Jakub Hrůša and Frank Peter Zimmermann with a Czech evening

13 Oct 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Jakub Hrůša

Frank Peter Zimmermann

  • Antonín Dvořák
    The Golden Spinning-Wheel, op. 109 (30 min.)

  • Bohuslav Martinů
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 (26 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann violin

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Prélude in G minor, op. 23 no. 5 (arr. by Ernst Schliephake) (5 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann violin

  • Leoš Janáček
    Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra (31 min.)

  • free

    Jakub Hrůša in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (20 min.)

  • free

    Frank Peter Zimmermann in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (9 min.)

Frank Peter Zimmermann is one of today’s foremost violinists – and one who is constantly on the lookout for less familiar works that are not part of the standard repertoire: “I have played and recorded the standard works so many times that I want to make audiences aware of other important pieces.” This concert features Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which is “no less magnificent” than its outstanding contemporary violin concertos by Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Schoenberg and Britten but which is nevertheless still not as widely known” (Zimmermann).

Martinů, who was born in Polička near the Bohemian-Moravian border in 1890 and who himself was a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic when he was young, wrote this piece in 1932/1933 for the violin virtuoso Samuel Dushkin, for whom Stravinsky had recently composed his violin concerto. The technically extremely demanding work, which includes elements such as percussion effects in the middle section, shows how much the Czech composer had been infected with the “Neoclassical virus” (George Antheil) which was rampant in Paris in the “Roaring Twenties”. Nevertheless, original details such as the muted string trills with flutter-tonguing sounds from the flute in the large-scale first movement and the intricate syncopation in the sparkling coda of the finale give the work an individual tone.

Jakub Hrůša, chief conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker and a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time, opens the concert with the tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel by his fellow countryman, Antonín Dvořák. The multi-faceted music, based on a legend by Karel Jaromír Erben, depicts the Czech version of the Cinderella story. The concert closes with Leoš Janáček’s dramatic and brilliantly orchestrated orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba, based on the novella of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, which tells the tragedy of the old Zaporozhian Cossack Taras Bulba and his two sons, Andrij and Ostap, in an uprising against Poland. The poetic original determines the work’s form and movements: in the first part, brooding music evokes the ambiguous feelings of the Cossack captain who kills his own son because he has betrayed him for the love for a Polish noblewoman. In the second movement, Taras Bulba witnesses the execution of his second son Ostap by the Poles, and in the third part, he is himself condemned to death. Nevertheless, the work ends with a grand apotheosis, as the end of Polish occupation looms.

Scary Stories and a Neglected Virtuoso Showpiece

Compositions by Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček

A good deal of this concert programme of works by three Czech composers is not for the faint of heart. The first and last pieces are based on gruesome tales. In Antonín Dvořák’s Golden Spinning-Wheel there is at least a happy ending. The ballad Taras Bulba, however, ends tragically, though Leoš Janáček’s music transfigures the deeds, Russian veneration and death of the eponymous Slavic hero. Coming between these grisly stories is Bohuslav Martinů’s First Violin Concerto, which was not premiered until decades after its completion. It is a typical example of the art of a 20th-century composer who is difficult to categorize and undeservedly neglected outside his homeland.

The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonín Dvořák

Following the composition of his Ninth Symphony in 1896, Dvořák turned his attention to programme music and wrote four symphonic poems within a short span of time. They are based on ballads by his compatriot, the historian, author and archivist Karel Jaromír Erben, best known for his collection of Czech folk tales. Although Dvořák did not have a cohesive cycle in mind and developed each individual composition according to its particular nature, his four contributions to the genre do exhibit a degree of interconnection: “They form a unit,” wrote Jarmil Burghauser in the preface to his edition of the score, “owing in particular to their pure Czech character and their popular appeal, typical features of Erben’s work for which Dvořák succeeded in creating ideal musical equivalents.”

The third of Dvořák’s four symphonic poems based on Erben is The Golden Spinning Wheel. It differs from its two predecessors, The Water Goblin and The Noon Witch,in departing from ballad form and assuming that of a rhymed fairytale, both in its content and in its broader, epic unfolding” (Burghauser). The ballad of 62 five-line strophes is grotesque as well as gory: a mysterious golden spinning wheel brings the victim of a perfidious murder back to life and reunites her with her lover.

Dvořák has given specific leitmotivic themes to the characters and certain situations in the story. A singular feature of the work is that he has shaped the music according to the rhythms and declamatory tone of the literary text. It would be possible to sing the original verses to the orchestral work’s melody. This compositional method was taken up and further developed in Leoš Janáček’s idea of “speech melody”.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1

Next to Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů is “the fourth classic figure of Czech music” (Harry Halbreich) and one of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century. Even so, he was never as famous as his contemporaries such as Béla Bartók or Igor Stravinsky. What the Martinů scholar Halbreich asserted in 1968 seems no less true in the 21st century: “The avant-gardists turn away from him with a shrug, while, on the other hand, the idiosyncratic formal structure of his music, its constant motion, and its lack of well-defined thematic material or familiar points of reference present the performers with difficulties they would not expect from this apparently mild-mannered, tonal musical idiom.”

