Semyon Bychkov and Katia & Marielle Labèque

29 Sep 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Semyon Bychkov

Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque

  • Detlev Glanert
    Weites Land for orchestra (14 min.)

  • Max Bruch
    Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, op. 88a (28 min.)

    Katia Labèque piano, Marielle Labèque piano

  • Philip Glass
    Four Movements for Two Pianos: Movement IV (6 min.)

    Katia Labèque piano, Marielle Labèque piano

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Symphony No. 7 in D minor, op. 70 (45 min.)

  • free

    Katia and Marielle Labèque in conversation with Albrecht Mayer (17 min.)

When he was 69, Max Bruch was asked how posterity would judge the composers of his generation. Bruch’s modest and prophetic answer was: “Brahms has been dead for ten years but he is still being talked about maliciously, even among the best of music connoisseurs and critics. However, I predict that he will become more and more esteemed over time, while most of my works will gradually be forgotten. In fifty years, his splendour will shine bright as the towering composer of all time, while I will be mainly remembered only for my G minor Violin Concerto.” The unprecedented success of this work during the composer’s lifetime had long been an irritation to Bruch: “Every fortnight someone arrives and wants to play me the first concerto,” the composer once said. “Iʼve grown rude and said to them, ʻI can’t listen to this concerto any more – do you suppose I’ve only written one concerto? Just go and play the other concertos that are equally as good, if not better!ʼ ”

Katia and Marielle Labèque, for decades a dazzling star double-act on the international music scene, have taken the composer at his word and included Bruch’s Concerto for two pianos and orchestras in their repertoire. A pioneering act that makes a composer’s voice heard whose music was banned by the National Socialists around 85 years ago and has been marginalised in the concert hall ever since. The programme design of Semyon Bychkov, the husband of Marielle Labèque, does not intend to provide a direct comparison with the music of Johannes Brahms, who Bruch ungrudgingly admired. The fact that Bruch could nevertheless hold his own with his contemporaries who today are far more famous, becomes directly tangible in the second part of the concert with a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, premiered in London in 1885. With this work, the Czech composer, who could claim Brahms as a supporter, wanted at the time to “move the world”.

These Berliner Philharmoniker concerts not only invite audiences to rediscover the music of Dvořák and discover a work by Bruch for the very first time, but also the sound language of composer Detlev Glanert, born in 1960. His composition Weites Land, with which Semyon Bychkov opens the programme, has a direct relationship to Brahms, as this orchestral fantasy from 2013 is based on the beginning of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.

Authorities, Predictions, Transcriptions

Compositions by Detlev Glanert, Max Bruch and Antonín Dvořák

When works by Detlev Glanert, Max Bruch and Antonín Dvořák are performed at these concerts, the name and music of another composer can be heard indirectly but clearly: Johannes Brahms. While working on his Seventh Symphony, Dvořák recalled the advice his mentor Brahms reportedly gave him; 22 years later, Bruch predicted that posterity would remember him less than his older colleague; and Glanert clearly grappled with the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in his orchestral work Weites Land, which he composed in 2013.

Detlev Glanert: Weites Land

When Detlev Glanert was asked by the Oldenburg State Orchestra in 2013 to compose a work with a direct connection to the music of Johannes Brahms, the composer – who was born in 1960 and, like Brahms, came from Hamburg – was “extraordinarily excited and pleased”. In Brahms’s music, Glanert continues, there is “something that the people of Hamburg understand well, which is also alluded to in the title of my work Weites Land Open Land: there are these incredibly vast expanses, these lowlands where one has to develop a kind of intrinsic severity in order to survive.”

The first four bars of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98, which was premiered in 1885, serve as the starting point for Glanert’s compositional confrontation with Brahms. “At the beginning, the notes B-G-E-C-A-F sharp-D sharp-B are treated almost like a cantus firmus, around which harmonies derived from these eight notes are then heard,” Glanert explains. He was also inspired by Brahms when it came to the instrumentation, which explains why he did not call for a full percussion section. Because of its independent and original tonal language, Glanert’s treatment of the strict contrapuntal thinking, complex rhythmic structures and lyrical but powerful expressive qualities of Brahmsʼs Fourth is anything but the product of some “neoism” or other, however. On the contrary, from the mysterious opening to its continuation, with pronounced accents and broadly soaring melodic lines, to the iridescently beautiful closing section, Weites Land – which the composer himself subtitled “Music with Brahms” – seems like a transcription that enhances the Brahmsian musical idiom with new layers, heard with 21st-century ears.

Max Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra

Max Bruch composed his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, op. 88a, in 1915, after hearing a performance by Rose and Ottilie Sutro of his Fantasia in D minor, op. 11, for two pianos, which he had written a half-century earlier. The interpretation of the two sisters from Baltimore made such an impression on the composer that he spontaneously decided to dedicate a work to them. For this composition, Bruch drew on material that he had written for a suite for organ and orchestra, which he had planned since 1904.

