (!) adds a subtle touch of eeriness. The Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (Song of the Prisoner in the Tower) exposes the alleged voice of freedom and happiness as a chimera because of the underlying similarity in the musical inflection of the two dialogue partners.

Even where Mahler draws on humorous lines, his compositions are ambiguous. The supposed naiveté of the conversation in Verlorne Müh’ (Labour Lost) is contradicted by the elaborate harmonic and dynamic style. In the case of Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhine Legend), Mahler reacts in advance to possible criticism with self-defence which indirectly includes his personal definition of “folk style”: “In spite of all its simplicity and folklike quality, the whole thing is extremely original, especially in its harmonisation, so that people will not know what to make of it, and will call it mannered. And yet it is the most natural thing in the world; it is simply what the melody demanded.”

Hated and Loved

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was more ambivalent about his Symphony No. 5 in E minor op. 64 than almost any of his other works. “No worse than my previous ones” was his assessment in a letter to his dear friend Nadezhda von Meck at the beginning of August 1888, only to condemn it as “a failure” four months later, after the negative reaction of the critics. “There is something so repellent about such excess, insincerity and artificiality,” he complained. Tchaikovsky held this opinion until the successful German premiere in Hamburg on 15 March 1889; afterwards he wrote his brother Modest: “Best of all, I have stopped disliking the symphony; I have started to love it again.”

In contrast to the Fourth Symphony, ten years older and explained in detail thematically by the composer, there are only bare outlines of a programme for his fifth work in this genre: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence. Allegro. 1. Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against XXX. 2. Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???” In the margin of the page Tchaikovsky added: “A wonderful programme, if only it can be fulfilled.”

The key protagonist in this symphony is fate. Its theme, introduced by the clarinet at the opening, is untouched by the symphonic developments in the first movement. In the Andante cantabile, formal turning points are accentuated with an element of foreboding, perhaps in response to the second theme of the movement, which is first heard in the oboe, then passed on to the clarinet and bassoon and later taken up again by the violins. Tchaikovsky alludes to the emotional backdrop of this passage with a brief note in his thematic sketches: “A ray of light?” – only to continue further down on the page: “The reply: No, no hope!”

Psychological Depths

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a personal psychological drama, an attempt to answer the question he posed in another context: “with what means we musicians can create a self-portrait ... The spiritual self cannot be portrayed in music; only the inner experience can be depicted. Translated into music, our self can be no more than an ‘idée fixe’ in the spirit of Berlioz.” The reference to Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique could help explain why Tchaikovsky chose a salon music style for his third movement. The Valse could then be understood not as an abstract classical symphonic form but an invisible theatre piece.

The composer intensifies the magnificent Finale of the Fifth Symphony until the spirited triumphal march. The formerly dark motto theme is now heard in a radiant E major. In the closing bars, however, Tchaikovsky unexpectedly returns to the first theme of the opening movement – fate always wins, but it does not have the last word.

Christine Mast

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Matthias Goerne was born in Weimar and studied singing with Hans-Joachim Beyer in Leipzig and subsequently with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He is now equally acclaimed as an opera singer, concert artist and lieder recitalist in musical capitals all over the world as well as at international festivals. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He first appeared as Papageno at the 1997 Salzburg Festival in a production of Die Zauberflöte conducted by Dohnányi. Although he limits the number of his operatic appearances, the range of his roles is wide, extending, as it does, from Mozart’s Papageno and Wagner’s Wolfram to the titles roles in Berg’s Wozzeck and Aribert Reimann’s Lear. Among the pianists who have accompanied his lieder recitals are Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Christoph Eschenbach and Eric Schneider. A fellow of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Matthias Goerne was “artist in residence” with the Hessen Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt in the 2009/2010 season. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1998 and has returned on frequent occasions since then. His most recent appearance was in May 2011, when he performed K. A. Hartmann’s Gesangsszene on a text by Jean Giraudoux.

Andris Nelsons was born to a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; since 2002 he has been a student of Mariss Jansons. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, taking on the same role the year after with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, he completed his tenure as principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. In summer 2010, he made his conducting debut at the Bayreuth Festival in a new production of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuenfels. Andris Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras. He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in February 2012 with works by Brahms and Strauss.

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