Paavo Järvi conducts Berg and Bruckner
25 May 2019
Johann Sebastian Bach
Musical Offering, BWV 1079: No. 2 Ricercar a 6 (arr. by Anton Webern) (8 min.)
Seven Early Songs (19 min.)
Mojca Erdmann soprano
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (2nd version from 1877) (67 min.)
Paavo Järvi in conversation with Gunars Upatnieks (16 min.)
The year 1907 was significant for Alban Berg in several respects: The then 22-year-old, who had been a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg since 1904, received the opportunity in the course of these lessons to give a public performance of three of his songs at a student concert. And not only that: he also met his future wife, the beautiful and popular Helene Nahowski, who had a beautiful singing voice. The three works presented, “Nachtigallˮ, “Liebesodeˮ and “Traumgekröntˮ, formed the core of a collection that Berg published under the title Seven Early Songs 21 years later. In it, he revised and orchestrated seven of his early works and brought them together to form a self-contained song cycle. Masterfully instrumented, these pieces, which are sung in this programme by Mojca Erdmann stepping in for Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, convey the intimate, tender, confused and romantic mood of young love. At the same time, the influence of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf on the young composer is unmistakable.
In 1877, exactly 30 years before the first public performance of the three Berg songs, Anton Bruckner completed the second version of his Symphony in C minor. In this version of his officially cited Second Symphony, he learned from the experience of the premiere of the first version in October 1873 on the occasion of the Vienna World Fair and another performance in February 1876. Within Bruckner’s oeuvre, this work is still overshadowed by his other symphonies. Less innovative and boldly designed than the First, the Second nevertheless consistently continues the path taken by Bruckner towards his own personal style. First, the main theme arises over the mysterious tremolo that was to become typical of his symphonic beginnings. The thematic blocks separated by general pauses and the collision of contrasting sections are also characteristic features of Bruckner’s very own composition style. What proves to be a special feature of this symphony: Bruckner makes repeated references to his F minor Mass, whose successful world premiere coincided exactly with the time when the first version was written.
The Berliner Philharmoniker performed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for the first time in October 1902 under the direction of its then chief conductor Arthur Nikisch, who was a great admirer of the composer. However, the piece is rarely performed in Philharmoniker concerts. It was last played in April 2007 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. This season, Paavo Järvi conducts the Second Symphony, the first time he is presenting a work by Anton Bruckner with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Webern, Berg, Bruckner and the Art of Arrangement
Two cultures of music – fugue and sonata, unity and conflict – dominated the thinking of the music theorist August Halm, whose writings were widely read during the early 20th century. Bach represented one school, Beethoven the other, and in this world view it was left to a third “B” to unite the two: Anton Bruckner, in whose works Halm saw “the definitive beginning though not the final conclusion of musical art”. In this environment, which would soon become the “world of yesterday”, the tradition-conscious composers of Viennese Modernism sought beginnings – and possibilities for recalling the old. Anton Bruckner impressed the audience with a sonorous performance of Bach on the organ before the premiere of his Second Symphony. And Anton Webern produced a Bach arrangement in 1935 that is unparalleled in musical history.
Heard with Webern’s ears: Bach’s Ricercare from the Musical Offering
Few composers have managed to develop such a distinctive individual style. Whether late Romantic tone poem, atonal bagatelle or twelve-tone cantata, Webern always sounds like Webern – crystalline, clear, concise. The most remarkable manifestation of this musical thumbprint is found in his orchestration of the Ricercare for six voices from the Musical Offering BWV 1079, however: suddenly Bach also sounds like Webern. With a small orchestra that nowhere alludes to historical instrumentation, Webern reduces Bach’s composition to motifs which appear sporadically in the individual parts. He wrote to the conductor Hermann Scherchen: “My orchestration is intended ... to reveal the motivic coherence. This was not always easy. Beyond that, of course, it is supposed to set the character of the piece as I feel it.”
Musical gown: Berg’s Seven Early Songs
In 1935, the year Webern’s Bach arrangement was published, Alban Berg was struck down with blood poisoning. The last completed work by the 50-year-old composer was the Violin Concerto, the finale of which quotes a Bach chorale. That is typical of a composer whose work rests on the foundation of vocal music, even if it is instrumentally paraphrased. The combination of voice and orchestra, in particular, would occupy Berg all his life. Although Berg’s music – like that of his close friend Webern – evolved from late Romantic beginnings to expressionist atonality to the twelve-tone system, it is characterized by great continuity. One explanation for this is the slow pace of Berg’s work, which led him to expand his oeuvre with arrangements of his own works, particularly in later years.
In his youth, Berg, who was equally gifted in music and literature, discovered his own expressive outlet in songs for voice and piano. He composed dozens of them, which his brother Charley secretly showed to a musician who had offered his services as a composition teacher in a newspaper advertisement. The teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, later recalled: “Two things emerged clearly even from Berg’s earliest compositions, however awkward they may have been: first, that music was to him a language, and that he really expressed himself in that language; and secondly: overflowing warmth of feeling.”
The composition of songs also played a role during his classes, and three of them were performed at a concert of Schoenberg’s students in 1907. At this time Berg met his future wife, Helene Nahowski, to whom he gave ten early songs in fair copy as a present in 1917: one for every year they had been together. A good ten years later – Berg had in the meantime begun to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method – he selected seven of them for publication in a revised piano version and a new orchestral version as Seven Early Songs.
The first and seventh songs are arranged for full orchestra, which is laid over the original piano part like a gown painted on the body by Gustav Klimt. The second, fourth and sixth songs are scored for reduced orchestra and, between them, the third and fifth, each for only one instrumental group. Die Nachtigall (The Nightingale) follows the “wild blood” of the lover with string sounds as intense as those of Mahler’s Adagietto. Im Zimmer (Indoors) an idyllic fire in the fireplace crackles in the winds and harp, while the cymbal and celesta suggest the gentle passing of time. Night, sleep and dreams are the dominant themes of these carefully arranged – also textually – love songs, whose brilliant contrast in the Sommertagen (Summer Days) leads to a surprisingly austere conclusion in C minor.
Between Bach and Beethoven: Bruckner’s Second Symphony
It is not easy to draw the line between composition and arrangement in Anton Bruckner’s oeuvre – his compositions are often his own arrangements of his works, the result of an intense creative process of hasty notes and excruciatingly long revisions. The Second Symphony, which was written in 1871/1872 and is one of Bruckner’s lesser known works, is actually his fourth contribution to this genre. It was preceded by an unnumbered symphony in F minor, the “Linz” version of the First Symphony in C minor and a symphony in D minor, which as a rejected work was given the rather pointless popular title “Nullte” (No. 0).
In Bruckner’s works, the home key of C minor represents the earthly antithesis of his other favourite key of D minor, which is reserved for the mystical realm. Bruckner first presents the main theme over a mysterious tremolo – what the cellos begin as expansive initial ideas may be less trenchant than in later works, but the aura is unmistakable. That also includes the hymn-like second theme in E flat major, which concludes with a synthesis in unison. No less important than the themes are the animated and versatile accompanying figures, which often have thematic substance themselves. At times, however, they only oscillate in a manner that leaves a great deal of room for seeming aimlessness.
The slow second movement – which was the third movement in the first version – varies an A flat major hymn with a religious tone, passing through various keys and ending with pensive arpeggios in the viola and clarinet that Bruckner had originally intended as a – technically risky – horn passage. The Scherzo, which was shortened for the second version, leads back to the home key of C minor and with the polyphonic breakdown of a simple theme makes an allusion to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that will also influence the following movement.
This borrowing – unusual for Bruckner – is forgotten in the finale, at the latest with a choral interpolation. The softly quoted Kyrie from the F minor Mass is an otherworldly period of repose in this otherwise so stormy movement, which ends with theatrical thunder. At such moments the composer, who attracted international attention as an organ virtuoso at the time he was composing the Second Symphony, seems to approach not Beethoven but another great model. In 1925 the Bruckner specialist Ernst Kurth wrote: “Never before, except in Bach, had the musical soul experienced such a powerful relaxation of energy from its foundation to the flickering boundaries.”
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 October 2018, with works by Lutosławski and Brahms.
The Hamburg-born soprano Mojca Erdmann appears regularly at major opera houses and festivals as well as renowned concert halls. Her wide-ranging repertoire focuses on the interpretation of Mozart roles and contemporary music theatre. Mojca Erdmann received violin lessons as a child and sang in the children’s chorus of the Hamburg State Opera. After secondary school, she studied singing at Cologne University of Music. As a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin from 1997 to 2004, she appeared in works by Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Prokofiev and Britten, among others. Since 2006, she has been a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival. In 2009, she sang the title role in the monodrama Proserpina written for her by Wolfgang Rihm. In 2011, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Zerlina (Don Giovanni), and the following year, she sang the title role of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Mojca Erdmann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2005 in concert performances of Janáček’s opera Jenůfa (conductor: Sir Simon Rattle). Most recently, she sang in Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in March 2009.