Alan Gilbert and Wenzel Fuchs with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto
27 Apr 2018
Three Studies from Couperin (15 min.)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K. 622 (35 min.)
Wenzel Fuchs clarinet
Images pour orchestre (41 min.)
Wenzel Fuchs in conversation with Daishin Kashimoto (18 min.)
Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006, Alan Gilbert’s guest appearances have displayed a wide repertoire spectrum, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, to Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók to Magnus Lindberg and John Adams. But there is method behind what looks at first glance like a piecemeal approach: “In this way I could try out quite different aspects of the orchestra”, the conductor revealed.
This season, Gilbert, who held the position of music director of the New York Philharmonic from 2009 until summer 2017, presents yet another of his musical facets to Berlin audiences – with Thomas Adès’ Three Studies from Couperin and Claude Debussy’s Images pour orchestre. What both pieces have in common is that they were inspired by existing music: Adès has orchestrated three harpsichord pieces by the French Baroque master François Couperin in a new, original way, while in his triptych Images, Debussy created three musical landscapes and mood pictures of England, France and Spain from folk dances and folk melodies. The appeal of the composition lies in the fact that Debussy, with his own iridescent musical language, created an absolutely authentic, yet at the same atmospherically heightened vision in sound of the three nations.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, was inspired to write one of his most beautiful concertos not by pre-existing music, but by the mesmerising playing of an instrumental virtuoso: the Clarinet Concerto in A major, which captivates listeners by its clarity of form, its intimate, song-like themes and its playful brilliance. Mozart wrote the concerto for his friend Anton Stadler, whose command of the then still relatively new instrument was second to none: as one critic enthusiastically wrote, “I have never heard the like of what you contrived with your instrument. I would not have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice so deceptively as you imitate it. Your instrument is so soft, so delicate in tone that no-one who has a heart can resist it.” The same can also be said of the soloist of this programme: Wenzel Fuchs, principal clarinet of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1993, received his training in Vienna and has the softness and flexibility of tone which make his playing comparable to the expressive possibilities of the human voice.
Tonal Images in Bright Colours
Music by Adès, Mozart and Debussy
The French region of Brie, east of the capital and famous for its soft cheese, was the cradle of the Couperin family of musicians. François Couperin, born in Paris in 1668, was its most important member and nicknamed “le Grand”. Court organist and harpsichordist in Versailles, as well the royal family’s keyboard teacher, he published 212 Pièces de clavecin in four volumes beginning in 1713. Among these harpsichord works, which made him famous, are many character pieces with programmatic titles depicting individual persons and occupational groups, animals, plants or landscapes. Couperin’s harpsichord pieces were prized not only by Bach but also by Brahms. Richard Strauss came across the French Baroque master through a reference by Romain Rolland, and in 1923, he created a dance suite after Couperin for the Vienna State Opera Ballet. In 1941, in the middle of World War II, Strauss returned to Couperin’s rarefied sound-world when he arranged additional pieces by the French old master for small orchestra for the Bavarian State Opera’s ballet Verklungene Feste (Faded Fêtes). His aim was to link rococo and modern music by widening the range of colours.
Amusements and sighs: Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès
Thomas Adès follows a similar path in his Three Studies from Couperin. For this work, composed in 2006 to a commission from the Basle Chamber Orchestra, he augments the chamber orchestra with percussion (marimba, bass drum, timpani, rototoms and metal bars or anvils). Adès leaves unaltered the melody, tonality, harmony and number of bars in Couperin’s originals. What is new here are the tonal colours. In the minuet-like opening piece Les Amusemens, the G major melody in stepwise motion alternates between muted string and brass instruments within the phrases; the end is signalled by a massive slowing down. The title Les Tours de passe-passe (Sleight of Hand) may be explained by the frequent use of hand-crossing within a narrow range so that the observer can hardly tell whether the repeated notes are being played by the left or the right hand. Finally Adès has chosen Couperin’s harpsichord piece L’Âme en peine (The Soul in Torment), music with sighing figures in the minor mode, lent a dirge-like character by the heavy accents of the brass and bass drum. Although the British composer’s treatment of the courtly world of the aristocracy is generally less trenchant here than in his opera Powder Her Face, the present work also has its share of alienation effects.
Like a human voice: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622
Mozart wrote no fewer than 23 concertos for the piano but only one for the clarinet. This masterpiece from the composer’s last year was created for his friend Anton Stadler. He probably first encountered the clarinettist, three years his senior, in 1781, then heard him again in March 1784, when Stadler took part in a performance of Mozart’s Wind Serenade K. 361. Barely a week later came the premiere of Mozart’s Piano Quintet K. 452, in which Stadler played the clarinet part and Mozart was the pianist.
