Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Mitsuko Uchida and Simon Rattle

14 Feb 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida

  • György Kurtág
    Grabstein für Stephan, op. 15c (10 min.)

  • Jean Sibelius
    Symphony No. 4 in A minor, op. 63 (41 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major, op. 73 (45 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • free

    “It’s a Venture – an Adventure” – Mitsuko Uchida and the Beethoven Piano Concertos, Part II (12 min.)

Beethoven’s life was characterised by conflict: wrestling with his compositional aspirations, the self-assertiveness of his difficult character in an uncomprehending environment. In his Fifth Piano Concerto, you can sense how comfortable he felt in the role of the fighter: evidence of impassioned rebellion. This evening it is played by Mitsuko Uchida and the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The conditions around the time of its composition alone must have mobilised Beethoven’s fighting spirit. The Concerto was composed in 1809, when Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna. Beethoven treated the conquerors with utter contempt. He shouted to a French officer: “If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I would give you something to think about.” The same showing what one is made of characterises Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which even today has lost none of its freshness and vigour.

The other two pieces this evening are more austere: Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, whose ascetic severity shocked the audience at the first performance so much that no one dared applaud. We will also hear Kúrtag’s Grabstein für Stephan (Gravestone for Stephan) in memory of Stephan Stein, with its sharply contrasting expressions of grief and mourning.

High emotional concentration

Kurtág: Grabstein für Stephan

Capable of “encompassing the world in a single note”, his music “demands attention, silence, sensibility: attributes which are extremely rare in the present day.” Thus spoke the festival’s director in awarding György Kurtág the “Golden Lion” at last September’s Venice Biennale. The object of this tribute, in recognition of his entire oeuvre, was a composer who has reclaimed simplicity for contemporary music, one who successfully combines pithy brevity with high emotional concentration. The materials that Kurtág infuses with such suggestive power are mostly non-descriptive; he is capable of generating complex energy fields out of the opposition of often seemingly incompatible elements, whose fragility, however, always remains in evidence.

Grabstein für Stephan (Headstone for Stephan), composed in 1978-79 and revised in 1989, is among the works conceived spatially and for larger forces to which Kurtág has turned his attention since the late 1970s. Its orchestral apparatus, though large, is used sparingly and starkly. The piece begins with guitar arpeggios on the open strings: a long stasis, which is only tentatively set in motion by a few changing pitches. This “raw material” presented by the open strings becomes the “stuff” from which everything else unfolds in a state of floating lightness. The turning point comes with a truly startling eruption of the orchestral tutti, and the catastrophe scenario comes to a head with unexpected noise effects: the vulgar sound of plastic hooters and alarm whistles. After the “mob” has let off steam and disappeared on the horizon, a general pause signals a return to the mood evoked at the outset. The (open) ending is a long, resonating horn note.

Like most of Kurtág’s works, Grabstein für Stephan has a personal connection. During 1957-58 he met the psychologist Marianne Stein and her husband Stephan, a singer. Kurtág’s contact with the couple, occurring in parallel to his composition courses with Messiaen and Milhaud, prompted a change in his musical thinking. The “socialist realist” became the “aphoristic, confessional musician”. His placement of a guitar at the centre of memorial music for his late friend can be understood as an allusion to the singer Orpheus, as a reference to the ancient symbol of a lament for the dead.

Sibelius: Fourth Symphony: Self-discovery after a standstill

The seven symphonies that Jean Sibelius presented to the public between 1899 and 1924 still suffer from marginalisation in German musical life – in contrast with the standard-repertoire status they have long enjoyed in the UK and US. This concert examines Sibelius’s foray into uncharted waters in tackling non-programmatic along with his more familiar series of symphonic poems from the Swan of Tuonela and Finlandia to Tapiola. The Symphony No. 4 in A minor op. 63 is not among Sibelius’s more immediately ingratiating works: its music reflects the desolate state in which he found himself in 1910. In May 1908 he had successfully undergone surgery to remove an ominous throat tumour, but the depression triggered by this assault on his health lingered on for over a year.

