Zubin Mehta conducts Strauss and Beethoven

02 Nov 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

Amihai Grosz, Ludwig Quandt

  • Richard Strauss
    Don Quixote, Symphonic Poem, op. 35 (49 min.)

    Amihai Grosz viola, Ludwig Quandt cello

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 Eroica (58 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Zubin Mehta in conversation with Eva-Maria Tomasi (11 min.)

“We all have something of Don Quixote within us”, Ludwig Quandt, 1st Principal Cellist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, has said in an interview conducted for the Digital Concert Hall. And what makes Quixote so fascinating for him? “The way he perceives the world. There’s a great discrepancy between his imagination and reality.” A flock of sheep or windmills are an enemy army that, in Quixote’s eyes, needs to be combatted; an ugly peasant girl ignites his heart because he considers her to be Dulcinea, the most beautiful woman in the world. At his side there’s his faithful, pragmatic squire Sancho Panza, who fatalistically endures all his lord’s follies. Miguel de Cervantes’s tale of the knight from la Mancha, published in 1605, is among the most important novels in European cultural history. With it, the Spanish writer created a parody of the chivalric novels so popular at the time. Cervantes’s parodistic approach and the situations that Quixote experiences in his delirium inspired Richard Strauss to his tone poem Don Quixote, in which he satirizes the musical form of the variation in a humorous, ironic fashion. At the same time, he succeeded in creating a brilliant characterisation of Don Quixote in terms of music psychology, depicted instrumentally by a solo cello, and his squire Sancho Panza, to which the solo viola lends its voice. On this concert programme Amihai Grosz, the orchestra’s 1st Principal Violist since 2010, is companion to Ludwig Quandt, who will bring the eccentric knight to life musically on the cello.

The conductor for this programme has been an artistic friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker for many years: Zubin Mehta, whom the orchestra appointed an honorary member last season, and who enjoys programming works by Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven together. It’s all the more surprising that he has never yet conducted the Philharmonic in one of the best-known symphonies by the Viennese master, his Eroica. With this work, the composer broke with the norms of the time for the genre – not only thematically, formally and harmonically, but also in view of the fact that it establishes Beethoven’s monumental style. At the same time, the symphony, created under the impression of France’s revolutionary music and which refers thematically to Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, conveys a political message: it grapples with the ideal of a new humanity, engendered by the societal upheavals brought about by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Two Different Kinds of Heroes

Music by Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven

Melancholy Hidalgo: Richard Straussʼs Don Quixote

It just sounds better in Spanish: Don Quixote de la Mancha is embellished by his creator Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra as the ingenioso hidalgo, which is only imperfectly translated as “ingenious gentleman”. How much thirst for adventure, horse sweat and saddle leather cling to the proud title “hidalgo”, even though it refers to nothing more than the lower Spanish nobility! And ingenioso – isn’t there also a touch of “genius” in this epithet? Thus, in the title Don Quixote already becomes far more than a comical, gaunt old man riding across the Iberian plain with his amusing companion Sancho Panza, like a prefiguration of the popular comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy.

No, this Don Quixote is not merely a “knight of the sorrowful countenance”. According to the idealistic philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, he is elevated to the model of a knightly character from another time. An enthusiast who welcomes confrontation with the far from imaginary reality of the windmills – a dreamer whose imaginative inner world is so much richer than prosaic reality. That is the modern myth of this tragicomic gentleman who no longer wants to belong to a cynical, efficient society. And whose ideals of chivalry and erudition are ruthlessly rejected by this same society.

In this respect, Don Quixote is a key figure on the threshold of the technocratic age, and perhaps Richard Strauss sensed this when he chose him as the hero of a symphonic poem in 1897. In ten variations Strauss guides us through the adventures of the nobleman and his squire. But he does not vary the main themes, which refer to the characters and are clearly recognizable even during the greatest confusion, but rather the musical surroundings. The actual episodes are preceded by an introduction presenting the aging nobleman and bibliophile. Completely absorbed in the whimsical magnetism of chivalric romances, he decides to save the world. At this point we have already heard his themes: the first gallant and resolute, the second graceful, the third eccentric and rambling. The vision of the distant beloved Dulcinea appears in a delicate oboe melody. The self-proclaimed champion of virtue imagines glorious victories with a fanfare.

A new identity emerges from Don Quixote’s confused state of mind: a warrior full of bizarre grandeur, whose role is taken by the solo cello from now on. At his side, earthy, sarcastic and garrulous, the cunning Sancho Panza, first depicted by the bass clarinet and tuba, then the solo viola. The first fierce attack is against giants, who turn out to be windmills (first variation). Even more jarring is the attack on a flock of sheep in the second variation, bleating with incredible instrumental audacity: noises, clusters, flitting flutter-tonguing in the winds, interspersed with the simple melodies of the shepherds in the reed instruments. The vision of Dulcinea shines in the third variation like an ecstatic, sonorous F sharp major promise of happiness. Quixote attacks a procession of penitents that passes by singing a chorale (fourth variation). In variation five he again dreams of his noble lady with a love song in the solo cello. As a glaring contrast, Sancho Panza introduces an awkward country girl to him as Dulcinea in the sixth variation. The seventh variation depicts Quixote’s ride through the air; his horse remains on the ground, however, as the low pedal point in the basses reveals. After a dangerous boat trip, gentleman and squire fall into the water (eighth variation); with trills they shake off the drops that fall to the ground with splashing pizzicatos. Quixote again charges a passing pair of monks, whose strange song of prayer is played by two bassoons (ninth variation). In the tenth variation the knight fights his final duel, which he loses. He returns home and wants to end his life as a shepherd: the reed theme from the battle with the herd of sheep is heard again. An elegiac epilogue concludes the odyssey of the weary hero. Motifs from the introduction return in the enraptured melodic beauty of this cello cantilena. The close is poignant: after his adventures, the melancholy hidalgo slips away in silence. Strauss foregoes all ironic, explanatory commentary and gives his protagonist a death with eulogistic, lyrical transcendence.

