Kirill Petrenko conducts Scriabin, Stravinsky and Stephan

21 Dec 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Symphony of Psalms (22 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kaspars Putninš Chorus Master

  • Rudi Stephan
    Music for Violin and Orchestra (20 min.)

    Daniel Stabrawa Violin

  • Rudi Stephan
    Music for Orchestra (17 min.)

  • Alexander Scriabin
    Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54 (25 min.)

  • free

    Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Alexander Bader (17 min.)

He was regarded as one of the most promising composers of his generation: born in Worms in 1887, Rudi Stephan constructed a “colour piano” at an early age. His development as a composer was shaped not only by his studies with Rudolf Louis, the leading representative of the so-called Munich School, but also by his engagement with the work of contemporary composers such as Schoenberg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Scriabin. Stephan, who died fighting in the First World War at the age of 28, left a small but impressive oeuvre, including his Music for Violin and Orchestra and his Music for Orchestra. Both works show him stylistically as a bridge between late Romanticism and Modernism. In this concert, the soloist in the Music for Violin and Orchestra is the 1st concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Stabrawa.

The same could also be said about the Russian Alexander Scriabin. His mystical and gloriously excessive orchestral piece Le Poème de l’extase is an orgiastic rush of sound, which is typical of many late Romantic compositions. However, his harmonies already indicated he was moving on from the then exhausted major-minor tonality.

Scriabin’s compatriot Igor Stravinsky, however, deliberately broke with the traditions of the 19th century, employing a totally anti-Romantic musical language. This is also evident in his Symphony of Psalms which uses Latin psalm verses as its basis. With this setting, Stravinsky explained he wanted to address those composers “who had misused these authoritative verses as a peg to hang their own lyrical and sentimental feelings on.”

Eros and Erosion

Symphonic Music of Igor Stravinsky, Rudi Stephan and Alexander Scriabin

An evening in C major. The music for this concert was written by composers who, at the beginning of the 20th century, looked far into the future, yet all four of these works end in C major – the key with no accidentals and, seen from the piano keyboard, a “white” quality. For Alexander Scriabin, however, C major was a “red” key in which he could express eccentric fantasies, whereas Rudi Stephan was interested in it primarily from the standpoint of compositional technique, and Igor Stravinsky used it to compose music that was as “objective” as possible. Moving backwards, this concert programme follows the brief path from the Eros of sound to the erosion of the symphony, from externalization to internalization.

Underestimated as a Symphonist – Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky’s fame is so firmly based on his ballet music that it seems absurd to refer to him as a symphonist. In fact, Stravinsky composed no less than five symphonies between 1905 and 1945 – or works which at least carry this generic designation in their titles. Two of these compositions stand out, since in these works, the composer, who has often been criticized as “impersonal”, on closer examination shows a very “personal” side of his character: the Symphonies d’instruments à vent (Symphonies of Winds Instruments, 1920) and the Symphonie des psaumes (Symphony of Psalms, 1930). In terms of their external structure, neither work has anything to do with symphonies in the traditional sense. Both are expressions of Russian Orthodox piety; both are characterized by an extremely peaceful spirit of restrained grief and resignation to God’s will.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is an austere work of the Word and its interpretation. Verses from the Vulgate translation of Psalms 38 and 39 (or 39 and 40 according to the numbering of Luther’s Bible) and the complete 150th Psalm are declaimed by the chorus, for the most part as a litany, supported by repetitive figures in the winds which introduce a double fugue in the second movement. Stravinsky preferred boys for the high chorus parts – a sound that, combined with the reduced strings (without violins and violas!), percussion, harp and two pianos, gives the impression of “innocence” and timelessness. Stravinsky’s ingenious use of these sonorities culminates in the third movement, when praise to the Lord resounds “in cymbalis” (with cymbals) and the composer seems to transform the chorus parts into small bells that swing back and forth softly and delicately.

Composer with an Unusual Style – Rudi Stephan

One of Stravinsky’s favorite composers was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who, like Mozart and Schubert, was a genius who died young. Other gifted composers died before their genius could blossom, such as Rudi Stephan, who was born in the German city of Worms and lost his life at the age of 28 in 1915, during World War I. Suppose that Stravinsky had died at the same age, in 1910; his last work would have been the Firebird, and Stravinsky would have gone down in history as an innovative late Romantic! Conversely, if Stephan had been blessed with a life as long as Stravinsky’s, he would have died in 1976 – and, if we may be allowed to speculate, Stephan could have played an important role in the age of Neoclassicism and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

Stephan studied with Bernhard Sekles in Frankfurt and Ludwig Thuille in Munich. His role models included Debussy, Stravinsky and Scriabin – like the latter, he occasionally experimented with a “colour organ”. In addition, Stephan was fond of the harmonium and played the double bass, which is quite obvious in his instrumental works. The music is conceived in terms of the bass voice, the pedal point, and based on free tonality. Its dark mood grows brighter with unexpected colour combinations and develops into clear but non-schematic forms. Scriabin’s model of the single-movement composition is unmistakable – an unusual compositional style in Germany at that time, which did not fail to reach its audience. Stephan’s music was published by Schott, quickly found its public and was performed frequently until World War II.

