13 Apr 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Yuja Wang

  • Paul Dukas
    La Péri, Poème dansé (18 min.)

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C major, op. 26 (36 min.)

    Yuja Wang piano

  • Franz Schmidt
    Symphony No. 4 in C major (46 min.)

  • free

    Yuja Wang in conversation with Andreas Ottensamer (10 min.)

  • free

    Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Knut Weber (12 min.)

Seduction, death and the longing for immortality are the themes of the Poème dansé La Péri by Paul Dukas. The French composer, known as the creator of the tone poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was commissioned to write the work – based on an ancient Persian saga – by Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes. After Diaghilev cancelled the planned premiere, the piece was first performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1912 and scored a triumphant success for the impresario and the composer. The music captivates with its exotic atmosphere and sophisticated use of orchestral tonal colours.

The programme also includes the Fourth Symphony by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt, who was a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera orchestra during the Mahler era. He later recalled: “Mahler’s directorship hit the opera house like a force of nature: An earthquake of enormous strength and duration shook the building to its very foundations. Everything that was old, outdated or in bad condition was destroyed and was gone forever. Vienna then experienced one of the most dazzling musical periods that the city had ever experienced.” Schmidt wrote his symmetrically structured Fourth many years later – after the death of his only daughter: music full of a sense of farewell and grief-stricken love. It begins with a theme of resignation from a solo trumpet which Schmidt called the “last music taken into the hereafter, after one has been born under its auspices and has lived one’s life”. After a broad, passionato theme with which, in the words of the composer, “one’s whole life passes through the mind,” there follows a moving Adagio as a funeral march for his dead daughter. The Scherzo ends avowedly in “catastrophe”, while in the final recapitulation of the first movement, as Schmidt said, everything appears “more mature and transfigured” by all that has intervened.

Between the two works mentioned, Kirill Petrenko has programmed Sergei Prokofiev’s neoclassical Third Piano Concerto which (similar to Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella music) sounds like a modernised stylistic copy of an old master. The soloist is Yuja Wang, whose fingers at times steal over the piano keys at breathtaking speed. No wonder some people think she “must have more than two hands” (Die Zeit).

In Search of Lost Immortality

Works by Paul Dukas, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Schmidt

Some composers seem to be able to write new works in every situation of life. Even under difficult circumstances music flows from their pens, while others compose so little that their presence in the repertoire borders on a miracle. This concert begins with examples of these two extremes: on the one hand, Sergei Prokofiev, who made sketches for his Third Piano Concerto in his native Russia during 1917, the year of the revolution, then completed it – along with other works – several years later in France and gave the premiere in the US. On the other hand, the French composer Paul Dukas, who struggled to wring out his exquisite oeuvre despite harsh self-criticism and – apart from a few studies – wrote only one work in the genres of opera, ballet, symphony, tone poem, chamber music, song for voice with piano and piano sonata. Franz Schmidt, in turn, a typical product of the Habsburg dual monarchy, can be rediscovered as an only seemingly old-fashioned composer of symphonic confessional music during the second part of the programme.

Flower of Immortality: La Péri by Paul Dukas

The name Paul Dukas is rarely mentioned alone: Dukas, the friend of Claude Debussy. Dukas, the eloquent critic, who admired Gustav Mahler as a conductor. Dukas, the formative teacher of Olivier Messiaen. Dukas, who involuntarily supplied a soundtrack for Walt Disney – in the animated feature film Fantasia from 1940, Mickey Mouse waved the magic wand to L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). This scherzo based on Goethe’s ballad (1797) is by far Dukasʼs best-known work – the ballet music La Péri The Peri is a rarity by comparison.

In La Péri – the title role is a fairy from Persian mythology – Dukas takes up a legend that had fascinated composers for a long time. The plot, which Dukas developed himself, takes a different direction, however. The prince Iskender travels throughout Persia in search of the flower of immortality. After a long journey he sees the sought-after plant in the lap of a sleeping beauty, for whom Dukas composed oriental melismas never heard before. The prince is depicted powerfully and with rhythmic intensity, but the music is much too dense, too fond of variation, augmentation and superimposition to be content with such a conventional character depiction. When he attempts to wrench the flower from her hand, the Peri awakes with a start, but during a seductive dance, climaxed with a kiss, she takes back the flower and leaves the prince alone with the realization that he is not immortal at all but close to death.

The Ages Dance: Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto

A decade later, in 1921, Sergei Prokofiev spent his summer holidays on the coast of Brittany, where he met a prominent emigrant: Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), a leading Russian symbolist poet. In addition to an obligatory setting of Balmont’s poetry, Prokofiev also tackled older material, including sketches dating back ten years for, as he wrote, a “large piano concerto full of virtuoso passages”. Shortly before the revolution he added other ideas for a work which – according to Prokofiev – “would be played only on the white keys of the piano”. Thus the key of C was fixed, but boundless musical drive and the fear of “monotony” also prompted Prokofiev to use highly virtuosic intermediate notes strung together as he revised the sketches. He played part of the new work for his neighbour Balmont, who was inspired to respond with the poem “Third Concerto”, in which he wrote: “The moments dance a waltz, the ages a gavotte. / Suddenly a wild bull, startled by foes, / Bursts his chains, halts, his horns poised to strike. / But once again the tender sounds call from afar. ... Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom, / In you the orchestra yearns for summer’s ecstasies / And the indomitable scythe strikes the tambourine sun.”

