Christian Thielemann and Maurizio Pollini with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21

15 Dec 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

Maurizio Pollini

  • Felix Mendelssohn
    Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), overture in D major, op. 27 (14 min.)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C major, K. 467 (31 min.)

    Maurizio Pollini Piano

  • Franz Liszt
    Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem No. 6 (17 min.)

  • Franz Liszt
    Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, Symphonic Poem No. 13 (17 min.)

  • Franz Liszt
    Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3 (19 min.)

The name of Franz Liszt is closely linked to the so-called “New German School”, a group which in the second half of the 19th century made it its mission to create closer integration of music and the other arts. In his time, Liszt (as father-figure) and Wagner were regarded as their role models, in contrast to the traditionalists, who had chosen Johannes Brahms as their spokesperson.

In this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Christian Thielemann, the position of the "New German School" is represented by three symphonic poems composed by Franz Liszt: Les Préludes, based on a work by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, Mazeppa from a poetic idea of Victor Hugo, and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe which was inspired by a sketch of the painter Michael Zichy.

The concert overtures of Mendelssohn, poetically described by his contemporaries as “tone paintings”, were the precursors to these forms of programme music. Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) is based on two poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For Mendelssohn, the attraction lay in writing a musical representation of the complete stillness and the gradual picking up of the wind that brings the ship safely into port.

The Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K 467 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart serves as the musical counterpoint to these. Mozart composed this work under tremendous pressure for a performance at the Vienna Court Theatre in March 1785. Nevertheless, this cheerful and festive work is distinguished by both its masterly formal structure and melodic and harmonic ingenuity. The soloist is Maurizio Pollini, a long-time associate of the orchestra. It was, however, the first time the Italian pianist performed together with Christian Thielemann at the Philharmonie.

Not Only for Connoisseurs and Experts

Works by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Liszt

“Quickly! Quickly!” – Mendelssohn’s Concert Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Goethe and music? There is no doubt that the relationship between the poet and the music world was remarkable. This may have been a lucky coincidence of poetic association, however – human affairs have not always been blessed with such good fortune. Schubert could have told us a great deal about that, and even Beethoven remained alien to the privy councillor. The situation was quite different in the case of Felix Mendelssohn. Goethe carried on a close correspondence with him, so that an intimate friendship developed between the two artists, despite the significant age difference. Mendelssohn expressed his gratitude by setting two of the master’s poems, Meeres Stille and Glückliche Fahrt, in the form of a two-part overture.

The work opens with an Adagio in D major, slowly growing out of initially motionless semibreves until a passage is heard in which the music dreams of movement without moving itself. Gradually, this musical dream seems to fade away, then suddenly a stifled leggiero cry from the flute interrupts the tranquillity. The wind comes up, a long-drawn-out, crescendoing seventh chord and spirited woodwinds reflect the change. A Molto allegro e vivace with two themes begins, the second of which, a cello cantilena, is particularly captivating in its loveliness. In general, this section is exuberant, energetic and full of life. What did Goethe write? “Quickly! Quickly! / The waves part, / The distance nears; / Already I see land!”

“... so that a coachman could sing it ...” – Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart composed more than half of his 27 piano concertos between 1782 and 1786. He always had to try to square the circle in these works. On the one hand, they should not be too demanding, so that – as Mozart wrote in a letter to his father – even a “coachman could sing” them; on the other hand, under no circumstances should they fall below a certain standard. The way Mozart managed this balancing act once again confirms how brilliant he actually was. No one would ever think of supposing that there is even the slightest trace of “functional” music in the piano concertos.

That applies to every work of the genre, including the C major Concerto, K. 467, which Mozart completed in March of 1785. The principal theme of the first movement is orchestral in character. It strides powerfully through the work three times during the tutti sections. This motif later appears more frequently, announced with wind fanfares and supported by a subsidiary theme of almost stunning naïveté. Then it is high time to provide a contrast. Mozart entrusts this task to the solo instrument during its exposition. The construction is a success – thesis and antithesis form a strong enough backbone for this Allegro maestoso to be able to stand up to the sometimes daring modulations, particularly in the development section.

The Andante is considered by many to be the epitome of Mozartian lyricism. But Mozart would not be Mozart if a second reality did not exist behind this elegiac aura of idealized reality, with its muted strings, pulsing triplets and the pizzicato accompaniment to the sweeping cantilena of the piano. It exists in the metre, which is not satisfied with the usual sequence of groups of two, four or eight, but uses triplets right from the start. This second reality exists above all in the structure, however. On closer examination, this Andante is in sonata form – albeit extremely condensed – in which two themes carry on a dialogue with each other.

