Kristjan Järvi conducts Tchaikovsky and Messiaen

20 Oct 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kristjan Järvi

  • Carl Nielsen
    En Fantasirejse til Færøerne (An Imaginary Trip To The Faroe Islands) (10 min.)

  • Olivier Messiaen
    L’Ascension (32 min.)

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36 (47 min.)

  • free

    Kristjan Järvi in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (15 min.)

The programme for this concert, under the direction of Kristjan Järvi, son of conductor Neeme Järvi and brother of Paavo Järvi, is a combination of Romantic and contemporary music: Carl Nielsen’s rhapsodic overture En Fantasirejse til Færøerne is a dream-like tribute to the Faroe Islands in which the composer employs folk melodies from the islands.

L’Ascension is among Olivier Messiaen’s early orchestral works. Written in 1932/1933, it still manifests an Impressionist influence. Nonetheless, the work, which Messiaen later also arranged for organ, is already typical for the French composer with its religious topic and preference for a sensuous musical language.

If Messiaen draws his musical inspiration from the spiritual connection with the divine, for Peter Tchaikovsky the impetus behind his creative work was feelings of having no home and of uncertainty. No composition shows this more clearly than his Fourth Symphony, whose belligerent opening fanfare stands for the implacability of destiny. Man’s futile striving for happiness is the great theme which the Russian composer used as programmatic basis for his work.


Real and Unreal Wonder Men

Works by Nielsen, Messiaen and Tchaikovsky

Occasion for a Flash of Genius – Carl Nielsen’s Rhapsodic Overture En fantasirejse til Færøerne

The 20th century has conveyed the idea that only progressive composers are great composers, but the difficulty lies in distinguishing between them. Carl Nielsen, for example – does the Danish composer rank with conservative or modern masters? Although he was initially influenced in equal measure by Brahms and Bruckner as well as the Nordic and Slavic traditions, as a young man he composed almost revolutionary works. Nielsen never intentionally sought modernity, however. From the beginning, all that mattered to him was good, original music, “as sharp and cutting as a sword”. He met this challenge superbly; among symphonic composers of the 20th century, Nielsen is one of the epochal idea men. Even his smaller works allow his genius to flash through. The rhapsodic overture En fantasirejse til Færøerne An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands was composed as an occasional work in 1927. The occasion was the appearance of a Faroese folklore ensemble in Copenhagen. The hymn for winds draws on a folk song recalling the sound of Easter bells; the lively closing section makes use of a folk dance from the Faroe Islands. The slow, idiomatic introduction, the monotonous accompanying figures and the scolding clarinet, symbolising the cries of seagulls, are unmistakable “Nielsen”. Nevertheless, the overture, which was written in haste, does not reveal the true stature of the Danish composer.

Close to the Divine – L’Ascension by Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen’s modernity and originality have never been disputed. He acquired the necessary reputation as a pioneer primarily because of his strict religious orientation. Messiaen saw each of his works as a hymn of creation and joyful praise to the eternal God, and almost all have titles borrowed from the Catholic liturgy. Very few of them are appropriate for use in the mass; Messiaen’s music is intended for a mystical, cosmic liturgy. It revolves around the miraculous, “multiplied a thousandfold in the truths of the Catholic faith”.

Messiaen’s L’Ascension opens with a brass chorale. The music maintains its pure essence, close to the divine, which explains its static character. There is little development (elaboration or variation). The second movement (“Serene Alleluias of a Soul Longing for Heaven”) is an homage to Gregorian chant. It uses the woodwinds to depict pastoral tranquillity, assigning a prominent role to the English horn, then soars to ecstatic heights with string tremolos. The third movement is the most interesting because it sounds so charmingly old-fashioned. The stylistic influence of Messiaen’s teacher, Paul Dukas, is unmistakable; we hear a symphonic scherzo with the usual ABA structure. In his organ version of the work from the following year, Messiaen replaced this movement with a truly apocalyptic piece. Only the finale has the ascension as its subject, giving the work its title. It is written solely for strings, which ascend to ever higher registers. In his final work for orchestra, Éclairs sur l’au-delà Illuminations of the Beyond (1987–1991), Messiaen used instrumentation similar to that of L’Ascension, his first major composition; the first movement is scored for brass only, the finale for strings alone.

Fateful Force – Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4

Peter Tchaikovsky’s fame is based, among other things, on the fact that he never set ideas to music but rather his life. Even when he followed extra-musical programmes, there was usually an autobiographical association. The connection between life and work is particularly obvious in the last three symphonies. A few times Tchaikovsky even complied with the requests of his admirers and disclosed these programmes. He divulged the most about the Fourth Symphony, composed in 1877, although his explanation conceals as much as it reveals.

