Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jiří Bělohlávek

24 Apr 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Jiří Bělohlávek

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

  • Leoš Janáček
    From the House of the Dead, instrumental suite from the opera (23 min.)

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 42 (23 min.)

    Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98 (46 min.)

  • free

    Pierre-Laurent Aimard in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (19 min.)

“The Berliner Philharmoniker are passionate, demanding, yet at the same time likeable people. They are rightly described as the best orchestra in Europe,” was how Jiří Bělohlávek once expressed his enthusiasm about the Philharmoniker. In this concert the Czech conductor made a guest appearance at the Philharmonie together with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

It comes as little surprise that Bělohlávek should open the evening with a work by one of his fellow countrymen: a suite from Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead. After all, ever since his 1986 début with the Philharmoniker, Bělohlávek has always brought music from his native land for his guest appearances. He appreciated the drama and powerful colours of Czech music as much as he did the warm and gentle sound of late-Romantic German music – possibly because he had Sergiu Celibidache as a teacher, a peerless interpreter of this German sound. This facet of Bělohlávek’s repertoire is represented here by Brahms’ Fourth Symphony

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is also a regular guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker – particularly since his time as Pianist in Residence in the 2006–07 season. In this concert, he plays Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto – a work that proves just how colourful, lively and un-cerebral twelve-tone music can be. The review in the Berliner Morgenpost showed that Aimard successfully brought out the sensuous side of the concerto: “Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the miracle worker on the piano, threw himself into the Schoenberg and showed the way in and out of the formal barriers of the dodecaphony Schoenberg set up in his piano concerto.”

Life could be so beautiful!

Existential confessions in late works by Janáček, Schoenberg and Brahms

“In every creature a spark of God”

Leoš Janáček had already completed a long line of operatic masterpieces when at the age of seventy-three he sat down at the piano with a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead and started work on a new opera, preparing his own libretto, sticking closely to the original, shortening many passages and introducing a number of cinematographic jump cuts. He completed Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) in June 1928. The result is one of the most puzzling and troubling stage works of the 20th century. Dostoevsky’s novel had appeared in a series of instalments between 1860 and 1862 and describes the numbingly dreary everyday life in a Siberian prison camp, whereas Janáček transformed his socio-critical source into an oratorio upholding the rights of the humiliated and downtrodden masses. The Russian writer’s Christian message was so important to Janáček that he prefaced his score with a sentence from Dostoevsky: “In every creature a spark of God.”

In 1988 two Czech musicologists, Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň, discovered that Janáček had originally intended to write a violin concerto before using the musical material in his opera, a functional shift that is fully in keeping with the composer’s musical language, with its vivid and angular ostinato patterns that could just as well derive from a setting of the Mass as they could from a drama on the subject of burning jealousy. To that extent the instrumental suite prepared by František Jilek on the basis of the opera loses none of the original’s impact.

“But life goes on”

Only a few years after Janáček had adapted Dostoevsky’s novel for his grim yet tender and compassionate opera, Arnold Schoenberg discovered for himself the importance of maintaining a semblance of human dignity in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. In 1933 he was obliged to abandon his composition class at the Berlin Academy of the Arts. The following July he formally converted back to his Jewish faith in a synagogue in Paris. And in October he and his family arrived in New York. By 1941 he had taken American citizenship and could number George Gershwin among his new friends.

In 1942 a mutual acquaintance of these two very different composers invited Schoenberg to write a short piano piece for him, but within months the material had been turned into a concerto, which the acquaintance in question – the pianist and entertainer Oscar Levant – did not in the event perform. As with Janáček’s final opera, the unusual form of the Piano Concerto op. 42 – Schoenberg’s last great orchestral composition – may well be due to the shift that took place in its early conception. Although the concerto is a single-movement work, it falls into four clearly defined sections: a waltz (Andante), a scherzo (Molto allegro), an Adagio and a final rondo marked “Giocoso”. The fleet-footed solo with which the work begins recalls the piece’s origins as a composition for piano solo.

A surviving sketch containing four movement headings provides an insight into Schoenberg’s programmatical design for the work: “Life was so easy / Suddenly hatred broke out / A grave situation was created / But life goes on.” These titles can easily be applied to the four sections of the Piano Concerto, more especially to the second section, the percussive writing of which is suggestive of persecution, and to the third, with its classical expression of grief and mourning. But it is difficult to demonstrate that Schoenberg was really exploring “the fate and history of the Jews” in this work, as Hartmut Krones has claimed in his biography of the composer. Its core message seems, rather, to be summed up in the last of the movement headings, which speaks of humanity in much more general terms: “But life goes on.” It is this that continues to constitute the invigorating strength of the work.

“The cherries hereabouts do not grow sweet”

Whenever he thought about the musical idol of his youth, Schoenberg was in no doubt about the importance of Johannes Brahms for his own creative output – not even after he had crossed the Rubicon of twelve-note music and in the opinion of many of his contemporaries burnt the bridges that led back to the world of more traditional music. Time and again he expressed his thoughts on the compositional logic of his model, which he defined by reference to the oft-quoted and altogether paradoxical term “developing variation” and which he regarded as central to his own view of the musical world: “It is the most important ability of a composer to cast a glance at the most distant future of his themes and motifs. He must be capable of recognising in advance the consequences of the problems inherent in his material and must be able to organise everything accordingly.”

