Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1

24 Feb 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Daniel Barenboim

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Slavonic Dances, op. 72 (39 min.)

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Sz 83 (29 min.)

    Daniel Barenboim piano

  • Leoš Janáček
    Sinfonietta, op. 60 (29 min.)

The long artistic friendship between Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker began with Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. Wolfgang Stresemann, general manager of the orchestra at that time, had the young pianist in mind for a Philharmoniker concert programme under the direction of Pierre Boulez in June 1964: “If you want to play there, you’ll first have to learn Béla Bartók’s First Piano Concerto,” he said. Barenboim got the music and immediately fell in love with what was then a very rarely performed piece. Although Bartók based his composition on the classic three-part concerto form, the function of the piano is completely different to anything that had come before: He used the piano primarily as a percussion instrument that gives an energetic, vibrant and at the same time dance-like character to the inexorable, onward-driving momentum of the work. And at his debut, Barenboim succeeded in conveying just that. As one review described, “He played with virtuosity, intelligence, and in the slow movement in particular, he brings out Bartók’s sublimation of the rhythmical”. As a conductor, Barenboim has performed the concerto several times with the Philharmoniker in recent years, and now he is also to be heard as its soloist for the first time since 1964.

The use of folk music as a source of inspiration links Béla Bartók with the two other composers of this programme, Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček. Dvořák made his international breakthrough with his lively Slavonic Dances op. 46. Only a few years later, the Czech master went one better with a sequel. Unlike the first series, the second, Dvořák’s opus 72, is dominated by dance forms from neighbouring Slavic countries with more melancholy, contemplative and introverted individual numbers. While Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker often like to perform individual dances, the presentation of the entire opus 72 is more of a rarity.

Folk music-based dance rhythms also characterise the Sinfonietta by Dvořák’s compatriot Leoš Janáček. But the piece, whose famous opening fanfare was composed in 1926 for a celebration of the “Sokol” gymnastic association and was then expanded by the composer to a five-movement orchestral work, is more than a musical exploration of national dances; it is rather a patriotic avowal to the then fledgling Czech Republic and a tribute to Janáček’s home town of Brno – powerful, evocative and triumphant.


Successful Musical Exports from South-Eastern Europe

Works by Antonín Dvořák, Béla Bartók and Leoš Janáček

Optimistic and melancholy: Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances op. 72

Musicians from Bohemia were successful exports to the courts in Mannheim, Potsdam and Vienna during the 18th century. In his Diary of a Musical Journey Charles Burney wrote: “I had frequently been told that the Bohemians were the most musical people of Germany, or perhaps, of all Europe.” One hundred years later the national consciousness had become stronger in Bohemia and Moravia, like everywhere in Europe, and opera performances became political manifestos against Austrian rule.

Antonín Dvořák’s career was given a boost by Johannes Brahms, who became aware of the 33-year-old in 1874. He recommended the younger colleague to his publisher Fritz Simrock, who immediately commissioned him to compose a cycle modelled after Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Dvořák’s op. 48, the first series of Slavonic Dances, was as successful as the popular works by his supporter. Whereas Brahms had intentionally arranged existing folk melodies, however, Dvořák composed all the themes and motifs himself: in the spirit of Czech folklore and based on authentic dance forms, at most paraphrasing pre-existing material. He also followed this principle in the second series of Slavonic Dances op. 72. If the op. 48 still displays a certain earthiness, the second series seems to be covered with an elegiac veil, as though Dvořák consciously wanted to bring out the “two souls in the breast” of Czech identity: the optimistic and the melancholy temperament.

Op. 72 No. 2, with its sensitive string brilliance, and No. 4, with introverted woodwind motifs, exude a particularly poetic, nostalgic charm. No. 1 conveys confident vitality with emphatically dotted rhythms, exuberant short motifs and the propulsive drive of the triangle and cymbals. Dvořák chose a Slovakian shepherd’s dance here, the odzemek. In the other dances as well, rhythms that are not of Czech origin dominate. Instead, Dvořák reveals the diversity of eastern European music: the Ukrainian dumka in No. 4, the fast Serbian kolo in the tremendously high-spirited No. 7, the Polish mazurka (middle section of No. 2) and the elegant polonaise (No. 6). Dvořák returns to Bohemia in the last dance. The sousedská, a measured partner dance in three-four metre, concludes the cycle: swaying slowly and gently, taking the wind out of the sails of pathos.

Crystal-clear austerity: Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1

Béla Bartók was also born during the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Strongly attracted to Hungarian nationalism in his youth, he had increasingly understood the coexistence of the Balkan peoples as an opportunity. During the 1920s his quest for stronger stylization came up against the general artistic tendency towards abstraction. As both a creative and performing artist, he was particularly interested in the piano repertoire: “I must compose a piano concerto. That is lacking, and it will be my next work,” he said in 1925. The “objective”, contrapuntal expressive possibilities of the piano were perfectly suited to the compositional requirements of that time.

In Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, which was premiered in 1927, the pounding, sharply contoured themes are dominated by the percussive idea of the piano. Repeated notes in austere chords emphasize the rhythm as the driving force of the proceedings, before which melody and harmony become quite unimportant. The piano is also spatially integrated into the percussion: in the Andante Bartók calls for three percussionists, who first accompany the piano completely alone, using precisely specified playing surfaces and sticks. The percussionists already support the pianist in the first movement, however. Hammering bass notes in the piano and ostinato quavers in the timpani take up the first two bars; the snare drum later joins in to spur them on during the frenzied increases in tempo shortly before the recapitulation. Woodcut-like syncopated melodies and constant changes in metre have their roots in the “primitivisms” of folkloric elemental force.

In the Andante Bartók devises a bizarre sound experiment: at first the piano only responds to an insistent quaver motif of the three percussionists, shaded with varying timbres. It eventually enhances this motif with increasing complexity until the woodwinds chime in above the dense continuum. Their exotic melody intensifies to a mysterious, eerie procession.

After this laconic nocturne, grotesque trombone glissandos lead into a breakneck finale, beginning with smashing octaves in the piano. The piano and orchestra continually drive each other forward, suddenly decelerate, then start again. A brilliant brass theme sparkles like an early Baroque canzona. This wild galop is an indication of Bartók’s vibrant power as a man and an artist.

Herald trumpets and democratic celebration: Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta op. 60

Immediately after Dvořák’s death in 1904 Leoš Janáček summed up his importance: “No one has been able to measure this sea, this Czech sea of his music. That is why it was so still after his death. If only the pompous commemorations were over!” Twenty-two years later “pompous commemorations” brought Janáček himself a resounding success. The occasion was a commission from the Czech gymnastic association Sokol (Falcon) for a congress in June 1926. The Sokol regarded itself as the platform of the Czech nationalist movement; Janáček had also been a member since his youth. As the apotheosis of independence he wrote a brilliant fanfare for the Sokol that harks back to a national icon: the opening fanfare from Smetana’s Libuše, an opera about the legendary matriarch of the Bohemian ruling dynasty and founder of Prague. Janáček adhered to the proud tradition of this fanfare but reinforced it with thirteen more brass instruments.

Four additional movements quickly grew out of this fanfare. They were premiered with the title Sinfonietta by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich at the Sokol congress in Prague in 1926. Over and above any nationalist implications the work fascinatingly reveals what an innovative sound the late bloomer Janáček brought to his music. This work by the 71-year-old composer is full of dazzling impulsiveness and burning passion, excessive, ecstatic and yet sensitive. As a result of his interest in folk music material Janáček had not only discovered dance melodies which appear again and again throughout the Sinfonietta. Even more important were his efforts to find the precise rhythmic and melodic intonation of the Czech language. These brief, expressive, at times nervously overexcited orchestral motifs also dominate the music. In his draft programme the movements were designated with names of places: “The Castle – The Queen’s Monastery – The Street – The Town Hall”. There is so much swirling and buzzing in them that one could become quite dizzy from this exuberant vitality. At the close the herald trumpets again show the way with the powerful fanfare motif, paraphrased and cheered by excited trills and tremolos in the woodwinds and strings.

Kerstin Schüssler-Bach

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 but moved to Israel with his parents ten years later. His first piano teacher was his mother, followed by his father. He was ten when he made his professional debut in Vienna and Rome, and it was not long before he was undertaking international tours. He made his conducting debut in London in 1967 and since then has appeared with leading orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. The most important stages in his career to date have been as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975 to 1989, as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006 and as general music director of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 1992. In 2000 the Berlin Staatskapelle appointed him chief conductor for life. From 2011 to 2014 he also held the post of Music Director at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Barenboim additionally appears as guest conductor at international opera houses and renowned festivals.

Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on an artistic partnership lasting more than fifty years. It was in June 1964 that Barenboim made his debut as pianist with the orchestra in Béla Bartók’s First Piano Concerto under the direction of Pierre Boulez. He first conducted the orchestra five years later. His most recent appearance on the podium was in June 2015, where he conducted works by Jörg Widmann and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

In 1999 Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said set up the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, which every summer brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries in order that the shared experience of communal music-making may encourage dialogue between the different cultures of the Middle East. Since 2015, talented young musicians from the Near East have studied at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, another initiative of Daniel Barenboim.

Among the many awards that Daniel Barenboim has received are the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University; he was named »Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur« in France and »Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire«.

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