Martinů composed his First Violin Concerto in 1932-33 for the violinist Samuel Dushkin. Problems arose during his work on it because the composer, an excellent violinist himself, was in no need of advice from the virtuoso soloist. Martinů’s friend and biographer Miloš Šafránek recalled in 1961 “the two artist’s frequent exchanges of opinion about various details of the concerto, which apparently was the reason that the composer left it unfinished”. The manuscript then mysteriously disappeared. To replace it, Martinů wrote a four-movement Suite concertante for Dushkin in Paris just before the outbreak of World War II; he revised and expanded it in 1942-43 when he was already living in the USA.

The score of the violin concerto was discovered three decades after its composition by the musicologist and pianist Hans Moldenhauer, who had emigrated to the USA in 1938 and found the manuscript in 1961 in the possession of the principal bassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a friend of Martinů. After the composer’s widow gave her permission for the preparation of a practical performing version of the concerto, Moldenhauer contacted the Czech violinist Josef Suk and was able to engage his services for a special East-West cultural cooperation. The work was first heard on 25 and 26 October 1973 in Chicago with Suk as soloist, and it had its Prague premiere just under a year later on 24 September 1974.

Why Dushkin had reservations about, indeed rejected the piece remains uncertain. Perhaps he thought the solo part in Martinů’s concerto was unduly merged with the orchestra – its energetic, exuberant outer movements in particular are marked by a neo-Baroque momentum and concerto grosso character. There is also no cadenza for the soloist to show off his brilliance, though in the second movement, a lyrical Andante, he has an intensive concertante relationship with the principal woodwind. All in all, the concerto makes extreme demands on the performers’ virtuosity.

Taras Bulba – Rhapsody for orchestra byLeoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba widens our view from Czech to Slavic and is a prime example of the composer’s Russophilism – as a young man he actually preferred the Russian form of his first name, “Lev”. In 1896 he came to the country he so admired for the first time to visit his brother František, who was living in St. Petersburg. Janáček wrote down vivid descriptions of his Russian journeys. He learned Russian, and in Brno, the Moravian city that played a formative role in his development, he became a member of the Russian Club, founded in 1899 for the cultivation of Russian language and literature. With time, he was reading novels and stories by Russian authors in the original. Some of them inspired him to compose operas: a drama by Alexander Ostrovsky was the source of Kátʼa Kabanová, while a novel by Dostoyevsky became From the House of the Dead. And Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata was the basis of his First String Quartet.

Taras Bulba, original designated a “Slavic orchestral rhapsody”, has literary roots as well: in 1903-04 Janáček read Nikolai Gogol’s novella about the Cossack leader Taras Bulba, made notes for translating various passages and jotted down a few musical ideas. In his composition Janáček concentrated less on the problematic personality of the title figure than on his role as military leader and his unshakable faith in the strength of the Russian people. In doing so, he touched a crucial nerve, the political, nationalistically tinged emotions of Czechs and Slovaks under the yoke of Habsburg domination.

Janáček explained his intentions: “Not because Taras Bulba killed his first son for having betrayed his country... nor because of the martyr’s death suffered by his second son, but because ‘there is no fire nor suffering in the whole world which could break the strength of the Russian people’ – for these words, which fall onto the stinging fiery embers of the pyre on which Taras Bulba, the famous Cossack captain, was burned to death, I have composed this rhapsody according to the legend as written down by Nikolai Gogol.”

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Richard Evidon

Jakub Hrůša , born in Brno in the Czech Republic in 1981, completed his conducting studies at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. From 2009 to 2015, he was music director and chief conductor of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra before taking over direction of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2016. Moreover, Jakub Hrůša is principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and works as a regular guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic PKF and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. He also appears with the world’s leading orchestras. Recent artistic highlights include debuts with the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, the Filarmonica della Scala, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performances with the “Bohemian Legends” and “The Mighty Five” – two concert series by the Philharmonia Orchestra – plus concerts with the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Wiener Symphoniker, the DSO Berlin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the 2017/2018 season, Jakub Hrůša also made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic. As music director of “Glyndebourne on Tour”, he regularly appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival. In addition, he conducted productions at the Wiener Staatsoper (The Makropulos Case), at the Opéra National de Paris (Rusalka, The Merry Widow), Oper Frankfurt (Il trittico), Finnish National Opera (Jenůfa), the Royal Danish Opera (Boris Godunov), at the Prague National Theatre (The Cunning Little Vixen, Rusalka) as well as at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (Carmen). Jakub Hrůša now appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and was only five when he had his first violin lessons. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. Zimmermann has given the first performances of four new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. In December 2015 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the London Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Frank Peter Zimmermann is also an active chamber musician; with the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra he founded the Trio Zimmermann in 2007, together they have appeared at the festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival and the Rheingau Musik Festival. Other highlights of recent years include concerts on tour with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and a European tour with the Berlin Baroque Soloists. Among the awards that the violinist has received are the Premio dellʼ Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena (1990) and the Music Prize of the City of Duisburg (2002). In 2008 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Federal German Order of Merit. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985 and since then has returned on numerous occasions; most recently he was heard in December 2016, when he performed Béla Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, conducted by Alan Gilbert.

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