Daniel Harding and Gerald Finley with works by Schubert and Strauss

03 Mar 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

Gerald Finley

  • Franz Schubert
    Works for bass baritone and orchestra (43 min.)

    Gerald Finley bass baritone

  • Richard Strauss
    Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), op. 64 (57 min.)

  • free

    Daniel Harding in conversation with Jonathan Kelly (18 min.)

Talking about his Alpensinfonie (Alpine Symphony), which was premiered in Berlin in October 1915, Richard Strauss said that he had “wanted to compose, for once, as a cow gives milk”. The work was actually originally intended to be a reflection on Strauss’ reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist in classical four-movement form. However, while working on the score, Strauss took a step back from such lofty ambitions and created what he himself called a “naturalistic” one-movement symphonic poem. A keen walker in his free time, the work incorporates in particular the composer’s own experiences in the great outdoors.

The Alpine Symphony opens its series of musical episodes with a depiction of night, followed by a colourful instrumental portrayal of a sunrise. The hiker then sets off. From a distance, he hears the call of hunting horns, and he enters the forest. His walk takes him along a stream to a waterfall whose glittering refractions seem like mysterious phenomena. After crossing meadows full of flowers, the hiker reaches an Alpine pasture where he listens for a moment to the sound of cowbells before continuing his way through thicket and scrub to a glacier. Finally, after some perilous moments, he reaches the summit. On his descent, the hiker encounters a storm, but reaches home safely before the sun sets. The day ends peacefully, and night descends to the music of the opening.

Strauss elevates the ostensibly naive, inner action of the Alpine Symphony, probably based originally on an alpine experience from the composer’s youth, through his highly virtuoso orchestration, which involves the forces of around 130 musicians, and a refined network of motivic references. This compositional mastery would hardly be conceivable without Franz Schubert as a model. Having “worshipped, played, sung and admired” him since his early childhood, Strauss wrote about Schubert: “He could compose what he wanted, whatever his genius made him do.” Any comparison with the musical dairy cow may have its weaknesses, but it will be no less charming when, in this concert under the direction of Daniel Harding, Gerald Finley and the Berliner Philharmoniker precede the performance of the Alpine Symphony with a selection of Schubert songs in arrangements by late Romantics such as Johannes Brahms and Max Reger.

Prometheus Laces up His Hiking Boots

Schubert, Strauss and the Magic of the Symphony Orchestra

Schubert lieder as viewed by Max Reger, Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms

By the end of the 19th century, the genre of orchestral song, already well established in France, had also been embraced in the German-speaking countries. Even as interludes, songs accompanied by piano were no longer welcomed in symphony concerts, as Max Reger pointed out in 1914 to Simrock, his publishers; but the public still demanded to hear this repertoire. In any case, by virtue of their dramatic, at times onomatopoeic, qualities, a considerable number of lieder by Franz Schubert lent themselves to instrumentation. Reger himself contributed a total of 15 orchestrations in 1913-14. His frequent doubling of the vocal line in the orchestra means that they could, theoretically, be performed without a singer – a not unimportant marketing aspect given the demand generated in Reger’s day by the widespread spa orchestras, as he himself shrewdly recognized.

His orchestral version of Prometheusis a textbook example of the genre, emphasizing the compartmentalized alternation of recitative and arioso sections with which Schubert rendered the irregular strophes of Goethe’s celebrated Sturm und Drang soliloquy. The sound of string orchestra dominates, with the brass contributing no more than discreet colourations until they are allowed to impart a festive C major brilliance to the triumphal gestures of the final strophe. One imagines one is listening to a little scena: even more clearly than in Schubert’s original, the young Goethe’s revolt seems to be steered into the channels of operatic conventions. Entirely different is the closed system of An die Musik. Reger charmingly doubles the vocal part on solo wind as well as adding little counterpoints, allowing one of Schubert’s best-known songs to shine in a new light. This is still more true of Hector Berlioz’s instrumentation of Erlkönig. In 1860, the art of orchestration’s uncontested master created it for a tenor friend. Every instrument seems to be deployed according to its colouristic and dramatic potential. To accompany the Erlking’s ghostlike falsetto, Berlioz opts for virtuosically jabbering woodwind, while the violins’ descending broken triads are entirely his own invention, transporting the passage’s unreal atmosphere into something spaciously symphonic.

Memnon – in Greek mythology is the Ethiopian king, son of Eos (Aurora, the goddess of dawn), whose enormous statue near Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt) began to sound every morning at daybreak. In his poem, Schubert’s close friend Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) makes Memnon an allegorical figure who relates the unappreciated poet’s melancholy. Brahms orchestrated the song in 1862 for the great baritone Julius Stockhausen, translating the melodically supple original to the larger instrumental apparatus with great restraint. Already in the opening bars, his subtle use of woodwind shows a keen sensitivity to the text’s light symbolism. In Goethe’s 1774 poem An Schwager Kronos(To Brother Time the Coachman), Chronos, the god of time, is the driver in the turbulent passage through life. As though speeded up by a time lapse, this journey leads in a constant rise and fall from the optimism and impatience of youth to the gates of the underworld god Orcus. Whereas the percussive 6/8 repetitions sound considerably more relaxed in the instrumental version than they do in Schubert’s vehement piano writing, Brahms’s added wind parts highlight the song’s harmonic breadth, for example in the D major episode (“Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten”).