Sibelius’s numerous encounters with his composing contemporaries in 1909 during trips to London, Paris and Berlin also had a decisive impact on the Fourth Symphony’s musical language. In London, where he conducted his own works in February, he met Debussy; afterwards in Berlin he heard chamber music by Schoenberg as well as a piece by the young Stravinsky. In 1911 Sibelius summed up these experiences: “I have always taken an interest in my contemporaries and in younger composers in order to become clearer about who I am.” Clarity for him meant differentiation and dissociation. To his English friend Rosa Newmarch he wrote about the Fourth Symphony: “It stands as a protest against present-day music. It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it.”

What makes this work so special? First of all, the sequence of movements: two slow ones each followed by a faster one. Only with difficulty does the music gather momentum: the syncopated line of the very opening already resists being comprehended within a given metre. And every suggestion of finally getting underway in the quicker movements is accompanied by a sense of great effort. This is especially true in the second movement, which at first seems to assume the role of scherzo but in its slower second half turns into an experiment in grim defiance. The metre and rhythm seem blurred, corresponding to the blurring of tonality: consisting of the notes C-D-F sharp-E, the symphony’s principal motif already carries this vagueness within itself. The notes C-F sharp outline a tritone, the dissonant interval nicknamed “diabolus in musica”, which – in a manner similar to Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan – is transposed and later finds a counterpart in the interval A-E flat. Embedded in the process, the solo cello dares to attempt a clear assertion of A minor, recalling a time when the world was still whole.

Sibelius called the Fourth Symphony his “most deeply spiritual work”, perhaps in part because he succeeded in developing all four movements out of the same handful of primordial motivic elements. The symphony represents a successful new departure, self-discovery after a standstill and in the face of threatening extinction.

Beethoven: “Emperor” Concerto: Summit of all concerted music

In July 1809, Napoleon’s troops are at the gates of Vienna forcing Austria to its knees. For Ludwig van Beethoven, in spite of his impaired hearing, the artillery thunder from the Battle of Wagram sounds painfully close. The “new age” ushered in by the Treaty of Schönbrunn in October elicits this comment from the composer in his letter of 22 November to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel: “What do you say to this dead peace? – I no longer expect to see any stability in this age. The only certainty we can rely on is blind chance.” Yet those days have also seen an act of patronage giving him material independence and the certainty, in Vienna, of being in the right place. A few months earlier, on 1 March, Archduke Rudolph and Counts Lobkowitz and Kinsky provide Beethoven with an annuity of 4000 florins. But the sense of security doesn’t last long: a devaluation of the Austrian currency in 1811 reduces the value by 60 per cent. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s first biographer Anton Schindler rightly refers to “the astonishing productivity of the next few years”.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major op. 73 (long known as the “Emperor” in English-speaking countries), which the composer worked on during the turbulent year of 1809, opens the door to the concerto-symphony, a concept further developed by Brahms. In Beethoven’s work, it arises less out of calculated planning than the art of imaginative improvisation. This background is already evident in the extensive cadenza presented by the solo instrument before the orchestral exposition has even begun. The succinct but dashing main theme is followed by a lyrical second theme which the horns later transform into a flowing hymn. In the unusually long development section, luminously beautiful passages alternate with more shadowy stretches and repeated improvisation-like interventions from the piano. The cadenza is unorthodox: a written-out, integral part of the coda.

Dispensing with trumpets and timpani, the middle movement offers a reflective interlude. Its lyrical theme is sung by the strings, woodwind and horns and answered by the soloist with extended rumination and figuration, eventually returning the theme to the orchestra in full form. The dreamy ending leads without break into the Adagio introduction to the finale – a vision out of which the piano’s rondo theme erupts. Little more need be said about this familiar movement except to note a dramatic effect that Beethoven’s brings off shortly before the end: a duet between piano and kettledrum. This attempt at a new departure comes to nothing, dissolving in languorous piano chords that recall the movement’s introductory Adagio. Ultimately – and not surprisingly – jubilation prevails!

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon

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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