22 Jun 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Daniil Trifonov

  • Alexander Scriabin
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in F sharp minor, op. 20 (31 min.)

    Daniil Trifonov piano

  • Alexander Scriabin
    Etude in C sharp minor, op. 42 no. 5 (4 min.)

    Daniil Trifonov piano

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 11 in G minor, op. 103 “The Year 1905” (74 min.)

  • free

    Daniil Trifonov in conversation with Egor Egorkin (17 min.)

“His playing is a perfect example of the unique, indescribable charm of the Slavs, who are the best pianists in the world.” These lines – written in 1897 – were not meant for Daniil Trifonov, the Artist in Residence for the 2018/2019 season, but Alexander Scriabin. Although a temporary injury to his right hand in 1891 nearly put an end to his pianistic career, Scriabin, who was born in 1872, first made a name for himself as a piano virtuoso after completing his studies at the conservatory in his native city of Moscow. As an eccentric par excellence and a clever marketing strategist, he consistently limited himself to interpretations of his own works when he performed.

Scriabin’s only piano concerto, which had its premiere in 1897, follows the traditional three-movement form, and the shimmering chromaticism of the score is firmly anchored in the extended tonality of the late 19th century. Nevertheless, with this work the composer also en passant, as it were, bridged a gap between two far more prominent colleagues: seemingly improvised, elegant arabesques in the solo instrument recall the music of Frédéric Chopin, while the subtle dialogues between the piano and the orchestra woodwinds are obviously echoed in Sergei Rachmaninov’s concertos. Rachmaninov’s pianistic shows of strength are for the most part alien to Scriabin, however. Despite considerable demands on the pianist’s technical skills, the solo instrument never descends into superficial virtuosity. When – as in the graceful second theme of the first movement, for example – it monopolizes the proceedings for a moment, it is with almost disarmingly straightforward octaves in both hands. The second movement consists of richly figured variations on a characteristic theme, until pianistic arabesques finally become part of the theme in the finale of the concerto; its development is characterized by a carefully calculated increase and decrease in musical intensity.

This rarely played work is interpreted by pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was born in 1991 and is not only approximately the same age as Scriabin was when he composed his piano concerto but is also considered one of the best pianists in the world today. The second half of the concert, conducted by Andris Nelsons, features Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, which reflects on the historical events during the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Life in Two Worlds

Music from Russia by Alexander Scriabin und Dmitri Shostakovich

Between virtuoso and composer: Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin, trained at the Moscow Conservatory under Anton Arensky, Sergei Taneyev and Vasily Safonov, was active in two spheres all his life, as a pianist and composer. The surprising thing about Scriabin’s artistic “double life” is the fact that he composed only one solo concerto for “his” instrument, the piano. Scriabin’s Piano Concerto was premiered in Odessa in 1897 with the composer himself as soloist. The work met with little approval, however, neither from the public nor his colleagues. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov criticized the poor quality of the orchestral writing and even suggested to Scriabin’s publisher that he have it revised before publication. Scriabin defended his orchestration in several letters, once with the excuse of “neuralgia”– as a result, he saw “everything in the gloomiest colours” – another time defiant: “To orchestrate a concerto, you don’t have to have written several symphonies as preliminary exercises,” he wrote in May of 1897. Scriabin later increasingly distanced himself from his composition. He performed the three-movement early work reluctantly, and after a time he liked to categorize it as “merely the prelude to the planned Mysterium” (Sigfried Schibli), the immense Gesamtkunstwerk to which he devoted his final creative years. Nevertheless, it would accompany him conspicuously once again: when Scriabin undertook a tour along the Volga with conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1910 to introduce his works to a wider audience, the F sharp minor Concerto was on the programme several times.

Can instrumental music tell a story?

It is a long-disputed question whether instrumental music can be narrative. Are notes able to “say” something? Since the early modern period of music history there have been works which make this claim. The music depicts a situation, brief episodes or even entire dramas – sometimes more, sometimes less clearly – from the battaglia, a piece descriptive of battle, to the symphonic poem. But how concrete is this approach? Can details be depicted successfully using compositional means? Or are feelings expressed instead? How well does the audience understand the story that is “told” in the music (and not in the programme book)? If we look at works by a composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich, it is obvious that at least a certain narrative urge is perceptible in his symphonies. Of his fifteen symphonies, six bear a title that refers to an actual historical event, with or without the support of texts set to music. In his Second, Third, Seventh, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies Shostakovich “tells” stories.

The “whisper of history” from Dmitri Shostakovich’s perspective

Shostakovich’s aesthetic (and political) standpoint is particularly relevant in all these questions about narrativity, precisely because he refers to contemporary historical events in his symphonic works. During the Stalinist era, he was one of the most prominent artists of the Soviet Union. In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was so sharply criticized in a review in the newspaper Pravda (“Muddle Instead of Music”) that it was tantamount to a public condemnation – especially since it was presumed that Stalin himself was the author of the article. The attacks on the composer did not let up even after the Second World War, although along with these persistently threatening voices others were also heard during the 1950s. Particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich received numerous international and – even more important for his immediate situation– national awards and was also active on several politico-cultural committees.

The works from these years tellingly reflect the complicated situation in which Shostakovich found himself. The catastrophe of the Second World War was also a turning point for him that demanded immediate aesthetic consequences. At the same time, Shostakovich increasingly harboured doubts about (distorted) Soviet ideals, without abandoning his fundamental conviction, however, that it was possible to compose music that was accessible to a proletarian audience in the interests of communication and understanding. Consequently, he continued to write Soviet celebratory music (operettas, songs, arrangements of folk songs and songs of the masses, film music and other works). At the same time, he worked on a reformulation of the two musical genres which were most deeply rooted in a “bourgeois” musical tradition: string quartet and symphony. Especially the latter was, on the one hand, suspect under Soviet doctrine because of its Western bourgeois tradition but, on the other, welcome, since it provided a format that could present and celebrate Soviet revolutionary subject matter on a large scale – for the most part, reminiscent of popular songs of the masses and revolutionary songs.

Shostakovich developed precisely these ideas in his Eleventh Symphony. The historical events of the Revolutionary Year 1905 are addressed in large symphonic form, supported by programmatic movement titles and a series of well-known, popular songs written during the time of the uprising and afterwards. The specific event which Shostakovich alludes to in the Symphony is the so-called “Bloody Sunday”. In January 1905 workers in St Petersburg had called for a demonstration to persuade the tsar to provide humane working conditions and popular representation. The military stopped the demonstrators by force as they marched to the Winter Palace. On Russia’s inexorable path from tsarist to Soviet identity, the events of January 1905 played a central role as a place of remembrance, and in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony this is reflected in the programmatic movement titles and the underlying song material (though treated strictly instrumentally) and thus “narrated” musically.

The first movement (Palace Square) begins with a spiritual song of supplication, then introduces two songs (the prisoners’ song “Listen!” and “The Night is Dark”), which describe the people’s fear of the tsar’s power. In the second movement (The Ninth of January) Shostakovich uses two themes which are taken from the repertoire of revolutionary songs and culminate in an onomatopoeically depicted execution scene. Eternal Memory is the title of the third movement, which offers a glimpse of the future and focuses on remembrance with a series of variations on a socialist funeral march. In the finale, Tocsin, several themes from proletarian revolutionary songs and reminiscences of the central second movement are compiled, so that the memory of the events of 1905 and the evocation of this memory in the present are combined here with an exhortation to not give up the struggle for freedom from tyranny. The remarkable thing about Shostakovich’s musical reflection on the history of the year 1905 is the fact that the actual incidents are already “recounted” in the first two movements; the third and fourth movements extend chronologically beyond the time of the historical event and place special emphasis on remembrance of it.

Melanie Unseld

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Andris Nelsons is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (since autumn 2014) and Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig (since February 2018). Born in 1978 into a family of musicians in Riga, he began his career as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera. After completing his conducting studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St Petersburg; besides attending masterclasses with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, Mariss Jansons is his most important mentor. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, from 2006 to 2009 principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, and from 2008 to 2015 he took on the same role with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and at the Bayreuth Festival, where he made his debut as conductor of Lohengrin, in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels, in 2010. Furthermore, he regularly works with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. The 2018/19 season is marks Nelsons’ final season (of three) as Artist in Residence at the Konzerthaus Dortmund, and his first in the same position at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in December 2018 in three concerts including Lux aeterna by Maja Einfelde and Mahler’s Second Symphony.

Daniil Trifonov was born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1991. His parents were both professional musicians. At the age of five, he received his first piano lessons, and he made his first appearance with an orchestra when he was only eight. Later, he studied at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow under Tatiana Zelikman. In 2009, Trifonov continued his studies under Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music where he also attended composition classes. Since winning the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv and the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011 when he was only 20 years of age, Trifonov has been in demand as a concert soloist and for solo recitals throughout the world. Recent activities have included a recital tour throughout the US, Europe and Asia, a seven-concert Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall and the opening concert of the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season. As this season’s Artist in Residence of the Berliner Philharmoniker he made multiple solo and chamber performances; in the last concert of his residency Trifonov will present his own Piano Quintet to the Berlin audience on 23 June. The pianist made his debut with the orchestra in the New Year’s Eve concerts 2016/2017 as soloist in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto directed by Sir Simon Rattle, and last appeared in Foundation concerts in February 2019 with a recital including works by Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev.

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