Daniel Harding, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Gerhaher

21 Dec 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

Frank Peter Zimmermann, Christian Gerhaher

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 61 (43 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann violin

  • Gustav Mahler
    Blumine Symphonic movement (6 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Selected Songs (46 min.)

    Christian Gerhaher baritone

  • free

    Interview
    Frank Peter Zimmermann in conversation with Tobias Möller (13 min.)

On the occasion of a Berlin performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s violin concerto – a work launched almost half a century earlier in Vienna – with Joseph Joachim as the soloist, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musikcontended in 1853 that the Berlin audience “quibbles and quips about everything and hence are called the most blasé in the world”. Well, times have changed: these days, local concertgoers are probably – thanks not least to the Berliner Philharmoniker – among the most spoiled in the world musically.

Frank Peter Zimmermann, the musician taking on the solo part in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at these three Philharmonic concerts, is well-known around the world for meeting the most demanding of expectations. Since his Philharmonic debut in 1985, the violinist, who is originally from Duisburg, has bestowed upon the Berlin audience a series of memorable Philharmonic concert experiences, including the premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s violin concerto en sourdine in 2003 and the German premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Violin Concerto in 2016.

In playing Beethoven’s only contribution to the violin concerto genre, Zimmermann is interpreting a work here initially identified by violinists as unplayable, but later classified by musicologists as the ideal instance of a solo concerto. In fact, the composition makes the highest of technical demands on its soloist, and at the same time impresses with its symphonic structures, particularly in the first movement. Bringing out the latter is the task of Daniel Harding, who, after acting as assistant to Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle, quickly ascended to the first tier of the younger generation of conductors, and has been artistically associated with the Berlin Philharmonic since 1996.

The second part of the programme consists of selected songs from Gustav Mahler’s cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn as well as a reunion with an artistic friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker for many years: Christian Gerhaher, who sets standards as concert, opera and Lied singer. After his Philharmonic debut in the 2003/04 season, one has been able to hear the baritone in numerous performances: these include Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Robert Schumann’s FaustScenes and secular oratorio Paradise and the Peri, and Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem – and, of course, time and again as a Lied singer. Gerhaher’s appointment as Artist in Residence in the 2013/14 season marked a high point in his collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Endangered Idylls

Beethoven, Mahler and the Quest for Simplicity

“My time will come”, wrote Gustav Mahler in a letter on 31 January 1902. Those words manifest an unshakeable faith in the future of his works – a conviction Mahler shared with Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Violin Concerto received the following review in a Viennese paper in 1807: “The connoisseurs’ verdict is unanimous: while conceding the piece’s many beauties, it must also be acknowledged that the continuity is often completely disrupted and that the endless repetitions of a few commonplace passages could easily grow tedious.” Even though Beethoven undertook revisions to his Opus 61 after the premiere, he did not live to experience its success: the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim scored a triumph with the concerto in 1844 at a London concert conducted by Mendelssohn, and in further performances during the 1850s he became, de facto, the style-setting Beethoven interpreter.

Where your gaze leads you: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Like the contemporaneous G major Piano Concerto, this work’s difficulty lies in its simplicity. Following on from Mozart’s late contributions to the genre, Beethoven creates lyrical music of great intimacy and defines the virtuoso concerto as a concertante symphony in which the soloist is embedded as primus inter pares, a first among equals. Largely eschewing dramatic effects, the composition almost seems obsessed with the single note D with which it begins, sounded four times by the unaccompanied timpani. This unconventional opening could easily be interpreted as the introduction to a march in which Beethoven was following French models for the solo concerto. On the other hand, this D is introduced so serenely and made the basis of such a sunny melody that military associations hardly suggest themselves at first. But when the underlying pulse of the long first movement is vehemently reinforced, when the consistent rhythm portentously appears in the distant brass at the end of the development, when everything is diverted to a pallid G minor, then the idyll seems threatened from without, corresponding to circumstances prevailing in the Napoleonic era.

