Reinhold Glière’s Horn Concerto with Radek Baborak and Dmitri Kitayenko

29 May 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Dmitrij Kitajenko

Radek Baborák

  • Béla Bartók
    Hungarian Sketches, Sz 97 (16 min.)

  • Reinhold Glière
    Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in B flat major, op. 91 (41 min.)

    Radek Baborák Horn

  • Alexander Scriabin
    Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 43 “Le divin poème” (55 min.)

Radek Baborak, who was principal horn player with the Berliner Philharmoniker for almost a decade, returns to the Philharmonie in this concert, but this time as soloist in the Horn Concerto by Russian composer Reinhold Glière. The evening’s conductor, Dmitrij Kitajenko, has been associated with the Berliner Philharmoniker since he won the first Herbert von Karajan competition in 1969.

Glière is one of the less frequently played composers, as is also demonstrated by the Berliner Philharmoniker who, before this concert, had last performed one of his works in 1948. He is best known today as Prokofiev’s and Khachaturian’s teacher – as well as for his Horn Concerto, in which a nostalgic tone conjuring up Western Romanticism is charmingly blended with Russian folk songs.

In the second half of the concert, we encounter in Alexander Scriabin one of the most eccentric composers in music history. Driven by messianic fervour, with his highly idiosyncratic music he sought no less than to transform mankind into “nobler beings”. His tendency towards the transcendental can be heard, for example, in his Third Symphony – a philosophically laden piece of programme music in which the composer sings a hymn to the freedom of the spirit.

In Search of Genuine Folk Music

Avoiding the superfluous

When Béla Bartók turned his attention to the music of Hungarian peasants at the beginning of the 20th century, it was – as the composer himself emphasised – “a kind of longing for the unknown, an indefinable premonition that we would be able to discover genuine folk music only among the peasants.” His studies led Bartók to maintain that a folk melody “is a musical example of a perfected art”. He even considered it “quite as much a masterpiece, for instance, in miniature, as a Bach fugue or a Mozart sonata movement is a masterpiece in larger form.” Henceforth Bartók would be faced with the compositional challenge of incorporating elements of various folk idioms while processing the progressive developments in new European music.

The fruits of Bartók’s folk-music research found their way into various piano works he composed between 1908 and 1911. Out of four of these collections he compiled and orchestrated five pieces in 1931 to form the suite Hungarian Sketches: a symmetrically organised cycle in which movements in the style of Hungarian folksong are followed by scherzos. Bartók wrote the melodies of the first piece (“Evening in the Village”) in the style of Transylvanian folk tunes. The “Bear Dance” with its characteristic melody in 8/4 time represents “Bartók’s first wildly grotesque, bitingly ironic, almost orgiastic work” (György Król). The rather mournful “Melody” is again a work of folk inspiration. In the scherzo that comes next, “Slightly Tipsy”, Bartók depicts the effortful staggering of an inebriated man on his way home. The concluding “Ürög’s Swineherd’s Dance” imitates a Hungarian shepherd’s flute. It ends surprisingly: the dance becomes slower and dreamier; the shepherd retreats into the distance and has nearly vanished when a powerful chord brings the piece to a close.

“Mellow sonorities, Romantic harmonies, suave lyricism”

Most of the composer Reinhold Glière’s works are rarely performed nowadays in his Russian homeland, and elsewhere he’s known primarily for his Third Symphony “Ilya Muromets” and two string sextets. At the root of his neglect is surely the fact that Glière never developed an unmistakable, individual musical language. He straddled different trends and styles without being able to synthesise them and make them his own. A contemporary of Debussy, Scriabin and Richard Strauss – he was born in Kiev in 1875 and died in Moscow in 1956 – Glière embodied the classical tradition in tsarist Russia and later in the Soviet Union. His nationalist works such as the operas Shakh-Senem (1923), Gyulsara (1936) and Leyli i Mejnum (1940) initially were regarded as pioneering models for approaching folk music of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, but later they were also viewed critically as “documents of colonial cultural politics” (Christoph Flamm) – Glière’s preoccupation with folk music was instigated by the state. His style was characterised by his pupil Sergei Bugoslavski in 1927 as one of “constant, unvarying, mellow sonorities, not especially daring Romantic harmonies, suave lyricism deriving from Russian song and Russian orientalism, sometimes also from French opera cantilena, avoidance of eccentricity and the grotesque, coherent flow of expression, no overloading of detail.”

Glière wrote his Horn Concerto in B flat major op. 91 for the long-serving principal horn of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Valery Polekh. The work was complete in manuscript in winter 1950. Polekh studied it, suggested a few revisions to the composer, wrote a cadenza and was soloist at the premiere in Leningrad in May 1951. Considering that this work was created at the same time as John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape, Pierre Boulez’s Structures, György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata and the Preludes and Fugues for piano by Dmitri Shostakovich, it can only seem an anachronism. But that has not dimmed its popularity among horn players, who prize Glière’s Concerto, not only for its challenges and opportunities to display the instrument’s versatility, but also because it allows the horn to sing and luxuriate in a manner rarely encountered elsewhere in the repertoire.

