Bartók’s Viola Concerto with Tabea Zimmermann and Semyon Bychkov

19 Jun 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Semyon Bychkov

Tabea Zimmermann

  • Maurice Ravel
    Le Tombeau de Couperin (20 min.)

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Sz 120 (30 min.)

    Tabea Zimmermann Viola

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (49 min.)

  • free

    Tabea Zimmermann in conversation with Helge Grünewald (in German) (18 min.)

This concert takes us from the West to Eastern Europe with works by Ravel, Brahms and Bartók, presented by conductor Semyon Bychkov and violist Tabea Zimmermann. All three of this evening’s works are conceptually most intriguing. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, for example, is characterised by a playful use of Baroque dance music with an underlying mood which, at the same time, is melancholic. Brahms’ Second Symphony, on the other hand, enchants with its cheerful mood – yet, below its idyllic surface, a highly complex texture is revealed, which is why the composer himself described the work as a “lovely monster”. Finally, there is Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto, where the virtuoso solo part brings to the centre of attention an instrument whose contribution to the whole is normally made from the body of the orchestra, a contribution which is not infrequently underestimated.

At the time of this concert, Semyon Bychkov had been appearing with the Berliner Philharmoniker for almost a quarter of a century. Eastern European works in particular had played a significant role in this partnership, plus German Classicism and Romanticism and the occasional French piece, including works by Poulenc and Berlioz. In this respect, it was quite a representative programme Bychkov conducted in this concert. In the Bartók concerto, the soloist was violist Tabea Zimmermann who made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker with the same work in 1992. One critic wrote about this new performance: “She plays the concerto with a tender cantabile as if it were by Mozart, showing Bartók’s melodic voice but also some wonderful quiet moments.”

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Music by Ravel, Bartók and Brahms

A Janus-faced Homage

It was 1914 when Pope Pius X tried to ban tango dancing from nightclubs and suggested reviving a less sensuous dance from the past, the Italian forlana. Maurice Ravel, scoffer par excellence, was prompted to write to his friend Cipa Godebski: “I am transcribing a forlane by Couperin and will see about getting it danced at the Vatican by the cabaret singer Mistinguett and the writer and chansonette Colette Will in drag.”

The outbreak of World War I interrupted work on this musical send-up. Not until after his early discharge from military service in 1917 was Ravel able to complete it. In the meantime, the nature of the piece, which had added a number of movements and received the title Le Tombeau de Couperin, was radically changed. Now it was conceived as a tribute to the French composer François Couperin (1668 – 1773), but still more to “the whole of French music of the 18th century”. Ravel dedicated each movement to the memory of a comrade killed in the war, and this personal back story is reflected in the work’s title: “tombeau” in France refers to a memorial piece of sculpture, literature or music.

Formally, the work – originally for piano, later orchestrated – evokes 17th- and 18th-century instrumental genres: a prelude, typical in early Baroque keyboard and organ music, as well as three dances (forlana, minuet and rigaudon). Critics would occasionally contend that the use of stylised dance movements was inappropriate to a work of musical mourning. But from the dazzling semiquaver (16th-note) motion of the Prélude and the Forlane’s recollections of Eric Satie to the Menuet’s backward glance at 18th-century galant style and the rhythmically pointed accentuation of the Rigaudon’s outer sections – who could possibly resist the music’s charm and fail to be reconciled with the Tombeau de Couperin’s Janus-faced disposition?

Leave-taking with “full baggage”

While Ravel was inspired by the Baroque music of France in the composition of Le Tombeau de Couperin, Béla Bartók, six years his junior, was strongly influenced by the folk music of his native Hungary in the development of an individual idiom. Unlike many late Romantic composers, Bartók did not restrict himself to processing distinctive features of a specific folk tradition to generate a sense of musical “local colour”. Rather his exploration of the folk music of Eastern Europe enabled him to evolve a musical language which led – in his own words – to a “completely free use of every single tone in our chromatic twelve-tone system”.

Bartók wrote his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra – which would remain unfinished – for the Scottish viola player William Primrose, who approached the composer with his request at the beginning of 1945. Illness as well as his work undertaken that summer on the Third Piano Concerto may account for Bartók’s initially tentative approach to the project. After completing all but a few bars of the piano concerto, he informed Primrose at the beginning of August: “I hope to write the viola concerto and maybe finish at least its draft in 4-5 weeks.” And, only two weeks before he died, the composer could notify Primrose enthusiastically: “I am very glad to be able to tell you that your viola concerto is ready in draft so that only the score has to be written which means a purely mechanical work, so to speak. If nothing happens I can be through in 5 or 6 weeks ...”

At his death on 26 September 1945, the composer left behind 13 pages of sketches for the Viola Concerto. Two years later Bartók’s publishers Boosey & Hawkes commissioned his close friend since 1925 the violinist, composer and conductor Tibor Serly, to create a performing version of the draft. Others have also tried their hand at completing the work, including Bartók’s son Peter. It is not possible to say for certain which version is preferable, and the Viola Concerto will always bear the mark of a foreign hand’s intervention.

