26 Jan 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Alan Gilbert

Lisa Batiashvili

  • Anna Thorvaldsdottir
    Metacosmos (European première) (15 min.)

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in G minor, op. 63 (34 min.)

    Lisa Batiashvili violin

  • Richard Strauss
    Symphonia domestica, op. 53 (49 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Lisa Batiashvili and Alan Gilbert in conversation with Sarah Willis (14 min.)

Lisa Batiashvili received the ultimate accolade from Alfred Brendel when she was only 22. He wrote about one of her concerts: “Every note both sang and spoke; imagination and control, warmth and mastery, rigour and flexibility were in balance.” No idiosyncrasies of regional violin schools – not the Russian or that of Dorothy Delay of New York – diverted from what the music itself had to say, wrote Brendel at that time, and continued: “The reader may now think that there is a lack of profile or personality? Or of intimacy, intensity, sensual beauty? Not at all. It’s got everything, in all its complexity, in perfect balance. ... It burns from within, but never gets out of control.” Today, Lisa Batiashvili is one of the foremost violinists of her generation. Talking about the Berliner Philharmoniker, she has said: “It is probably the only orchestra in which so many strong personalities can sit together and each one alone can perform an incredible feat which then becomes such a tremendous unity. No matter what you play, you have the feeling that from the first to the last desk, everyone has the same idea in mind.”

The violinist will play Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, a thoroughly lyrical work in which the Russian composer utterly renounces the motoric and grotesque moments that characterised his first concerto of the genre. As early as March 1930, Prokofiev announced in an interview with the Chicago publication Music Leader: “The days when dissonances were used for the sake of dissonance are over. ... A new simplicity – that’s Modernism today.”

The concert, conducted by Alan Gilbert, opens with Metacosmos, an iridescent sound sculpture by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, who was awarded the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music at the New York Philharmonic in 2018. The work will be heard in Europe for the first time in these concerts. The programme closes with Richard Strauss’s Symphonia domestica, a parodic “family scherzo with double fugue”: three themes, “Papa returns from his trip, tired”, “Mama” and “Bubi, a mixture, however a greater similarity to Papa”, describe walk and cosy “family table” until “Mama ... puts Bubi to bed” and “Papa et Mama seuls” can enjoy their “scène d’amour”. With artistic extravagance, Strauss captured the simple subject in a highly artificial musical structure: with a tremendous variety of brilliantly orchestrated melodies which unfold before the listener.

From a Vast Universe to a Small World

Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev and Strauss Explore the Cosmos and Home Sweet Home

Begin with an explosion and then build up very slowly? The old Hollywood rule may work when it comes to capturing the attention of cinema audiences. For composers, on the other hand, it was never easy to put into practice. If you begin with fanfare and celebration you put yourself under pressure. After all, a grand gesture is always associated with the assumption that the music which follows brings the dawn of a new era, or at least announces something special. A cursory glance at the repertoire, however, reveals that an attitude of self-confident triumph at the beginning of a larger work has become the exception since the Romantic period. Much more frequently we hear a cautious alignment with a world that is much larger and more expansive than anything the music can convey anyway.

Thoughtful soliloquies at the start

All three works on today’s programme begin softly and tentatively in the low register. Only a single voice can be heard at first. In Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, it is a rumbling contra-E, from which the further movement develops. In Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, the solo violin plays a G minor triad completely alone on the lowest string, only to then withdraw into its melancholy cantilena. And in Richard Strauss’s Symphonia domestica, it is the unaccompanied cellos which present a “leisurely” upwards trudging theme in F major. Each time, we are essentially listening to monologues – someone, something is communicating with him-, her- or itself. But what are they talking about? The titles allow us to draw initial conclusions. The orchestral work by the Icelandic composer refers to the “cosmos”: it will obviously be about vast spaces, about volumes of planetary proportions. The scale is somewhat smaller with Prokofiev: his Second Violin Concerto is basically a reflection on social mechanisms; it ponders the relationship between the individual and the collective. Finally, Strauss’s penultimate tone poem chooses an even more intimate setting: that of private life.

Energy transfer in the ecosystem of sound materials – Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos

Anna Thorvaldsdottir studied in her native city of Reykjavík and at the University of California in San Diego, where she earned a doctorate in 2011. The reputation of the composer, whose aesthetic is compatible with both pop and ambient genres as well as classical music, spread from the US. Thorvaldsdottir has long been receiving commissions from major orchestras throughout the world; a CD was released by Deutsche Grammophon.

“The music is written as an ecosystem of sounds and materials that are carried from one performer – or performers – to the next throughout the progress of a work,” Thorvaldsdottir writes in the notes to the score of Metacosmos. “All materials continuously grow in and out of each other, growing and transforming throughout the piece.” Defined literally, a metacosmos is a world beyond the bounds of the actual universe. It is fitting that two realms confront each other during the 13-minute work: on the one hand, a wild, rough and dark place and, on the other, a peaceful, settled world. The work is constructed around “the natural balance between beauty and chaos,” Thorvaldsdottir writes, “how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structural whole.” More than before, the composer now provides recognizable points of reference on the path between the polar climatic zones of sound, harmony and rhythm. Although the optimistic B flat major sphere is only suggested after an initial approach, in the more vehement second build-up it finally prevails. The chorale-like string writing evokes gentle memories of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio. But at the close, nature again thrusts itself into the picture.

