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Simon Rattle with Mitsuko Uchida and Amihai Grosz

07 Oct 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida, Amihai Grosz

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B flat major, K. 595 (36 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida piano

  • William Walton
    Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (Revised Version from 1962) (37 min.)

    Amihai Grosz viola

  • Zoltán Kodály
    Háry János Suite (29 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Mitsuko Uchida in conversation with Tobias Möller (12 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Amihai Grosz in conversation with Tobias Möller (14 min.)

“I have the impression that every note in Mozart’s music behaves like a toddler – totally unpredictably,” Mitsuko Uchida once admitted in an interview. She ought to know, after all, the pianist, who was born in Japan and grew up in Vienna, is a specialist in the music of the First Viennese School – something she has convinced Berliner Philharmoniker audiences of on many occasions over the more than 30 years that she has worked together with the orchestra. This season, she performs Mozart’s B-flat major Piano Concerto K. 595, his final work in the form. It is characterised by the simple but, as it were, concentrated treatment of the musical material and its reflective, serene tenor. The cheerful closing theme of the final movement, which includes the song “Come, dear May, and make” was to become hugely popular.

The programme also includes another instrumental concerto: William Walton’s Viola Concerto. The English composer wrote the work in 1929 for the famous violist Lionel Tertis who nevertheless rejected the piece, much to Walton’s great disappointment. Later, the musician was ashamed of himself for doing so. He regretted not having immediately recognised the beauty and modernity of the piece. The premiere was then played by another musician, Walton’s German colleague Paul Hindemith who was himself a professional violist. In these concerts under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, the soloist is Amihai Grosz, who has been first principal viola with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010.

The concert closes with Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite which the Hungarian composer compiled from six movements of the Singspiel of the same name. János Háry, a war veteran of the Napoleonic wars – comparable with the German Baron Munchausen, renowned for his tall tales – recounts his incredible adventures. “The grotesque figments of his imagination are a wonderful mixture of realism and naivety, comedy and pathos,” remarked Kodály. The composer set the fantastic adventures to music with wit, irony and charm, conjures up a bizarre battle music and a comic funeral march, and quotes Hungarian folk music and Viennese military bands. This special blend is what makes the work so successful: For the first time, Kodály confronted the urban concert audience with the original music of the rural population. Although one critic railed that the piece filled the air with the “whiff of an ethnographic museum”, the suite significantly contributed to the international fame of the composer.

 

Longing, Love at Second Sight and Patriotic Poetry

Works by Mozart, Walton and Kodály

Mozart celebrated his last birthday at home in Vienna. The 34-year-old composer had returned from Frankfurt am Main in 1790, where he had established new contacts at the coronation of the emperor and played a concert with his own works. Back in Vienna, scores of projects awaited him. He organized various private concerts as composer and interpreter of chamber music, dances he had recently composed had been published, Antonio Salieri conducted an academy concert at which Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, K. 550, may have been on the programme. And, a few days before his birthday, Mozart also completed his last Piano Concerto in B flat major, K. 595, probably for a similar academy, which he performed himself at a private concert with the clarinettist Joseph Beer in early March 1791.

Although the outward circumstances of the composer’s life improved again after the less profitable previous year, he suffered from deep melancholy. He had already described a poor psychological state earlier in letters, but now he complained to his wife Constanze about “a kind of emptiness”: “If people could see into my heart, I should almost feel ashamed. To me everything is cold – cold as ice.” The B flat major Piano Concerto can be heard as a reflection of this feeling of emotional alienation, as a work of inner experience in the entirely different circumstances of the outer world. According to Peter Gülke, this is music which “no longer appeals and addresses”. That already becomes obvious during the casual, almost trivial beginning. The opening bar coasts along in neutral, providing a harmonic footing for a constant pedal point and the first theme. The following Larghetto illustrates the glaring discrepancy between the soloist’s part, which revolves around one melodic idea, and the cohesive style of the orchestral accompaniment. A musical convergence is not noticeable until the end of the movement. The closing Rondo skips along, in Gülke’s words, like a “naïvely moderate midpoint between tarantella and hunting music”. Mildness also prevails here; the absence of an abyss or exultation seems like withdrawal, however. One need not go as far as Alfred Einstein, for whom Mozart’s last piano concert was ultimately “a work of farewell”, but even with what we know today this concerto can be understood as “the musical counterpart to the confession he made in his letters to the effect that life had lost attraction for him” – if only temporarily. Following Mozart there calls for an openness to nuances. Anyone who does not have that openness, Peter Gülke believes, “does not hear the intrinsic isolation in this music, regards it as if it is meant in the usual way, but it is not”.

William Walton seeks a violist and finds two friends

It was not his love for the instrument that prompted William Walton to compose his Concerto for Viola, since the English composer did not feel particularly drawn to it, nor did he have a performer’s understanding of its possibilities. Instead, it was the conductor Thomas Beecham who was able to persuade his 26-year-old musician colleague to compose a new work in 1928. Beecham, almost twice Walton’s age, was the impresario of the British musical scene – it was unthinkable that Walton would have turned down the proposal to compose a concerto for the violist Lionel Tertis.