The first movement opens with a dramatic, rhythmically accentuated fanfare gesture, which, after a brief transition beginning in bar 17, is followed by an expansive fugal dirge in the style of Bach. Its theme is based on a melody that Bruch had heard during a Good Friday procession on the island of Capri in 1904. The fugal theme and the fanfare which opened the movement are later transformed succinctly and skilfully while retaining the different expressive characters. After a notated breathing pause, the harmonically well-balanced second movement follows, introduced by an eloquent melody. The tempo changes, and a section in sonata form soon begins, with two clearly differentiated themes in which the pianos are elegantly interwoven with various instruments of the orchestra. In the lovely third movement, a lyrical, melodic opening theme leads to increasingly passionate build-ups, without striking contrasting effects. A freely structured, virtuosic finale in A flat major elicits new facets from the melodic material of the first movement, thus concluding the work in the sense of a cyclical musical dramaturgy.

Antonín Dvořák: Seventh Symphony

Antonín Dvořák was astonished when he received a letter from the London Philharmonic Society in 1883 informing him that on the authority of the directors “Mr Anton Dvořák is invited to give an orchestral performance (suite or overture) during the 82nd season of the Society (1884)”. A few weeks later an enquiry from the London music publisher Novello arrived, asking whether he would be willing to compose an oratorical work for a choral festival in Birmingham. The prospect of a guest appearance was extremely tempting: in no time at all, Dvořák learned a few words of English, crossed the English Channel in March of 1884 and conducted works including the Slavonic Rhapsody No. 2, the Stabat mater and his Sixth Symphony in London. In June of 1884 Dvořák was made an honorary member of the London Philharmonic Society and was invited to return to London the following year with a symphony composed specifically for the English capital.

After his first London concert season, Dvořák wrote the cantata commissioned by Novello before beginning work on a symphony in December of 1884, which – as the composer wrote in a letter to his friend Antonín Rus – must “move the world”. According to Dvořák, his desire to break new ground with this work was prompted by Johannes Brahms, who, referring to the Sixth Symphony, had commented: “I imagine your symphony will be quite unlike this one.” Dvořák’s guiding principle during the work on his Seventh was that these words “shall not be proved wrong”.

What distinguishes this work from its predecessors is, first of all, its melodic image. Although Dvořák – who until then owed much of his fame to compositions such as the Slavonic Dances and Slavonic Rhapsodies – had still patterned the Scherzo of his Sixth Symphony after a stylized Bohemian folk dance, in the Seventh he dispensed entirely with folklore elements. It would also have been difficult to integrate them into a style of writing that does not feature a prominent melodic line over long stretches, has motifs migrate through different instrumental sections and contrapuntally superimposes several melodies. The beginning of the first movement already makes use of contrasting melodic fragments and changing timbres, which take the place of a theme with clear melodic contours. Of course, there is also wonderful lyricism in the Seventh, such as the second theme of the first movement, which is initially introduced by the flute in a strikingly low register, but passages such as these seem more like moments of relaxation within a nervously jagged setting. The lovely Adagio opens with a chorale-like wind theme and later presents Tristan-like harmony and powerful build-ups, which at times suddenly subside to a piano. The outer sections of the Scherzo, seemingly tossed off casually with ease, are characterized by the contrapuntal superimposition of several melodies. The Finale takes up the mood of the first movement at the beginning, but the symphony finally ends with an apotheotic coda in radiant D major.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Semyon Bychkov, who started his new position as music director and chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic this season, was born in Leningrad in 1952. He was a pupil of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire and in 1973, he won First Prize at the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Since leaving Russia in 1975 and moving to the USA, he has enjoyed a career taking him from New York’s Mannes College of Music to engagements for international opera productions (eg. in Milano, Paris, Vienna, London, New York, at the Salzburg Festival and Maggio Musicale in Florence), as well as concerts with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Bychkov was appointed Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (1989–98), Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1989–94) and of Maggio Musicale in Florence (1992–98). From the season 1997 until 2010, he was Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchesters Köln, a position he also held at the Dresden Semperoper from 1998 to 2003. He appears annually at the BBC Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Known for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has also worked closely with many contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Maurizio Kagel. In recent years he has premiered works by Julian Anderson, Detlev Glanert, Thomas Larcher and Renée Staar. In the opera, Semyon Bychkov is widely recognised for his interpretation of Strauss, Wagner and Verdi. He recently conducted Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Royal Opera House and Wagner’s Parsifal at the Vienna Staatsoper. Semyon Bychkov was named 2015’s Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985, stepping in for Riccardo Muti at short notice, Semyon Bychkov has returned several times for guest conducting engagements. His most recent visit was in May 2017, when he conducted works by Shostakovich and Strauss.

The sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque were born in the French Basque country and received piano lessons as children from their Italian mother, the well-known piano teacher and musician Ada Cecchi. Soon after studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, the two sisters started their careers as a piano duo. They perform regularly with orchestras such as the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Filarmonia della Scala, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Vienna Philharmonic and major US orchestras. With these orchestras, they have worked together with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Gustavo Dudamel, John Eliot Gardiner, Paavo Järvi, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Antonio Pappano, Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas. In the 2017/2018 season, they had a residency with the Dresden Philharmonic. Their wide-ranging repertoire reaches back to the 18th century, with Katia and Marielle Labèque also performing on fortepianos with Baroque ensembles such as Il Giardino Armonico and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. However, the piano duo have also worked closely with contemporary composers such as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass and Olivier Messiaen. The two pianists have been guest performers with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1987 – in June 2005, for example, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle at the end-of-season concert at the Waldbühne playing works by Poulenc and Saint-Saëns. Most recently, they performed in Nazareno by Osvaldo Golijov at a late-night concert in December 2013.

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