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Paavo Järvi conducts Brahms and Lutosławski

20 Oct 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Paavo Järvi

  • Witold Lutosławski
    Concerto for Orchestra (33 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (50 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Paavo Järvi in conversation with Stanley Dodds (20 min.)

As Witold Lutosławski once confessed, he only wrote “music I like to listen to myself”. Not an unusual statement for a composer of the 20th century, one might say – and yet one that may, in a nutshell, explain the success of Lutosławski’s music. For although the trained mathematician’s multi-layered and differentiated scores are characterised by a high degree of tonal and rhythmic construction, they found – and find – not only admiring recognition among music professionals but also, unusually, great popularity with audiences. Quite understandably, Lutosławski employed different compositional techniques including experimental music – although never for its own sake – but always kept the listening experience in mind. In his Concerto for Orchestra, written between 1950 and 1954, Lutosławski combined typical elements of Polish folk music with his very own compositional language. A clever move! For many of the passages that appear avant-garde on hearing the work for the first time turn out to be adaptations of centuries-old musical traditions.

The Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi pairs this masterpiece by Lutosławski, which according to its composer managed to preserve his “freshness” over the decades, with Johannes Brahms’s Second Symphony, first performed in Vienna in 1877. This symphony came easily to its creator (especially in comparison to its predecessor which took more than twelve years to write). After starting the work during a holiday at Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the summer months of 1877 – described by Brahms as “an unspoiled landscape where melodies fly so thick that you have to be careful not to step on them” – he managed to complete work on the score as early as the October of the same year. Brahms’s Second is probably still his most played symphony, not least because of its cheerful mood. Brahms told his publisher, however, with his own cryptic sense of humour: “The new symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.”

Elegant Restraint and Illusory Idyll

Orchestral Works by Witold Lutosławski and Johannes Brahms

Witold Lutosławski was an enigmatic figure all his life. His connections with his native Poland seemed to be extremely tenuous. He was not interested in any themes from national history, only rarely did he set texts in his mother tongue, and from the mid-20th century onwards he seldom devoted himself to the music of his fellow Poles. Although Lutosławski was opposed to the Communist regime, he protested against the dictatorship only in very subtle ways and, unlike other prominent artists, did not go into exile. That would have been possible at any time, since he spoke five foreign languages fluently and was already internationally renowned at the age of 40. But he was satisfied with a summer cottage in Norway. In the West, the Polish composer is regarded as a moderate, cosmopolitan avant-gardist nowadays. Almost exclusively works from his modernist creative period are performed here, with one exception: the Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered in 1954 and was the composer’s breakthrough work.

Witold Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra

Despite its innocuous title “Intrada”, the opening Allegro maestoso is the most original and striking movement of the Concerto. It is in 9/8 metre throughout, which is not obvious to the listener, however, because the monotony of dotted crotchets dominates the musical picture at first. Over these pounding pedal points, above all in the percussion, an energetically bouncing theme in unmistakably rustic style is heard, first in the cellos, then also in the higher strings and woodwinds. It supposedly comes from the Masovian town of Czersk. At the end of the Intrada, the introduction returns under different circumstances: the former pedal points appear in the highest registers of the piccolo, celesta and strings.

The middle cantando section, introduced by the horn, is also dominated by a melody from the central Polish region of Masovia. It is interrupted twice by a passage with descending intervals in the strings, which seem to shimmer almost electronically, and is followed by powerful, monotonous stamping in 9/8 metre – now clearly recognizable. The strings produce the percussive sound of this figure by drawing their bows downwards quickly and energetically.

The middle movement consists of two parts: a scurrying, murmuring Capriccio notturno and a clamouring orchestral Arioso, whose melody we recognize from the Intrada. The finale is also in two sections, although the Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale are interlocked like the links of a chain – a procedure used by the Polish composer which was later known as the “chain technique”.

The Concerto for Orchestra marks the end of Lutosławski’s folkloristic, neoclassical phase. He did not particularly care for it himself, just as all the works he composed until the age of 40 were problematic for him. The reception in the West has only too willingly concurred with this opinion, since his change of direction towards new music seemed to endorse the avant-garde universalism cultivated in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen.

