Sakari Oramo and Alban Gerhardt
06 Oct 2018
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, op. 46 (17 min.)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (European première) (32 min.)
Alban Gerhardt cello
Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite for solo cello No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012: Prélude (6 min.)
Alban Gerhardt cello
Lemminkäinen Suite, op. 22 (52 min.)
Sakari Oramo in conversation with Fergus McWilliam (15 min.)
Brett Dean in conversation with Fergus McWilliam (14 min.)
His sound is unmistakable, and his interpretations are characterised by spontaneity and originality: after early success in competitions, cellist Alban Gerhardt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker when he was 21 years old. His international career has led him to perform with nearly 250 orchestras around the world. “When playing,” he says, “I always take risks. ... Although I have a concept of what I play, I am sometimes surprised by the outcome.” Born in Berlin, he works together with many contemporary composers such as Jörg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher and Osvaldo Golijov. In concerts with the Philharmoniker in May 2014, he was the soloist in Unsuk Chin’s cello concerto which the Korean composer dedicated to him. Now, Alban Gerhardt will premiere the new Concerto for Cello and Orchestra by Brett Dean, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker together with four other partners.
The conductor is Sakari Oramo, who began his musical career as a violinist and concertmaster of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, before training as a conductor under Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy. The Australian musician Brett Dean, who played the violin at the age of eight in the Queensland Youth Orchestra before taking up the viola, was a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1985 to 2000. During this time, he discovered the improvisation that paved the way to him becoming a composer. Today, Brett Dean appears worldwide as a soloist, chamber musician and conductor. He has received commissions from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the BBC Proms, the Lucerne Festival and others.
Sakari Oramo continues the programme after the interval with Jean Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen, named after the eponymous hero of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. The music traces the experiences of this “Achilles of Finnish mythology” (Sibelius), with the second of the four episodes taking us to Tuonela, the dark realm of Finnish mythology: to prevent the dead from returning to the realm of the living, the land was surrounded by torrential waters where a singing swan is to be found. As befits the bleak and wan atmosphere of the realm of the dead, Sibelius’s ʻsettingʼ largely forgoes bright sound components, and reproduces the song of the swan with an elegiac theme on the cor anglais.
Nordic Dramas and Ocean Sunlight
Music by Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius and Brett Dean
“Expression of the national spirit of Norway” – Grieg’s Peer GyntSuiteNo. 1, op. 46
It was Edvard Grieg who challenged the hegemonic supremacy of his colleagues from the German-speaking countries in his Scandinavian homeland and found a specifically Nordic musical idiom. “In style and form I have remained a German romanticist of the Schumann school,” he said, describing his own position, “but at the same time I have dipped from the rich treasures of native folk song and sought to create a national art out of this hitherto unexplored expression of the national spirit of Norway.”
He was criticized for this: his music was chaotic, it lacked clear form and taut development, the sublimation of folk songs was simply a limitation to technical skill. But such criticism underestimates Grieg’s compositional ingenuity and his mastery in the treatment of sophisticated timbres – a vast number of which are also found in the PeerGyntSuite. Henrik Ibsen’s underlying work was originally a verse drama, but in early 1874 the author wrote to his countryman that he was thinking of adapting the Peer Gynt story for the stage and wondered whether Grieg would like to compose the music for it. The composer wrote 26 numbers over a two-year period. In 1888 he arranged four of the pieces as an orchestral suite; spurred on by the enormous success of the first suite, he completed a second between 1890 and 1892.
Grieg was not interested in retelling the story through musico-dramatic means; above all, he wanted to give expression to the prevailing moods. That applies particularly to the second movement, The Death of Ǻse. Grieg does not take up the dramatic depiction of the ride to heaven Peer imagines in this scene, but instead composes a poignant lament for the hero’s mother: an expressive movement in B minor, whose funereal melody intensifies twice like a cadence in the muted strings before a steady morendo descent begins at the climax, chromatically leading the previously upwards thrusting music downwards, until it dies away in a sombre pianissimo. At the same time, it provides a clear contrast to the swaying E major rhythm of the Morning Mood, which opens the suite. The flute and oboe play a pastoral melody, which is then taken up by the violins and later culminates in the surging ecstasy of the full orchestra until the scene poetically blurs – the horn now plays the melody, figuratively entwined with the woodwinds.
The third movement, Anitra’s Dance, is a waltz in A minor, danced by the violins to the pizzicato accompaniment of the low strings, seasoned with a charming modulation to major, freely interspersed pedal points and the clear sounds of the triangle. The suite closes with In theHall of the Mountain King, which, with its eerie, gloomy perpetuum mobile, is just as popular as the Morning Mood. A mechanical B minor ostinato in the low strings, together with a bassoon against pizzicato notes in the double basses, evokes the sounds of a mine and represents the trolls’ digging for the treasure until, after a constant increase in tempo and dynamics, the movement brings the suite to a close with wild excitement.
