Seiji Ozawa conducts Bruckner’s First Symphony

31 Jan 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Seiji Ozawa

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 1 in C minor (53 min.)

Anton Bruckner called his First Symphony a “saucy maid”. And in fact, such high-spirited exuberance is not found in any of the composer’s other works. Unlike his later symphonies, in this work Bruckner does not yet venture a look into the worlds beyond; instead, the composer, still in his early 40s and full of self-confidence, explores the symphonic genre. He does not pretend to be the follower of great predecessors, however. We already hear Bruckner’s unmistakable idiom and many original inspirations – from the marchlike first movement to the improvisational, tentative Adagio to the demonic Scherzo. The culmination is the Finale, in which Bruckner combines his excellent command of polyphonic writing with powerful ferocity.

It is difficult to believe that the Berliner Philharmoniker had not performed this original symphony for twenty-five years, until this concert with Seiji Ozawa. The magazine KlassikInfo commented: “Ozawa, the timeless, enigmatic magician at the conductor’s desk, emphasized the sharp contrasts, the forceful outbursts, the darkly fervent moments of calm and the surprise effect of this early work by Bruckner without exaggeration. Ozawa guided the orchestra through the pitfalls of the score, conducting from memory and with careful attention to the musicians, shaking hands with many of them at the end – and was rewarded with loyal and strong allegiance.”

Note: Another work heard at this concert was a piano concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, which may not be shown in the Digital Concert Hall for contractual reasons.

(Almost) Two Firsts

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor and Bruckner’s First Symphony

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was not just a famous composer, he was also one of the leading pianists and conductors of his day, his abilities as a performer equalling his gifts as a creative artist. Writers who refer to his concertos are generally thinking, first and foremost, of his E minor Violin Concerto of 1844, and yet there were few periods during Mendelssohn’s short life when he did not take an interest in the concerto as a compositional form.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor is the product of an educational visit to Italy that the young Mendelssohn undertook at his parents’ request in 1830–31. As a work, it not only attests to its composer’s youthful vigour, it also finds him breaking away from traditional Classical form. The clear three-movement structure of Classical works has been broken down here, the first movement leading directly into the second, while the third, too, follows on practically seamlessly from the second. Unlike the concertos of Viennese Classicism in which the soloist enters only after the orchestral exposition, the soloist already has a part to play in the concerto’s introduction, the roles of the participants having been remodelled along Beethovenian lines. In Peter Rummenhöller’s words, the soloist “joins in the motivic and thematic argument as an equal partner of the orchestra”.

The concerto begins without further ado, striking a note of impetuous verve from its very first bar. The orchestra launches the opening movement with rising tremolando figures that the piano takes up with an octave-based motif. With the lyrical and cantabile second subject the musical argument grows calmer for a moment, only to return very quickly to the first subject. The movement in general is lively and tempestuous in style, an aspect reflected in part in the interplay between solo instrument and orchestra. This is no relaxed dialogue between the participants but an exchange that is filled with both turmoil and drama. There is only a brief development section, and in the recapitulation the second subject is ignored altogether.

Fanfares on the trumpets and horns lead directly into the calm middle movement, an Andante in E major heralded by the soloist. A simple theme on the violas and cellos is taken up by the piano. In this expressive, meditative movement it is the low strings that play the leading role, and it is not until the final bars that they are joined by the violins, flutes, bassoon and horn.

The concerto ends with a breakneck rondo finale that begins with an energetic orchestral introduction and cascading scales on the piano. The soloist then introduces the main idea, which recalls the first subject of the opening movement. Now there is no holding back, no point of repose: the movement maintains its constant momentum, ending as furiously as it began.

Anton Bruckner came to the symphony relatively late in his life. Until then his career had comprised a series of different stages: early music lessons from his father; deputizing for the latter as an organist; attending the teacher-training college in Linz; years of study with Simon Sechter in Vienna; and posts as cathedral organist in Linz and conductor of the local Liedertafel. It was in Linz that Bruckner’s years of compositional apprenticeship finally came to an end. But although he had mastered the theory of music, he still lacked a knowledge of the Classical and Romantic orchestral repertory and had no experience of instrumentation or analysis. He studied instrumentation and the theory of musical form with the young conductor Otto Kitzler, reading through scores and attending the performances that Kitzler rehearsed and conducted at the theatre in Linz.

Bruckner began by writing a number of chamber works, before throwing himself into the field of orchestral music in 1862 with a March in D minor and three short orchestral pieces. These were followed in 1863 by an Overture in G minor and the F minor Symphony and in 1865 by a March in E flat major for military band. But he then proceeded to withdraw all these works. A different fate befell his Symphony in D minor of 1863–64, the score of which was later emblazoned with a large “0” as a sign that Bruckner refused to acknowledge its validity as a mature composition. But if the mature Bruckner himself wrote off his “Nullte” as worthless, other commentators have been less dismissive, Hans-Hubert Schönzeler describing it as a “self-contained symphonic work” of independent artistic merit.