A true buffo finale à la Così fan tutte brings us back to the world of C major, drawing its charm from chromatically animated harmony and, now and then, almost tipsy semi-chromatic motifs. Formally, the movement is a large rondo with the not insignificant difference that an extended development of the principal theme takes the place of the second episode. This Allegro vivace assai thus takes on the contours of a symphonically conceived sonata form whose charismatic wit is unsurpassed.

“Prima le parole, poi la musica” – Three Symphonic Poems by Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt was an extremely cultivated man, well versed in the visual arts and literature. It is not surprising that as a composer he discovered numerous connections between text and music and – as was his (revolutionary) way – immediately developed the appropriate programmatic profile. “Renewal of music through a closer union with poetry, which allows a freer development of the art, more appropriate to the spirit of the time.” That was Liszt’s postulate, and no sooner had he formulated it than he set about putting it into (musical) practice. The new aesthetic form of the symphonic poem presented itself as a “playing field” on which the Romantic movement had just sown its first seeds. Liszt composed thirteen works in this genre. What they have in common is the fact that they all owe their origins to a “poetic idea”. Liszt was not content to tell a story, however; he endeavoured to find its essence, its “central idea”. What he had in mind was an “ideal poetry” – music as a poetic art. The fact that he acted very freely with regard to the circumstances surrounding the composition, his attitude towards the subject and the musical form probably only disturbs those who do not want to see the libertine in him.

“Prima le parole”: A poem by Victor Hugo provided the programme for the symphonic poem Mazeppa. The work, an arrangement for orchestra of the piano piece of the same name from the Études d’execution transcendente Transcendental Études, is in the chain form A-B-C. The outer sections comprise an Allegro agitato and a triumphal march (Allegro marziale); they are connected by a brief Andante with recitative-like interjections. The motivic unity is recognizable in each of the sections.

Liszt’s last work in this genre, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe From the Cradle to the Grave, composed in 1881/1882, was inspired by the pen-and-ink drawing Du berceau jusqu’au tombeau by the Hungarian historical painter Mihály Zichy. Formally, this late work differs clearly from its predecessors. It is divided into three separate movements and is in the ternary form A-B-A. In keeping with Liszt’s late style, the instrumentation is more austere, concentrated and harmonically more vague – the grand orchestral gesture is lacking.

The situation is quite different in the case of Les Préludes. The work is demonstrably not based on lines from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques; the poetic connection was not established by the composer until later. Liszt drew the material for Les Préludes from his overture and four choruses on texts by the little-known poet Joseph Autran. He included a saying from Lamartine’s treasure trove in the preface of the published score of Les Préludes: “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by death?” The music recounts and evokes this heroic life. It is divided into four symphonically condensed sections in which Liszt leads his protagonist through the “spheres” of the joys of love, the storms of life, a pastoral idyll and, finally, a victorious battle – an apotheosis which the Nazis liked so much that they touted it to their soldiers as a principle of hope, using it as the “Russian fanfare” during the Wehrmacht radio reports.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Christian Thielemann is principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since this autumn 2012 and will assume the position of artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has been a regular conductor at the Bayreuth Festival since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger), and was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently only a few days ago, when he conducted works by Giuseppe Verdi.

The exceptional global career of Maurizio Pollini began in 1960 when he won first prize at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Chopin has remained a cornerstone of his repertoire in which works by Bach, Schumann and Debussy are also given a prominent place. Maurizio Pollini has also been very committed to contemporary music; he is as familiar with compositions by Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen as he is with the piano works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In 1993 and 1994, he performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for the first time in Berlin and Munich; he later repeated this cycle in other cities. The pianist has also shaped several festivals and concert series in the role of artistic director, such as the 1999-2001 project “Perspectives: Maurizio Pollini”, with 30 concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. Similar cycles consequently took place in the Cité de la Musique Paris, in Lucerne, Rome, Milano, Tokyo and Berlin. Pollini‘s awards include the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1996) and the Premio Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (2000) as well as the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Award. Maurizio Pollini has regularly appeared both as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker as well as a solo performer at the Philharmonie since 1970; most recently he gave a piano recital of works by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt here in November 2011.

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