Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Mitsuko Uchida and Simon Rattle

04 Feb 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida, Barbara Hannigan

  • György Ligeti
    Atmosphères (10 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C major, op. 15 (42 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • György Ligeti
    Mysteries of the Macabre (version for coloratura soprano and orchestra) (11 min.)

    Barbara Hannigan Soprano

  • Jean Sibelius
    Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op. 39 (43 min.)

  • free

    Mitsuko Uchida in conversation with Gerhard Forck (11 min.)

It is one of the highest accolades the Berliner Philharmoniker can award: to invite a soloist to perform a complete cycle of works with the orchestra. In the case of Mitsuko Uchida, this is not wholly unexpected: as Pianist in Residence in the 2008/2009 season, she regularly performed in the Philharmonie. One year later, all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos were included in the programme – none of which Mitsuko Uchida had performed with the Philharmoniker before. This first evening was the turn of Concerto No. 1.

In this series of performances, Beethoven’s piano concertos were paired with the symphonies of Sibelius. For a long time, Sibelius’s works were regarded as the expression of a suspiciously traditional compositional style. Today, however, as it is now generally accepted that great music can reveal itself in a variety of forms, we can approach this austerely beautiful music with unbiased ears. Opening this series, the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle perform his First Symphony, a work typical of the late-Romantic era, whose expressiveness is likely to have been inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique which was composed only a few years earlier.

The Beethoven-Sibelius cycle had yet another facet: works by Hungarian composers, which together formed one of the themes of the 2008/2009 season. Ligeti’s Atmosphères was one of the pieces to be performed at this concert, which also became famous outside classical circles through the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Madness and Method

Music by Ligeti, Beethoven and Sibelius

A “composer of the century”, a “modern classic”, a “magician”: one could read the same phrases again and again in the obituaries for György Ligeti, who died in Vienna on 12 June 2006. Admiration was directed not solely at the composer’s oeuvre, consisting almost entirely of masterpieces, but at the man himself as well – there was widespread appreciation of Ligeti the unconventional thinker and of his analytical acuity. He was an outsider, critical of the prevailing zeitgeist but also of himself. He was not in the least driven to please, but rather followed his own path without ever deviating from it – a seeker to the end.

Born in 1923 into a Hungarian-Jewish family in Transylvania (an area then in Hungary, now in Romania), Ligeti spent his whole life resisting ideologies. His early years had awakened in him a horror of political (and aesthetic) promises of salvation: his father and younger brother were murdered in concentration camps, and after the war the Communist power apparatus was established in Hungary. Ligeti recognised that his compositional calling would be denied him in his homeland (“totalitarian systems don’t like dissonances”), and he took the bold step of choosing exile. On 10 December 1956, he boarded a train to the West, crossed the border illegally into Austria, and a few months later was working in the Studio for Electronic Music of West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne. It wasn’t long, however, before Ligeti gave up experimenting with generators, modulators and tape, finding that equipment inadequate for his own purposes. He also rejected the serialism to which many of his colleagues then adhered.

Dance of Death – Punch-and-Judy Show

Ligeti sought new paths – or at least different ones. “The question of whether it’s a step backwards or not doesn’t interest me at all,” he admitted. “I don’t care for self-censorship: Oh, is that ‘progressive’ enough? Is that ‘critical’ enough? And so on. I simply create the music that I myself enjoy.” In his opera Le Grand Macabre, premiered in 1978, Ligeti indulged in the fun of ridiculing the power elite of an infantile, autocratic nuthouse of a regime by writing “dangerously bizarre, completely exaggerated and completely wacky” music. The “totally derelict yet blithely flourishing principality of Breughelland” is ruled by the gluttonous fool Go-Go. Its population is monitored by the Gepopo (secret police), whose chief – sung by a coloratura soprano! – brings the Prince one disastrous report after another. The absurd and aggressive comedy of these strident arias also haunts the concert hall in the various incarnations of Mysteries of the Macabre: for soprano (or trumpet) and orchestra (or ensemble or piano). In all these versions, the Mysteries display the most freakish elements of the garish and crazy Grand Macabre – an opera that Ligeti saw “in the tradition of the medieval Dance of Death, of mystery plays, Punch-and-Judy shows and sideshows at fairs.” Not a good place for prophets and ideologues.

The architect and the world edifice

Why did Ligeti compose like Ligeti and not like Haydn or Beethoven? This seemingly far-fetched question was actually once posed to the composer – at a symposium of scientists from the most diverse disciplines. Ligeti was momentarily at a loss: “Why didn’t Haydn compose in the style of Palestrina? Something like that is what I’d have said.” With distance, he was able to clear up the misconception, this peculiarly ahistorical notion of history and individuality: “I would not now revert to functional tonality even though it’s so wonderful to work in. When the grammar of art has changed, one cannot go back any more.”

