Claudio Abbado conducts Schubert, Brahms and Schoenberg

Claudio Abbado conducts Schubert, Brahms and Schoenberg

16 May 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado

Christianne Stotijn, Jonas Kaufmann

  • Franz Schubert
    Gretchen am Spinnrade, D 118 · Nacht und Träume, D 827 · Erlkönig, D 328 (14 min.)

    Christianne Stotijn Mezzo-Soprano

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Gurre-Lieder: Part 1 No. 11 Orchestral Prelude · No. 12 Lied der Waldtaube (Song of the Wood Dove) (21 min.)

    Christianne Stotijn Mezzo-Soprano

  • Johannes Brahms
    Rinaldo, cantata, op. 50 (47 min.)

    Jonas Kaufmann Tenor, Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Men of the Bavarian Radio Chorus

  • free

    Works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Brahms: An introduction by Simon Halsey (16 min.)

There are conductors who, with advancing years, gradually pare back their repertoire. And then there was Claudio Abbado, who tirelessly introduced exquisite rarities to the public at his guest appearances in Berlin – as was the case in this concert featuring works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Brahms. Abbado was joined this evening by Christianne Stotijn and Jonas Kaufmann.

The concert opens with rarely heard orchestral arrangements of three Schubert lieder. The beauty and independent substance of the original piano accompaniments enjoy recurring praise, so it will be particularly appealing to hear these interpreted by the Berliner Philharmoniker. With Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder we then encounter original orchestral lieder, a work which proved to be this artist’s greatest success. The concert then closes with Brahms’s cantata Rinaldo which has never been performed before by the Berliner Philharmoniker and gives us an idea of what an opera by this composer might have sounded like.

The evening’s soloists are among the new star of the classical music scene. A contemporary review in the Times wrote: “Among young mezzo-sopranos, Christianne Stotijn is in a class apart”, and the year before, critics polled by Opernwelt named tenor shooting star Jonas Kaufmann “Singer of the Year”.

Poem – symphonic!

Vocal Works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Brahms

Hector Berlioz was among the first composers to orchestrate the piano accompaniments of songs for performance in large concert halls. His orchestral version of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig D 328 had its premiere on 27 August 1860 in Baden-Baden. In his arrangement, this French composer and master orchestrator reinforces the ballad’s dramatic features while, at the same time, creating new colours and nuances, as when the breathless repeated triplets of the introduction move from strings to wind, just before the voice enters, and in the falling pppp string figures suggesting the Erl-King’s seductive power (“Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!”).

Max Reger’s first eight instrumentations of Schubert lieder date from 1913 and 1914. In Gretchen am Spinnrade D 118 he assigns to the second violins the running semiquavers (16th notes) that symbolise the spinning-wheel’s constant, unvarying motion. Unlike Berlioz, Reger always doubles the voice with instruments colla parte: at first with first violins colouring the vocal part, later with woodwind and strings in alternation. In the song’s two great expressive swells, the voice is supported by four instrumental groups – Gretchen’s inner turmoil is transformed into sounds of ecstasy. In Nacht und Träume D 827 Reger achieves a dreamily contemplative mood by means of muted strings and a pp descending horn line.

“Schubert never thought about composing for a specific individual, for the court or the clergy, for magnates or the people. It was sufficient for him to have written for the best people, and so it turned out to be for everyone,” wrote Arnold Schoenberg in 1928. Schubert’s artistic independence was always a model for Schoenberg, whose works were for the most part vociferously rejected by the public. Even at the world premiere of Gurre-Lieder on 23 February 1913 in Vienna, concertgoers had bunches of keys readily available to make noise during the concert. The evening, however, turned out to be one of the controversial composer’s few unqualified successes. From the very first bar, the audience was enraptured by this richly colourful, luxuriant music. Schoenberg, who by 1913 had long since parted ways with tonality, seemed to be reverting to a thoroughly late-Romantic compositional style.

He had begun Gurre-Lieder in March 1900, initially conceiving the work as a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano to enter in a competition sponsored by the Vienna Composers Society. Over its repeatedly interrupted course of composition, however, the work’s dimensions kept expanding. Schoenberg orchestrated the songs and added interludes. When he set the still unfinished Gurre-Lieder aside in 1903, the final chorus had only been sketched. From July 1910 to November 1911 he returned to the piece and completed the scoring, unprecedented in scale, calling for some 150 orchestral musicians and four choruses.

The massive work is a setting of poems from Gurresange by Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847 – 1885). Schoenberg had discovered the influential Danish writer’s 1869 cycle in a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold. He was fascinated by this saga of the medieval Danish king Valdemar (Waldemar in German) and his secret lover Tove Lille (Little Dove), who is murdered by Valdemar’s jealous wife Helvig.

