Claudio Abbado conducts Schubert, Debussy and Mahler

24 May 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado

Angelika Kirchschlager, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Franz Schubert
    Rosamunde, incidental music, D 797 (30 min.)

    Angelika Kirchschlager Mezzo-Soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Lob des hohen Verstandes · Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen · Rheinlegendchen (16 min.)

    Angelika Kirchschlager Mezzo-Soprano

  • Claude Debussy
    La Mer, trois esquisses symphoniques for orchestra (30 min.)

  • free

    Simon Halsey on Schubert, Mahler, Debussy and Claudio Abbado (16 min.)

In 2009, Claudio Abbado conducted three works with the Berliner Philharmoniker by composers with whom he had a particularly intimate relationship. Claude Debussy played an important role for the conductor, because his Nocturnes aroused a desire in the seven-year-old Abbado to become a musician. The compositions of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler, incomparable masters of the Viennese tone, were always a central focus of the repertoire of Abbado, who spent his formative student years in Austria’s capital city.

Debussy added the subtitle “Three Symphonic Sketches” to his orchestral work La Mer, which was premiered in 1905. It bears few similarities to the symphonic poems of the German school, however, especially since the “programme”, insofar as there even is one, has an obviously maritime theme, without human beings. The incredibly free development of the work’s dramaturgy, which comes to a splendid climax at the close, reflects the French composer’s almost religious reverence for nature. Or, as he expressed it himself: “To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! that is what I call prayer.” Abbado conducted La Mer with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at this concert.

Debussy and Gustav Mahler, who were almost the same age, are linked by their attempt to capture the sounds of nature in music. The selections from Mahler’s Wunderhorn Songs chosen by Abbado and sung by mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager included an animal fable, an enigmatic war song and a light-hearted, innocent waltz, revealing the expressive richness of Mahler as a song composer in only three works.

The concert opened with Franz Schubert’s incidental music for Helmina von Chézy’s play Rosamunde, Princess of Cypress, which is forgotten today; along with Kirchschlager, the Rundfunkchor Berlin was heard in the vocal numbers. The Berliner Philharmoniker also played an interlude from this music, which is moving in its songlike simplicity and delicately dreamy atmosphere, in May 2014 at a memorial concert for their former chief conductor, who had died six months earlier. During the performance of this work the conductor’s desk remained empty, symbolizing the void left in the music world by the death of the deeply revered Abbado.

Hunting-, Magic- and Conch-Horns

Objets trouvés in Schubert, Mahler and Debussy

Rosamunde’s liberation – Music for a futile occasion

The old proverb notwithstanding, adversity isn’t necessarily the school of wisdom – some people may sense a change coming in their luck where in fact none beckons. Wisdom comes with hindsight. In any case, Franz Schubert, who had never had any luck with his works for the stage, accepted a commission at the end of 1823 to compose incidental music for a play by Helmina von Chézy: Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Princess of Cyprus). The offer came on short notice, giving Schubert only a fortnight at most to write entr’actes, ballet music and choruses. Prepared in great haste, the first performance of Rosamunde on 20 December 1823 at the Theater an der Wien was, not surprisingly, a fiasco. The play was performed one more time, the following day, and then disappeared from the repertoire.

Schubert wrote ten pieces for Rosamunde, not all of them directly connected with the unfolding drama. The “Chorus of Spirits” for men’s voices, horns and trombones was heard from offstage, the “Shepherds’ Chorus”, a dancing song with prominent clarinet solo, and the hearty “Hunters’ Chorus” belonged to the last act. The “Shepherds’ Melodies” for wind sextet, playing for barely a minute and a half, is a little jewel that was applauded as enthusiastically at the Theater an der Wien as the “Romance”, a simple, melancholy strophic song, darkly scored. The two ballets in the score are not clearly related to the story. The first takes up the spirited main motif of the first entr’acte and leads to a lyrical Andante, with gentle wind scoring. It seems more like the accompaniment to a pantomime than a ballet. The second – charming, cheerful, vivacious – could well have served as Rosamunde’s finale.

