Iván Fischer and Vilde Frang present Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1
22 Dec 2017
Hungarian Peasant Songs for Orchestra, Sz 100 (11 min.)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1, Sz 36 (24 min.)
Vilde Frang violin
Norwegian Lullaby (3 min.)
Vilde Frang violin
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 61 (Excerpts, arranged in form of a suite by Iván Fischer) (50 min.)
Mari Eriksmoen soprano, Kitty Whately mezzo-soprano, Ladies of the Philharmonia Choir Wien, Walter Zeh chorus master
Iván Fischer in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (13 min.)
Vilde Frang in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (11 min.)
Béla Bartók wrote his First Violin Concerto for his early love, the young violinist Stefi Geyer “as if in a narcotic dream”: he inscribed the words “My Confession” on the front page of the manuscript. The first four notes from the solo violin (a real ʻearwormʼ) was described by the composer himself as the “Stefi motif”. However, with late-Romantic expression, the eager and yearning melody, full of Tristan-like passion, is followed by a free fugato – his love was not returned. The work was written, according to the composer, in “still happy times. Although it was only half happiness”. But Bartók was capable of self-irony: at the beginning of the second movement, which continues on from the first without interruption, the highest note of a cadential upward run in the solo violin is counteracted by a hint of Wagner’s “Tristan chord” in the orchestra. The Norwegian virtuoso violinist Vilde Frang, formerly a beneficiary of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s support for highly talented musicians, and now acclaimed worldwide for her virtuosity, musicality and expressiveness, is the soloist in Bartók’s First Violin Concerto in these concerts conducted by Iván Fischer: “I like Bartók, the sincerity and logic of his musical language which, for me, is closely related to Bach.”
Before Bartók’s declaration of love, the long-time chief conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin has programmed the composer’s Hungarian Peasant Songs: catchy melodies, all based on folk songs. But Bartók’s variations, harmonies and structural additions go far beyond mere arrangements. The final item of the evening is excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s AMidsummer Night’s Dream, selected by Iván Fischer himself. This Mendelssohnian pièce de résistance begins of course with the “concert overture” (op. 21), written as early as the summer of 1826 about which even Robert Schumann enthusiastically said: “The bloom of youth lies suffused over it as over scarcely any other of the composer’s works.” When Mendelssohn composed the incidental music (op. 61), commissioned by the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1843, he used his youthful composition written approximately 17 years earlier unaltered as an introduction. However, there is no break in style: the abundance of melodic ideas, the colourful intensity of the harmonies and the ever changing swirling rhythms were transferred with great artistry from the overture to the newly composed parts of the incidental music.
Dreams of Love
Music by Béla Bartók and Felix Mendelssohn
Béla Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs for Orchestra
Sometimes situations develop as a result of seemingly trivial coincidences that influence one’s entire life. In September 1904, during a visit to southern Slovakia, Béla Bartók heard a kitchen maid singing. The melodies from Transylvania made such a strong impression on the 23-year-old that he wrote them down immediately. Bartók’s fascination for the folklore of eastern and southern Europe was awakened, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. “Parallel to composing I became increasingly interested in the study of musical folklore – beginning with Hungarian material, then continuing to that of the neighbouring peoples,” he recounted. Bartók initially arranged the Hungarian Peasant Songs heard at these concerts for piano, completing them in 1918, although he hesitated a long time before publishing them. A revised and expanded version of fifteen songs did not appear in print until 1920. Bartók arranged selections from these peasant songs for orchestra in 1933, again indicating how much he admired these melodies.
The composer began the orchestral version with a melancholy ballad in the form of a passacaglia. The austere lament in 7/8 metre, scored for strings, woodwinds and brass, dazzles as though reflected through a prism. The brief songs that follow seem like distant variations of the opening work. They have a great deal of rhythmic drive and are often dissonant, with rich nuances in timbre. The stately Moderato and lyrical Allegretto reveal unmistakable echoes of eastern European late Romanticism, not only in character but also in the choice of instruments. The closing work of the cycle begins with a dance melody, shrilly orchestrated, then quite archaic, almost wild. Only with effort does the swirling round dance come to a close.