According to Tchaikovsky, the opening fanfare motif represents “fate, that fateful force which hangs above our head like the sword of Damocles and constantly, inexorably poisons the soul”. The actual principal theme, played afterwards by the strings, depicts this fateful force and the hopelessness of rebelling against it. The second theme, given to the clarinet, imagines an escape into dreams, the visions of happiness. The music world accepted this interpretation for more than 100 years. Passages from Tchaikovsky’s letters from the period when he was working on the Fourth Symphony were not published until 1993. It was the time of his marital tragedy with Antonina Milyukova. Tchaikovsky only entered into this marriage in order to silence rumours about his homosexuality. As we learn from letters to his brother Modest, what he meant by the “sword of Damocles”, which is also referred to in his explanation of the Fourth Symphony, was his panic over the threatening exposure of his sexual orientation. If Tchaikovsky feared social ostracism, nowadays we have to dread the banality of such symbolism – it is better if the subject matter of symphonies remains as abstract as possible. Otherwise one ends up in the cinema, and that has happened to Tchaikovsky often enough.

The two middle movements also manage perfectly well without his self-interpretation. The Andantino is supposed to evoke a mood alternating between sad and sweet memories; the familiar pizzicato Scherzo imagines a confrontation with reality after a drinking spree. During the Finale, the man haunted by fate finally seeks distraction at a carnival. Although fate again interferes, his attempt to find relief in the joy of other people is more or less successful. This happiness sounds rather superficial, however, noisy and empty.

The enigma and fatalism which long overshadowed Tchaikovsky’s life may be resolved, but his place in music history is still a mystery. Tchaikovsky’s style is completely personal and new, and the Fourth Symphony reveals why. His operatic melodies (first and second themes of the first movement), although unsuitable for symphonic development, by no means prevent coherent, exciting elaboration. Tchaikovsky uses brief motivic and rhythmic fragments of his melodies for this purpose. The “inborn deficiency” in complying with traditional formal criteria, which Tchaikovsky himself often deplored, is nowhere to be found here. Inconsistencies and contradictions between the various formal sections do not simply remain as is but become an essential element of a musical language expressing painfully suppressed emotions and even more powerfully erupting outbursts. Where conventional connecting links are not used, the composer resorts to fantastic, often shockingly unexpected transitions. He manages to fill vast symphonic expanses in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony as convincingly as he does in the Fifth and Sixth. It is a long refuted preconception that his music is essentially simplistic and sentimental. The sentimentality of the Andantino seems quite ambiguous, at any rate; as in many works of Mozart or Schubert, sorrow and cheerfulness are closely related here. The popular argument that Tchaikovsky sinks to the level of ballet in his symphonies is also unfounded; the pizzicato Scherzo demonstrates – particularly in the middle section – the extraordinary effects which can be achieved by stylistic devices from another genre.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Kristjan Järvi was born in Tallinn (Estonia) and grew up in the USA. He studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music and conducting at the University of Michigan. Initially assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was subsequently chief conductor and music director of the opera and symphony orchestra in Norrland (Sweden) from 2000 to 2004, and then principal conductor with the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna from 2004 to 2009. Since the beginning of this season, he has been chief conductor of the MDR Sinfonieorchester in Leipzig. Kristjan Järvi combines a love of traditional repertoire with a compelling passion for modern programmes: He is already responsible for more than 100 commissioned works. Artistic and cultural diversity characterizes his work as advisor to the Basel Chamber Orchestra, as well as founder and principal conductor of the Absolute Ensemble, as well as his partnerships with such diverse musicians as John Adams, Goran Bregovic, Renée Fleming, HK Gruber, Marcel Khalife, Arvo Pärt and Joe Zawinul. Kristjan Järvi regularly appears – and in London exclusively – with the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has already toured Europe, Asia and the USA. Moreover, he has also conducted the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the Orchestre de Paris, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan. Kristjan Järvi is the founder and principal conductor of the Baltic Youth Philharmonic, whose aim it is to be a key institution in musical education and concert life in the Baltic states. He is also founder and chief conductor of the Absolute Academy which takes place every year during Musikfest Bremen. The artist is also one of the initiators of the Muusikaselts programme for Estonian orphans. With these concerts, Kristjan Järvi makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, at whose invitation he performed Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie at the end of March this year.

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