Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust and Sakari Oramo

24 Jan 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sakari Oramo

Isabelle Faust

  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Photoptosis (13 min.)

  • Robert Schumann
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor (38 min.)

    Isabelle Faust Violin

  • Robert Schumann
    Symphony No. 2 in C Major, op. 61 (41 min.)

Robert Schumann’s only violin concerto is a problem child of the classical repertoire in several respects. That applies first of all to the content of the work itself. The expression of grief is unmistakable, in the slow movement, for example, whose theme Schumann would take up again in his very last composition, the Ghost Variations for piano. It is equally true of its performance and reception history, however. The dedicatee Joseph Joachim and Schumann’s wife Clara had doubts about the playability and quality of the work. Joachim’s son insisted that the concerto not be premiered until 100 years after the composer’s death. Shortly before this deadline elapsed, the work was premiered in 1937 – but in a dubious arrangement. In addition, it was misused for propaganda purposes by the National Socialists, who wanted to establish it as a “German” replacement for the violin concerto by the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, which was banned from concert programmes.

Since then, many distinguished soloists have championed the unmistakable beauty of the unconventional work. Violinist Isabelle Faust, who played the concerto at her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, has contributed to the renaissance of the work as well. As part of its Schumann focus during the 2008/2009 season, the orchestra also presented the Second Symphony, which is one of the composer’s most demanding and successful works in this genre, with thematic quotations recurring throughout the movements, the use of Baroque compositional techniques and one of the most beautiful slow movements of the Romantic repertoire. The programme also featured Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s orchestral work Photoptosis, which is characterized by a complex rhythmic structure and numerous quotations from music history. At the podium was the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, who was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1998, as the immediate successor to Sir Simon Rattle.

What is reality, what is perception?

Music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Robert Schumann

The commission was untimely. In October 1968 an enquiry reached Bernd Alois Zimmermann – could he write an orchestral work for the 100th anniversary of the Gelsenkirchen Savings Bank? The snag: delivery of the score was expected by 1 December of that year. Most of his composer colleagues would have refused on the grounds that this tight deadline was an affront. Zimmermann, however, accepted the challenge.

It may have been the venue that convinced him. The new work was to have its premiere at the “Musiktheater im Revier”, the theatre opened in 1959 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, with a foyer designed by Yves Klein. In the French painter and sculptor’s work, Zimmermann encountered a topic similar to the one that had been occupying him compositionally for some time: the relativity of colour and time. Photoptosis, the Greek word for “falling light” or “incursion of light”, is his name for the score he devoted to “the most delicate shadings of tonal colour”, from the pale illumination of the opening to the stark beam of light coming at the end of this 13-minute piece.

In working out this developmental curve, Zimmermann makes use of strict compositional architecture: a basic pulse of M.M. 60 per bar runs through the whole work. The density of events within this metre, however, becomes markedly intensified, resulting in an altered perception of time. At the beginning, cluster-like string chords shape the proceedings, with fast flute or harp figurations occasionally flashing down upon them, followed by the grumbling thunder of gentle timpani rolls. By the end, however, these chords have been broken up and transformed into quick rhythmic motifs, into chains of trills, demisemiquaver (32nd-note) runs and arpeggios. At the outset, there are often no more than six or seven notes in a bar, while at the end there are least 20 times that number. Yet the impression of something static and archaic – paradoxically enough – is left untouched.

The middle section of Photoptosis is a striking example of Zimmermann’s “pluralistic” compositional style, which utilizes the collage as an essential technique. Emerging out of the static sequence of chords are seven bars from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, followed by reminiscences of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, the medieval hymn Veni creator spiritus, a string figuration from Wagner’s Parsifal, a phrase from Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto and, finally, the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. And yet all the allusions are merely shafts of light caught at a particular angle, momentarily re-illuminating the past.


“Who could possibly do anything after Beethoven?” sighed Franz Schubert, expressing the sentiments of whole generations who struggled under the weight of tradition. And yet it was Schubert who – at first unnoticed by the musical world – gave the lie to these misgivings. His “Great C major” Symphony D944 enriched the genre with a contribution that yielded nothing to Beethoven’s Ninth in its dimensions, yet broke entirely new ground both architectonically and aesthetically. It was Robert Schumann who “discovered” the symphony in 1839 in Schubert’s estate and arranged for its premiere. This extraordinary find also had a strong effect on Schumann’s own creativity: he overcame his severe “symphonic scruples” and put himself to the test on that dreaded terrain, first with the “Spring” Symphony in B flat, op.38.

In 1845 Schumann forged new symphonic plans and sketched four movements for a work whose key linked it to Schubert’s “Great C major” and one with which he was also setting his sights on Beethoven. There is hardly another work by this composer with such a close-meshed network of motivic connections – a principle that Beethoven had elevated to the cachet of symphonic art. Even the sequence of movements of Schumann’s Second Symphony op.61 follows that of Beethoven’s Ninth. And the goal-oriented course of the work, with its exuberant culmination, is also in the best Beethovenian tradition.

