Simon Rattle conducts Brahms, Lutosławski and Widmann

27 May 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Jörg Widmann
    Tanz auf dem Vulkan, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation Première (9 min.)

  • Witold Lutosławski
    Symphony No. 3 (32 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 (50 min.)

  • free

    Jörg Widmann on "Tanz auf dem Vulkan" (10 min.)

Sir Simon Rattle remembers well as a young man hearing the first broadcast of Witold Lutosławski’s Third Symphony. “I felt immediately: we have a great masterpiece here, which is in it’s way also a concerto, a concerto for orchestra, a concerto which makes use of the freeness of time, how chance can make music collide and work again at a different level.” The symphony, composed over a ten year period, was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was given its premiere in 1983 under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, and was a great success for its composer from the start. Lutosławski’s compositional style was decisively influenced by the ideas of the musical avant-garde which established itself after World War II, and whose music he discovered at the “Warsaw Autumn” festival which he founded. Under the influence of serial composition techniques, he developed the principle of “controlled aleatorism” which also characterises his Third Symphony: phrases in which the musician play in their own time alternate with strictly composed parts. The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the symphony for the first time in 1985 under the direction of Lutosławski, who between 1978 and 1985 often conducted his own works with the orchestra.

Johannes Brahms is also among the composers who have conducted the Philharmoniker. In January 1884, barely two years after the orchestra was founded, he made his debut as the soloist in his First Piano Concerto and as the conductor of his Third Symphony. As such, the works of Brahms are very much part of the orchestra’s musical DNA. When Brahms presented his Symphony No. 1 to the public, he had long since made a name for himself in the field of choral, chamber and piano music. But he struggled with the form of his First Symphony for 15 years, the legacy of Beethoven weighed so heavily on him. Although the model of the First Viennese School is unmistakable, manifesting itself especially in the heroic, monumental spirit of the work, Brahms still reveals his unique compositional style: to develop, vary and transform the work’s themes and motifs from one primary motivic cell.

Another work from the “Tapas” series initiated by Sir Simon opens the concert, on this occasion a work by Jörg Widmann. The Philharmoniker have performed a number of works by the Munich-born composer and clarinettist, most recently his symphonic hymnos Teufel Amor.


Musical Histories

Orchestral Works by Jörg Widmann, Witold Lutosławski and Johannes Brahms

During an interview in 1973 Witold Lutosławski declared that he had “the feeling that we all belong to the same period of music history, which began with Pérotin and continues to this day. I am interested in the work of art itself and not how modern it is.” In the same breath the then 60-year-old Polish composer acknowledged that he loved “the Brahms symphonies, although Brahms was a reactionary composer.” If this view seemed passé after Arnold Schoenberg had already defended “Brahms the progressive” in 1933, Lutosławski’s relativization of musico-historical processes was just as surprising. By assigning Western music from the 12th century to the present to a single major cultural development, he also openly declared war on an unquestioning belief in compositional progress. Against this backdrop, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism and Modernism seemed like drawers which, although they contained a great deal of intellectual-historical information and compositional reflexes, must be closed before passing judgement on a musical work of art.

“Love for the music of the past” – Widmann’s Tanz auf dem Vulkan

Jörg Widmann, born in 1973, also emphasized during an interview with the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur in 2015 that he sees “no contradiction at all ... between a deep love of tradition and the absolute need to go on; ... perhaps ... because I as a musician work with the music of the past, I have infinite respect for it. Insofar I need such standards for comparison in order to struggle with it a bit – especially with the desire to go beyond it, so that one ... actually creates something completely new from this understanding and love for the music of the past.”

Widmann’s historically informed musical language is not only both individual and original but also resembles a compositional picture puzzle, in which traditional listening expectations of “classical” and “modern” music are refracted kaleidoscopically. Widmann says of his new work, which was commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation: “Over the past few years, I have been closely involved with the Berliner Philharmoniker in an intense musical partnership and was therefore only too pleased to fulfil their request to compose a short farewell piece for Sir Simon. My composition has evolved into an insistently explosive work. The job description for a chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker is, in my opinion, very aptly described in four words: dance on the volcano.”

