Simon Rattle conducts symphonies between late Romanticism and Modernism

31 Oct 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Eva Vogel

  • Hans Krása
    Symphony for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra (20 min.)

    Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Eva Vogel Contralto

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major (version for large orchestra, op. 9b) (24 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (44 min.)

In November 2009, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle made several guest appearances in several cities in the USA, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Two of the works performed before the American public can be heard in this concert: Brahms’s Second Symphony and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. The performance of all Brahms’s symphonies was a project central to the 2008/2009 season. German weekly Die Zeit noted with satisfaction that Rattle succeeded in combining “the scale of Furtwängler with Karajan’s beauty of tone”.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony embodies a decisive rejection of the melodious sound of the late-Romantic period, a work on the threshold between tonal and atonal music. Although this “emancipation of dissonance” disturbed audiences at the time, it did, however, open up music to previously unimagined worlds of expression.

The concert opens with the Symphony for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra by Hans Krása, the first time this composer was included in a concert by the Philharmoniker. Krása, who was born in Prague in 1899, only achieved bitter posthumous fame in the 1980s as the composer of the children’s opera Brundibár, which was performed over fifty times in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Nazi era. Hans Krása was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

Three Ways to Write a Symphony

Works by Brahms, Schoenberg and Hans Krása

Carefree joviality?

“Johannes came to see me this evening and played me the first movement of his Second Symphony in D major, which I found utterly delightful,” Clara Schumann noted in her diary on 3 October 1877. “With this symphony he will have a more decisive success with audiences than with his First, however much the latter may captivate musicians with its inspired brilliance and wonderful writing.” Clara Schumann’s assessment was to prove accurate, for the work was enthusiastically received at its first performance on 30 December 1877. The Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote: “We cannot adequately express our pleasure in the fact that Brahms, having given such forceful expression to the overwrought emotion of a Faustian struggle in his First Symphony, has turned again to the spring blossoms of earth in his Second.”

In his First Symphony Brahms had finally found his way to large-scale symphonic form after decades of struggle. His Second Symphony, by contrast, was felt to be a counterweight to it and one, moreover, that was easier to understand. Horn calls reminiscent of the world of nature, inspired string cantilenas, the third movement’s original juxtaposition of stylized dances and the irresistible forward momentum of the final movement were seen by many as an expression of carefree joviality. But if we delve more deeply into the sound world of the Second Symphony, we shall discover that this symphonic idyll is not as unclouded as it may seem to be at first sight. In a fascinating study the German musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has brought out the “melancholic” aspects of the work and explored Brahms’s fractured relationship with the whole concept of joviality.

The Janus-faced ambiguity of the Second Symphony is clear from the very beginning of the work. Horns and woodwind introduce the main theme, which is heard in counterpoint with a metrically displaced bass motif, at which point the main movement is suddenly revoked. What remains is a monophonic line in the strings that encircles itself while gradually descending and ending in a pianissimo timpani roll. This is a signal for three sequences of dark-hued chords in the trombones divided from one another by the semitonal motif that opened the symphony.

New symphonic ways

Barely thirty years after the first performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, Arnold Schoenberg set out to write a symphonic work against the background of a musical scene still influenced by Brahms. “In 1906 Schoenberg came back from a stay in the country, bringing the Chamber Symphony with him,” Webern recalled in 1932. “The impression was colossal.” It is indeed impossible to overstate the importance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony op. 9 not only for his own output but for the impact that it had on many other composers. It is a transitional piece, its advanced musical language marking the breakthrough to a new period in music. At the same time, the thirty-two-year-old composer created a work that pushed back generic boundaries while pinning its colours to the mast of tradition, thereby pointing the way forward for a new approach to symphonic writing in the early years of the 20th century.