In addition to the clarinet, Anton Stadler played the basset horn, a wind instrument with a metal bell, invented around 1760. Mozart, who loved this instrument’s dark timbre, wrote several basset horn trios as well as canzonettas for voices and basset horns. The first movement of his Clarinet Concerto was also originally composed for basset horn around 1787. A year later, Stadler, in collaboration with the Viennese court instrument maker Theodor Lotz, he devised a clarinet with a range extended downward by four semitones. Mozart was captivated by the new possibilities of this so-called basset clarinet and used it in his A major Quintet for clarinet and strings K. 581, which had its premiere in Vienna in December 1789. At the end of September 1791, he decided to write a solo concerto for the new instrument and made use of the Allegro he had already produced for the basset-horn concerto, transposing it from G to A major and adding an adagio and rondo. Thus the Concerto K. 622 came into being.
Today the A major Concerto is one of Mozart’s most frequently performed works. The basset clarinet, for which it was conceived, eventually fell out of use (though it has been revived in recent decades), and the piece is now usually played on a normal clarinet. An arrangement eliminating the low notes appeared as early as 1801. Contemporaries had lauded Stadler for making the clarinet sound like a human vice. This is also how Mozart treated the solo instrument in his composition. Along with brilliant broken chords that traverse the clarinet’s entire compass, one often seems to be hearing instrumental arias, echoes of the late buffo operas Figaro and Don Giovanni.
Of foreign lands and people: Images pour orchestre byClaude Debussy
Debussy believed that his two books of Images, begun in 1905, would “assume a place in the piano literature to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin”. They are musical depictions of little scenes: lights reflected in water, bells tolling in the distance, the moon descending. Like Schumann in his Kinderszenen, Debussy dedicated himself to foreign lands and people, but he opted for a larger scoring. His third book of Images was originally conceived for two pianos but finally composed for orchestra.
Ibéria opens with the sharp clicking of castanets, at once evoking a typically Spanish colour. There is also a suggestion of Iberia in the polytonal harmonic elements and modal melodic turns. The many changes of metre and tempo give this music an unusual rhythmic flexibility. When the bolero rhythm of the first part gently dies away, the night with its intoxicating scents begins “slowly and dreamily”, expressed through chromatically displaced chords in contrary motion on harps, oboes and clarinets. The motion almost comes to a standstill before dawn is heralded. To the strains of a slowly approaching march, the town awakens to celebrate a popular festival.
Ibéria represents Debussy’s rapprochement with Spain; the other two Images are linked to Italy/France (Rondes de printemps) and England (Gigues, which uses a French adaptation of an English folksong “The Keel Row”). André Caplet, who may have completed the orchestration of this movement, spoke of “the portrait of a soul in pain”, which borrows the wooden voice of an oboe d’amore to express its bottomless sorrow. A normal oboe offers a long consoling line but the sister instrument’s lament returns.
In Rondes de printemps, Debussy harks back to the symphonic suite Printemps that he composed in Rome in 1887, apparently inspired by Botticelli’s painting Primavera. Although he quotes from an old Tuscan spring song in the epigraph on the score, he has the oboe play the French folksong “Nous n’irons plus au bois”, which he had already used several times before in his music. The movement’s enchanting instrumentation is unusually light, omitting trumpets and trombones but including triangle, tambourine and cymbals. “There is something special about the music of this piece,” wrote Debussy to his publisher. “It is immaterial and, as a result, cannot be treated like a robust symphony, marching on four feet.”
Alan Gilbert, chief conductor designate of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, was taught the violin by his parents from an early age, then Gilbert first studied composition at Harvard and at the New England Conservatory of Music. After completing his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School in New York, he worked for several years as a violinist and violist before taking to the conductors stand in 1995. From January 2000 until June 2008, Alan Gilbert was chief conductor and artistic advisor at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom, as conductor laureate, he still has close ties. From 2003 to 2006, he was music director of Santa Fe Opera, and in 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg. From September 2009 until June 2017 he has been music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the first person to hold the post born in New York. Alan Gilbert has conducted productions at leading opera houses and has performed with orchestras such as the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Orchestre de Paris, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as well as the most prestigious orchestras in the USA and Japan. Alan Gilbert conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2006, and most recently in December 2016, with works by John Adams, Béla Bartók and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. In September 2011, Alan Gilbert became Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, where he is also the first holder of Juilliard’s William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies. He was named a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 2010 he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. Elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2014, he has now also been named an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He received a 2015 Foreign Policy Association Medal for his commitment to cultural diplomacy.
Wenzel Fuchs, principal clarinet of the Berliner Philharmoniker, was born in Innsbruck. After first studying in Kitzbühel and in his home town, he went to the Vienna Musikhochschule, where he had the opportunity of playing as a substitute with the Wiener Philharmoniker. He began his professional career as principal clarinettist of the Vienna Volksoper, then moving to the Austrian Radio (ORF) Symphony Orchestra. He joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1993. In addition to his work in the orchestra, Wenzel Fuchs is active as a soloist and chamber player in, among other groups, the Philharmonic Wind Ensemble and Philharmonic Octet. From 2008 to 2012 he was teaching at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” Berlin and since October 2015 he is professor at the Mozarteum Salzburg. He holds a visiting professorship at Sakuyo Music University in Okayama, Japan and an honorary professorship at the Shanghai Conservatory. In addition he also teaches at the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Karajan Academy and he gives masterclasses all over the world.