Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven, Haydn and Widmann

23 Sep 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Emmanuel Pahud

  • Joseph Haydn
    Symphony No. 95 in C minor (22 min.)

  • Jörg Widmann
    Flûte en suite for flute and orchestra groups (European première) (29 min.)

    Emmanuel Pahud Flute

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92 (41 min.)

  • free

    Jörg Widmann in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (17 min.)

Joseph Haydn’s C minor symphony (No. 95), composed in 1791, is in many ways strikingly different from the other London Symphonies. It is the only one in a minor key, in addition to which Haydn dispensed with the slow introduction: right from the first tutti beat, the listeners are “in medias res”. What is also remarkable is the final rondo in which the lyrical tone is evidence of an engagement with Mozart’s late symphonies.

A revealing debate with tradition is also manifest in Jörg Widmann’s creative work. The composer says: “I don’t consider what is new a self-contained quality.” The performance of Widmann’s concerto Flûte en suite for flute and orchestral groups will feature Philharmonic principal flautist Emmanuel Pahud, who, after the work’s premiere in Cleveland in 2011, will be the first to perform the work in Europe. According to the composer, the work is “an arrangement of small sections like a suite, a collection of different dance forms. Almost each individual movement juxtaposes the solo flute with just one specific timbre, one instrumental group from the orchestra.”

After the interval the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle will dedicate themselves to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work that – with its hymn-like sounds and ecstatic rhythms – was celebrated as the “crown of the more recent instrumental music” by the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung after its premiere on 8 December 1813. The stirring piece, which advanced to become an audience favourite within a very short time, the reviewer continued, is the “most tuneful, pleasing and comprehensive of all Beethoven symphonies”. More than a century later, Theodor W. Adorno even called it “the symphony par excellence”.

Listening as a Collective Act

Haydn, Widmann, Beethoven and Their Appeal for Audiences

Works in minor keys are rather rare occurrences in Viennese Classicism. The minor mode represents harshness and austerity, passion and pain – thus creating a tension which, if it cannot be resolved in the work, is at least bearable. Not until many years later, beginning around 1870, did expectations change; the moods associated with minor keys were no longer interpreted as temporary imbalances but pervaded the underlying existential emotion. Although this shift in the meaning of the “other” mode appears to confirm the trivial difference between a supposedly cheerful Classicism and a Romanticism haunted by psychological turmoil, it can scarcely be attributed solely to the composer’s need for expression. The late 19th century regarded the high-energy minor tonalities not least as triggers for intense conflict, which a larger-scale work could not do without. The choice between major and minor was even less a question of subjective mood for Haydn and his colleagues prior to 1800. The practice of publishing collections of several works with the same form – whether sonatas, quartets or symphonies – required a variety of tones and emotions from the start. Thus, a work in a minor key always served as a contrasting element within the bigger picture.

Light-Hearted and Charming – Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor

The Symphony No. 95, which dates from the beginning of Haydn’s first stay in London in 1791/92, is the last in which the composer deviates from the convention of a major key. With a duration of approximately 20 minutes, it is not only the briefest of the twelve London symphonies but also the least pretentious, since Haydn dispenses with a slow introduction in the first movement for a change. The work’s formal structure is unproblematic, and the tone is as light-hearted as it is charming – almost the opposite of what listeners expected from a minor symphony at that time. The terse unison motif with which the Allegro moderato abruptly opens “in medias res” is strikingly serious. It does not reveal a fundamental character, however, but instead provides a concise structural unit which Haydn immediately begins to combine. The modulation to E-flat major already begins in bar 15, arriving at the skipping second theme after a brief section. While the tightly knit development exploits the contrapuntal possibilities of the themes to the full, the recapitulation immediately takes a relaxed turn towards major. The accidentals are eliminated, and the clouds are dispersed for good.