The most substantial portion of Schubert’s incidental music is surely the entr’actes. The first, on account of its symphonic dimensions and B minor tonality, was performed in London in 1867 as a finale for the “Unfinished”. Fortunately, this didn’t become a tradition: a fragment is a fragment, and there is no concrete evidence to justify the practice. The third entr’acte is a five-part Andantino, whose main theme is built out of the typically Schubertian “wanderer” rhythm. The composer adapted it from his nearly contemporaneous A minor String Quartet, breaking it up with two passages in lively triplet motion – one of the loveliest pieces from Rosamunde.

Dark are the shadows of oblivion that have descended over the play Rosamunde, but no less brilliant is the light shone on the music. Its creator did not live to experience it. Not until many years after his death did posterity discover Schubert’s orchestral music, which his contemporaries had always overlooked in favour of his lieder and dances: belated justice, which included the music for Rosamunde. Liberated from the gothic Romanticism of the business on stage, it has attained a degree of popularity that Schubert could probably have never imagined. Fortunately, adversity isn’t always the school of wisdom.

Shining trumpets from the Magic Horn

Franz Schubert composed everything, including lieder. Gustav Mahler composed almost exclusively symphonies and lieder, at times combining the two genres in a single work. The great majority of his texts he took from an anthology that, according to Goethe, belonged in every household: Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) – 723 poems and lieder, collected and published at the beginning of the 19th century by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The success of this anthology was enormous, and nearly 90 years later it exerted a greater fascination on Mahler than all the poetry of Mörike, Eichendorff Hölderlin etc. Why?

For a start, its lack of sophistication: the poems in the Wunderhorn collection aren’t sacrosanct, polished lyrics in which every word and comma has been pondered to perfection. The editors had no qualms about touching them up, and neither did Mahler, who omitted verses, rewrote others, changed their order, and devised new titles. He treated the Wunderhorn texts like a poetic quarry: “blocks of stone”, as he put it, “which anyone could make their own.”

Mahler also found in them life in concentrated form: nothing human is foreign to the Knaben Wunderhorn, whether profound sorrow or silly banter, hopeful longing or everyday banality, aching loneliness or heady jubilation. The Wunderhorn at the time of its publication may have corresponded to a yearning after lost innocence and the simple life. Mahler, however, refused to indulge in Romantic transfiguration. He is no pedlar of “Once upon a time...” fairy-tales, but takes the texts as seriously as if they described something that had truly just happened.

Lob des hohen Verstandes (In Praise of High Intellect) is not only a musical joke, but also a satirical fable: the size of his ears alone qualifies the donkey to judge the vocal merits of the cuckoo and the nightingale. The joke is that Nightingale’s performance is comparable to Cuckoo’s yet sounds incomprehensible to the Donkey. He declares Cuckoo the winner –a higher intellect ostensibly hears only what it wants to hear.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Shining Trumpets Sound) is not a place where one would choose to be. The song, which combines two Wunderhorn poems and was given a new title, sings of a soldier’s farewell to his lover. Mahler sensitively evokes the setting and atmosphere by the simplest yet subtlest means. At the end, when the soldier sings of the green heath, only some woodwind and shining trumpets are left standing by him. The music knows better than the words.

Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) is a soothing waltz, utterly devoid of satire or melancholy. Curiously, the melody came first: Mahler paged through the Wunderhorn in search of verses to fit one of his musical ideas. The song is an idyll, with a melody that sounds as though it had been around for centuries. Such cosy diversion perhaps does not get under one’s skin in the manner of Mahler’s other, more ambiguous Wunderhorn settings. But that is exactly why the composer loved this collection: its poems and lieder inspired him in so many different ways – to create amusing burlesque, enigmatic profundity and folklike simplicity.

Sea Moods

Gustav Mahler composed symphonies. Claude Debussy composed, at most, symphonic sketches. Deeply mistrustful of traditional practice, he rejected the constraints of all conventions and regarded the beauty of a classical development section as purely technical and of no interest to any one. His own interests were elsewhere: in sensuousness, refinement, nuances and colours. And he hated musical repetition, and if threatened by it, he declared, he would rather grow pineapples than continue devoting himself to music. In La Mer, hardly any bars are repeated, not to mention whole phrases or sections. As a result, the unfolding of the piece is unpredictable: these are sketches, snapshots and sui generis, owing nothing to an established model of exposition, development and recapitulation. The music is self-driven, seeming to grow naturally and spontaneously out of itself – a conception that Debussy loved.

