Simon Rattle conducts Stravinsky and Rachmaninov

09 Nov 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Kolokola (The Bells) for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, op. 35 (41 min.)

    Luba Orgonášová soprano, Dmytro Popov tenor, Mikhail Petrenko bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey chorus master

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Le Roi des étoiles (7 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Le Sacre du printemps (revised 1947 version) (39 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey talk about Stravinsky and Rachmaninov (15 min.)

The first time that Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninov met in American exile, in Los Angeles in 1942, the subject of music apparently never came up. They arranged to meet for dinner and talked about concert agents and royalties. Stravinsky also mentioned his fondness for honey, whereupon his colleague presented him with a large jar a few days later.

That their work was not a topic of conversation was solely an act of diplomacy. Stravinsky’s and Rachmaninov’s conceptions of composing were fundamentally different, as can be experienced at this concert of works by both. On other occasions, Stravinsky had expressed his opinion of Rachmaninov, nine years his senior, in no uncertain terms, when he maliciously referred to his highly emotional works as overblown movie music. Rachmaninov explained his own artistic creed as follows: “What I try to do when writing down my music is to make it say simply that which is in my heart. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music.”

That he also had no programmatic ambitions and hardly altered his style over the decades was for Stravinsky almost a provocation. For him every composer unquestionably had a continuing obligation of renewing music, to push its boundaries ever further. To this attitude we owe such epoch-making scores as The Rite of Spring, the overpoweringly energetic ballet music which is performed in this concert. Juxtaposed with it and exemplifying Rachmaninov is his cantata The Bells, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, whose appeal lies in quite different qualities – for example, in the warmth of its authentic, unaffected emotion.

The Sound of the Silver Age

Music of Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky

“His visage was like the sun ...”

At the close of the 19th century Russia was going through a time of upheaval, politically and artistically. After the death of Tsar Alexander III, during the coronation ceremony of his son, Nicholas II, in 1896, mass panic broke out on Moscow’s Khodynka Field in which almost 1,400 people died. It was the first in a series of bloody and dramatic events that would ultimately lead to the overthrow of tsarism: Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan (1904/1905), the brutal suppression of a peaceful workers’ demonstration, known as Bloody Sunday, in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the resulting revolutions that spread throughout the country until early summer of 1907, the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 and the February Revolution of 1917.

It seems inconceivable that at a time like this Russian literature and art experienced a tremendous revival referred to as Серебряный век the Silver Age, harking back to the Golden Age of Alexander Pushkin. Poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Konstantin Balmont, Alexander Blok, Valery Bryusov, Ivan Bunin, Osip Mandelstam, Fyodor Sologub and Marina Tsvetaeva are associated with the stylistic movement of symbolism, which also influenced Russian painting of that time. Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Mikhail Larionov, Nicholas Roerich – all of whom also worked as stage and costume designers – as well as Konstantin Somov, Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel paved the way for an artistic avant-garde which continued in the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. The most important mouthpiece for the spread of symbolism was the journal Мир иску́сства The World of Art, which was founded in St. Petersburg by Bakst and Benois in 1899. The chief editor and publisher was a young man who described himself as a “propagator of art” – Serge Diaghilev, later the impresario of the Ballets Russes. At this point it becomes clear how closely the literary, art and intellectual history of the Silver Age was intertwined with the musical revolution that reached its spectacular culmination in Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps The Rite of Spring in 1913.

“Around him the thunder rolled ...”

The works of the poet Konstantin Balmont had a significance for the music of the Silver Age that should not be underestimated. Not only does his name appear several times in the catalogues of works by Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, during the first fifteen years of the 20th century there was scarcely a Russian composer who had not set texts by Balmont to music. “During the previous summer 1912,” Sergei Rachmaninov told his biographer, Oskar von Riesemann, “I had sketched a plan for a symphony, and then one day I received an anonymous letter, begging me to read Balmont’s wonderful translation of Poe’s poem, saying that the verses would be ideal for music and that they should appeal particularly to me. I read the enclosed poem, and decided at once to use it for a choral symphony in four movements. ... I worked on this composition with feverish ardour, and it remains, of all my works, the one I like best.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s four-part poem The Bells, which was written in 1848 but not published until after his death in 1849, is thoroughly modern in its onomatopoeic structure. In addition to its more or less realistic depiction of the sounds of various bells, it is a metaphor for human life – the bright, silver sleigh bells represent childhood and youth, the golden wedding bells, maturity, the clanging fire alarm of the brass bells, old age, and the death knell of the iron bells, the end of life. Admittedly, it was not only the symbolist content of the poem – which was written before the term was coined – that fascinated Rachmaninov during his work on Колокола The Bells: “The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know – Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence ... If I have been at all successful in making bells vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely due to the fact that most of my life was lived amid vibrations of the bells of Moscow.” The score was not composed in Moscow, however, but in Rome in 1913 and had its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg the same year, with the composer conducting.

“‘Do you keep the word,’ he asked ...”

After using Balmont’s poetry collection Жар-птица. Свирель славянина The Firebird, or the Slav’s Reed Pipe, which was published in 1907, for his Firebird ballet in 1909 and setting Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont for voice and piano in 1911, during the winter of 1911/1912 Stravinsky began work on Звездоликий(Le Roi des étoiles) The King of the Stars, a short cantata for men’s chorus, which he dedicated to his friend Claude Debussy. The work, barely five minutes long and scored for an oversized orchestra – including quadruple woodwinds and eight horns – uses layers of superimposed thirds (up to eleventh and thirteenth chords) that go to the limits of tonality – truly “cosmic” music, which suits Balmont’s symbolist text perfectly.