“Sublime, voluptuous, divine”

Alexander Scriabin is an anomaly in Russian music history. He was the country’s “only true Romantic musician” (in the words of his friend and brother-in-law, the music critic Boris de Schloezer) and, as a synaesthetic, who connected sounds with colours and scents, dreamt of an amalgamation of poetry, drama, music, dance, colours and perfume to be performed in a kind of temple. As a young composer Scriabin developed a strong interest in philosophy and literature and preferred their social circles to keeping company with other musicians. After having composed piano works almost exclusively, just before the turn of the century he began devoting himself to orchestral music. Within eleven years he produced three symphonies as well as the symphonic poems Poème de l’extase and “Prométhée” – Poème du feu for chorus and orchestra.

It was the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, begun in Russia in 1902 and completed in Switzerland in 1904, that brought Scriabin’s breakthrough. Both its subtitle Le Divin Poème and the titles of its three movements – “Luttes” (Struggles), “Voluptés” (Sensual Pleasures) and “Jeu Divin” (Divine Play) – derive from a programme based on the composer’s notes and written down by his second wife Tatyana de Schloezer: “‘Struggles’ depicts the conflict between the individual as pawn of a personified deity and the free individual who bears divinity within himself. The latter appears to triumph, but his will is still too weak to affirm its own divinity. He sinks into the pleasures of the sensual world. That is the content of the second movement, ‘Sensual Pleasures’. There, growing out of the depths of his being, a sublime force helps him to overcome his weakness and, in the last movement, ‘Divine Play’, his spirit, released from its submission to a higher power, abandons itself to the joy of a free existence.”

Scriabin apparently later withdrew these notes – they were not printed at the world premiere in Paris in 1905. In the score, however, are indications that elucidate or comment on the programme. In the second movement, for example, one finds “sublime”, “voluptueux”, “avec un ivresse débordante” (with unbounded intoxication), “avec abandon”, “pâmé” (swooning), “sensuel, passionné, caressant” and “divin essor” (divine burgeoning).

The Third Symphony consists of three movements corresponding to the classical pattern (sonata form, three-part song form, sonata form) but following each other without a break and thematically inter-related: the double-motive theme of the opening movement’s grandiose introduction recurs throughout the work, while the main theme of the second movement is also present in the outer movements. The first movement is marked by the stark contrast inherent in “struggles” – between powerful outbursts of the large orchestra and moments of restraint and calm. The orgiastic middle movement, with its suggestive violin solos, builds to a climax of “unbounded intoxication”. The artfully scored, dancelike finale is dominated by the trumpet’s main theme (“with radiant joy”).

The programme of the “Divine Poem” can be an aid to understanding, but this is really a piece of absolute music which, as the critic of Signale für die Musicalische Welt wrote after the German premiere in 1905, “can be appreciated without any knowledge of its programmatic background”.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Radek Baborak was born near Prague in 1976 and began to play the French horn when he was eight. In 1988 he won the Czech Republic’s Competition for the Interpretation of Contemporary Music and the following year was awarded the first prize in the Concertino Praga International Radio Competition. He completed his studies summa cum laude with Bedřich Tylšar at the Prague Academy of Music in 1994. First prizes in a number of other competitions, including the UNESCO and ARD Competitions, laid the foundations for a career that very soon took him from his native Czechoslovakia to the Munich Philharmonic. From May 2003 to the end of 2009 he was principal horn player with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest soloist are the London Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic of Prague, the St Petersburg Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo. Radek Baborak is also a passionate chamber musician, in which capacity he has appeared in numerous international centres of music and within the framework of many leading festivals.

Dmitri Kitaenko studied at the prestigious Glinka School of Music and the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in his native Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He later had lessons with Leo Ginzburg in Moscow and attended the legendary conducting class of Hans Swarowsky and Karl Österreicher in Vienna. He won the first International Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in Berlin in 1969 and was only twenty-nine when he became principal conductor of Moscow’s famous Stanislavsky Theatre. Throughout the early 1970s he conducted a large number of operas to great acclaim not only in Moscow but also in leading houses in western Europe. In 1976 he became principal conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and remained there for fourteen years, building up the ensemble until it could be numbered among the world’s great orchestras. He also appeared with them in leading centres of music in Europe, America and Japan. Dmitri Kitaenko left the Soviet Union in 1990 and became principal conductor of both the Hessen Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt and the Bergen Philharmonic. He was also principal guest conductor of the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Among the orchestras with whom he regularly works are the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Filarmonica della Scala and several North American orchestras. Dmitri Kitaenko made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 1972 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in mid-December 2007, when he conducted a programme of works by Lyadov, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. In March 2009 he was named conductor emeritus of the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra, with whom he has recorded all of Shostakovich’s symphonies. He is only the second conductor after Günter Wand to hold this title.

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