“New next to old” – Lutosławski’s Third Symphony

Aloyse Michaely writes that one finds “new next to old” in Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3, which was premiered in 1983. Although the work consists of a single movement, it is divided into five sections with references to the symphonic traditions of classicism and romanticism. The opening is followed by a rondo-like complex that leads from a brief intermezzo to a section in sonata form, until the work dies away in an epilogue. A striking motif, consisting of one note repeated four times, opens the work like a musical motto and inserts caesuras into the symphony. It appears with a sometimes dramatic effect at many formal intersections and finally concludes the symphony. Because of the ingenious superimposition of various formal structures, the listener is confronted with a composition that presents itself differently depending on the angle of vision – comparable to a sculpture seen from changing perspectives.

Lutosławski’s technique of “controlled aleatorism” in the development of the score reflects the interpretational freedom of the listener. In many sections of the Third Symphony the composer entrusts the definition of specific parameters such as tempo, dynamics and duration of a given sequence of notes to each individual musician in the orchestra. This, he says, gives the impression that “each one is playing alone”. The meticulously worked out alternation between free passages and metrically structured interplay throughout the composition provides dialectical tension and reinforces the overlapping formal principles of the work. Lutosławski was not interested in superficial differentiation between “chaotic” and “ordered” moments, however, which is why the transitions from aleatoric to traditionally conceived passages and vice versa are, for the most part, barely perceptible to the ear. Instead, he applies both compositional principles in order to create innovative sound textures.

Beethoven’s “Tenth” – Brahmsʼs First Symphony

In 1854 Johannes Brahms abandoned his early plans to present a symphony to the public. Portions of the music became sketches for a sonata for two pianos, then were finally incorporated into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15, which was premiered in 1859. The Serenade for large orchestra, op. 11, which was composed around the same time and published in 1860, was the composer’s first attempt at writing an orchestral work consisting of several movements. At that time he summarily dismissed the comment of a friend that it was, strictly speaking, already a symphony: “Oh God, if one wants to write symphonies after Beethoven, then they will have to look very different!” Another sixteen years would pass before Brahms found the courage to introduce his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68, to audiences in 1876 – a work which the conductor Hans von Bülow promptly referred to as Beethoven’s “Tenth”.

Brahms precedes the opening Allegro with a darkly brooding slow introduction, in which distinctive motivic formal characteristics already suggest the further course of the movement over pedal point-like timpani blows. He provides the movement, which is in sonata form, with two distinctly different main themes. He does not savour their inherent conflict potential to the full during the turbulent development section, however, despite a number of highly dramatic accents, but treats it with a classical desire for order before bringing the movement to a comforting close in C major.

An elegiac tone characterizes the following E major Andante, which unfolds against the backdrop of lyrical melodic ideas and repeatedly allows individual instruments to stand out in solo passages. The third movement Allegretto, which Brahms does not structure as a scherzo but a lyrical intermezzo, is also in three-part song form. The harmonic conception is remarkable: the middle section in B major is integrated into the A flat major outer sections which surround it without tonal friction.

The last movement places Brahmsʼs C minor Symphony in the tradition of the finale-symphony, in which the last movement takes on more importance. The musicologist Constantin Floros writes: “The finale of the First Symphony, which is divided into a slow introduction (Adagio) and a sonata movement marked Allegro ma non troppo, ... pursues a leading idea of the 19th century, the maxim, initiated in music by Beethoven, of Per aspera ad astra – through hardship to the stars, through darkness to the light. Thus the diminished seventh chord, in which the richly dramatic Adagio culminates, is a musical symbol of inescapable hopelessness. Only the alphorn melody ... brings about the decisive turn and functions as a signal of rescue and hope.”

In addition to the horn call mentioned by Floros, an “imaginary chorale” (Giselher Schubert) is an important formal characteristic which influences the further development of the movement. It is heard at the interface between the slow introduction and the main section of the movement in sonata form, essentially representing a formal section of its own. When someone remarked to Brahms how much its theme resembled the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, the composer replied: “Yes, and what is even more remarkable, any jackass can see that.”

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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