The work went quickly. Walton only needed the winter of 1928/9 to complete the three-movement work. Tertis rejected the concerto, however, as he later recalled with shame: “I was unwell at that time; but what is also true is that I had not learnt to appreciate Walton’s style. The innovations in his musical language, which now seem so logical and so truly in the mainstream of music, then struck me as far-fetched.” Tertis recommended a colleague to the perplexed Walton, though: the German violist and composer Paul Hindemith was invited to give the premiere of the concerto at the Queenʼs Hall in London on 3 October 1929. The work met with an enthusiastic response from the press, and Hindemith’s playing attracted interest. Walton later recalled: “His technique was marvellous, but he was rough – no nonsense about it. He just stood up and played.”

A lifelong friendship developed between Hindemith and Walton, but the German musician never played the Viola Concerto again after the premiere. Instead, Lionel Tertis discovered his love for the work. He added it to his repertoire a year after the premiere and performed it on various occasions. Sometimes he enjoyed overwhelming success with it; after one performance, the conductor Adrian Boult even made Tertis repeat the entire work! But Tertis had not learned from his rash refusal. When he received the offer to perform Hindemith’s Second Viola Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Tertis again refused for artistic reasons. Shortly afterwards, in 1937, he was forced to end his solo career because of rheumatism – on the programme of his last concert was Walton’s Viola Concerto.

Zoltán Kodály composes a Hungarian evergreen

It was two young authors named Béla Paulini and Zsolt Harsányi who presented a new opera project to Zoltán Kodály in 1925. At the end of his life Kodály recalled: “A Hungarian poet had written it 100 years earlier, and two clever writers made a piece out of it, which I – although I never had a particular inclination towards the theatre – liked so much the first time I read it that I was immediately eager to compose the music for it.” The project was based on the epic poem Az obsitos (The Veteran), which the poet János Garay had written around 1845. The composer must have been pleased to note the patriotic echoes of the play, which was entitled Háry János: a retired Hungarian soldier entertains the guests at an inn with dubious accounts of his army career, his defeat of Napoleon, winning the love of the Austrian princess and finally his joyful return to his beloved Hungary. “What he recounts is actually the embodiment of Hungarian folk tale fantasy, so it is much truer than the truth itself,” the composer said later.

The Singspiel opera with spoken dialogue Háry Janos had its premiere at the Hungarian State Opera House in 1926 and attracted a great deal of media interest. Depending on which source one believes, it was either Kodály’s friend Béla Bartók or the Viennese publisher Universal Edition that suggested an arrangement of excerpts from Háry Jánosfor orchestra to reach a larger audience. A half-year later the six movements of the Háry JánosSuite were premiered in Barcelona. Both versions turned out to be works in progress. The sequence of movements from the Suite performed in Barcelona was soon modified. Moreover, in a barbarous act, the distinctive part of the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) was initially replaced with a piano. Kodály himself had used this option but preferred a harpsichord as substitute. No modern world-class orchestra would dispense with the exotic sound of a cimbalom nowadays. The Singspiel, in particular, was subjected to extensive revisions, however. In 1928 Kodály presented a musically improved second version; the third version ultimately had a political component: at its premiere in 1953 Hungary was experiencing the heavy hand of Soviet control. Kodály’s arrangement – like many of his works – was understood as a declaration of Hungarian national consciousness. Even in old age the composer was still proudly hailed as the “father of Háry”, a clear indication of the enduring and identity-shaping importance of Kodály’s music in his homeland.

Daniel Frosch

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Mitsuko Uchida is renowned and admired throughout the whole world for her interpretations of the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, while also performing a repertory that includes works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Boulez. Uchida and the Berliner Philharmoniker look back on an artistic partnership lasting more than thirty years: She made her debut with the orchestra in June 1984, performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. During the 2008/09 season she was the orchestra’s pianist in residence, performing all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Among the orchestras with which she appears on a regular basis are the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia of London and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam; she has been artist in residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Konzerthaus, Salzburg Mozartwoche and Lucerne Festival. Carnegie Hall dedicated to her a Perspectives series entitled “Mitsuko Uchida: Vienna Revisited”. In 2016 she was named Artistic Partner of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and began a series of concerts directing Mozart concerti from the piano in extensive tours of major European venues and Japan. She also supports young artists through her active involvement with the Borletti Buitoni Trust and as director of the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. In 2009 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. In May 2012 she was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal and in 2014 received an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge. In 2015, she received the Premium Imperiale from the Japan Arts Association. Her last appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in March 2016 at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival.

Amihai Grosz, born in Jerusalem in 1979, started playing violin at the age of five and switched to the viola when he was eleven. He initially studied with David Chen at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, later continuing with Tabea Zimmermann in Berlin at the Academy of Music “Hanns Eisler” and with Haim Taub at the Keshet Eilon Music Center in Israel. In September 2010 he was appointed first principal viola of the Berliner Philharmoniker. As a concert soloist he has already appeared with various renowned orchestras like the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Berlin Staatskapelle. In September 2015 he played the solo part in Mozart‘s Sinfonia concertante with the Berliner Philharmoniker on tour in Lucerne and at the Grafenegg festival. Amihai Grosz is a founding member of the Jerusalem String Quartet and also plays in the Philharmonic Octet. In addition, the violist has performed as a chamber musician with partners including Yefim Bronfman, Emmanuel Pahud, Mitsuko Uchida, Janine Jansen and Julian Rachlin, at prestigious venues and festivals in Israel, the Netherlands and Switzerland and the UK. Amihai Grosz plays an instrument made by Gasparo da Salò from the 16th century which is on loan to him for life from a private collection.

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