Scale and form in times of terror and reverie – Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto

Sergei Prokofiev’s G minor Concerto, composed in 1935 for the violinist Robert Soetens, dates from the time immediately prior to the final return of the new socialist state’s “prodigal son” to Moscow. Prokofiev had gone into exile in 1918, first in America, then in Europe. The reasons for the internationally sought-after master’s move to the capital of the Soviet Union are complex. A crucial factor was undoubtedly the difficult career prospects in the West in view of the severe economic depression, whereas impressive opportunities beckoned in his homeland. In any case, Prokofiev returned during the phase of Soviet cultural bureaucracy in which Stalinist terror strived to reach its pinnacle. At first, the 44-year-old cosmopolitan did not have to fear the ever-present accusation of “formalism”. In the G minor Concerto as well, his “new simplicity” contained unmistakable elements of the classical tradition, including a strict orientation towards conventional formal structure, lean, at times almost sparse scoring and a contrapuntally taut style. Grotesque or decidedly virtuosic passages are omitted; everything has scale and proportion. The fact that, despite many reminiscences of the traditional Russian idiom, a somewhat impersonal, chilly atmosphere has crept into Prokofiev’s music – especially compared to the emotionally passionate First Concerto – cannot be ignored, however.

An operatic composer warms up – the Symphonia domestica by R. Strauss

In his Symphonia domestica, Richard Strauss presents the alternation of musical characters as events between various figures and their roles: Strauss already has one foot on the opera stage. The Symphonia domestica, which had its premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 21 March 1904, was initially a great success with the public. The critics, on the other hand, reacted negatively. Even well-meaning commentators deplored the questionable taste of a programme which, according to Romain Rolland, “diminishes the work and makes it puerile”. Strauss took the easy way out with his clever reply that the imagery of the programme was only a “pretext for the purely musical expression and development of my emotions”; thus, anyone who knew how to listen to music could feel free to ignore it. Although at most only a general situational framework is provided over long stretches, the number of elements referring to distinct extramusical aspects is unusually large. They range from the baby’s crying to the clock striking 7 o’clock twice to an impressive climax in the young couple’s bedroom. The latter not only energetically marks the crucial culmination of the entire work; in its overall formal development it also represents the contrast with the cheerful F major world of the three-person household. A brilliant stroke in a class by itself is the double fugue at the beginning of the finale, the break of the new day. The themes of the child and the mother boisterously struggle with each other, resulting in some of the most comical, turbulent and ingenious pages of modern orchestral music. The “domestic” Symphony is also extremely sophisticated formally. No less than three functional relationships are superimposed: the depiction of the family’s day, the development of a large symphonic movement with three inter-related themes and the organic sequence of a multi-movement cycle. Thus, the Symphonia domestica seems both pretentiously immodest and much too fainthearted: it scores remarkable triumphs between the kitchen and bedroom. But it could not care less about somehow changing the world or even improving it.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Alan Gilbert, chief conductor designate of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, was born in New York in 1967 and taught the violin by his parents from an early age. Gilbert first studied composition at Harvard and at the New England Conservatory of Music. After completing his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School in New York, he worked for several years as a violinist and violist before taking to the conductors stand in 1995. From January 2000 until June 2008, Alan Gilbert was chief conductor and artistic advisor at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom, as conductor laureate, he still has close ties. From 2003 to 2006, he was music director of Santa Fe Opera, and in 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg. From September 2009 until June 2017 he has been music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the first person to hold the post born in New York. Alan Gilbert has conducted productions at leading opera houses and has performed with orchestras such as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as well as the most prestigious orchestras in the USA and Japan. Alan Gilbert conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2006, and most recently in April 2018, with works by Adès, Mozart and Debussy. In September 2011, Alan Gilbert became Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, where he is also the first holder of Juilliard’s William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies. He was named a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 2010 he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. Elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2014, he has now also been named an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He received a 2015 Foreign Policy Association Medal for his commitment to cultural diplomacy.

Lisa Batiashvili won the second prize at the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki when she was only 16. After studying with Mark Lubotsky (Hamburg) and Ana Chumachenco (Munich), she began her spectacular international career as a concert soloist, violin recitalist and chamber music performer. Lisa Batiashvili is this season’s Artist in Residence with the Münchner Konzertdirektion Hörtnagel, in which she curates programmes with the Ebène Quartet, Camerata Salzburg, and in a trio with Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In previous seasons the Georgian-born German violinist held residencies the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome), the New York Philharmonic, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Conductors she has worked with include Alan Gilbert, Paavo Järvi, Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Thielemann. In the field of chamber music, she plays with Gautier Capuçon, Gérard Caussé, Emmanuel Pahud and Valery Sokolov among others. A winner of many awards (e. g. the Bernstein Award at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the Beethoven Ring of the Beethovenfest Bonn, and the prestigious International Accademia Musicale Chigiana Prize in Siena), the violinist performs regularly at the festivals in Edinburgh, Salzburg, Tanglewood and Verbier. She was named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2015 and Gramophone’s Artist of the Year 2017. In 2018, she received an honorary doctorate from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Lisa Batiashvili plays a Joseph Guarneri “del Gesu” from 1739, generously loaned by a private collector. A guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker on several occasions since October 2004, her most recent appearance with was in May 2018 under the direction of Paavo Järvi as the soloist in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.

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