François-Xavier Roth and Pierre-Laurent Aimard
26 Oct 2019
Symphony No. 59 in A major “Fire Symphony” (21 min.)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3, Sz 119 (31 min.)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard piano
Dance Suite, Sz 77 (18 min.)
Arcana for large Orchestra (revised version from 1960) (21 min.)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard in conversation with Stephan Koncz (9 min.)
François-Xavier Roth in conversation with Stephan Koncz (12 min.)
The motto for this concert programme could be “transformations”. Each work on the programme illuminates the concept in its very own way: Edgard Varèse was inspired to compose his orchestral work Arcana by the teachings of Paracelsus, a great doctor, alchemist and mystic of the 16th century who sought a universal remedy with the ability to heal, transform and renew people. Throughout his life, Varèse was considered a provocateur, one who aimed to transfer the music that had been passed down into a new soundscape. His pieces are noise-like, harsh, aggressive, erratic, and they uniquely reflect the modern lifestyle in the first half of the 20th century. The composer, originally from France, emigrated to the USA in 1915; with Amériques and Arcana he then composed the two monumental orchestral works with which he proved himself one of the most innovative minds of his time.
Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto was also composed in the US, but under completely different circumstances: after his emigration, the Hungarian did not succeed in making a livelihood in America. Public interest in his works remained limited, and only commissions from leading artists, above all Sergei Koussevitzky, provided some income. When the composer conceptualised his Third Piano Concerto for his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, he was critically ill and already at the brink of death. He struck a note in the concerto that audiences had not experienced in his two other piano concertos: ruminative, romantic, full of devotion. Bartók reverts to Baroque compositional techniques like the fugue and counterpoint, combining them with the characteristically Hungarian idiom typical of his music. In the words of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the programme’s soloist, the challenge of the concerto lies in shaping the phrasing so that “it sounds Baroque but also Bartók-like.”
The programme will kick off with Joseph Haydn’s so-called Fire Symphony. The nickname, which was given to the work only later, stems from the assumption that Haydn composed the work as an interlude for a play called the Feuersbrunst (conflagration). With its impulsive, dramatic gesture, the symphony is captivating. Haydn works with short, succinct, opposing motives which he sometimes derives from each other, varies individually, and which give the piece a sweeping rhythmic magnetic “pull effect”. François-Xavier Roth will conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker. When he shapes programmes as conductor, he enjoys looking for the balance between old and new music, and he’s also a recognised specialist in Edgard Varèse’s oeuvre.
Orchestral music by Joseph Haydn, Béla Bartók and Edgard Varèse
Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 59
In the exposition of his Symphony in A major, his 59th contribution to the genre, Joseph Haydn already puts on a sparkling display of ideas: an octave leap is followed by an insistently repeated A in the first violins, imitated by the oboes when they enter and supported by ascending and descending scales in the lower strings. The tempo of the repeated notes briefly doubles from quavers to semiquavers before the cheerily abrupt tone of this extremely simple opening idea is arrested in bar 5 by a cadential progression in long note values, marked piano. The second subject enriches the rhythmic profile with triplets; the development varies the simple motifs, deploying surprising twists and modulations. And where, at the end, one might expect a reaffirmation, forte, of the material that has been heard, Haydn has the movement end quietly, as he already has done the first subject and the exposition. This is music for an attentive audience – or at least for one which has woken up by this point in the proceedings.
The history of the Classical symphony is often treated as though the starting point for the development of the genre was an existing model, whereas in actual fact this model had first to be created. And with Haydn in particular, one often finds, to one’s surprise, that practices generally assumed not to have been employed until much later are already present in his work. For example, deploying themes beyond the confines of an individual movement is only considered standard practice in Beethoven and his successors. Haydn already uses this technique almost in passing in his A major Symphony when he reprises the theme of the Andante in the third movement, albeit altered from minor to major. The contrast between the slow movement and the Minuet is thus changed from being primarily thematic to being shaped by the major-minor contrast and the tempo. Haydn’s effective use of orchestral colour is also evident in this early symphony when the wind instruments, which are silent for much of the Andante, unexpectedly colour the second subject, marked “cantabile”, in the new key. By contrast, the wind instruments open the Finale on their own with fifths in the horns and sequences of thirds in the oboes, before the strings enter.
Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto
When Haydn died in 1809, Vienna had just been taken by French troops. Napoleon stationed a guard of honour outside the home of the composer, who was also admired in France. Haydn, the oldest of the major Viennese Classical composers, was just spared having to witness the fulfilment of the French general’s legendary saying that, henceforth, “Politics is fate”. This was already less true for Beethoven, who had been Haydn’s pupil for a short time, and did not remotely apply to the generation born around 1880 to which Béla Bartók belonged. The Hungarian composer displayed exceptional integrity and uncompromisingness in confronting the man-made politics he was fated to encounter. After an early patriotic phase, he reacted increasingly vehemently against the nationalism sweeping through Europe. He openly described National Socialism as a “system of robbery and murder”. When, in 1938, none of his scores were included in the “Degenerate Music” exhibition in Düsseldorf, he sent a letter of protest to the German Foreign Office. And in his will, he stipulated that “as long as there is in Hungary any square or street named for these two, then neither square nor street nor public building in Hungary is to be named for me”, “these two” being Hitler and Mussolini, whose names Bartók avoided spelling out. Even though he was not directly forced to do so, Bartók had been considering emigrating to America since the late 1930s. In March 1940 he went on a US concert tour, not least in order explore professional opportunities in situ. A few months later, he embarked for New York with his second wife, Ditta Pásztory.