Life after death as viewed by Franz Schubert

Not until 1860, more than 40 years after its composition, did Schubert’s only oratorio Lazarus have its premiere in Vienna. The libretto by August Hermann Niemeyer, a poet-theologian from Halle, dated from as early as 1778. In this work, for the first time, Schubert attempted a music-theatrical form that included through-composed numbers intermingling recitative and arioso. Scholarship is still unable to determine why he suddenly broke off work on the oratorio shortly before the end of the second act (“Handlung”). He did, however, prepare a careful fair copy manuscript. Perhaps a performance had been planned that unexpectedly came to nothing. It might also have been substantive misgivings about the Christian conception of life after death that sapped the composer’s creative drive.

Simon’s great scene at the beginning of the second act vividly conveys the anguish and sense of existential abandonment of a man who has lost his faith. Particularly bold is the accompanied recitative in which the doubting, despairing Simon wanders among gravestones and open graves on a verdant meadow. Schubert shows great confidence in his handling of the large orchestra, from the nervously pulsating strings over an anxiously pleading oboe and a solemn passage for three trombones to the expressively heightened tutti chords. The shift between different movement characters is flexible, the harmony both nuanced and precise. The aria ends in a searing Allegro molto in F minor, whipped by fierce sforzati.

The Alps as viewed by Richard Strauss

A 5th lower, in B flat minor, begins Strauss’s Opus 64, the Alpine Symphony. The issues of the Resurrection and Christian redemption had long since ceased to occupy the successful composer and contented family man. All alone but with a cheerful heart, he sets out on his mountain climb in the misty string cluster of “Night”. What follows is a not unambitious, yet philosophically neutral endeavour: an adventure in nature, accounted for in every physical detail by the Munich-born composer – who discovered the high mountains for himself at an early age – supported by his notably ingratiating tonal harmony (enriched with further ear-catching allures), to which the erstwhile “modern” Strauss seems to be giving the lie. The itinerary of this excursion is made abundantly clear by 22 stages designated in the score, aided and abetted by an orchestra of at least 125 musicians generating a vividness that borders on the excessive.

A profusion of examples testifies to Strauss’s irresistible handling of his orchestral means. But even in moments of greatest brilliance, such as the “Waterfall” and its thousand glinting drops, there is a tendency to thin out the apparatus to solo writing. The arrival at the summit is a moment of introverted, breathless stillness (oboe solo), the “End” begins quietly as a prayer on wind supported by solemn organ chords. Strauss’s instrumentation is masterly not only in the glaring trumpet brilliance of the “Glacier” but above all in the play of sonorities clouded by polytonal motivic superimpositions, in the easy application of smudges and glazes. This begins with the B flat minor cluster already mentioned and continues in “Wandering along the Brook” as the gurgling water draws in more and more instrumental voices.

When Strauss’s wanderer on the mountain is haunted by an alarming “Vision”, when he surrenders to a dark “Elegy” and, finally, after weathering a thunderstorm, as though retreating to his own front garden, only one thing is certain: life on the heights is, in the long run, not for him. Maybe the truth of this music lies in making something audible of his recognition of induced melancholy. In the final bars, the sprightly E flat major wandering theme appears wearily in B flat minor. Optimism sounds different...

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Harding was born in Oxford and began his career by assisting Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After appointments with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, he served as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003), principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic (2010 – 2016) and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2017). Since 2007 Daniel Harding is music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in September 2016 he took on the same role with the Orchestre de Paris. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna, Berlin and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra honoured him with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared with the orchestra in January 2016, when he conducted three concerts with works by Dvořák, Lindberg and Schumann.

Gerald Finley, born in Montreal, was educated at the University of Ottawa, at King’s College Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London. His worldwide career has taken him to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Opéra National in Paris, the Wiener and Bayerische Staatsoper and the festivals in Glyndebourne and Salzburg. After Gerald Finley first appeared all over the world in Mozart roles (such as Don Giovanni and the Conte di Almaviva), he devoted himself to the work of Richard Wagner for several years, including the roles of Hans Sachs at Glyndebourne and the Opéra de Paris, Amfortas at Covent Garden, and Wolfram at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The bass baritone’s multifaceted repertoire also includes roles in operas by Rossini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Korngold, Britten, Adams, Saariaho and Turnage. The artist has also gained international recognition in the concert hall and as a lieder singer. Composers like Peter Lieberson (Songs of Love and Sorrow), Mark Anthony Turnage (When I woke) and Kaija Saariaho (True Fire) have written for him. He regularly works together with conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gerald Finley has been a regular guest in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts since his debut in September 1994 under the direction of Pierre Boulez. His most recent appearance was in October 2017 in the role of the Forester in Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen; the staging by Peter Sellars was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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