Bruckner started work on his Symphony No. 1 in C minor in January 1865, beginning with its two outer movements and sketching its Scherzo. By 1866 he had produced the definitive version of the third movement and the Adagio. Bruckner himself conducted the first performance in Linz on 9 May 1868. He returned to the score in 1877 and 1884 and again in March 1890, when he spent a whole year revising the work. In its revised form, the symphony was heard for the first time at a Vienna Philharmonic concert under Hans Richter on 13 December 1891. This Viennese version was regarded as the only one that was valid until Robert Haas published the original score in 1935 as part of the complete edition of the composer’s works.

Bruckner’s “official” first symphony is full of idiosyncrasies and surprises. To take an example: the opening movement, an Allegro in C minor, comes straight to the point, the main theme entering over pounding quavers and thirds in the lower strings. Bruckner uses this theme to build to a dynamic climax, then follows it up with a second subject that is rapt and songlike in character. The final subject-group of the exposition contains a third theme notable for its brio. This use of three themes, rather than the usual two, was to be typical of the outer movements of all Bruckner’s later symphonies.

The ternary-form Adagio in A flat major puzzled contemporaries with its curiously irresolute beginning and vague, almost improvisatory features. Bruckner begins by preparing the mood for the theme that follows, a theme that takes the form of a violin figure with rising sextolets over arpeggios in the violas. The middle section, marked “Andante”, is dominated by the second theme, described by Theodor Helm as a kind of “amiably consoling song”. The third movement is a typically Brucknerian Scherzo, rushing unison scales in the strings and chords in the winds and timpani preparing the way for the entry of the dance-like main theme. With its gently animated horn melody, the pastoral G minor Trio brings a temporary end to the movement’s burlesque activity and provides a powerful contrast with it.

The finale is unique in Bruckner’s output, for no other symphonic movement by the composer begins by striking as lively and violent a note as this one. Again we find three subject-groups, which on this occasion are contrapuntally developed: the first is based on an octave interval, the second combines the songlike melody of the first violins with characteristic syncopations in the violas, and the third may be interpreted as a remodelling of the symphony’s very first theme. In the final movement of his First Symphony Bruckner departs from the rules that traditionally govern the genre and allows his imagination free rein. The movement is a beginning, a promise and a vision all in one. To quote Dietmar Holland, “as in Mahler’s First Symphony, so too in Bruckner’s finale all hell breaks loose, the music literally breaking completely free from every formal constraint”.

Lang Lang was born in Shenyang, China, in 1982 and by the autumn of 2007 was already able to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his professional stage debut. He was three when he received his first piano lessons and five when he won a piano competition in his native Shenyang and appeared in public for the first time. At the age of nine he began to study the piano at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In 1997 he became a pupil of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and achieved his international breakthrough two years later when he took over at short notice from an ailing André Watts at the Ravinia Festival. Since then he has conquered the concert platforms of all the world’s major centres of music and festivals, not only giving solo recitals but also appearing with leading international orchestras. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti and Sir Simon Rattle. He made his Berlin debut with a piano recital that he gave at the end of May 2006 within the framework of the piano series run by the Berliner Philharmoniker. He first appeared as a soloist with the orchestra the following month at a Waldbühne concert under Sir Simon Rattle. He also performed with the orchestra at the 2007 Salzburg Easter Festival. Before the year was over, he had been invited by the Foundation to give a piano recital in the Philharmonie. In 2004 Lang Lang became the youngest international UNICEF ambassador. He did much to support the victims of the earthquake in China in May 2008 and collected donations for the China Earthquake Fund of the American Red Cross. Lang Lang is an honorary professor at a number of conservatories in China and has given masterclasses in Hanover, at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, at the Manhattan School of Music, at the Curtis Institute and elsewhere.

Seiji Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China, in 1935 and studied conducting and composition in Tokyo. The winner of several international competitions and the holder of many major scholarships, he attended Herbert von Karajan’s masterclasses in Berlin before becoming Leonard Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic during the 1961/62 season. He began his international career in North America as principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965–69) and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1970–76). His major successes at the Tanglewood Festival led to his appointment as the Festival’s artistic director in 1970. In 1984 he founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra and since then had done much to promote the orchestra’s work, performing a similar function for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto since 1991. After almost three decades as artistic director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1973, Seiji Ozawa became music director of the Vienna State Opera from the start of the 2002/03 season. In 2004 he formed the International Music Academy in Switzerland with the aim of helping young musicians to develop as chamber recitalists and to give concerts. Among his numerous awards are his appointment as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2001 and honorary doctorates at Harvard University (2000) and the Sorbonne (2004). He is much in demand as a guest conductor with leading orchestras all over the world. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut in 1966 and has returned on frequent subsequent occasions, most recently in mid-January 2008, when he conducted works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

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