But not only art and its grammar, but also the world and its assumptions have gone through unprecedented upheavals since the days of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major op. 15, with which the ambitious composer introduced himself in Vienna, Berlin and Prague beginning in 1795, reveals an intellect in search of form, order and meaning. The “architect” Beethoven, as Alfred Brendel calls him, erects the edifice of his composition from the building blocks of the first four bars: an arresting motif characterised by an octave leap that also plays a major role as a rhythmic formula – that of an upward-rushing scale in semiquavers (16th notes) and a turn. Out of this elementary material Beethoven shapes the themes, not only of the introductory Allegro con brio, but also of the following Largo. And even the seemingly spontaneous inspirations of the final rondo can be traced back to those four opening bars. Whether or not a basic trust in meaning, goal-seeking and the orderliness of history as exemplified by Beethoven’s C major Piano Concerto are still credible today remains a question for the philosophers. In music, at any rate, the solidly architectonic world-edifice broke apart in the 19th century. For later composers, “back to Beethoven” had become unthinkable.

Music first and last

When Jean Sibelius in 1898 was led into the director’s office during his first visit to the famous Leipzig publishing house of Breitkopf & Härtel, he noticed a portrait of Beethoven and felt so insignificant that he could hardly bring himself to ask for a fee for his compositions. Nonetheless, it was at that time that he began sketching his Symphony No. 1 in E minor op. 39: “Have been working diligently for three days. It was so magnificent, so magnificent: the new ‘alla sinfonia’”, Sibelius reported at the end of April. And this sense of affirmation in his creative disposition can also be detected in the symphony itself, first performed in Helsinki on 26 April 1899. The Finnish composer’s practical attitude towards the waning century’s traditions and achievements proved to be relaxed yet idealistic, both wilful and wistful. He too “formed” his themes according to the Beethovenian principle of unity in diversity – configuring and reconfiguring – except that Sibelius worked far more intuitively and unconsciously, and some of the thematic relationships within and between movements can be dismissed as fortuitous when subjected to musical analysis.

Sibelius never disputed a stylistic proximity to Tchaikovsky: “I know very well that I have some things in common with the man – but there’s nothing to be done about it. One must put up with it.” His music does at times sound noticeably Russian – a rather surprising affinity, given that all things Russian were frowned upon in the grand duchy of Finland, which had to fight to hold on to its autonomy against the repression and Russification policies of the last tsar. Sibelius himself assumed the role of a national composer and hero in the independence movement with his tone-poems based on Finnish mythology and his Finlandia hymn. Nevertheless, his First symphony serves no “just cause”, conveys no idea, no programme, no creed. “My symphonies are music,” Sibelius stressed. “I am not a literary musician; for me, music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last.” This freedom connects Sibelius with all great independent composers – regardless of their time or nationality.

Susanne Stähr (Translation: Richard Evidon)

Barbara Hannigan was born in Canada and studied initially with Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto and later at the Banff Centre for the Arts and with Meinard Kraak at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. She is especially interested in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries – most notably Charpentier, Handel, Gluck and Mozart – as well as 20th-century composers such as Britten, Stravinsky and Janáček, but she has also done much to promote contemporary music and has taken part in a number of world premieres, including Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer, Jan van de Putte’s Wet Snow and Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Among the composers with whom she has worked closely in the rehearsal room are György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Henri Dutilleux. Barbara Hannigan has appeared with many leading orchestras, including those in Cleveland, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Paris and Toronto, as well as with smaller groups such as the Schoenberg and Scharoun Ensembles and early music ensembles of the eminence of Tafelmusik and Das Kleine Konzert. Among the conductors with whom she has appeared are Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ingo Metzmacher, Michael Gielen, Peter Eötvös and Reinbert de Leeuw. The latter has also been her pianist in her numerous song recitals. Barbara Hannigan first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the 2006 Salzburg Easter Festival, when she took over from an indisposed Dawn Upshaw and performed Dutilleux’ Correspondances under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Her most recent appearance was in April 2008, when she performed some of Webern’s orchestral songs.

Mitsuko Uchida is admired throughout the whole world for performances marked by a rare degree of intellectual acuity and profound musical insight. She specializes in the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, while also performing a repertory that includes works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Messiaen. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1984, performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and has returned to the Philharmonie on many occasions since then. During the 2008/9 season she was the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence. Among the orchestras with which she appears on a regular basis are the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia of London. She is also active as a chamber recitalist and has appeared not only on her own but also with other artists such as the Hagen Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Together with the pianist Richard Goode she currently runs the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. She also supports young artists through her active involvement with the Borletti Buitoni Trust. In 2009 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. This month she is performing all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Mitsuko Uchida appears by kind permission of Decca Classics.

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