In Stephan’s Music for Violin and Orchestra the solo part does not primarily appear as a virtuosic element but rather as the thematic cue-giver for the full orchestra, since what the violin rhapsodically introduces with a self-confident leap of a fourth is further developed by the orchestra – in a rapturous C major in which the solo voice finally rises to the four-line e as the “ultimate” major third, so to speak.

Stephan’s Music for Orchestra also appears to be composed largely for tonal effect, but is rhythmically more severe, charging forwards and upwards chromatically after preluding gestures. A fireworks display of orchestrational skill is set off, illuminating a martial C-major apotheosis.

“Elevated” in the Best Sense of the Word – Alexander Scriabin

“War can be a source of truly mystical perceptions and ecstatic states of consciousness and therefore a path to transformation, to ecstasy. A mystic must welcome war,” Scriabin wrote in 1914. He regarded himself as the greatest of all mystics, even the spiritual leader of his day. Like Stephan, Scriabin died in 1915 – of blood poisoning, however – without having been able to sort out the somewhat confused ideology of his final years.

The books of the theosophist Helena Blavatsky supposedly stood peacefully next to the scores of Richard Strauss on Scriabin’s desk – the first as inspiration for the content of Scriabin’s works, the others as inspiration for their form. Scriabin broke with traditional forms around 1905 with the intention of composing an unprecedented mystical Gesamtkunstwerk. The symphonic poem Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54 (Poem of Ecstasy) thus carried on where Scriabin’s three symphonies left off, without intending to be a symphony itself. At the heatedly discussed first Russian performances of the work in 1909, the public had to become accustomed to the large orchestral forces, and particularly the mood of overwrought high spirits in which the work rushes from climax to climax. Scriabin originally wanted to call his opus 54 Poème orgiaque (Orgiastic Poem), but in the meantime sympathy for the revolutionary unrest of 1905 also figured in his plans, so that the motto “Arise, ye toiling people!” prefaced the score.

The criticism of Scriabin’s elevated concept, which has continued to this day, ignores the fact that the music of the Poem of Ecstasy is in fact “elevated” – in the best sense of the word. From the opening bars the great orchestra seems to be suspended; the solo violin, clarinet, flute and especially the dominant trumpet (with the “theme of self-assertion”, as Scriabin called it) compete in musical aerobatics. It rises “Allegro volando”, the violins stretch towards the ceiling “voluptueux” (voluptuously), more and more “extatique” (ecstatically) the leitmotifs couple, surrounded by pealing bells, in a bed of organ sound.

In order to put the audience in the appropriate mood for his St. Petersburg performance of the Poem of Ecstasy, conductor Serge Koussevitzky had the hall decorated with flowers, placed a throne in the dignitaries’ box for the composer and had thousands of lightbulbs turned on during the music. Scriabin was reported to be in high spirits after the concert and thought that this mood should now “take hold of the whole world”: “This is my mystery.” With that, since the process of spiritualization was not fully completed yet, he went to a good restaurant for refreshment.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Kirill Petrenko was born in Omsk in Siberia in 1972. When he was eighteen, he and his family moved to Vorarlberg in Austria. His training as a conductor with Uros Lajovic at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna was followed by a period as assistant and Kapellmeister at the Volksoper, also in Vienna. After this, he was general music director in Meiningen from 1999 – 2002, where in 2001 he had a particular triumph with his production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Christine Mielitz and Alfred Hrdlicka. From 2002 until 2007 he was again general music director, this time leading the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he gained an excellent reputation particularly as a result of his development work with the orchestra and ensemble. He has been invited to conduct in many major opera houses, including the State Operas in Dresden, Munich and Vienna, the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the Royal Opera House in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bastille Opera in Paris and the Salzburg Festival. In 2009 he celebrated successes with Pfitzner’s Palestrina at the Oper Frankfurt and with Janáček’s Jenůfa at the Bavarian State Opera, where he will be general music director from 2013. In the concert hall, Kirill Petrenko has conducted orchestras such as the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rundfunk-Symphonieorchester in Cologne (WDR) and Hamburg (NDR) as well as the Wiener Symphoniker. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006 with works by Bartók and Rachmaninov; most recently, he performed pieces by Beethoven and Elgar with the orchestra in May 2009.

Daniel Stabrawa was born in Kraków (Cracow), where he also studied the violin at the music academy with Zbigniew Szlezer. After winning numerous international competitions, he became leader of the Kraków Radio Orchestra in 1979. He has been a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1983 and one of its three leaders since 1986. From 1986 to 2000 he taught in the Philharmonic’s Orchestra Academy. In 1985 he and three of his colleagues formed the Philharmonia Quartet, which has appeared to tremendous acclaim not only in Berlin but also in other international centres of music and has received a large number of awards. Since 1994 Daniel Stabrawa has turned increasingly to conducting and from 1995 to 2001 was principal conductor of the Capella Bydgostiensis in Bydgoszcz (Bromberg). He is also active as a soloist: in December 2011 he performed Jenő Hubay’s Third Violin Concerto in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Iván Fischer.

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 earlier this month in performances of Verid‘s Quattro pezzi sacri, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

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