A spectacular downfall was how Richard Strauss described his tone poem Don Juan (based on the “Dramatic Scenes” by Nikolaus Lenau) which Sir Simon Rattle has programmed to open these concerts. In his multicoloured, iridescent work, in which Strauss employs the entire sound palette of the late-Romantic symphonic orchestra, breathtaking sonorities are followed by a gloomy and sombre conclusion: Like an evil spirit, all the passions and triumphs of Don Juan dissolve into the air: “The fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark” (Nicholas Lenau).
Following Strauss’ Don Juan, the programme continues with Maurice Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. Although Ravel himself emphasised the classical elements in this composition, the work is far removed from an exploration of the sonata form à la Beethoven: the outer movements with their dance-like rhythms and brass glissandi are more reminiscent of exuberant jazz sounds. By contrast, with the exquisite simplicity of the second movement, Ravel returned to the “archaic lyricism” (Arbie Orenstein) which he had learned from his teacher Gabriel Fauré. Standing in for an unfortunately indisposed Lang Lang, the evening’s soloist is the Korean rising star Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the legendary Chopin competition in Warsaw in 2015.
The second part of the programme features Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony about whose successful premiere on 25 October 1885 Richard Strauss wrote, “It it is difficult to define in words all the splendour that this work contains – you can only listen to it and raptly admire it again and again”. Joseph Joachim noted about the first performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker on 1 February 1886: “The downright gripping movement of the whole thing [...], the wonderfully intricate growth of the motifs even more than the richness and the beauty of individual passages have really affected me so that I almost believe that the E minor is my favourite among the four symphonies.”