Iván Fischer and Christian Gerhaher
22 Dec 2018
Legendes for Orchestra, op. 59: nos. 6 & 10 (10 min.)
Lieder after poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Eduard Mörike (25 min.)
Christian Gerhaher baritone
Symphony No. 8 in C major, D 944 (57 min.)
An introduction by Iván Fischer (13 min.)
“As much as I appreciate Schubert’s songs, I appreciate his instrumental works even more,” Antonín Dvořák once said: “If all his compositions were destroyed except for two, save the last two symphonies.” This was an astonishing statement by Dvořák, who even in his lifetime was recognised as one of the great symphonic composers of his time. After all, Franz Schubert had not been regarded as a master of symphonic compositions for very long – and certainly not during his short, 31-year-long life. This explains why Schubert’s last two symphonies referred to by Dvořák were only performed long after the death of their creator: the C major Symphony D 944, for example, written in 1825-1826, which Robert Schumann compared to a “thick novel in four volumes”, did not receive its first historically documented performance until 1839 in a concert conducted by Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. At a stroke, posterity understood that Schubert, who had hitherto been known above all as the “Prince of Song” and as a composer of piano and chamber music, was also a first-rate symphonist – an acknowledgement that came about a quarter of a century later with the discovery of Schubert’s two-movement Symphony in B minor D 759, the Unfinished, which underpinned and gradually awoke interest in the composer’s earlier symphonies composed between 1813 and 1818.
For his guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Iván Fischer – chief conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin from 2012 until the summer of 2018 and still head of the Budapest Festival Orchestra – has programmed Schubert’s C major Symphony D 944 together with two smaller orchestral works by Schubert’s admirer, Dvořák: his Legends No. 6 and No. 10 from the Bohemian composer’s opus 59, written in 1881. This work, originally written for four-hand piano and later also arranged for orchestra by Dvořák himself, was dedicated to the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick. He, in turn, was one of the harshest critics of Hugo Wolf who is represented in the middle part of the programme with a series of orchestral songs. The soloist in this multi-faceted Romantic programme is the baritone Christian Gerhaher, a special highlight of whose 15-year musical partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker was his appointment as Artist in Residence in the 2013/2014 season.
Cherished, undervalued and overlooked
Orchestral works and songs by Antonín Dvořák, Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert
Antonín Dvořák: Legends
Antonín Dvořák’s international breakthrough as a composer started in Berlin. In 1878, on the recommendation of none less than Johannes Brahms, the Berlin publisher Fritz Simrock published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, op. 32 as well as his Slavonic Dances for piano four hands, op. 46. Both works proved to be big sellers. Two years later, Dvořák informed his publisher that he was planning – as a kind of counterpart to the Slavonic Dances – a cycle of ten lyrical piano pieces which he thought of entitling Legends. He set to work on them at the beginning of the following year, and by summer the Legends for piano four hands, op. 59 were already in print. Still in that year, the composer decided to follow up the original version with one for orchestra – a sales strategy that had already shown itself to be highly profitable for the Slavonic Dances.
The sixth of Dvořák’s Legends is in C sharp minor and tripartite song form. A theme echoed by surging string and harp figuration lends the outer sections a rather lyrical character, while the woodwind are given prominence in the more folklike D flat major middle section. No. 10 in B flat minor which concludes the cycle calls for four horns in addition to woodwind and strings. Defying expectations raised by the syncopated second cello line at the beginning, this piece in 4/8 time assumes the character of a melancholy march. The clearly contrasting middle section is in B flat major, its theme introduced by the horns. Regardless of its dynamic upswings, the work dies away pianissimo.
Mörike and Goethe settings by Hugo Wolf
Caught up in a veritable creative frenzy, Hugo Wolf wrote 43 lieder to poems by Eduard Mörike within just three months in early 1888. After a productive interlude in September dedicated to lyrics by Joseph von Eichendorff, he composed 10 further Mörike settings in October and then almost immediately turned to the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and created 50 lieder by February 1889, adding one more in October. It was in those two large collections devoted to the lyric output of a single poet, Mörike followed by Goethe, that Wolf “found himself”, observed Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his biography of the composer. That supreme Wolf interpreter elaborated: “In striving to unify meaning, diction and music, it cannot satisfy Wolf merely to grasp the poem’s content. For him, the poet’s personality is the key that opens up the musical horizon along with the poetic.” (In 1890, Wolf prepared most of the orchestral versions of the songs heard in these concerts.)
Commencing his intensive exploration of Goethe with poems from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), Wolf set the three desperately sad songs of the mysterious Harper haunted by an incestuous relationship. Wolf depicts his harp with arpeggios in the accompaniment of the first setting. He also breaks up Goethe’s three strophic poems with text repetitions and interludes and turns them into something approaching monologues. The doleful basic tone of these three lieder corresponds to Goethe’s description of the old man as an “unfortunate character, who feels himself on the verge of madness.” In contrast, Wolf deploys gaudy, almost operatic instrumental colours in the orchestral version of his setting of Goethe’s amusing, occasionally creepy ballad Der Rattenfänger (The Ratcatcher), originally published in 1804. Anakreons Grab (Anacreon’s Grave) is among the composer’s most touching lyrical creations.