“A wonderfully intricate narrative” – Dean’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
The number of (successful) contemporary cello concertos is not particularly large. During the last 50 years, only the works in this genre by Lutosławski and Dutilleux have achieved a fairly rich performance history. Brett Dean has now written a cello concerto for Alban Gerhardt. “My own place,” Dean says, “is somewhere between the rather dark and melancholy avant-garde style in Western Europe and the sunny, open, perhaps also uncomplicated style of Australian music.” Characteristic of his writing are dynamic soundscapes, which usually emerge from a dense fabric of many individual voices with different rhythms. His music is atmospheric, at times even poetic, but is also fond of the extreme, from the sudden outburst to near inaudibility. Noisy sound production is usually combined with traditional instrumentation, enhanced with creatively scored percussion. For example, the score of the cello concerto calls for sandpaper and bubble wrap; in addition to tripled or quadrupled winds and a large string section, the orchestral sound is augmented with piano and a Hammond organ, with its own distinctive sound. In addition, there are performance directions such as “brush” or “angel stroke” tremolo, in which the bow is drawn across the cello strings at a 45-degree angle in order to produce an extremely loud sound. Alban Gerhardt describes the work as follows: “The concerto is like a wonderfully intricate narrative: full of colours, fragmentary at times, then extremely lyrical again – and there are also a few explosive, virtuosic passages.”
“Achilles of Finnish mythology” – Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, op. 22
Like Grieg, Jean Sibelius occupies a central position in his homeland. Finland did not begin to find its own identity until the 19th century – a development which was also reflected in the arts and was largely triggered and strongly influenced by them. The publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot, a physician who compiled a vast collection of national poetry and arranged it into a work of art, represented a quantum leap during this phase of cultural self-discovery. It served as a source of inspiration to Sibelius in many of his works. In addition, the influence of the Finnish landscape on Sibeliusʼs music cannot be denied. Both the national epic and its serious tone are vividly conveyed in the LemminkäinenSuite,op. 22, whose four movements depict the adventures of Lemminkäinen, an “Achilles of Finnish mythology”, as Sibelius characterized him. The second movement, TheSwan of Tuonela, enjoyed great popularity. The composer described the scene: “The hell of Finnish mythology is surrounded by a broad river of black water and a rapid current on which the Swan of Tuonela glides majestically and sings.” After a celestial A minor chord divided into 17 parts, in the fifth bar an elegiac melody is heard in the English horn. A little later, the cello and viola play a yearning ascending melody as a kind of countermotif. Both themes are later intensified to a dynamic-melodic climax, until the music dissolves into a seemingly endless note at the end.
During the first movement, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, the hero tries to seduce the beautiful Kylliki – the maidens of Saari make fun of him at first, but later succumb to his charms. Only Kylliki resists and is finally forcefully abducted by Lemminkäinen. This episode is depicted musically with two themes. At the beginning, the woodwinds play the Lemminkäinen theme in sustained notes; the teasing maidens, on the other hand, are depicted with leaping quavers. At the culmination of the movement, the Lemminkäinen theme radiantly soars upwards in the strings. The episode Lemminkäinen in Tuonela begins impressively: a tremolo in the double basses, an accelerating tempo and swelling dynamics evoke an atmosphere of danger and struggle, which culminates with almost religious exultation in major. More than in the two preceding sections, here Sibelius paints an atmospheric tone picture rather than telling the story programmatically. That is even more pronounced in the last movement, Lemminkäinen’s Return. It also reveals the technique of thematic transformation and fragmentation so typical of the composer. The suite ends dramatically, with a presto stretta.
Sakari Oramo is principal conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra (since 2013) and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra as well as principal conductor of Kokkola Opera in Finland. Prior to that, from 2003 to 2012, he was in charge of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra where he made a sensational conducting debut in 1993, standing in at short notice for an indisposed colleague. The native Finn, who trained as a violinist and conductor, had previously been a concertmaster with the orchestra; since 2012 he has been associated with the orchestra as an honorary conductor. From 1998 to 2008, Sakari Oramo was music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his regular duties, he has also appeared as a guest not only with the major orchestras in Scandinavia, but also with the Czech Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The conductor’s repertoire focuses on Finnish and English music: in 2008, he was awarded the Elgar Society medal; in 2004 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Central England in Birmingham for his services to the musical life of the city, and in 2015, he was voted conductor of the year by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Sakari Oramo has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker on several occasions since his debut in May 2001, most recently in January 2009 in concerts with works by Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann.
Alban Gerhardt, born in Berlin in 1969, was a student of Boris Pergamenschikow, Markus Nyikos and Frans Helmerson. After early competition successes and first appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker (under the direction of Semyon Bychkov in 1991), an international solo career began which has since taken him to perform with a large number of different orchestras all over the world. Partners on the podium have included Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Jurowski, Andris Nelsons, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Thielemann. Alban Gerhardt’s extensive concert repertoire totals more than 70 cello concertos, including a number of rarities. His collaboration with contemporary composers such as Jörg Widmann, Osvaldo Golijov, Matthias Pintscher, Thomas Larcher and Unsuk Chin documents his interest in extending the cello repertoire. Chamber music also plays an important role in Alban Gerhardt’s artistic activity, which takes him to international festivals such as the London Proms, the Edinburgh Festival, and major concert halls such as Suntory Hall (Tokyo) and the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London. His regular performance partners include Steven Osborne, Cecile Licad, Baiba Skride and Brett Dean. Alban Gerhardt is also passionate about outreach projects and has played in school and hospitals; in collaboration with Deutsche Bahn, he gives live performances on main commuter routes in Germany, to challenge traditional expectations of classical music. Alban Gerhardt’s most recent guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in May 2014 as the soloist in Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. Alban Gerhardt plays a Matteo Gofriller cello dating from 1710.