The first of Gurre-Lieder’s three parts ends with the orchestral interlude and the Song of the Wood-Dove that immediately follows it. In the nine preceding songs, Waldemar and Tove have sung of their burgeoning love, accompanied by great waves of orchestral sonority. Ecstatic outbursts are juxtaposed with passages of darkness and despair – the proximity of death can be sensed throughout Tove’s concluding song “Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick” (“You send me a loving glance and then avert your eyes”). The songs are joined by brief interludes. Waldemar’s last song in Part I (“Du wunderliche Tove” – “Wonderful Tove, you have given me such richness!”) leads to the long orchestral interlude of reminiscence in which the lovers’ story passes once again in review. Opening quietly, with warm string colours, it increases in intensity to reach an ecstatic ff affirmation of this impossible love.

Then, in tones of deep lamentation, Tove’s death is announced in the Song of the Wood-Dove (“Tauben von Gurre!” – “Doves of Gurre, I am plagued by sorrow!”). March rhythms evoke the funeral procession with Tove’s coffin, while King Waldemar’s world is depicted with spiky dotted rhythms on the brass. The tension in the song’s last line (“Helwigs Falke war’s, der grausam Gurres Taube zerriss” – “It was Helvig’s falcon that has cruelly slaughtered Gurre’s dove”) culminates in a powerful outburst before weighty B flat minor brass chords and dark timpani strokes conclude the dramatic scene. In today’s performance, these sections of Gurre-Lieder are heard in the version with reduced orchestration made in 1922-23 by Erwin Stein.

The same sort of great public success that Schoenberg achieved with his Gurre-Lieder was sought by Johannes Brahms with his Rinaldo op. 50. In October 1853, Robert Schumann in the essay “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”) had sung the praises of a still completely unknown Hamburg composer, referring to him as “a young man at whose cradle the Graces and heroes kept watch ... If he will lower his magic wand where the resources of massed chorus and orchestra can lend him their powers, still more wonderful glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit-world are in store for us”. It was with compositions for chorus and orchestra like the German Requiem op.45 that Brahms would make his breakthrough. The first work of this type was Rinaldo, like Gurre-Lieder a secular cantata for chorus (though only one), soloists and orchestra. But there are other similarities between the two compositions: Rinaldo was also conceived for a (choral) competition, and, like Schoenberg, Brahms was at first unable to complete the work and only some years later wrote the final chorus.

The text is a poem written in 1811 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, reflecting on a well-known episode from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). The crusader Rinaldo falls under the spell of the enchantress Armida and is being held on her magic island. It is only when Rinaldo’s comrades show him a diamond shield and he recognises the reflection of a dishonourable knight that he comes to his senses and sets off with his friends for the Holy Land.

In the orchestral introduction to Rinaldo, syncopation obscures the rhythmic pulse and sudden modulations undermine tonal stability. Armida’s magic isle is having its effect, against which even the self-confident first chorus “Zu dem Strande!” (“To the shore, to the boat!”) is of little avail: Rinaldo has fallen in love (“O lasst mich einen Augenblick noch hier!” – “O let me remain here a moment longer!”). An urgent choral fugato demanding that Rinaldo be shown the diamond shield affords the hero a brief respite. Here the sense of metre is weakened and time seems to stand still. At last the knight comes to his senses (“Ja, so sei’s! Ich will mich fassen” – “Yes, it is so! I will collect myself!”), but then he succumbs a second time to Armida’s charms. At the end, however, reason prevails: in the concluding double chorus, entitled “Auf dem Meere” (“At Sea”), not composed until 1868, Brahms dispels all doubt and depicts the optimistic spirit of departure with bright colours and high tessitura in the vocal parts.

Only a few weeks after composing the bulk of Rinaldo, his first work for chorus and orchestra, Brahms was engaged as director of the Vienna Singakademie. Now he was finally in a position, as Schumann had called for early on, to devote himself to the masses. The Hamburg composer’s career was gaining momentum, and even the social advancement for which he had long been yearning was now secured.

Georg Rudiger
Translation: Richard Evidon

Claudio Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1966. In October 1989 he was appointed the orchestra’s artistic director, and between then and 2002 he fashioned its artistic profile and shaped its concert programmes in many decisive ways, granting the music of the 20th century a status equal to that of the Classical and Romantic periods and helping to decide which areas of the repertory should receive particular attention each season. In 1994 he also assumed the artistic direction of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Prior to taking up his post in Berlin, Claudio Abbado had held a number of other important positions. From 1968 to 1986 he was director of music of La Scala in his native Milan, where he had made his conducting debut in 1960. Between 1986 and 1991 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera and from 1987 was also general music director of the city. In 1988 he established the Wien Modern Festival. He has always been keen to foster new talent, and it was this desire that led him to form the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra) and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Since 2005 he has also worked with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. Among Claudio Abbado’s awards are the Gold Medal of the International Mahler Society and the Großes Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, and in the summer of 2005 he was given the freedom of the city of Lucerne, where in 2003 he had revived the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first desks of this last-named orchestra are filled with international soloists of the eminence of Kolja Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Sabine Meyer and the members of the Hagen Quartet. Since 2004 Claudio Abbado has returned to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker on frequent occasions, most recently in May 2009, when he presented a programme of works by Schubert, Mahler and Debussy.