“The music from the Roi des étoiles is still extraordinary,” Debussy wrote to Stravinsky in 1913, thanking him for the dedication. “It is probably Plato’s ‘harmony of the eternal spheres’ (but don’t ask me which page of his). And, except on Sirius or Aldebaran, I do not foresee performances of this ‘cantata for planets’. As for our more modest Earth, a performance would be lost in the abyss.” In fact, Звездоликий was not performed for the first time until 19 April 1939 in Brussels, under Franz André. After the premiere Darius Milhaud wrote enthusiastically in the Revue musicale: “It is like a window to an unknown enchanted realm.”

“ … and we all replied, ‘Yes, always.’”

The plans for Le Sacre du printemps – Stravinsky’s third project for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes date back to 1910, during the time of the Firebird, as the composer recounted in his autobiography: “Although I had conceived the subject of the Sacre du printemps without any plot, some plan had to be designed for the sacrificial action. For this it was necessary that I should see Roerich. ... I joined him, and it was there that we settled the visual embodiment of the Sacre and the definite sequence of its different episodes.”

The combination of Indian mysticism, Buddhism, paganism and ancient Russian myths flowed together in LeSacre du printemps into “the beautiful cosmogony of Earth and Sky”, Roerich wrote in a letter to Diaghilev. His scenario follows the “one infinite, unchangeable principle” of the eternal reincarnation cycle of death and rebirth – of both nature and mankind. Even the legendary scandal that the Sacre caused during its 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux, reminded Roerich of an archaic ritual: “I remember how during the first performance the audience whistled and roared so that nothing could even be heard. Who knows, perhaps at that very moment they were inwardly exultant and expressing this feeling like the most primitive of peoples. But I must say, this wild primitivism had nothing in common with the refined primitiveness of our ancestors, for whom rhythm, the sacred symbol and refinement of gesture were great and sacred concepts.”

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Luba Orgonášová, born in Bratislava (Slovakia), is one of the leading interpreters of lyrical roles in German and Italian opera and the concert repertoire. She studied piano and singing in her hometown and after gaining solo experience, became a member of the Hagen Opera House in 1984. In 1988, Luba Orgonášová was offered a three-year contract as a guest artist with the Wiener Volksoper, where her roles included Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Shortly afterwards, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte). In 1990, the soprano had great success with her debut at the Salzburg Easter and Summer Festivals as Marcellina in a new production of Fidelio, which was conducted by Kurt Masur. Another milestone in her career – also in 1990 – was her role debut in Paris as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Since then, Luba Orgonášová has performed regularly on the stages of the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls around the world, working not only with top international orchestras, but also with major ensembles and specialists in the field of historical performance practice. Luba Orgonášová first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 1995, singing the role of Agathe in concert performances of Weber’s Der Freischütz, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Most recently, in mid-March 2007, the artist was heard as a soloist with the orchestra in three concerts conducted by Bernard Haitink of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, op.123

Mikhail Petrenko was born in St. Petersburg, studied singing with Bulat Minzhilkiev at the city’s Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory and gained his first experiences on stage at the Opera Studio of the Mariinsky Theatre where he became a member of the ensemble in 2001. As a prize-winner at the “Elena Obraztsova International Competition for Young Opera Singers” and Plácido Domingo’s “Operalia” competition, Mikhail Petrenko made a name for himself in professional circles. International audiences were introduced to him through numerous tours of the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev. Mikhail Petrenko has since been a regular guest at the most famous opera houses around the world, performing the great bass and bass-baritone roles in works by Mozart to Wagner. For example, as Hunding and Hagen in the Ring cycle which Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker performed in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg. He also took on the role of Hunding at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. At the Salzburg Festival, he has sung works from the French repertoire (Benvenuto Cellini and Roméo et Juliette), and at the Opéra National de Paris, he has performed bel canto roles (I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Il Barbiere di Siviglia). Petrenko also devotes himself to works by Giuseppe Verdi and, of course, Russian roles, such as Pimen in Boris Godunov and Gremin in Eugene Onegin. As a soloist with major orchestras, Mikhail Petrenko has worked with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Harding, Vladimir Jurowski, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Esa-Pekka Salonen. In Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, he was last heard as Hunding in three concert performances of the Walküre, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle , at the end of May 2012.

Dmytro Popov, born in 1980 in Ukraine, started his solo career in 2004 as Alfredo (La Traviata) in a production by Jonathan Miller in Norway. Three years later he was among the winners at Plácido Domingo’s “Operalia” competition in Paris. Engagements as Nicias (Thaïs) and the Duke (Rigoletto) took him to the Teatro Regio di Turino and the Dalhalla Opera Festival in Sweden. In addition, the tenor recently appeared as Lïkov (The Tsar’s Bride) and the Prince (Rusalka) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and as Cavaradossi (Tosca) at the opera house in Trondheim, Norway. In 2009 he made his debut as Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where he was also heard as Rodolfo (Luisa Miller). He has sung the tenor part in Rachmaninov’s Kolokola (The Bells) at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, with the Munich Philharmonic and at the International Rostropovich Festival with the Russian National Orchestra, working together with conductors such as Antonio Pappano and Dmitri Kitayenko. He has performed highlights from the operas I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Eugene Onegin, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano. Since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season, Dmytro Popov has been a permanent member of the ensemble at Oper Stuttgart, where he has performed roles such as Rodolfo in the premiere cast of Luisa Miller, Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Chevalier de la Force (Dialogues des Carmélites). This is the singer’s first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2012 in the complete performances of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé ballet music, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

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