More than just a picture on the wall

The fact that a picture of Johannes Brahms hung in Lutosławski’s study was not an accident; it is no coincidence that the introduction of the Concerto for Orchestra is reminiscent of the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony and the closing Passacaglia, the finale of the Fourth. In his late piano concerto from 1988, Lutosławski also emulates his great predecessor: the work refers back to Brahms both in its use of the chaconne form and the four-movement structure in which the scherzo appears in second position, before the slow movement. His admiration is also apparent when he calls Albert Roussel “a kind of French Brahms”. Lutosławski’s musical thinking was profoundly influenced by his teacher, Witold Maliszewski, who taught him to appreciate the Classicists. Maliszewski was able to translate their compositional principles into a modern, psychological language. Instead of the well-established formal components of sonata form – exposition, development, recapitulation and coda – Maliszewski used new terminology: introduction, narrative, transition, conclusion. The young Lutosławski was already deeply impressed by this idea in his First Symphony.

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73

Johannes Brahms would probably have been astonished that his symphonies would continue to have an impact well into the 20th century. He did not attach great importance to being regarded as progressive. The deep melancholy in his compositions was the result of inner experience, which was in turn influenced by the elegiac temperament of the North Germans. Less than two years after the premiere of his Second Symphony, Brahms acknowledged to a colleague that he was “a deeply melancholy person” who continually heard “black wings” rustling overhead. Brahms was responding to the complaint of a conductor who had criticized “the growling timpani and the dark, lugubrious sounds of the trombones” in the first movement of the Second Symphony. In fact, the symphony, which was composed at Lake Wörther Austria in 1877 and is steeped in elements of folk style, repeatedly surprises listeners with such eerie interjections. The idyll is not unbroken, not naïve – Brahms knew only too well that neither his emotional life nor the way of the world allowed pure enjoyment of nature. He always emphasized the minor character of the D major work; “the score must appear with black borders,” the composer – whose penchant for sarcasm was as incurable as his melancholy – wrote in a letter.

It is by no means a new “Pastoral”. The three bass notes (D – C sharp – D) in the first bar immediately suggest a different scene. This descending and ascending semitone, as insignificant as it seems, is the fundamental idea of the entire symphony; it returns in every movement, usually concealed or disguised. Nearly all the main themes are derived from it, without being forced on the listener like an idée fixe. It is an enigmatic warning that we should have no illusions. Although upon arrival in the country cheerful feelings are also aroused – Brahms’s folklike melodies inevitably guarantee that – clouds soon appear. They are not merely emotional crises but plaintive cries, mingled with outbursts of a demonic desire for self-assertion. In any case, one pictures summer days at Lake Wörther differently …

Veritable attacks of pain and defeatism overwhelm the listener in the Adagio non troppo. There is even a fugato section that is not exactly typical of country life. Not until the third-movement Allegretto grazioso do scenes of rapturous earthly bliss unfold, when galop and waltz followLändler. But the finale? It is often claimed that it is a high-spirited, light-hearted last movement in the style of the 18th century. But this Allegro con spirito is a touch too vehement for that, too insistent and unrestrained. We have to wait until the end to actually be allowed a glimpse of paradise; then the gates open unexpectedly, and Franz Schubert’s Great C major Symphony greets us in person, first in the trombones and bass tuba. Schubert was the composer Brahms loved the most, whom he revered as a divine wandering minstrel – and who obviously still knew which notes pristine nature reveals itself with.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Paavo Järvi was born in Tallinn in 1962 and studied percussion and conducting at the conservatory in his home town. In 1980 he emigrated to the USA and completed his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and – with Leonard Bernstein – at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. After positions as principal guest conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 2001 to 2011, where he still has ties as “Music Director Laureate”. In 2004, he took over the artistic direction of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and from 2006 to 2013 he has also been chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, and from 2010 until 2016 he was music director of the Orchestre de Paris. Since the start of the 2015/2016 season he is chief conductor the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and he will take on the same role with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich from the 2019/20 season. The Estonian, who has been honoured with numerous awards, including the prestigious “Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture and the Order of the White Star by the President of Estonia, is also a welcome guest at renowned orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Vienna and the New York Philharmonic. The artist is particularly interested in the music of Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Lepo Sumera and Eduard Tubin. Paavo Järvi’s artistic work is documented in many recordings, several of which have won awards. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2000 and last conducted the orchestra in May, first in Bayreuth at their annual European Concert, then in Berlin with works by Sibelius and Shostakovich.

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