It almost seems as though Haydn is continually trying to find the quickest way out of the world of the minor mode. The Andante in 6/8 metre is a lovely set of variations in E-flat major; the second variation in E-flat minor provides, at most, a change in lighting. Although the rather subdued minuet returns to C minor, its centrepiece is a bright trio – the cello solo effortless unfolds over serenade-like pizzicatos. The finale is a classic example of Haydnesque subtlety, combining galant and scholarly writing styles. The principal theme is used twice in a harmonious fugato, and when darkness descends again shortly before the close it is little more than a theatrical gesture.

Haydn, who was already a star of European stature when he went to London, was known to devote a great deal of effort to studying his public, in order to precisely assess its taste. He was evidently less concerned about “target group marketing” in the modern sense than a close interaction with listeners whose expertise he could take for granted. The reason the Symphony No. 95 did not enjoy much success – it is rarely played to this day – was probably that Haydn had even more brilliant works to offer at that time.

Sunken Worlds – Flûte en suite for Flute and Orchestral Groups by Jörg Widmann

Aspiring contemporary composers can scarcely be expected to be interested in a dialogue with listeners; not without good reason is the majority of new music performed at habitats for endangered species, such as specialised festivals and concert series. The works of Jörg Widmann, born in Munich in 1973, are specifically aimed at communication, however. “Throughout history there has been music which is so important that it should be made accessible to a universal audience,” Widmann once said. For years he has been virtually inundated with major commissions from established musical organisations. His scores combine technical mastery with emotional urgency; their dramaturgy is impressive, and they resonate. Widmann is not only a composer but also an outstanding clarinettist with an extremely wide-ranging repertoire. He directly confronts the aspects of composition related to performance practice and extends the technical boundaries of the instruments without becoming a slave to experimental art for art’s sake.

For his flute concerto, which was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, he drew on Baroque models, particularly Bach’s Suite in B minor for flute and strings, whose concluding Badinerie, a showpiece of the flute repertoire, is explicitly quoted and playfully satirised. Widmann comments on his work: “Flûte en suite is not one of my ‘epic’ instrumental concertos such as the concertos for cello, violin or oboe, but a substantially smaller-structured series of dance forms arranged into a suite. Sunken worlds suddenly emerge here – such as in the Venetian Gondola Song – only to reach the surface, hover in dangerously distorted fashion and then sink back to the bottom.”

Musical Hypnosis – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92

At the close of his work, Jörg Widmann seems to be intent on securing the approval of his audience with a deliberately popular gesture, something that even Beethoven was not averse to using from time to time. The 43-year-old composer could be certain of collective approval at the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in December of 1813, however. Vienna’s University Hall was filled to overflowing at this Academy “for the benefit of the Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau”. The new symphony was a complete success – the Allegretto had to be repeated at both performances. According to a review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “The critic considers this symphony, after he has heard it twice ... to be the most melodious, pleasant and understandable of all of Beethoven’s symphonies.”

The much-vaunted coherence of the Seventh is the result of a conscious dispensing with diversity in the details. For example, the first movement, which is incessantly propelled by the “galloping” 6/8 rhythm, actually explores only a single theme after the broad introduction, and the development section is limited to a few prominent passages. It is not so much the motivic work as the dynamic developments and the alternation between solos and full orchestra that give the movement its shape. Music as a joint experience, a collective act. The stylised funeral march in the Allegretto is one of the most fascinating examples of Beethoven’s directly “ethical” force.

The characteristic gestures of the scherzo also establish the appropriate attitude for the listener. The skipping dance in the Presto is interrupted three times by a trio whose theme is based on an old pilgrims’ hymn – thus literally pausing in prayer. The finale, with its wild syncopations and restively whirling violin figures, displays a certain affinity with Hungarian verbunkos music. If there is any explanation at all for the electrifying effect of the movement, then it is the resistance mounted against the complete unleashing of physical energy until the very end. There is no stretta in this jubilant finale – the exuberance is restrained, and the listeners, united in joy, are disciplined.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Jörg Widmann’s Flûte en suite was commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra and premiered on 26 May 2011 with Joshua Smith playing the solo part and Franz Welser-Möst conducting The Cleveland Orchestra.


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