It is against this background that Brahms’s Symphony no. 4 in E minor op. 98 has become the happy hunting ground for many analysts – and not just because Brahms himself placed the coping stone on his symphonic output by writing a set of thirty variations on a theme by Johann Sebastian Bach. With their symmetrically falling thirds and rising sixths, the first four bars of the work provide the melodic and harmonic structure of the symphony as a whole. The opening Allegro non troppo is cast in first-movement sonata form and develops along such brisk and self-contained lines (the second subject in the cellos emerges almost unnoticed from the bridge passage with the interval of a seventh) that the listener’s ability to follow the composer is stretched to its very limits and can easily end in disappointment. This was certainly the reaction of Brahms’s own circle of friends, none of whom found the Fourth particularly palatable. When the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick – regarded by the Brahmins as their champion – looked through the opening movement, he admitted to feeling that he had been “beaten up by two terribly intelligent people”.

Brahms anticipated this criticism when he wrote his final symphony in Mürzzuschlag in Styria during the summer months of 1884 and 1885, and yet – if we may take his surly understatement seriously – he was not particularly worried by it. In 1885 he told the conductor Hans von Bülow that “there are a couple of entr’actes here – the sort of thing that taken together people generally call a symphony”. But he had misgivings about the work’s ability to endear itself to its listeners: “I’m afraid that it tastes like the climate here – the cherries hereabouts do not grow sweet, you wouldn’t want to eat them!”

Brahms’s reference to “entr’actes” conjures up the distant world of theatre music and has led some commentators to speculate about possible programmatical elements in the Fourth Symphony. Certainly, the four movements are very different in character from one another and may indeed remind the listener of incidental music in the theatre: the nostalgically discursive opening movement in E minor is followed by an understated Andante that opens in the Phrygian mode on E. This in turn gives way to a strangely boisterous, almost exuberant Scherzo in C major that ill consorts with the bold classicism of the final movement, which is again in the key of E minor.

Common to all four movements is their insistence on the sonata-form model even at those points in a piece where composers traditionally depart from it – it is almost as if Brahms were keen to prove the superiority of this system over the older dance forms from which the third and fourth movements ought really to have drawn their inspiration. And so we find Brahms embedding a Baroque passacaglia – variations on a bass ostinato – in a sonata form in the final movement. The first eight chords in the winds spell out the theme of the passacaglia, which Brahms took over from the final chorus of Bach’s Cantata 150 “Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich”, a work that Brahms is believed to have got to know in 1874. He encountered it again when the old complete edition of Bach’s works was published at about the time that he started work on the symphony. A virtuoso exponent of variation technique, he subjected the theme to thirty variations, finally discovering in the twenty-ninth and thirtieth of them the main theme from the symphony’s opening movement – a magnificent, albeit hidden coping stone to Brahms’s symphonic output.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Pierre-Laurent Aimard was born in Lyons in 1957 and studied with Yvonne Loriod and Maria Curcio at the Paris Conservatoire. His international career began in 1973 when he won the International Messiaen Competition. He spent eighteen years as solo pianist with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, taking part in the world premieres of a large number of new works and in doing so laying the foundations for his present reputation as one of the most distinguished interpreters of contemporary music. But he is equally well known for his ability to throw new light on apparently familiar pieces and for his work in championing music from all periods, including the latest trends, which he does through the conversazioni and classes that he holds at colleges in Paris and Cologne. Voted Instrumentalist of the Year by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2005 and by Musical America in 2007, he was artistic director of the 2008 Messiaen Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. He is currently artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. Pierre-Laurent Aimard first appeared at the Philharmonie in December 1997 within the framework of the piano recitals organized by the Berliner Philharmoniker. Since then he has returned on many occasions for symphony and chamber concerts as well as for solo recitals. During the 2006/07 season he was also the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence. His most recent appearance was in December 2009, when he gave a piano recital in the Chamber Music Room, performing works by Mozart, George Benjamin, Stockhausen and Beethoven.

Jiří Bělohlávek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946 and studied initially at the Prague Conservatory and Academy of Performing Arts, later taking conducting lessons with Sergiu Celibidache. For two decades from the early 1970s onwards he was closely associated with opera companies and orchestras in his native country, including the Brno State Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Czech National Theatre and the Czech Philharmonic. Among the highlights of his international career have been prize-winning productions of Jenůfa and Tristan und Isolde at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2000 and 2003 respectively and Katya Kabanová at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For the Komische Oper in Berlin, Jiří Bělohlávek has conducted Smetana’s The Secret and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. In 1994 he formed the Prague Philharmonia, remaining its music director until 2005/06. In July 2006 he became principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, having been its principal guest conductor since 1995. Among the orchestras with whom he works regularly are the New York, Munich, London and Stockholm Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1986 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in July 2008, when he conducted Smetana’s Má vlast in Aix-en-Provence.

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