“In a narcotic dream”: Béla Bartók’s First Violin Concerto
If the Hungarian Peasant Songs reflect Bartók the researcher and arranger, the Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36, composed a few years earlier, presents a completely different, private and romantic side of the young composer. Bartók’s love for the violinist Stefi Geyer provided the inspiration for the composition. She was seven years younger than the composer, beautiful, and was regarded as one of the most talented students at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Bartók had fallen head over heels in love with the young woman at their first meeting. He made the first sketches for the violin concerto “in a narcotic dream” (as he wrote in a letter) during the summer of 1906; it was to be dedicated to Stefi Geyer.
Bartók designed the outer structure of the work very innovatively. Two contrasting movements, one voluptuous, the other propulsive and extremely virtuosic, form a kind of diptych. The opening bars of the Andante sostenutoalready pose a particular challenge for the solo violin: contrary to all conventions, Bartók has it begin without accompaniment. The other strings do not join in the highly dissonant melodic line until a few bars later. Again and again the music surges and ebbs organically; in quick succession Bartók calls for expressiveness ranging from a soft pianissimo to multiple forte espressivo. After a brief intermezzo the soloist begins a second opulent cantilena which builds up even more intensely. It comes to a close in the highest register of the violin, lost in reverie yet expressive. The movement ends like it began, with a distinctive motif of an ascending four-note chord – Bartók himself referred to these notes as a leitmotif for his beloved.
The Allegro giocoso, which follows without a break, is characterized by virtuosity and a lively exchange between the solo instrument and orchestra. The solo part now begins with an abrasive motif, however. The harshness of the dissonances, the often unconventional harmony and eruptive, almost percussive sound effects already anticipate Bartók’s later style; the orchestration of the movement also draws on late Romantic models, however. The theme is charged with tremendous, almost shimmering energy; a new section, marked “Meno allegro e rubato”, is more tranquil, with flowing triplets. During a brief third section the low strings introduce a rumbling figure with an appoggiatura, which is taken up by the violin and orchestra in a rapid interplay. In the last section of the concerto Bartók inserted two brief episodes into the score as reminiscences: a dancelike folk melody reflects the “times that were still happy. Although it was only half-happiness”, as the composer commented in a letter to the woman he adored. The leitmotif from the first movement also returns again later.
Enchanting Music: Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream op. 61
Light, joy, elegance and high spirits – the music that Felix Mendelssohn composed for William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is marvellously interwoven with these elements. The fourteen-part incidental music, from which Iván Fischer has chosen selections for this concert, was written for a production commissioned by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. The premiere took place at the theatre of the New Palace in Potsdam on 14 October 1843, in celebration of the birthday of the artistically inclined monarch. Mendelssohn had already laid the foundation for his op. 61 as a teenager. Exhilarated after participating in a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon, Mendelssohn completed the concert overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream op. 21 in August 1826.
The composer brilliantly succeeded in bringing all the subsequent movements of the incidental music to life with the same vitality and inspiration. The graceful, elfin Scherzo is vibrant, with jaunty staccato runs in the flutes and violins. The light, shimmering tone of the flutes also lends colour to the orchestral accompaniment in the song with chorus “You spotted snakes” as two elves prepare the bed for the queen Titania. The Intermezzo is fascinating not only because of its urgent character but also the fast-paced alternating confrontation of the strings and woodwinds. A playful, earthy round dance with traditional drone sounds forms the coda of this movement; the score notes: “Here the workmen appear in the woods.”
Tranquillity and a relaxed mood prevail in the Nocturne, which opens with an expansive melody in the horns and bassoons that is then continued passionately by the clarinets, strings and flutes. Introduced by arpeggiated trumpet fanfares, the Wedding March is one of Mendelssohn’s best-known works. The jubilant characteristic piece accompanies the wedding of the Athenian rulers Theseus and Titania at the end of the fourth act. The simple Funeral March, on the other hand, is deliberately scored sparsely with clarinet, bassoon and trombone for the scene in which the workmen dilettantishly enact the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The finale returns to material from the opening and end of the concert overture. Mendelssohn augments the original score with an ethereal chorus of elves: “Through the house give glimmering light, by the dead and drowsy fire. Every elf and fairy sprite hop as light as bird from briar. And this ditty, after me, sing, and dance it trippingly.” The woodwind chords from the introduction, accompanied by strings and a soft timpani roll, provide the backdrop for Puck’s closing words: “So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin Puck shall restore amends.”