The Janus-faced nature of the First Chamber Symphony is apparent even on the level of the work’s formal structure. Lasting a little over twenty minutes in performance, it consists of a single movement in which four-movement symphonic form and the principles of sonata form are ingeniously merged. Berg referred to the “mysteriously beautiful” way in which the individual sections are linked together, representing not only the different elements of a symphony (first movement, Scherzo, slow movement and finale) but also the formal components of a sonata movement (exposition, development section, recapitulation and coda). The process of formal compression is underpinned by the increased density of the motivic and thematic writing. Not only does Schoenberg subject the expressively charged and concisely formulated themes to a process of constant variation, he also interweaves these themes in extremely elaborate ways, superimposing and layering them. The result of this compositional process, which Schoenberg himself saw as a continuation of the technique developed by Brahms, is a polyphonic structure of extreme density and complexity.

In its original version for fifteen solo instruments, the First Chamber Symphony received its first performance on 8 February 1907. During the years that followed, Schoenberg repeatedly toyed with the idea of transcribing the work for full orchestra, but it was not until 1935, when he was living in exile in America, that he finally realized this idea. None the less, his belief that in its reorchestrated form the work would “finally find a place for itself in our concert life” was to prove unfounded. Whereas the original version for fifteen solo instruments has become a fixture in the concert hall, the arrangement for large orchestra in which the work is heard at this evening’s concert is only rarely performed.

A promising debut

“What a pleasure to discover a young musician who is not only ‘full of promise’, as the gentlemen of the press tend to say, but who regales us with works that are finely balanced and elaborated down to the most minute detail,” Darius Milhaud noted in a concert review in 1923. On 24 April the French composer had attended a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and heard the first two movements of a symphony by Hans Krása, a composer who was then completely unknown in the city.

This incomplete first performance of the twenty-four-year-old composer’s Symphony for Small Orchestra – he had failed to complete the third movement in time – marked Krása’s international breakthrough. If the work was soon forgotten again and its composer’s name lost from concert programmes, this was the direct result of the National Socialists’ pernicious racist ideology. The son of assimilated Jewish parents, Krása was deported from his native Prague to the concentration camp at Terezín in August 1942. Two years later he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in the camp’s gas chambers.

Lasting barely twenty minutes, Krása’s Symphony for Small Orchestra is evidence of the individualization of symphonic writing in the early 20th century, a process inaugurated by Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. The large-scale instrumental resources of the earlier period have been replaced here by the translucent textures of a chamber orchestra. In their number, form, range and character, the work’s three movements all reveal their composer’s rejection of the ideals of German Romanticism. In an introduction to the piece, Krása wrote: “The symphony’s Pastorale occupies the place of the opening Moderato. The March replaces the Scherzo and the song Les Chercheuses de poux for contralto soloist replaces the Adagio.” The final movement is a setting of Rimbaud’s poem of the same name in a German prose translation by Max Brod.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Eva Vogel studied at the Mannes College of Music in New York and at Yale University, where her teachers included Doris Yarick-Cross and Lili Chookasian. Her current teacher is Christa Ludwig. Even while she was still a student, she was already singing roles in operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, Bizet and Verdi. Since then she has explored a wide-ranging repertory extending to works by Vivaldi, Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Johann Strauß, Wagner, Humperdinck, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. Among the leading companies with which Eva Vogel has worked are the Tel Aviv Opera, the Alleetheater in Hamburg, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, the Landestheater in Innsbruck and the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden and Nuremberg. During the summer of 2003 she took the part of the High Priest Ozias in a stage performance of Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans with the Schloss Rheinsberg Chamber Opera. From 2003 to 2005 she was a member of the Cologne Opera Studio, and in 2005 she made her debut with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in a concert performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s opera Flammen under the direction of Edo de Waart. During the last two seasons she has worked with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals, appearing as Grimgerde and Wellgunde in performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. This is the first time that she appears with the orchestra in Berlin. As a song recitalist Eva Vogel has enjoyed great success in New York, Philadelphia, New Haven, Sankt Moritz, at the Ruhr Piano Festival and elsewhere.

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