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19 Jan 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Mariss Jansons

Evgeny Kissin

  • Richard Strauss
    Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra), op. 30 (40 min.)

  • Franz Liszt
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat major (23 min.)

    Evgeny Kissin piano

  • Evgeny Kissin
    Dodecaphonic Tango (5 min.)

  • Richard Wagner
    Rienzi: Overture (18 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Evgeny Kissin in conversation with Fergus McWilliam (12 min.)

At the age of two, Evgeny Kissin began to play pieces on the piano by ear and to improvise. When he was ten, he made his concert debut with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466, followed by his first solo recital a year later. In 1988, the Moscow-born pianist was invited to play before Herbert von Karajan who spontaneously engaged the then 17-year-old for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s New Year’s Eve concert. Today, Evgeny Kissin can look back on a long and fulfilling career. Mariss Jansons, who the Berliner Philharmoniker made an honorary member in January 2018, conducts these three evenings in which Kissin is the soloist in Franz Liszt’s heroic and brilliant Piano Concerto in E flat major which leads its listeners into a veritable labyrinth of interconnected movements and circulating themes. Liszt took Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie as a model, which can either be understood as a free-form sonata main movement or as a complete sonata cycle – including an adagio, scherzo and a superlative finale.

Before the Piano Concerto, which is counted as No. 1 in Liszt’s oeuvre since it was published and premiered first, we hear Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The young Strauss declared his aim was not to write “philosophical music” or to attempt to “represent Nietzsche’s great work musically”, rather, the composer was fascinated by Nietzsche’s fundamental social criticism and the Dionysian approach to life which is expressed in the book. The outlandish theory of the “superhuman” is transformed in Strauss’s interpretation into a reflection on the natural powers of man, with whose help he can take up the fight against mediocrity and backwardness. After the Berlin premiere of this work on 30 November 1896, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Arthur Nikisch only three days after the Frankfurt premiere, Otto Lessmann described the work as a “landmark in the field of pure instrumental music” in the Allgemeine Musikzeitung. His conclusion: “To even attempt to give a picture of the magnificence of the musical conception of this work in a concert report would be a futile effort.”

The concert closes with Richard Wagner’s captivating Rienzi overture which features a thematic potpourri of the battle cry (“Santo Spirito cavaliere”) and triumphal march (“Ertönet laut, ihr Freudenlieder”) from the third act of the opera.

The Individual and the Masses

Works by Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner

In the beginning, there was Beethoven. The pre-eminence of his oeuvre was already recognized in the early 19th century, compelling his successors, like it or not, to measure their own works by his standard. This led two of them, Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner, two years Liszt’s junior, to highly contrasted outcomes: the symphonic poem for the former, music drama for the latter – but both forms cultivated in the service of a philosophically grounded musical art. Finally, at the turn of the 20th century, Richard Strauss pursued both of these two trends within a comprehensive output that placed the symphonic poem on an equal footing with various forms of music theatre.

Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

Strauss needed to follow various detours before arriving at the style that in 1890 took shape in his tone poem Macbeth: “New ideas must develop new forms for themselves: the basic principle that Liszt adopted for his symphonic works, in which the poetic idea also functions as the structuring element, then became the guiding principle for my own symphonic works.” Shortly afterwards, on a journey, he encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: “When I became familiar with Nietzsche’s work while in Egypt, its polemic against the Christian religion was especially close to my heart, confirming and reinforcing the subconscious antipathy I had felt since my 15th year towards this religion which relieves the faithful of their own responsibility for all their actions (by means of the confession).”

Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, “freely based on Nietzsche”, which was sketched in 1894 and completed two years later, begins with a coup de théâtre, monumental and arresting: the sun rises in music symbolizing the Creation, as the primal note C is divested of its innocence and taken first into a minor, then into a searing major chord, which, after triumphal affirmation, quickly makes way for the “Backworldsmen” or “Afterworldly”. The type of edifice in which they reside is made clear by Strauss in a Gregorian melody on the horns, for whom he even writes out the text in the score: “credo in unum deum”. A bit later, the word “Magnificat” is entered in the organ part before “Joys and Passions” are represented with an appropriate surge of intensity.

The high point of Strauss’s musical polemic is the section that sends up “Science”, or erudition. An academic discussion unfolds in several keys and considers all aspects as Strauss develops the introductory primal interval C-G into a complex fugal subject containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. In modified form, this theme also appears in “The Convalescent”, who is forced, as it were, to swallow it whole in order to be discharged as healed.

Strauss was fascinated by Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch (Superhuman) and its celebration of individualism and the struggle against mediocrity, but there is a derisive undertone in his musical treatment that cannot be ignored. In the “Dance Song”, Strauss invites the Übermensch to a Viennese waltz, which is difficult to associate with Nietzsche’s vision of the Persian mystic. And he foils the perfectly established B major that has emerged as the tonal goal of his entire work with a parting shot: the primal interval C-G resurfaces several times, delicately unsettling the tonality and finally taken to absurdity when the tone poem is ended by disconnected C pizzicati.

