Herbert Blomstedt and Yefim Bronfman
18 May 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B flat major, op. 19 (37 min.)
Yefim Bronfman piano
Symphony No. 2 in G minor, op. 34 (52 min.)
Herbert Blomstedt in conversation with Stephan Schulze (19 min.)
In July 2017, Herbert Blomstedt, the doyen of the great conductors, turned 90 and is still active on the international stage – including as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom he enjoys a close musical partnership. The latter also applies to Yefim Bronfman, who last appeared in Philharmoniker concerts performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The American pianist now performs the B major Concerto op. 19 which Beethoven himself wrote “into his very fingers”.
Soon after his move from Bonn to Vienna, the composer became one of the foremost piano virtuosos of the time – after all, he produced “difficulties and effects on the piano that we never dreamed of” as his future student Carl Czerny later wrote in his memoirs. Completed only after the C major Concerto op. 15 which he started writing later, the B major Piano Concerto was published in 1801 as opus 19 and provides many of these “difficulties and effects”. However, Beethoven also surprised many contemporaries with his many innovations, such as the pianist, composer and music writer Wenzel Johann Tomaschek, who remarked: “The strange and the original seemed to him to be the main thing in the composition.”
After the interval, the programme continues with the rarely performed Second Symphony by Wilhelm Stenhammar, who studied among other places in Berlin and dedicated his 1896 concert overture Excelsior! to the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Swedish composer and pianist had already presented his Piano Concerto in B minor op. 1 in Philharmoniker concerts under the baton of Richard Strauss on 10 December 1894. In the words of Herbert Blomstedt, there are many good reasons for performing the brilliantly orchestrated Second, whose themes are largely based on old Swedish folk songs and dances and whose conclusion is a captivating fugue finale. In 1915, Stenhammar stated he wanted to write “down-to-earth, honest music without much ado” with this symphony – specifically with less “Richard Strauss and his followers”, but more Bach and Beethoven. “Stenhammar’s Second Symphony,” says Blomstedt, “is undoubtedly his greatest work, but it was not until three years ago that I conducted it for the first time. I have to admit, I have a guilty conscience about it. ... It should only be natural for me, as a Swedish conductor, working in the world, to perform this music, too. But I never got round to it. When I was 87, I thought: it’s now or never, so I have to do it now!”
“A Fifth as the Supreme Bliss”
Beethoven as point of departure: Wilhelm Stenhammar and Nordic Classicism
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, op. 19
We will probably never know for certain whether Ludwig van Beethoven actually encountered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – and even had some lessons with him – on his journey to Vienna in 1787. What has been unequivocally documented, however, is the Salzburg composer’s influence on Beethoven, who carefully studied his works and frequently played them – especially the D minor Concerto K. 466 – in the palaces of the Viennese nobility. Beethoven’s admiration for Mozart is already unmistakable in the compositions from his time in Bonn. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major – not to mention the Concerto in C major composed later but given the number 1 – would be unthinkable without Mozart. At the same time, both show clear indications of Beethoven’s individual style. Yet not everything we recognize today as typical was present in the original version. The composer revised the B flat Concerto several times. The first sketches date from 1786, the final version from 1801.
The beginning of the Allegro con brio, despite its symphonic attitude, still recalls the Baroque ritornello form in which there is a strict differentiation between tutti and solo sections. When after 90 bars the piano finally enters, it indulges in freely flowing passages and is chiefly occupied with the lyrical second theme. There were already unusual tonal shifts in the introduction, and this is repeated in the development. Completely outside the time frame of music created around 1790 is the highly dramatic solo cadenza added years later. This is pure Beethoven as the world came to love and fear him. The Adagio strikes a sensitive note: the titan was, after all, the first Romantic. Orchestra and piano intone the earnest melody in alternation, but the soloist not infrequently is allowed to shine in passages of brilliant figuration. The last bars are full of pensive stillness: the orchestra quotes fragments of the main idea while the piano intersperses isolated monologues. The connection to the 18th century is most apparent in the final Rondo, marked by the unusual displaced accents of its main theme. Two further motifs underscore the carefree character of this finale. Perhaps that may explain why the B flat major Concerto has never been performed as often as its sister work in C: it has been considered too light-hearted.
Light-heartedness has never been among the attributes for which Beethoven has been esteemed. From Vienna, Berlin and Leipzig, his compositions circulated astonishingly rapidly throughout all of Germany. Before long they were also being heard in England and France: the Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London, and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra played the entire cycle of symphonies between 1828 and 1832. The Scandinavians were even quicker. In Copenhagen, whose royal orchestra is the world’s oldest, the First Symphony was already performed in 1803, with the “Pastoral” following in 1816 and the Seventh in 1817. In Stockholm, home to another of the most venerable royal orchestras, the “Eroica” and Seventh could be heard around the same time.
Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor, op. 34
An epoch-making figure in Scandinavian Beethoven reception, the Swedish pianist-conductor-composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, born in 1871, played Beethoven’s chamber music on countless occasions, regularly performed his piano sonatas and, as artistic director and chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, nurtured a true Beethoven cult in that city. Stenhammar has also gone down in Nordic musical annals as a champion of Franz Berwald, while his advocacy of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen made him one of the pioneering conductors of the early 20th century. The impact of his public activities overshadowed his achievement as a composer for decades before his phenomenal Second Symphony finally found its due appreciation.
After first conducting a Nielsen symphony in 1910, Stenhammar conveyed the following declaration to his Danish colleague: both of them, he and Nielsen, had, “as Protestants, a duty to fulfil against the incense and sound-gorging of musical Catholicism that has flourished far too long in Germany”. He cited no names, but it would have been clear to the recipient of the letter that his invective was directed against Strauss, Mahler and Reger. Their obligation was to offer an alternative to the monstrous orchestral forces of modern music as well as to the apparent disintegration of classical harmony, to bind progress to a revival of tradition. This approach, of limited appeal in central Europe, corresponded entirely with the conviction that Nielsen was to express in an important essay in 1922: “The glutted must be taught to regard a melodic third as a gift of God, a fourth as an experience, and a fifth as the supreme bliss.”
What means does Stenhammar deploy, then, in his Second Symphony? He avoids chromatic lines and vague, vacillating harmonies, instead forming exclusively diatonic melodies, with a frequent tendency to the Dorian mode. The opening theme of the Allegro energico begins and ends with melodic fifths, not overwhelming as in Beethoven’s Fifth or the Gloria of his Missa solemnis but generating the aura of a bygone era. On the whole, it utilizes only notes of the Dorian G scale. Bassoons and low strings lend the melody a dark colour, while the music’s marchlike stride, peculiarly medieval harmony and orchestration highlighting the instrumental choirs all help establish a folklike inflection. There are even passages where we seem to be listening to country fiddlers. The rhythm, too, contributes to the archaic effect, suggesting spelmän (folk musicians) playing for a dance. The main theme dominates long stretches of the opening movement. A second theme, already introduced by woodwind in the ninth bar – half signal, half sound of nature – only comes into its own at the end of the development section.
The Andante, opening with simple string writing, is again diatonic and dominated by church modes. Formally it is a mixture of sonata and variations. In character, it alternates between marchlike, elegiac and spiritual sections, finally rising to rapturous heights before the nearly neutral-sounding closing bars awaken great expectations of the Scherzo. The latter movement is marked by an earthy dance rhythm, which Stenhammar asks to be played with the incisiveness “of a tarantella or a saltarello”. It may have been sketched during a visit to Italy in 1911. In the Trio section, to be performed with grace and rubato, the woodwind and horns wrest control of the proceedings; then the first section is repeated, slightly varied.
The Finale is the longest and most complex movement Stenhammar ever wrote, almost manic in its fixation on polyphonic interweaving. It is launched with a hymnlike horn theme to which the woodwind immediately add their voices to form a canon. The trill in the fourth bar of the melody is especially striking and later makes a prominent reappearance. The second theme is energetic and buoyant. Both themes are treated fugally, and Stenhammar achieves an overriding unity within diversity by recalling themes from the first and slow movements. The Finale combines incredible technical erudition with elemental popular character: “sober and honest music without frills”, as the composer liked to say.
Translation: Richard Evidon
Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. His musical education began at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he later studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in December 2017, when he conducted three concerts with works by Mozart and Bruckner. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. Blomstedt was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003; in 2016 he received the prestigious Danish Léonie Sonning Music Prize for his lifetime achievement.
Yefim Bronfman, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1958, emigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 15 and became an American citizen in 1989. His teachers included Arie Vardi in Israel and Rudolf Firkušný, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin in the USA. Yefim Bronfman launched his international career in Montreal under Zubin Mehta in 1975; his first concerts with the New York Philharmonic followed three years later. Since then Yefim Bronfman has appeared with the leading international orchestras, collaborating with many distinguished conductors. Recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1991, he performs with such chamber music partners as Martha Argerich, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Magdalena Kožená, Pinchas Zukerman and the Emerson, Cleveland and Juilliard Quartets. In May 2012 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic, in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Alan Gilbert. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 Yefim Bronfman has appeared frequently at the Philharmonie as a concert soloist, chamber musician and in solo programmes, serving as the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence during the 2004/2005 season. In his last performances with the orchestra in May 2018, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, he performed Beethovens Third Piano Concerto.