Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Bernard Haitink

23 Jan 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

Frank Peter Zimmermann

  • György Kurtág
    Stele for large orchestra, op. 33 (15 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 77 (43 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann Violin

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 (43 min.)

  • free

    Frank Peter Zimmermann in conversation with Christoph Streuli (18 min.)

It is actually astonishing that Brahms’s Violin Concerto is considered one of the most popular, for the composer here forgoes all virtuosic display with which his contemporaries such as Paganini and Sarasate guaranteed the success of their works. In the Brahms concerto there is not even a play on the tension between soloist and orchestra; the effect is rather one of mutual support for each other.

This powerful cooperation can be appreciated in this concert with Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Bernard Haitink. The Tagesspiegel described the performance as “sensational”: “Zimmermann works together with the sections of the orchestra, his phrasing is clear and intelligent, he forgoes self-indulgence, and develops a warm and intensive timbre with a shellac-like sheen.”

The Hungarian flavour that permeates the last movement of the Brahms concerto is reflected in the two other works of the evening, but they are of genuine Magyar origin. The concert opens with György Kurtág’s Stéle for large orchestra, written in 1993 during Kurtág’s time as Composer in Residence with the Philharmoniker, and ends with Bartók’s sharply contoured Concerto for Orchestra.

Idioms of Yearning

Its language distinguishes Hungary from most other European nations, its music from them all. That was already true in the 17th century, and even since 1945 it hasn’t changed: while the avant-garde rigorously expunged ethnic and regional features from their music, the composers of Hungary faithfully preserved them. None took up the serialist Esperanto – they all continued to speak a musical mother tongue that was recognizable and thus easy to convey to a wider audience.

“My mother tongue is Bartók”, György Kurtág once said, “and Bartók’s mother tongue was Beethoven.” The second clause is debatable – Bartók’s youthful works show more influence from Brahms, Liszt and Strauss – but the expression “mother tongue” takes us deep into the special nature of Hungarian music and its relation to contemporary music in general. “Mother tongue” connotes something primordial which precedes all foreign languages acquired later. It also connotes an unconditional lack of freedom, because we have as little control over our mother tongue as we do over the place of our birth.

That can be either a blessing or a curse – or both at once. Kurtág’s Stele, written in 1994 for Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker, gives ambivalent expression to this power of one’s ancestry. In three joined movements, this brief work evokes the past as a place of yearning, constantly haunted by memory, but also a hell of terrible losses. Even the title refers to the distant past. Stele is what the Greeks called an upright gravestone bearing the name of the dead person and often depicting scenes from his life.

In this work, Kurtág is commemorating his friend András Mihály, to whom in 1993 he had already dedicated a piano piece; it is incorporated in the last movement of Stele. Needless to add, Kurtág’s first composition for large orchestra transcends its biographical inspiration. The past and transitoriness are the actual themes of this extraordinary work, which quickly found a place in the international repertoire. Contemporary music, too, can become a genuine event as long it has more to communicate than merely its internal workings.

By comparison with an early work like Kurtág’s Viola Concerto of 1954, in Stele there are hardly any points of contact left with the music of Béla Bartók. Yet a common spiritual orientation is discernible: the firm belief in the power of what once was and is no more, which, fortunately or not, we can never escape. This orientation did not prevent Bartók from becoming one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century. The demanding Theodor W. Adorno praised him for his unsentimental apperception of folksong. Unfortunately Adorno did not comment on Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1943. Would he have maintained with respect to that work, as he wrote in an early text from 1922, that Bartók “never attempted a ‘utopia of the past’; never played naïve and leapt into the good old days”?

Bartók’s relationship with folk music was by no means free from regressive traits. From 1906 he travelled into the hinterland for research almost every year in order to record peasant songs, cultivating a rejection of the modern big city and happily ignoring the fact that the seemingly ideal world of the peasants was untenable as a model for the future. Though he later vehemently denounced popular doctrines of salvation and adopted a healthy multinationalism (along with Hungarian examples, he also collected Romanian, Slovakian and eastern folksongs), his ideal social state remained that of natural law.

In American exile and faced with a serious illness that made his return to Hungary increasingly unlikely, Bartók’s homesickness increased until it became almost delusional. The Hungary that we encounter in his Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1943 at Saranac Lake in north-eastern New York state, therefore has a strong element of a backward-looking utopia. Like all utopias, it is unrealizable. The gravely ill composer formulated the longing for a world that could never be brought back simply because it never existed.

After the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók composed only the Sonata for Solo Violin and the Third Piano Concerto; he was unable to complete his Viola Concerto. The greater part of his terribly limited time was spent in editing the texts of Walachian (Vlach) folksongs – “It’s only a pity that there’s nobody who’s likely to be interested in it”. But for Bartók, marked by death, the preservation of a culture threatened with extinction seemed the most important thing in the world.

As a self-declared conservative, Johannes Brahms was also an expert in things past. He was never able to believe in a future happiness; his happiness was always something lost, if indeed he had ever enjoyed it at all. The tone of melancholy recollection that fills Brahms’s music doesn’t necessarily refer to its author. Rather it reflects a much earlier time, one without disillusionment and loss. Friedrich Nietzsche, who disliked the composer, declared that what was most characteristic of Brahms was his yearning. This yearning found an outlet in folksong, not only German, but also Italian, Turkish and Japanese. Like Bartók, Brahms collected and arranged folksongs from all over the world. Nostalgia is never national.

Brahms had the wonderful knack of making his themes sound like folksongs. The Violin Concerto in D major offers several examples of this, whether (as in the sumptuous second theme of the opening movement) folksong in its Platonic essence or (as in the finale) melodies with Hungarian colouring. The constant vague presence of a folk-musical tone isn’t only a debt to the work’s Hungarian-born dedicatee, Joseph Joachim. Ever since making a concert tour of small north German towns with the violinist Eduard Reményi when he was 20, Brahms had had a strong attachment to Hungarian music.

The close proximity between Brahms and Bartók goes deeper than superficial similarities of musical material. The young Bartók didn’t become a fanatical follower because Brahms had published Hungarian Dances, but because he deciphered in his harmony the transmission of something deeper: something primordial, almost mystical. Bartók’s mother tongue was Brahms. And their common mother tongue – transcending all forms of nationalism – was the folksong as an idiom of unappeasable yearning.

Volker Tarnow

Bernard Haitink, born in Amsterdam in 1929, is one of today’s most celebrated conductors with an international conducting career that has spanned more than five decades. Principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2006, he was at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw for more than 25 years. He previously held posts as music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988) and the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979). He is conductor laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he has made frequent guest appearances with most of the world’s leading orchestras including the Berliner Philharmoniker where he has been a regular guest since his debut in 1964. Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker and named Musical America’s “Musician of the Year” for 2007. Bernard Haitink’s last appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in mid-January 2009, conducting Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and was only five when he had his first violin lessons. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos, and two years later he won the “Jugend musiziert” Competition. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. He has given the first performances of three new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine, which he performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, which he premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise, which he introduced to Paris audiences in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. Among Frank Peter Zimmermann’s chamber partners are the pianists Enrico Pace and Piotr Anderszewski and, as members of the Trio Zimmermann which he founded in 2007, the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra. Among the awards that he has received are the Grand Prix du Disque and the German Record Critics’ Prize for his recording of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, the 1994 Rhineland Music Prize and the 2002 Music Prize of the City of Duisburg. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1986 and since then has returned on numerous occasions, most recently in January 2008, when he performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto under the direction of Bernard Haitink. He plays a 1711 Stradivarius that once belonged to Fritz Kreisler and that has been placed at his disposal by WestLB AG.

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