The First Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt

“In the evening, conversation about my father’s works; R. very concerned about the turn his intellect has taken... deplores the tiresome apotheosis fad and the use of the triangle”, noted Cosima Wagner in 1869 in her diary, one of the documents revealing the thorny relationship between “R.” Wagner and his father-in-law Franz Liszt. The “use of the triangle” reaches its peak in Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, which provides the little percussion instrument with a grand appearance. Critic Eduard Hanslick caricatured it as the “Triangle Concerto”, and even Liszt acknowledged: “As regards the triangle, I don’t deny that it may give offence if struck too strongly and not precisely.” Ironically, Liszt’s model here was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the finale of which adds to the orchestra not only a chorus but also a triangle.

It is surprising that the orchestration of a solo concerto at this time should have been a subject for discussion: many examples of the genre were completely tailored to virtuosos, accompanied by a more or less interesting background orchestra. Liszt’s were quite different. Although, as an idolized pianistic genius, he could have made things easier for himself, he spent a long time polishing the writing in his two big piano concertos. He began sketching them both in the 1830s but then continued to work on them for more than two decades, thus casting doubt on the widespread belief that the First Concerto represents no more than a showpiece for “eminent keyboard stallions” (to borrow an image from German comedian Heinz Erhardt): for each of its dazzling breakneck passages the work also offers an antithesis, for example, the splendid chamber music Liszt has written in a duet for piano and clarinet in the first movement. In the Quasi adagio that follows, the piano first accompanies itself in an unadorned “song without words” in B major, then supports the woodwind with a long chain of trills before the capricious, triangle-glistened finale runs its course in several surges.

The Rienzi Overture by Richard Wagner

The young Richard Wagner was also preoccupied with classical instrumental music before he set out on his long march through the institutions and genres of music theatre. In his first three stage works (not part of the Bayreuth canon), he explored the key operatic forms of his time. These were essential way stations leading him to music drama. Die Feen reflected early Romantic German opera, while Das Liebesverbot followed Italian and French models. Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, finally, was a reaction to the development of French grand opéra, with mass scenes, ballet insertions, even a trousers role.

Wagner confronted the differentiated masterworks of that genre such as Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots with a colossus that in certain respects still needed some fine-tuning, and even by grand opéra standards, Rienzi’s playing time of six hours was too long. For the libretto, he drew on the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes. The five-act opera takes us back to medieval Rome – abandoned by the popes and terrorized by two noble families, who are promptly able to put aside their sworn enmity to unify against the plebeians.

The papal notary Cola Rienzi (Cola di Rienzo) seeks to break the power of these families and restore freedom and greatness to the people. At the end, however, he is buried in the burning Capitol because of his inability to overcome his delusions of grandeur and his vacillation, and because, apart from bombastic slogans and simplistic solutions, he has little else to offer.

Wagner’s D major overture assembles the most striking themes of this “grand tragic opera” into an effective potpourri: the solitary trumpet call acts as a signal to restore freedom to the “sons of Rome”; the lyrical theme presages Rienzi’s prayer in the fifth act; the jaunty march symbolizes the illusory jubilation of the masses in the second act.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Mariss Jansons has been chief conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks since 2003. From 2004 until March 2015, he held the same role with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, where he remains conductor laureate. Born in Riga in 1943, he initially studied violin, piano and conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory, then in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky, and in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan. In 1971, he won the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin. In the same year, Yevgeny Mravinsky took him as his assistant to the Leningrad Philharmonic where he maintained ties, working there as principal guest conductor until 1999. From 1979 to 2000, he was chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, which he transformed into a top international orchestra. After a period as principal guest conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1992 and 1997, he then took over the direction of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (until 2004). In addition, Mariss Jansons has worked with all major orchestras worldwide and has regularly conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1976; he last appeared with the orchestra in January 2018 directing works by Schumann and Bruckner. For nearly 30 years, from 1971 until 2000, Jansons was also professor of conducting at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The artist’s numerous awards include honorary memberships of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2010, Mariss Jansons was awarded the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, and in 2013, he received the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Music Prize as well as Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit, First Class. For his life achievement Mariss Jansons was honoured in March 2015 with the Latvian Great Music Award which is the country’s most important artistic recognition. In November 2017 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal. He was named honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2018, and in the same year he received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

Evgeny Kissin, born in Moscow in 1971, was a striking musical prodigy. At the age of six, he began his musical training at the Gnessin State Musical College in his home town under Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who remained his only piano teacher. At the age of ten, Evgeny Kissin made his debut with Mozart’s Concerto in D minor, K. 466. In 1984, he performed Chopin’s two piano concertos for the first time in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. First appearances in other European countries followed in 1985, and in Japan in 1986; in 1987, he was invited to the Berliner Festwochen. In the summer of 1988, the young artist played for Herbert von Karajan, who spontaneously engaged him for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s New Year’s Eve concert the same year. Kissin’s US debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta in the autumn of 1990 was followed a few days later by a triumphant piano recital at Carnegie Hall. Since then, the pianist has enjoyed success in all international music capitals with solo recitals and as a guest of top orchestras; in 2015/2016, he strengthened his close relationship with Carnegie Hall by designing a five-part Perspectives concert series to mark the 125th anniversary of the venue. Evgeny Kissin was awarded the Shostakovich Prize in 2003, one of Russia’s highest honours in the field of music; two years later, London’s Royal Academy of Music made him an honorary member. Furthermore, he holds honorary doctorates from the Manhattan School of Music (2001), the University of Hong Kong (2009), and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010). Evgeny Kissin has performed often with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in late 1988, most recently at the end of 2011 in the orchestra’s Berlin concerts as the soloist in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

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