It may at first seem difficult to follow music that does not present themes and that is subject to constant variation. Nevertheless, the titles of the three movements of La Mer provide some clues. “From dawn to noon on the sea”, beginning hesitantly and sparingly scored, intensifies in colour and dynamics up to the end of the movement. “Play of the waves” consists of restlessly flashing figuration, shifting tempos, watery glimmering and airy trembling. “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” ends more like a struggle than a dialogue and like a menacing gale rather than mere wind. The listener is left with much scope for making associations. A vehement opponent of musical nature-painting, Debussy seeks not to describe but to evoke, not to imitate what can be seen in nature but to capture what is unseen. In La Mer he has created a monumental symphonic sketch of inexhaustible fascination, the magnificent image of an infinitely shifting play of sparkling details of colour rhythm and harmony. Completely unacademic. Like the sea...

Claudio Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1966. Between October 1989 and 2002 he was the orchestra’s artistic director, during which period he left a decisive mark on its musical profile and concert programmes, giving the music of the 20th century a prominence equal to that of the Classical and Romantic repertory and focusing each year on a particular theme, often conceived in the context of other genres. In 1994 he also became artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Before taking up his post in Berlin, he had held a whole series of other important appointments. From 1968 to 1986 he was music director of La Scala in his home city of Milan, where he made his debut as a conductor in 1960. From 1986 to 1991 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera and from 1987 general music director of Vienna. In 1988 he founded the Wien Modern Festival, which has since developed into an interdisciplinary festival of contemporary art. In addition, he has always been keen to encourage a new generation of musicians. He founded the European Community Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the predecessors of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Among his many awards are the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London and in the summer of 2005 he received the freedom of the city of Lucerne, where in 2003 he revived the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The nucleus of this last-named orchestra is the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, but its front desks include soloists of the stature of Kolja Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Sabine Meyer and the members of the Hagen Quartet. Since 2004 Claudio Abbado has returned to Berlin on a regular basis to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker. His most recent visit was in May 2008, when he conducted works by Beethoven and Berlioz.

Angelika Kirchschlager is at home in all the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls. She was born in Salzburg and studied the piano at the local Mozarteum before moving to Vienna to take singing lessons with Walter Berry at the city’s Academy of Music. Her earliest engagement was in Die Zauberflöte at the Vienna Kammeroper, an engagement that quickly led to other – predominantly Mozartian – roles, including Cherubino, Dorabella and Zerlina. Since 1993 she has been a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble, and here her repertory has included not only the great Mozart roles but also works by Richard Strauss, Offenbach, Debussy, Johann Strauß and Handel. In June 2007 she was appointed Kammersängerin of the Vienna State Opera by the Austrian Chancellor. In 2002 Angelika Kirchschlager sang the title role in the world premiere of Nicholas Maw’s opera Sophie’s Choice at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Other leading conductors with whom she has worked are Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Colin Davis. Her concert repertory ranges from Bach to Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Wolf and Weill. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of 1995 under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Her most recent appearance was in Weill’s ballet chanté, Die sieben Todsünden, in June 2007 under Sir Simon Rattle. Angelika Kirchschlager teaches at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, is the oldest radio choir in Germany. Famous German conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber conducted concerts and radio broadcasts with the choir during the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, principal conductor Helmut Koch established its reputation as a Handel specialist on tours which took it through most countries of Europe. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) developed the tradition of performing premieres of contemporary music; Robin Gritton took over the leadership in 1994. Since 2001 Simon Halsey has infected the Rundfunkchor with his enthusiasm and vitality. Made up of 64 full-time professional singers, the choir appears in approx. 50 concerts worldwide each season. An impeccable and meaningful declamation of the text in any language required is the basis and starting-point for the choir’s work. It has built particularly close relationships with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester under Ingo Metzmacher, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Its high standard, wide-ranging repertoire and versatility are borne out by long list of award-winning CD releases. The recording of Stravinsky’s Psalm Symphony under Sir Simon Rattle received the 2009 Grammy Award for the best choral recording.

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