David Zinman conducts Beethoven and the “Neruda Songs” by Peter Lieberson

18 Oct 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
David Zinman

Kelley O’Connor

  • Luciano Berio
    Quattro versioni originali della Ritirata notturna di Madrid di L. Boccherini (8 min.)

  • Peter Lieberson
    Neruda Songs (34 min.)

    Kelley O’Connor Mezzo-Soprano

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92 (42 min.)

Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Ahna, Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears, Luciano Berio and the vocal acrobat Cathy Berberian – composers have often written operatic roles or songs for the people with whom they shared their lives. A particularly moving example is the Neruda Songs by the American composer Peter Lieberson. He discovered the love sonnets by the Chilean national poet Pablo Neruda and set several of them to music for his second wife, the unforgettable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died much too young and whom the critic Jürgen Kesting called “the Maria Callas of Baroque song”. Kelley O’Connor was the soloist in a performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker from October 2008.

David Zinman, the conductor of this concert, caused a sensation during the 1990s with his complete recording of the Beethoven symphonies with Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra. This concert also ended with a composition by the Viennese classicist: his Seventh Symphony, which generated both enthusiasm and incomprehension at its premiere in 1813. The second movement had to be repeated for the ecstatic audience; the finale, on the other hand, caused Friedrich Wieck, who was present, to question the composer’s mental state. Beethoven does in fact transform the dancelike energy of his symphony into a wild frenzy at the close, which even after 200 years has lost none of its radical nature.

Unbridled, Driving Power

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

One of the essential features of Ludwig van Beethoven’s mature compositional style is his strategically applied development of musical material, something that links him with later composers including Brahms, Schoenberg and even Webern. A good example is the slow introduction of the Seventh Symphony, composed in 1811–12. Out of the tense opposition of sustained notes and rising scales, a dactylic dotted rhythm emerges; suddenly hurtling into a fast tempo, it expands into a dancelike idea resembling the south Italian tarantella. That little rhythmic cell has generated the movement’s principal material. Intoned first on flute, it develops in the orchestral tutti into flying sparks of symphonic fire. Even the inconspicuous subsidiary theme and the development section fall into the tarantella rhythm, whose driving power dominates the movement right through to the recapitulation and exhilarating coda.

The symphony’s dancelike character – Wagner famously called Beethoven’s Seventh “the apotheosis of the dance” – is not confined to the impulsive expression of joie de vivre. The Allegretto second movement follows a similar course but at a more measured pace. In sombre A minor, its endless repetition of a pattern of one long and two short note-values evokes the chanting of a funeral procession or pilgrimage. The tense mood dissipates in the unbridled exuberance of the Scherzo, a Presto in ¾ time. In the slower Trio section, the lower winds and violins put the brakes on the whirling dance for a moment of breath-catching.

In the finale, the main idea no longer whirls, it positively reels. Syncopic accents generate incredible dynamism, while the violin melody further ratchets up the tension. The frenzied hedonism is momentarily checked by a fanfare-like secondary theme: as though the rollicking orchestra were being called to order, the strings, followed by the wind, now execute the symphony’s dominant dotted rhythm with dogged discipline. At the symphony’s tumultuously acclaimed premiere in December 1813, the Viennese audience – who had already demanded an encore of the Allegretto – may have welcomed the suggestion of military music at this point. And, in the fortissimo fanfare and sharp accents at the symphony’s triumphant conclusion, they may have heard an allusion to the European coalition’s recent victory at the Battle of Leipzig, celebrating their liberation from Napoleonic domination.

Declarations of Love

Lieberson’s Neruda Songs

In summer 1997, the American composer Peter Lieberson chanced upon Pablo Neruda’s love lyrics to his mistress, later wife, Matilde Urrutia. A few weeks earlier, during rehearsals of his opera Ashoka’s Dream at Santa Fe, Lieberson had met the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt. They fell deeply in love. After reading the first of the great Chilean writer’s passionate sonnets, Lieberson was immediately determined to set some of them to music for Lorraine. The new concerto he had been commissioned to write for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic morphed into the song cycle that Lieberson called “a culmination of what I have always hoped to do in composing music”. Neruda Songshad its premiere in Los Angeles in May 2005. In October and November that year, already suffering from a recurrence of the cancer that would end her life, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang the cycle again in New York and Boston, this time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – co-commissioners of the work – under James Levine.

In his note for the premiere, Lieberson writes that each of the cycle’s five Neruda sonnets seemed to him to “reflect a different face in love’s mirror. The first poem, ‘If your eyes were not the color of the moon’, is pure appreciation of the beloved. The second, ‘Love, love, the clouds went up the tower of the sky like triumphant washerwomen’, is joyful and also mysterious in its evocation of nature’s elements: fire, water, wind and luminous space. The third poem, ‘Don’t go far off, not even for a day’, reflects the anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation. The fourth poem, ‘And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream’, is complex in its emotional tone. First there is the exultance of passion. Then, gentle, soothing words lead the beloved into the world of rest, sleep and dream. Finally, the fifth poem, ‘My love, if I die and you don’t’, is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will still be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much.”

The music that Peter Lieberson conceived as a tribute to his beloved’s extraordinary artistry became an ineffably moving farewell. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died in July 2006, deeply mourned, not only by her devoted husband, but throughout the musical world. Even after parting from “those whom we cherish so much”, the composer wrote in his programme note, “Neruda reminds one that love has not ended. In truth there is no real death to love nor even a birth: ‘It is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips.’”

Kelley O’Connor, a young mezzo-soprano from California, studied at the University of California, Los Angeles with Nina Hinson. Her portrayal of Federico García Lorca in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainamadar in Tanglewood 2003 kick-started her career. She received unanimous critical acclaim for her numerous performances of the role since then, including a 2007 Grammy Award. Lorin Maazel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Franz Welser-Möst and Bernard Haitink are among the conductors Kelley O’Connor has worked with regularly. Her versatility is highlighted by a repertoire including works by Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Verdi (she was Meg Page in Falstaff at the 2006 Lucerne Festival), Ravel, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Berio. She made her mainstage debut at Carnegie Hall in May this year when she sang Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs with Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Performing this work, she now appears for the first time with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

David Zinman has been Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich since 1995 and Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival since 1998. Born in New York in 1936, Zinman first studied composition at the University of Minnesota. His conducting studies at Tanglewood Music Center brought him to the attention of Pierre Monteux who introduced him to his first prominent conducting opportunities. Since then has conducted many of the world's leading orchestras in Europe, North America, Israel and Japan. After positions as chief conductor in den Netherlands and the USA, David Zinman in 1985 took leadership of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His tenure (until 1998) was marked by a commitment to the performance of contemporary music and his introduction of historically informed performance practice. In 2000 the French Ministry of Culture awarded David Zinman the title of “Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”; in 2002 he won the City of Zurich Art Prize for his outstanding artistic efforts, making him the first conductor and also the first recipient of this award not originally from Switzerland. In 2008 he also received the Midem Classical Award “Artist of the Year” for his work with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. David Zinman gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985; he last appeared on the rostrum of the orchestra in October 2005 with works by Webern, Beethoven and Schumann.

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