Wolf treasured Mörike’s lyric poetry for “the variety of forms and moods...and took special pleasure in rendering the hair-raising and fantastic verses, their aspects of profundity as well as their cosiness, but also the frequently veiled confessions of sadness and pain” (Fischer-Dieskau). In the brief Gesang Weylas, Wolf self-effacingly defers to the poet in his straightforward declamation of the text, accompanied by harplike figuration. The accompaniment of the irregularly expressive, harmonically richly nuanced lied In der Frühe suggests the chiming of distant bells. Wolf’s setting of the demonic ballad Der Feuerreiter (The Fire-Rider) is one of his most dramatic.
Franz Schubert: The “Great C major” Symphony
At the home of Franz Schubert’s brother Ferdinand in 1839, Robert Schumann discovered the score of an apparently unperformed C major symphony composed in 1825-26. He entrusted the manuscript to Felix Mendelssohn, who performed the work that year in Leipzig. Schumann’s review of the concert has become legendary: “I must say at once, that anyone not yet acquainted with this symphony can know very little about Schubert,” he wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. “Here, besides a sheer mastery of the techniques of composition, we find life in every fibre, the finest shadings of colour, meaningful expression everywhere, the most acute etching of detail, all suffused with a Romanticism we have already encountered elsewhere in Schubert. And the symphony’s heavenly lengths, rather like one of Jean-Paul’s thick novels in four volumes that is never quite able to come to an end, and for the best of reasons: in order to allow the reader to carry on romancing in the same vein... No symphony since Beethoven's has had such an effect on us.”
Unlike Schumann or Brahms, Schubert – thanks to temporal proximity – had nothing to fear from the comparison of his music with Beethoven’s. Thus, in his last completed symphony, he was able to forge new paths, not so much looking back to Beethoven’s creations in this genre as foreshadowing those of the two younger composers. As in his late piano sonatas, Schubert is not aiming for dramatic compression of the forms. His focus, rather, is on their melodic and motivic elaboration. The slow introduction to the first movement, developed from a horn call and merging almost seamlessly into the Allegro, which in turn concludes with a paraphrase of the horn motif, surpasses all previous examples of this particular formal section. Schubert also takes his time in the second movement, whose folk-tinged melodies – adumbrating Gustav Mahler’s – he discloses at times as moments of both silencing and helpless agitation. No composer before Schubert and only a few after him undertook to produce this sort of existential atmospheric upheaval out of identical material.
If the finely chiselled yet sometimes rough-seeming Scherzo, though not lacking in typically Schubertian features, recalls comparable movements by Beethoven, the Finale demonstrates that its creator could also draw inspiration from the music of a completely different composer. Rossini perhaps? The “Swan of Pesaro” must have been a thorn in the side of Schubert, who throughout his life also had ambitions as an opera composer. Could he nonetheless have paid his ungrudging respects to Rossini in certain passages of the last movement? Though purists would be aghast, the hunch is not entirely to be dismissed. The tone of jubilation struck by Schubert in the closing movement of his last symphony is, in any case, miles away from the sometimes clamorous humanist appeal of Beethoven’s Ninth – it is too buoyant, bright and unburdened. A utopia that the Viennese composer had absorbed from the mannerisms of the Italian Rossini, incomparably successful with the musical public of the day? One can listen to Schubert’s Finale again and again without coming up with an answer...
Iván Fischer, born in Hungary, studied piano, violin and cello in Budapest, continuing his education in Vienna where he was in Hans Swarowsky’s conducting class. For two years he was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s assistant. His international career took off in 1976, when he won the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in London. In 1983, together with Zoltán Kocsis, Iván Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, an ensemble for which he still serves as musical director. Fischer has been a regular guest in major opera houses of the world (e.g. London, Zurich, Paris and Brussels). He has been principal conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin from 2012 until 2018 and is now their honorary conductor. As a guest conductor he works with the finest symphony orchestras of the world, like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Munich and Israel Philharmonic. In 1989 he gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker and has returned several times since; his last performance with the orchestra was in December 2017 when he conducted works by Bartók and Mendelssohn. Fischer is also successful as composer: his works have been performed in the US, the Netherland, Belgium, Hungary, Germany and Austria. He is a founder of the Hungarian Mahler Society and patron of the British Kodály Academy. Iván Fischer received the Golden Medal Award from the President of the Republic of Hungary and the Kossuth Prize. The French Government named him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2013 he was made honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London. In addition, he is an honorary citizen of Budapest.
German baritone Christian Gerhaher studied singing under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach and, together with his regular piano partner Gerold Huber, lied interpretation with Friedemann Berger in Munich. While completing his medical studies Christian Gerhaher perfected his vocal training in masterclasses given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Inge Borkh. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Pelléas(Pelléas et Mélisande),Posa (Don Carlo), Olivier (Capriccio) and Wozzeck. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Kirill Petrenko and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared many times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003 and held the position of Artist in Residence in the 2013/14 season. His last appearance with the orchestra was in May 2018 in concerts with Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri (conductor: Mikko Franck); in early December he also gave a lieder recital in the Chamber Music Hall with Gerold Huber. Christian Gerhaher, who holds the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, is an honorary professor in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music in Munich and also gives international masterclasses. For his outstanding contribution to bringing classical music to wider audiences, he was awarded the Music Award at the 2016 Heidelberger Frühling.