Schumann did not have an easy time with his Second. Detailed work on the score occupied nearly a year before the premiere could take place in Leipzig in 1846. He was “still half sick” during the process of composition – the crisis of dizziness and debilitating weakness of 1844 was not yet completely past and continued to restrict his productivity considerably. The Adagio espressivo, Schumann disclosed, reflects the “doleful sounds” of his state at the time. Tchaikovsky put it in a nutshell. In Schumann’s music, he wrote in 1871, “we find the echo of mysterious processes of our spiritual life, the doubt, depression and glimpses of the ideal that stir the hearts of people today. History for Schumann has not yet begun.”

In the case of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, 84 years had to pass before the work received its premiere, in 1937. And even then questions arose as to whether the work was actually by Schumann at all. He wrote out the score in September and October 1853, a few months before his mental breakdown. Its source of inspiration was the young violinist Joseph Joachim, who provided him with compositional help and advice. Nevertheless, the violinist soon realized that learning Schumann’s Violin Concerto was anything but child’s play. After two planned performances were cancelled, Joachim was forced to admit that “the last movement is really horribly difficult for the violin”.

Unplayable – that verdict has encumbered Schumann’s Violin Concerto ever since. Moreover, there has been a prevalent view of the work as evidence of Schumann’s mental decline. After his widow had presented Joachim with the autograph as a memento, the violinist’s son gave it to Berlin’s Prussian State Library on condition that it be made public only 100 years after Schumann’s death, in 1956 at the earliest. Political circumstances, however, foiled this decree. When the Nazis banned Mendelssohn’s works, including his beloved Violin Concerto in E minor, a gaping hole opened up in the repertoire. The cultural authorities hit upon the idea of closing the gap with Schumann’s contribution to the genre. Thus came about the 1937 premiere mentioned earlier, using a faulty musical text full of substantial misreadings and changes.

Nowadays, the reservations and criticisms that were levelled at the Schumann Violin Concerto are difficult to understand. Unprejudiced, we are able to admire the work’s qualities: the astonishing invention of the opening movement’s first theme, which looks ahead to Bruckner, or the richly decorated solo part, the elemental rhythmic power, the intimate lyricism of the second movement, and the brilliance with which Schumann plays with the motifs and their most divergent transformations. Tchaikovsky was right after all: Schumann’s time has come.

Isabelle Faust was only eleven when she formed her own string quartet and gained her earliest musical experiences. On winning the Leopold Mozart Violin Competition in Augsburg in 1987, she began to study with Christoph Poppen, for many years the leader of the Cherubini Quartet. In 1993 she won the Premio Paganini in Genoa and four years later was named Young Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine. Since then she has appeared as a soloist with the Munich Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, to name but a few. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Giovanni Antonini, Jiří Bělohlávek, Daniel Harding, Marek Janowski, Mariss Jansons and Sakari Oramo. Isabelle Faust not only plays the mainstream violin repertory but is in particular demand in contemporary music: among the composers whose works she has introduced are Olivier Messiaen, Werner Egk and Jörg Widmann. She is also a passionate advocate of the music of György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi and has done much to promote André Jolivet’s long-neglected Violin Concerto. Isabelle Faust also has a busy schedule as a chamber recitalist, one of her most distinguished accompanists being the pianist Alexander Melnikov. She plays the “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius of 1704, an instrument placed at her disposal by L-Bank of Baden-Württemberg. Isabelle Faust is making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Sakari Oramo has been principal conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2003, having made his sensational conducting debut with the orchestra in 1993, when he stepped in at the last minute for an ailing colleague. So successful was his debut that Oramo, a trained violinist and conductor who had previously been the orchestra’s leader, was shortly afterwards appointed its co-principal conductor. He is also chief conductor of the Kokkola Opera in his native Finland. Since the start of the 2008/09 season he has also been artistic adviser to the Stockholm Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1998 to 2008 he was principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and is now the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. In May 2003 he became the artistic director of the CBSO’s contemporary music festival Floof! The following year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Central England for his services to music in Birmingham. In addition to his permanent appointments, Sakari Oramo is also in demand as a guest conductor, most notably with the major Scandinavian orchestras but also with leading orchestras in Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Leipzig, as well as in Japan and the United States. In 2003 he conducted performances of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, an engagement that reflects the fact that until now his repertory has been centred in the main on Finnish and British works. In 2008 he received the Elgar Society Medal. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut in May 2001 and since then has appeared many times with the orchestra, most recently in late November 2007, when he conducted works by Janáček, Sibelius and Richard Strauss.

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