Prokofiev reciprocated by dedicating his new work to the poet. Nevertheless, the C major Concerto does not exude an aura of symbolism. Its structure follows classical models, with a slow introduction and sonata form, variations and rousing finale. The tone is clear and dry; kinetic energy and grotesque represent a new age. If the opening clarinet solo can still be interpreted as a farewell to Russia, the piano soon does away with all nostalgia, while the second theme, accompanied by castanets, gives the concerto something circus-like but at the same time unreal and placeless. This impression is reinforced in the finale, when the piano repeatedly becomes a distortion of the orchestra and caricatures the musical proceedings, somewhere between the performance markings “with feeling” and “turbulent”. In the Andantino with five variations Prokofiev restrains the piano, however, entrusts the theme to the orchestra and assigns the at times elegant accompaniment and ornamental functions to the soloist.

Song on the Death of a Child: Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony

Like Dukas, Franz Schmidt is known today, if at all, for one work: Das Buch mit sieben SiegelnThe Book with Seven Seals, one of the great oratorios of the 20th century. Fans of “light” classical music were also familiar with the once popular intermezzo from his opera Notre Dame. Such different figures as Hans Pfitzner and Alban Berg praised his Fourth Symphony, which Schmidt completed at his house in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna in November 1933. The reality and inwardness of Schmidt’s tragic biography were conveyed in this work: his first wife was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1919, where she was murdered as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme in 1942, and their daughter Emma died in childbirth in 1932.

Schmidt called his Fourth Symphony a “requiem for my daughter”, which despite its personal background must be numbered among the great masterworks of strict formal structure. Schmidt spreads an expansive arc over a period of 45 minutes and, as with Arnold Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, it is not easy to decide whether the four large sections should be regarded as movements that merge into one another or as the exposition, two-part development and recapitulation of a single movement. The first interpretation can be defended on the basis of the traditional sequence of the sections, the second because of the reflection of beginning and end. The most conspicuous feature of this symmetrical form is the gloomy trumpet solo, whose series of fourth intervals has echoes of Baroque Passion music. It becomes the thematic basis of the entire work, opening and concluding the symphony in the greatest solitude. This death theme is contrasted with an animated “passionato” idea in the strings.

The second large section intensifies to a funeral march in which the composer has the cello play a lament. The scherzo-like third section culminates in a collapse of Mahlerian proportions after a dense contrapuntal passage, followed by the farewell of the finale. In Schmidt’s own words: “After the end of the development section (scherzo), with intimations of a catastrophe, in the recapitulation of the first movement everything appears more mature and transfigured.” He described the last sounds of the “passionato” theme as “a death in beauty, in which one’s entire life passes by once more”. Like Johannes Brahms before him, Franz Schmidt completed his oeuvre as a symphonic composer with a Fourth – with this work, everything had been said.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Kirill Petrenko was born in 1972 in Omsk (Siberia) where he studied piano at the College of Music. When he was eighteen, he and his family moved to Vorarlberg in Austria. His training as a conductor with Uros Lajovic at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna was followed by a period as assistant and Kapellmeister at the Volksoper, also in Vienna. After this, he was general music director in Meiningen from 1999 – 2002, where in 2001 he achieved first international acclaim conducting Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in a production by Christine Mielitz and Alfred Hrdlicka. From 2002 until 2007 he was general music director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he gained an excellent reputation particularly as a result of his development work with the orchestra and ensemble. He has been invited to conduct in many major opera houses, including the State Operas in Dresden, Munich and Vienna, the Royal Opera House in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bastille Opera in Paris as well as at the Maggio Musicale in Florence and the Salzburg Festival. In 2009 he celebrated successes with Pfitzner’s Palestrina at the Oper Frankfurt and with Janáček’s Jenůfa at the Bavarian State Opera, where he took over as general music director in September 2013, a position he will retain until the end of the 2019/20 season. In the concert hall, Kirill Petrenko has conducted major orchestras world-wide such as the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonic Orchestras in London, Los Angeles and Israel. In June 2015, Kirill Petrenko was elected future Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He made his debut with the orchestra in February 2006 with works by Bartók and Rachmaninov; most recently, he performed pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and John Adams with the orchestra in March/April 2017.

With her stupendous virtuosity, Yuja Wang has become an internationally sought-after pianist within only a few years. Born in Beijing in 1987, her piano training began when she was six years of age. She studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in her home town, then went as a 14 year-old to Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada, and one year later studied under Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she received her concert diploma in 2008. Since then the pianist has performed with many of the worldʼs most prestigious orchestras: in the United States, her appearances include with orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington. In Europe, Yuja Wang has appeared with the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Filarmonica della Scala, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. With these orchestras, she has worked with many world-famous conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Valery Gergiev, Zubin Mehta, Antonio Pappano and Michael Tilson-Thomas. Yuja Wang has given solo recitals in the major cities of Asia, Europe and North America and can be heard regularly at such summer festivals as Aspen and Verbier. The artist made her first appearance in Berlin’s Chamber Music Hall with a recital in May 2013. In May 2015 followed her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (conductor: Paavo Järvi). In November 2017 Yuja Wang joined the orchestra on its tour to Asia, playing Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto in four concerts in China and Japan. Most recently, only a few days ago, she presented a chamber music programme together with Daishin Kashimoto and Andreas Ottensamer. Yuja has been named as Musical America’s Artist of the Year 2017.

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