Life as a migrant was overshadowed by financial difficulties, problems adapting to the noise of the city, homesickness and a serious illness that was only diagnosed as leukaemia after an extended period, but it nevertheless yielded a rich compositional harvest. Bartók was not, however, destined to complete his final Piano Concerto, whose premiere was already scheduled. His friend Tibor Serly had to complete the last 17 bars based on available sketches. Unlike the Concerto for Orchestra, which had been premiered to great acclaim, this was not a commission; it had been intended as a birthday present for Bartók’s wife and was written during a stay at the health resort of Saranac Lake in New York State, where the couple sought recovery from the composer’s illness and the hostile urbanism of the city. Their surroundings probably contributed to the bright sound of the piece, in which vitality and melancholy are touchingly combined.
Bartók’s Dance Suite
1923 marked not only Bartók’s marriage to his former piano student in Budapest, but the genesis of his Dance Suite. This was commissioned for a national celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the union of the towns of Buda, Pest and Óbuda to form Budapest. However, alongside Hungarian folk music, Bartók includes Romanian, Slovak and Arabic folk music in the six-movement work – and moreover, he repeatedly combines them. Bartók did not usually quote the tunes he collected during his field research directly, but instead used their harmonic and rhythmic characteristics as a springboard for his own writing. Despite its accessibility and effectiveness, even this work does not lack constructive features. For example, in the Finale Bartók makes the various themes from the previous movements pass in review.
Arcana by Edgard Varèse
Among the few guests at Bartók’s funeral in New York was the French-born composer Edgard Varèse, who had become a naturalized US citizen. When he himself died in the same city 20 years later, Pierre Boulez wrote an obituary that ended with the parting words “Adieu, Varèse, Adieu! Your time is over, and it is beginning.” His prophecy was to be fulfilled; the composer had long been established as a central and independent figure in modern music.
Varèse’s composition Arcana takes us up into space. As an epigraph it carries a quotation from Paracelsus in which the 16th-century Swiss doctor and philosopher speaks of seven stars, the last of which bears the name “Imagination” and begets a new heaven with new stars. This is a figuration of infinity – as well as creating the other stars, the star of the imagination replicates itself, so that the process can start all over again. Paracelsus’ alchemical research also seem to have suggested the work’s title: he understands an arcanum as a mysterious substance. For Varèse, this could only be a sound. Arcana begins with a simple motif in the lower register of the orchestra comprising the intervals of a tone and a semitone. It is soon rhythmically varied in bars of 7/4 and 5/4. Soon after, in maximum contrast and as a further defining element of the composition a first fanfare motif is heard. What exactly these signals of proclamation are intended to tell us remains uncertain – Arcana is all about imagination.And as Varèse declared in an aphorism, “Imagination … gives shape to our dreams”.
François-Xavier Roth, born in Paris in 1971, initially graduated from the conservatory there as a flautist; he later studied conducting with János Fürst. His repertoire ranges from the music of the 17th century to contemporary works and includes all genres: symphonic, opera and chamber music. Since 2015 Roth has been Generalmusikdirektor of the city of Cologne, leading both the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Opera of Cologne. In addition he is principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and associate artist of the Paris Philharmonie. Roth has also made guest appearances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With a reputation for inventive programming, he has premiered works by Philippe Manoury, Yann Robin and Georg Friedrich Haas and realised projects with the composers Wolfgang Rihm, Jörg Widmann and Helmut Lachenmann. In 2003, Roth founded the orchestra Les Siècles which performs on modern and period instruments, often within the same concert. His work in the opera house includes Offenbachʼs Les Brigands and Delibesʼ Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, and Wagnerʼs Tannhäuser and Zimmermann’s Soldaten in Cologne. Youth development and music education form another important element of François-Xavier Rothʼs work: Together with Les Siècles he founded the orchestral academy Jeune Orchestre Européen Hector Berlioz as well as Presto!, a TV series for France 2, attracting weekly audiences of over three million. He has also been conductor of the LSO Panufnik Young Composers Scheme since 2005. Roth made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2015 and last conducted them in September 2018 with works by Debussy, Stravinsky, Ligeti and Zimmermann. For his achievements as musician, conductor and teacher François-Xavier Roth was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2017.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, born in Lyon in 1957, studied at the Conservatoire de Paris under Yvonne Loriod and Maria Curcio. His international career as a pianist was launched when he won the International Messiaen Competition in 1973. In addition to Olivier Messiaen, who he met during his training, he has also been closely associated with Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez. He still maintains a close dialogue with the composers whose works he plays and often performs, such as with György Kurtág and George Benjamin. Aimard, who today is considered one of the foremost and internationally best-known musicians of our time, was a solo pianist with the Ensemble intercontemporain for 18 years. During this time, having participated in many world premieres, he established his reputation as one of the most outstanding performers of contemporary music. Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs worldwide with renowned orchestras and conductors, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Eötvös, Simon Rattle and Vladimir Jurowski. He is also a regular guest at all major festivals and was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 2009 to 2016. The artist is known for his exceptional solo recitals and is equally in demand as a chamber musician. He was Artist in residence at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, the Wiener Konzerthaus, the Berlin Philharmonie (2006/2007), Lucerne Festival, the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Tanglewood Festival and at London’s Southbank Centre. Aimard has been widely praised for his unusual interpretations of well-known repertoire and is also a teacher at the universities in Paris and Cologne. In 2017, he was awarded the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Music Prize “for a life in the service of music”. Since his debut as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2000 (conductor: Bernard Haitink), Pierre-Laurent Aimard has performed regularly in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, most recently in March 2019. At the Philharmonie Berlin, his appearances in the recent past have particularly been in the context of Musikfest Berlin, such as in August and September of this year.