Jonas Kaufmann studied singing at the Academy of Music in his native Munich. Even while he was still a student, he was already appearing in comprimario roles at the Bavarian State Opera and the Theater am Gärtnerplatz. He also attended masterclasses with Hans Hotter and Josef Metternich. It was, however, with Michael Rhodes that he perfected his vocal technique. A prizewinner in the 1993 Nuremberg Mastersingers’ Competition, he was a member of the Saarbrücken State Theatre from 1994 to 1996. Since 2001 he has been closely associated with the Zurich Opera. His wide-ranging repertory has taken him to leading opera houses in Europe and the United States of America as well as the Salzburg and Edinburgh Festivals and important concert halls all over the world. During the present season he has enjoyed great personal success as Bizet’s Don José at La Scala, Milan, in the title role in Massenet’s Werther at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. For his performances as Wagner’s Lohengrin at the 2009 Munich Opera Festival he was voted Singer of the Year by the German-language magazine Opernwelt. Among the conductors with whom Jonas Kaufmann has worked to date are Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Michael Gielen and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. An important part of his schedule is devoted to lieder recitals with his regular accompanist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he has appeared throughout Europe and as far afield as Japan. Jonas Kaufmann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2003 in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust under the direction of Charles Dutoit. He was last heard here in late August 2004 as the tenor soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Sir Simon Rattle, a concert that marked the opening of the orchestra’s 2004/2005 season.

Christianne Stotijn was born in Delft and initially learnt the violin, gaining a soloist’s diploma at the Amsterdam Conservatory in 2000, before studying singing in Metz, London and Amsterdam. Her teachers have included Udo Reinemann, Jard van Nes and Dame Janet Baker. In 2005 she was awarded the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award and joined the BBC’s New Generation Artist Scheme. In 2008 she won the Netherlands Music Prize. Among the opera companies where she has sung to date are major houses in Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, London and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. She is particularly fond of lieder singing and both in this capacity and as a concert singer she has appeared in leading concert halls all over the world. Among the orchestras with which she has appeared are the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and Concerto Köln, while the conductors under whom she has worked include René Jacobs, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Philippe Herreweghe and Gustavo Dudamel. She has been particularly acclaimed for her performances of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Orchestre National de France under the direction of Bernard Haitink, with whom she has worked closely since the start of her career. Christianne Stotijn made her debut with the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker in the middle of December 2008 when she performed Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten op. 15 in the foundation’s Chamber Music Room with the pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus was formed in 1946 and is the oldest of the station’s three ensembles. Its artistic fortunes have always gone hand in hand with those of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose principal conductor – currently Mariss Jansons – holds the same position with the chorus, working in close association with its chorus master. From 1990 to 2005 the chorus master was Michael Gläser, who transformed the choir into one of the world’s leading ensembles and brought it to international attention. Since 2005 its chorus master has been Peter Dijkstra, who was born in the Netherlands in 1978. Thanks to its homogeneity of timbre and a stylistic versatility that encompasses all periods and genres, the Bavarian Radio Chorus is much sought after by leading orchestras throughout Europe. Since 1998 it has had its own series of subscription concerts at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. The Bavarian Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March, when it took part in performances of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem under the direction of Mariss Jansons.

The Berlin Radio Chorus was formed in 1925 and quickly built up an enviable reputation for itself under conductors of the eminence of George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. Following the end of the Second World War it earned a name for itself on the international circuit by performing Handel’s oratorios in their original form under its principal conductor Helmut Koch. Dietrich Knothe, who was in charge from 1982 to 1993, turned the Berlin Radio Chorus into a precision instrument for some of the most difficult works in the repertory, while his successor, Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001), enriched and refined its range of colours. Since 2001 its music director has been Simon Halsey, who sets particular store by stylistically and linguistically perfect performances of works of all periods and styles, while ensuring that those performances are exciting and filled with life. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule, and their recent CD of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle won the 2009 Grammy Award for the best choral recording. Simon Halsey has also initiated many education projects with the Berlin Radio Chorus. Once a year the Chorus holds a concert at which the audience is invited to sing along. The Berlin Radio Chorus works with leading orchestras and conductors all over the world and has long had particularly close links with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the German Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Berlin Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April, when they performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Jonas Kaufmann appears by kind permission of Decca Classics.

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