Vilde Frang was born in Norway in 1986 and made her debut with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the invitation of Mariss Jansons when she was only twelve years of age. She studied at the Barratt-Due-Musikinstitut in Oslo, at the Hamburg University of Music and Theatre under Kolja Blacher, under Ana Chumachenko at the Kronberg-Akademie, and in Munich. From 2003 to 2009 she was a scholarship holder of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation. In 2012, the young violinist was awarded the Credit Suisse Young Artists Award and subsequently made her debut with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink at the Lucerne Festival. She has given concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris. In 2013 she made her debut at the BBC Proms and at the Salzburg Festival. At the orchestra’s European concert in Røros on 1 May 2016, she appeared for the first time with the Berliner Philharmoniker performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto under the baton of Simon Rattle. As a chamber musician, Vilde Frang regularly performs at renowned festivals, appearing alongside Nicolas Altstaedt, Leif Ove Andsnes, Truls Mørk and the Quatuor Ébène, among others. She has given recitals in Europe and the USA with pianist Michail Lifits, including her debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2016. Her recordings have received numerous awards, including a Gramophone Award 2016 and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Vilde Frang plays a violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume from 1864.
The soprano also comes from Norway and studied singing in Oslo, Paris and Copenhagen. In 2010, she made her debut at the Theater an der Wien as Zerbinetta in Ariadne on Naxos; since then, she has been a regular guest there, including in a cycle of Da Ponte operas under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the roles of Susanna, Zerlina and Fiordiligi in 2014. Other engagements have taken her to Zurich Opera, Oper Frankfurt, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Komische Oper Berlin, plus the festivals at Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence. Her repertoire includes roles such as Euridice (Orfeo), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Waldvogel (Siegfried), Fiakermilli (Arabella) and Sœur Constance (Les Dialogues des Carmélites). As a concert singer, she performs works from Bach, Haydn, Schumann and Brahms to Orff and Poulenc; she has sung with the Orchestre de Paris, the Munich Philharmonic and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and has worked with conductors such as Daniel Harding, Marc Minkowski, Paavo Järvi and Robin Ticciati. Mari Eriksmoen now makes her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.
The British mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately received her training at Chetham’s School of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal College of Music Opera Studio. The winner of the 2011 Kathleen Ferrier Award, she was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2013 to 2015. Since then she has performed as a concert singer in the UK, including with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Britten Sinfonia, and also in Norway, Spain and the Netherlands. In recitals at Wigmore Hall and at festivals, she has appeared with pianists such as Roger Vignoles, Graham Johnson and Malcolm Martineau. On the opera stage she has sung the roles of Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Dorabella (Cosí fan tutte), Kate (Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave ) and the female lead in the world premiere production of Vasco Mendonça’s The House Taken Over at the festival in Aix-en-Provence and on the subsequent European tour. Kitty Whately now makes her first guest appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Philharmonia Chorus Vienna was founded in 2002 on the initiative of the former director of the Salzburg Festival, Gerard Mortier, and initially, depending on the project, went under the name of either the Ruhr Triennale Chorus or the Baden-Baden Festival Chorus. Since 2006, the ensemble, under the direction of Walter Zeh, appears as an independent association under its current name and is also in demand as a concert choir. The Philharmonia Chorus Vienna has been invited to participate in opera productions under the direction of conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Marc Minkowski, Kent Nagano and Christian Thielemann at Musikfest Bremen (L’Arlésienne), Reggio Emilia and Ferrara (Die Zauberflöte), Baden-Baden (Parsifal, Die Zauberflöte, Tannhäuser) and also at the RuhrTriennale (Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte). In April 2008, the choir performed as part of the Salzburg Festival’s guest appearances in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo in a production of Le nozze di Figaro. In the years that followed, the ensemble performed in various opera productions at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Der Rosenkavalier, Der Freischütz, Elektra) and also at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. In Salzburg in 2010 and 2011, the Philharmonia Chorus Vienna sang in in productions under the direction of Riccardo Muti that were also performed at the Ravenna Festival and in 2011 at the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Since 2014, the choir has worked together with the Berliner Philharmoniker in several productions at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden; in Berlin, it appeared in the concert performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut under the direction of Simon Rattle in April 2014.