Explosive hero: Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica”

The figure of Don Quixote has always been good for caricature and contemporary satire: in 1808 Napoleon turned up as the foolish “knight of the evil countenance” in a Spanish pamphlet against the French occupation. By this time Ludwig van Beethoven had long since withdrawn his dedication of the “Eroica” to the Corsican. His original plan was to dedicate the “heroic” Symphony, which he completed in mid-1803, to Bonaparte. Beethoven was a passionate, if naïve supporter of the First Consul of the French Republic, who seemed to promise democracy and human rights throughout Europe. Then, in summer 1804, the news reached Vienna that Napoleon wanted to be crowned Emperor. According to the story documented by Ferdinand Ries in his Biographical Notes on Ludwig van Beethoven from 1838, Beethoven supposedly tore up the title page with the dedication intitolata entitled Bonaparte and exclaimed “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!”

After several performances in 1804 and 1805, the Third Symphony was finally published in October 1806, now with the more neutral title Sinfonia eroica and the addendum in Italian “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”. In the meantime, Napoleon had proved to be anything but a democratic beacon of hope, and Beethoven turned into a Francophobe. Whom did he mean by the “great man”? Was it the anti-Napoleonic torchbearer, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed in battle shortly before the “Eroica” was published?

Two forte chords like lashes of a whip: the hero enters the stage strong and self-confident, an equal among equals. Only then is the theme heard in the cellos, a triadic motif, seemingly simple and familiar, but suddenly twisting and turning chromatically. We don’t know exactly where this theme is going. Only one thing is certain: it is not seeking the old, well-worn paths. The proceedings continue, with rebellious syncopations against the bar accent. It is difficult to imagine nowadays how shocking the opening of the “Eroica” must have seemed to Beethoven’s contemporaries. The first critics missed “light, clarity and simplicity” and objected to the “shrillness and bizarrerie”, the “corrupting” wilfulness. The programmatic idea was also bold: Beethoven envisioned two “heroes”. In addition to the Napoleonic idea, the symphony also contains an allusion to the mythological figure of Prometheus, who gave fire to humanity and thus, symbolically, the Enlightenment: Beethoven in fact quotes from his ballet The Creatures of Prometheusin the Finale. In any case, the death of the hero is recounted in the splendid second movement, a funeral march modelled on the French revolutionary music of Cherubini and Gossec, which celebrated the public commemoration of the dead as musical events. Beethoven transcends empty gestures with this emotional intensity, however: from the sighing figures of the march theme to the aggressive entrances and agitated build-ups to the gradual fading away of the theme, this movement covers an incredible dramatic spectrum.

Kerstin Schüssler-Bach

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Zubin Mehta ends his tenure with the IPO 50 years after his debut in October 2019. From 1985 until 2017 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich.
Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. In February 2019, he was named honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in gratitude for his long association with the orchestra. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in April this year in Verdi’s Otello. With the Israel Philharmonic he made a guest appearance at the Berlin Festival in September 2019.
Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Amihai Grosz, born in Jerusalem in 1979, started playing violin at the age of five and switched to the viola when he was eleven. He initially studied with David Chen at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, later continuing with Tabea Zimmermann in Berlin at the Academy of Music “Hanns Eisler” and with Haim Taub at the Keshet Eilon Music Center in Israel. In September 2010 he was appointed first principal viola of the Berliner Philharmoniker. As a concert soloist he has already appeared with various renowned orchestras like the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Berlin Staatskapelle. As a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker he last played the solo part in Walton’s Viola Concerto in October 2017. Amihai Grosz is a founding member of the Jerusalem String Quartet and also plays in the Philharmonic Octet. In addition, the violist has performed as a chamber musician with partners including Yefim Bronfman, Emmanuel Pahud, Mitsuko Uchida, Janine Jansen and Julian Rachlin, at prestigious venues and festivals in Israel and Europe. Amihai Grosz plays an instrument made by Gasparo da Salò from the 16th century which is on loan to him for life from a private collection.

Ludwig Quandt was born into a family of professional musicians and began to play the cello when he was six. He later studied with Arthur Troester at the Lübeck Academy of Music where he earned his diploma in 1985 and passed his graduate exam with distinction in 1987. He attended masterclasses with Boris Pergamenschikow, Zara Nelsova, Maurice Gendron, Wolfgang Boettcher and Siegfried Palm. Among the competitions and prizes that he has won are the ARD Competition in Munich and the Premio Stradivari in Cremona. He twice took part in the Federal Republic’s Concerts for Young Artists. He joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and has been the orchestra’s principal cellist since 1993. Alongside his orchestral work he also performs all over the world as a soloist and a chamber recitalist, not least as a member of various Philharmonic ensembles, including the 12 Cellists, the Philharmonic Stradivari Soloists and the Berlin Philharmonic Capriccio. In October 2013 he performed the Canto di speranza by Bernd Alois Zimmermann with the Berliner Philharmoniker in three concerts conducted by Karl-Heinz Steffens. He plays a 1675 cello by Francesco Ruggieri of Cremona, which has been on loan to him from Deutsche Bank since 1993.

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