To deprive ourselves of performances of Bartók’s last composition for that reason, however, would represent a great musical loss. From the deeply expressive, broad-spanning cantilena with which the solo viola introduces the work’s first movement to the beautiful middle movement in three sections to the rhythmically and melodically folk-seasoned idioms in the finale, Bartók’s late compositional signature is constantly and unmistakably present. “I am only sorry that I have to leave with my baggage full,” Bartók said shortly before his death. Just how much music he was carrying around with him in the last days of his life can most clearly be gleaned from his Viola Concerto.

Restoration or Revolution?

A “guardian of musical chastity” is what Richard Wagner once called Johannes Brahms, 20 years his junior. In the conflict between revolution and restoration, the 19th-century musical world saw in Wagner the embodiment of progress, in Brahms the custodian of tradition. A pronouncement by Brahms from the last year of his life, alluding to this war between Wagnerians and Brahmsians, suggests that the split into two camps was also an expression of entrenched social positions: “I wasn’t cut out to be the leader of some faction !.”

Brahms had to struggle to achieve this degree of self-confidence. He suffered – to borrow the phrase of his mentor Robert Schumann – from “symphonic scruples”: the model of Beethoven, who Brahms heard “marching behind him like a giant”, was simply too overpowering. Not until he was already 43, did he find the courage to appear before the public with his First Symphony. Immediately he was hailed as “Beethoven’s heir”, and with this success, the spell was broken. Only half a year later Brahms began his Second Symphony. The points of contact with Beethoven in this work are especially clear. Above all in the opening movement, the music of his long-dreaded model is recalled in the motivic-thematic working-out that penetrates every formal section and in such compositional details as a motif based on the interval of an ascending 3rd that is heard in extreme registers over a timpani pedal point in the development section. On the other hand, the formal layout of the third movement as an Intermezzo with two Trios along with similar features of orchestration show the influence that Schumann, too, exerted on the Brahms the symphonist.

In 1878, the year after the Second’s premiere, the influential Viennese critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick heard in his music the tendency “to disguise or dampen anything that could smack of pure ‘effect’.” Later, Brahms’s concentrated contrapuntal writing, his specific technique of motivic development and his well-proportioned rhythmic structures would have a lasting influence on Arnold Schoenberg’s musical aesthetic and on the music history of the 20th century. In a 1933 radio talk on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Brahms’s birth, Schoenberg drew insistent attention to the composer as a musical progressive and dispelled once and for all the notion of Brahms’s works as a culmination of musical traditions.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Richard Evidon

Semyon Bychkov was born in St. Petersburg. He studied there at the local conservatory with Ilya Musin, and in 1973 he won first prize at the Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition. Since emigrating to the USA in 1975, a remarkable career has taken him from the New York Mannes College of Music not only to engagements in internationally acclaimed opera productions (e. g. in Milan, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, London, Chicago, New York, the Salzburg Festival and the Maggio Musicale in Florence), but also to the conductor’s rostrum of the world’s greatest orchestras. He lead the Orchestre de Paris from 1989 – 98; he was principal guest conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Teatro Communale in Florence (1990 – 94 and 1992 – 98 respectively). In the 1997 – 98 season, Semyon Bychkov was appointed principal conductor of the Westdeutsche Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, a position he will continue to hold until the end of this season. He was similarly engaged at the Semperoper in Dresden between 1998 and 2003. Ever since he took over a concert from Riccardo Muti at short notice in 1985, he has made numerous guest appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in October 2009 with works by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich. Semyon Bychkov will also conduct the concerts on 21 and 22 June 2010 in Essen and Hamburg, replacing Seiji Ozawa. His recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker received Belgium’s Caecilia Prize, and was named “Best Recording of the Year” by the publication Stereo Review.

Tabea Zimmermann began playing the viola and piano even before she went to school. After studying at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, she completed her education with Sándor Végh at the University “Mozarteum” in Salzburg, with numerous competition successes while she was still a student. Tabea Zimmermann regularly works with all major conductors and the world’s leading orchestras. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 1992 with a performance of Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto, conducted by Bernard Haitink. Her most recent appearance with the orchestra was in December 2002, playing the solo viola part in Strauss’ Don Quixote (conductor: Zubin Mehta). Passionately committed to contemporary music, she has performed many premieres of contemporary works, including the Sonata for Viola Solo by György Ligeti (1994) which was composed especially for her, the Viola Concerto no. 2 Über die Linie IV by Wolfgang Rihm (2002), and Bruno Mantovani’s Double Viola Concerto (2009), together with Antoine Tamestit. Her work with the Arcanto Quartet which she founded in 2004 with Antje Weithaas and Daniel Sepec (violins) and Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), plays a central role in her chamber music work. “Artist in residence” at Kunstfest Weimar for the 2008/09 season, and again this season at the Hamburg Laeiszhalle, she has been presented with many awards for her artistic activities both in Germany and abroad, including the Frankfurt Music Prize, the International Prize of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena and the Paul Hindemith Prize of the City of Hanau. Following teaching posts at music colleges in both Saarbrücken and Frankfurt am Main, she was appointed professor at the Academy of Music “Hanns Eisler” Berlin in October 2002.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist