Sir George Benjamin conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker

09 Sep 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir George Benjamin

ChorWerk Ruhr, Cédric Tiberghien

  • Pierre Boulez
    Cummings ist der Dichter for 16 solo voices or mixed choir and instruments (14 min.)

    ChorWerk Ruhr

  • Maurice Ravel
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand (29 min.)

    Cédric Tiberghien piano

  • György Ligeti
    Clocks and Clouds for 12-part female choir and orchestra (17 min.)

    ChorWerk Ruhr

  • Sir George Benjamin
    Palimpsests for orchestra (23 min.)

  • free

    Sir George Benjamin in conversation with Jonathan Kelly (18 min.)

Cédric Tiberghien says he has been “absolutely obsessed” with playing the piano since his earliest childhood. As a 14-year-old, he began studying at the Conservatoire de Paris where he was awarded the Premier Prix after just three years. His successes in international competitions culminated at the Concours Long-Thibaud-Crespin in Paris in 1998, when Cédric Tiberghien won the first prize – and no less than five special prizes! A spectacular international career followed that has taken the French pianist to the world’s major concert halls. For his solo debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Cédric Tiberghien has chosen Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand, a technically immensely demanding work which balances dramatic outbursts, sonorous lyricism and rousing jazz effects.

The concert, conducted by George Benjamin, opens with Pierre Boulez’s composition Cummings ist der Dichter, whose title is based on a misunderstanding: When Boulez was asked by a concert promoter what the piece was called, he wrote in not very good German, “ʻI do not have a title yet, and I can only tell you that Cummings is the poet I have chosen.ʼ The reply from a secretary, who had certainly misunderstood my letter, was: Quant à votre œuvre “Cummings est le Poète”, en allemand: “Cummings ist der Dichter”. I thought that there could not be a better title than the one that came about by chance.” The vocal part is taken by the ensemble ChorWerk Ruhr, one of Germany’s foremost chamber choirs.

The programme continues with György Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, a no less complex composition, which uses diatonic melody and harmony coloured by microintervals: “The periodic, polyrhythmic sound-complexes melt into diffuse, liquid states and vice versa. The abstract “text” of the piece is notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet and serves the rhythmic articulation and the transformation of timbre” (Ligeti). The concert closes with George Benjamin’s orchestral work Palimpsests, the first part of which was written for Boulez’s 75th birthday. The title refers to an ancient or medieval manuscript on which the original text has been scraped off and then overwritten – consequently, the various levels of writing remain recognisable and provide mysterious insights into the past. Benjamin’s two-part work also plays “with these the different layers superimposed over each other,” as the composer explained.

Magic Realms on Restricted Terrain

George Benjamin conducts masterworks from the period between 1930 and 2002

What do composers write when they no longer want to rely on existing traditions but find no other established genres? How does the music take on a binding character if it does not call listeners to prayer, to the dance or to the festivities of a public institution, but instead derives its justification for existence from itself alone? Should it be subject to strict compositional techniques or be left entirely to artistic licence? Friedrich Schlegel summed up the problem shortly before 1800: “It is equally fatal for the spirit to have a system and to have none. So the spirit must indeed resolve to combine the two.” All four composers heard during this concert had or have to struggle with this paradox, but they also used it as a stimulus for their creativity.

Cummings ist der Dichter by Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez experimented with extremely formalized techniques, which he described as “automatic”, during the early 1950s. It quickly became clear to him, however, “how essential it is for the music to provide genuine communication”. Thus, he began to systematically take liberties. Boulez was convinced that “the work is only valid when the technical aspect is transformed into an aesthetic goal, into ‘expression’”. Technical and aesthetic intentions must interact with each other like two mirrors.

The aesthetic goal of Cummings ist der Dichter (Cummings is the Poet), premiered in 1970 and published again in an expanded version in 1986, is clearly revealed; the score was even regarded with suspicion by new music purists at first because of its sensory appeal. John Cage had already drawn his young colleague’s attention to the poetry of Edward Estlin Cummings (1894–1962) in New York in 1952. The French composer did not feel comfortable with the author’s native language yet, however; he was not confident enough to tackle Cummings’s lines until he had worked as a conductor in England and America for several years.

The untitled poem from the collection No Thanks (1935) suggests a poetic triad of bird calls, spatial expanse and liberated soaring of the soul using relatively simple vocabulary. The ingenious graphical layout of the text transforms the poetic material into components of a kind of sculpture. Perception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase. Boulez’s setting captures these structural parameters. Although it moves forward with agility, its gestures seem discontinuous and spontaneous. The vocal techniques range from melismatic singing to pure declamation. Onomatopoeic elements play a role, along with virtuosic embellishments and the superimposition of static and extremely animated strands of the register groupings. The strange German title was the result of a misunderstanding during the composer’s telephone call with the German presenters of the premiere. Boulez immediately thought there could not be a better title than the one that came about by chance.

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Restriction of resources and simultaneous broadening of the expressive spectrum: this antagonism also charges Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Handwith tension. Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was wounded at the beginning of World War I and his right arm had to be amputated. Nevertheless, he continued his career as a pianist. Composers such as Britten, Hindemith and Prokofiev wrote concertos for him. Maurice Ravel had previously shown little interest in the genre of the solo concerto when he received Wittgenstein’s commission. “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands,” the composer explained. “A special feature is that after a first part in this traditional style, a sudden change occurs and the jazz music begins. Only later does it become evident that this jazz music is really built on the same theme as the opening part.” Gradually Wittgenstein began to recognize the importance of the concerto. Well-known as an extremely forceful pianist, he felt entitled to make numerous changes to the solo part, which resulted in a hefty dispute with Ravel. “Performers must not be slaves,” Wittgenstein retorted angrily. The composer disagreed: “Performers are slaves!”

Clocks and Clouds by György Ligeti

In Boulez’s Cummings ist der Dichter the author’s words are so well incorporated into the composition that they appear both as “focus” and “abstraction”, as Ivanka Stoianova observes: they are transformed into sound and gesture, while their meaning is only associatively comprehensible. György Ligeti goes a step further in Clocks and Clouds. Twelve female voices sing “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function”, according to the notes in the score. Ligeti’s compositional approach is aimed at gradual transitions; he looks for smooth, continuous connections between colours, registers and movement patterns.

Ligeti experimented with the hypnotic effect of a sound continuum developing in a gaseous form for the first time in 1961, with Atmosphères for large orchestra. In Clocks and Clouds he concentrates on crossfades between two contrasting states. Karl Popper had published a lecture in 1972 in which he juxtaposed two physical models: on the one side the “clocks”, determinable phenomena whose behaviour can be predicted using the laws of classical Newtonian physics; on the other side the “clouds” – complex, multidimensional systems with the blurriness observed in quantum physics and events which cannot be precisely predicted in detail. For Ligeti the particular appeal of these ideas was that “clocks”, observed on a larger scale, did not tick nearly as reliably as long supposed, while “clouds” are much more precisely quantifiable with an equal amount of mathematical effort. Such ambivalences become evident musically in the imperceptible alternation of periodically repeated events and rhythmically free, flexible movements. The fascinating allure of the music is provided by the gradual increase in range, opening in a wedge shape with the small interval of a second at the beginning and expanding to a majestic “wide-screen sound” à la John Adams.

George Benjamin’s Palimpsests

George Benjamin’s Palimpsests – dedicated to Boulez, who also conducted the world premiere – offers an extremely instructive contrast. “I wanted to write a piece that is crystal-clear, imploring, antiromantic and yet passionate,” the composer declared. “The texture is dominated by a large group of woodwinds and brass; the string ensemble is very reduced. Every single layer should be audible, even when I superimpose ten layers over it.”

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been erased by scraping or washing and written on again. The concept of the palimpsest has played a role in cultural theory since the end of the last century as a metaphor for the writing process and the superimposition of layers of cultural development. Benjamin first limits his approach to its purely structural function: he uses it as an analogy for a polyphony on extremely different musical levels. The precision of the musical language is obvious; the astonishing clarity of each individual gesture is not without historical antecedent, however. Although Benjamin does not quote anywhere, although he does not indulge in allusions, every phrase of the score is associatively charged.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Sir George Benjamin, born in 1960, studied composition and piano with Peter Gellhorn when he was only 14, and two years later he continued his training under Olivier Messiaen in Paris. He then studied at King’s College Cambridge under Alexander Goehr. With his 1980 Ringed by the Flat Horizon, he was the youngest composer whose music was ever premiered at the BBC Proms. Two years later, the London Sinfonietta premiered At First Light under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. In 2002, the London Symphony Orchestra hosted a portrait concert series dedicated to Benjamin at the Barbican Centre. A retrospective of its work was presented at the Southbank Centre in 2012, and again at the Barbican Centre in 2016. This season, George Benjamin is Composer in Residence of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. His first music drama Into the Little Hill to a libretto by Martin Crimp was premiered at the Festival d’Automne in Paris in 2006. The second joint opera project of Benjamin and Crimp, Written on Skin, was staged at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2012, has won numerous international awards and has been included in the programme of over 20 opera houses worldwide. Benjamin will present the work in the role of conductor on 12 November 2018 in a concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the Chamber Music Hall as part of his Berlin residency. In the capacity of conductor, George Benjamin regularly appears with the most renowned orchestras. His repertoire ranges from music by Mozart to Abrahamsen and includes premieres of new works by Wolfgang Rihm, Unsuk Chin, Gérard Grisey and György Ligeti. He is, among others, an “Honorary Fellow” of Kingʼs College Cambridge, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music and “Fellow” of King’s College in London, which appointed him Henry Purcell Professor of Composition in 2001. He received a knighthood in 2017. George Benjamin made his debut as conductor of a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in May 2001 with the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. At the beginning of May 2006, he conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in three concerts in which, in addition to his orchestral work Ringed by the Flat Horizon, he performed works by Ravel, Messiaen and Rihm.

French-born Cédric Tiberghien studied under Frédéric Aguessy and Gérard Frémy at the Conservatoire de Paris, where he was awarded the Premier Prix when he was just 17 years old. The pianist also won competitions in Bremen, Dublin, Tel Aviv, Geneva and Milan; at the Concours Long-Thibaud-Crespin in Paris in 1998, he not only won the first prize, but also received five special prizes. Since then, Cédric Tiberghien has been a much sought-after performer on all five continents and at such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Albert Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican Centre in London, the Salle Pleyel, the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées and the Philharmonie in Paris, at the Vienna Konzerthaus as well as in Salzburg, Sydney, Tokyo and Seoul. As a concert soloist, Cédric Tiberghien receives invitations to perform with top international orchestras such as the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the Czech Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the conductors he regularly works with are Karina Canellakis, Myung-Whun Chung, Stéphane Denève, Christoph Eschenbach, Edward Gardner, François-Xavier Roth and Simone Young. His partners in the field of chamber music include the violinist Alina Ibragimova, with whom the pianist appeared in the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin at the beginning of 2018, the violist Antoine Tamestit and the baritone Stéphane Degout. Cédric Tiberghien appeared in a Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concert for the first time at the end of March 2012 as the accompanist to soprano Sophie Karthäuser; he now he makes his debut as a soloist with the orchestra.

Chorwerk Ruhr, founded in 1999 by the Kultur Ruhr GmbH, the Kommunalverband Ruhrgebiet, the City of Essen and the NRW State Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Urban Development, Culture and Sport, is one of Germany’s leading chamber choirs today, and which has been under the artistic direction of the award-winning conductor Florian Helgath since 2011. The extraordinary quality of the ensemble is also evidenced by numerous world premieres of works by major contemporary composers, which the choir realises in close cooperation with its partners. Since it was founded, the choir has appeared performing a wide repertoire which has been constantly enriched by the awarding of composition commissions. It has performed with renowned orchestras such as the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Concerto Köln, as well as the Ensemble Modern, l’arte del mondo and Ensemble Resonanz. In these appearances, Chorwerk Ruhr performed under the baton of conductors such as Frieder Bernius, Sylvain Cambreling, Reinhard Goebel, Susanna Mälkki, Kent Nagano, Peter Neumann, Peter Rundel, Marcus Stenz, Bruno Weil and Hans Zender. Extensive recordings with Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Deutschlandfunk as well as participation in national and international music festivals reflect the success of the ensemble, which has a special connection with the annual Ruhrtriennale and is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. Chorwerk Ruhr now appears in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

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