Before the violin settles down into the playful final rondo, which comes nearest to meeting expectations of virtuosic feats, Beethoven grants the soloist a remote vista that in the first movement could at best have been perceived as a scenic backdrop – far removed from the tutti strings’ supporting pizzicati, “the most overwhelming expression of vastness, of seeing into the distance”, in the judgement of Theodor W. Adorno. The gaze of those who can see far beyond their own time.

Viennese Classics

Seven decades in Vienna separate the death of Beethoven and the beginning of Mahler’s tenure as court opera director. This timespan brought such drastic changes that one might say that Mahler’s Vienna had more in common with today’s Austrian capital than with the adopted home of his great forerunner. Nevertheless, for a conductor at the end of the 19th century, Beethoven was the measure of all things: in the opera house with Fidelio, in the concert hall with the symphonies, which Mahler performed in his controversial retouched scoring. Obviously, Mahler the symphonist also referenced Beethoven and what he called his “internal programmes”. Although the two composers had nothing in common with respect to creative development, it can be fairly stated that Mahler, like Beethoven, composed his first symphony out of years of experience, even if it turned into a work in progress. Five years passed between the first preliminary sketches and the 1889 premiere in Budapest of what he described as a “symphonic poem in two parts”. Not until Mahler brought the work to the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1896 was it called a “symphony”. A crucial step in reaching that point was the elimination of the second movement which Mahler undertook before the Berlin performance.

Where the splendid trumpets resound: Mahler’s Blumine movement

Blumine, the discarded piece with its fantasy title, was not rediscovered until much later. The Berliner Philharmoniker played it only once before these concerts, also perhaps because the Andante movement, playing for barely longer than five minutes, is generally considered lightweight, and its deletion by Mahler was motivated by, among other factors, its “manifold reminiscences of salon music” – the contention of musicologist Constantin Floros in his preface to a new edition of the symphony. This judgment may be shared by those who expect monumental inspirations from Mahler. Those, on the other hand, who have in mind some of his intermezzi – such as “Urlicht” from the Second Symphony, “Es sungen drei Engel” from the Third or the Adagietto from the Fifth – will be able to appreciate in this movement the art of the fulfilled musical moment. When the trumpet idyll’s blithe C major turns to A minor and the woodwind articulate restrained grief, a passage from the first song of Das Lied von der Erde is foreshadowed almost literally: it is the introduction to the third stanza, “Das Firmament blaut ewig ...” Because Mahler in Blumine continues the theme on just double bass and oboe in parallel, without middle-register instruments, and takes the movement to its final chord with a wistful grace note – reminiscences or not – he manages to steer well clear of salon music. All the same, his reason for removing this piece from his symphonic first-born could also have chiefly been the difficulty of integrating Blumine into the work as a whole. The movement derives from incidental music Mahler composed in 1884 in Kassel for J. V. von Scheffel’s popular narrative poem Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. Mahler may have wanted to distance himself from a literary source that he disparaged.

Daring deeds and gratification: Mahler’s lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

His attitude was very different towards the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:Alte deutsche Lieder (The Youth’s Magic Horn: Old German Songs), the collection published in 1806 by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. No other project occupied him over such a long period as his settings of Wunderhorn texts: nine lieder with piano in 1888/89 and 14 further compositions by 1901, in versions with orchestra – initially he had in mind an ensemble of soloists – as well as with piano. A number of Wunderhorn settings also found their way into the earlier symphonies.

While his contemporaries were indulging in décadence, Mahler was searching in these texts for “more nature and life – in other words, the sources of all poetry – as art”, as he wrote in a letter to which he appended Goethe’s essay on the Wunderhorn first edition: “Here art is in conflict with nature, and this developing process, this reciprocal influence, this sense of striving seems to be seeking a goal, a goal it has already achieved.” With his music, Mahler successfully maintained this tension, as the critic Eduard Hanslick recognized early on: “It cannot be ignored that there is a dichotomy between the concept of “folksong” and this artful, superabundant orchestral accompaniment. But Mahler has accomplished this daring deed with extraordinary delicacy and masterly technique.” Astonishing praise for a journalist feared for his scathing reviews... Today’s selection from the Wunderhorn lieder, which were not conceived as a cycle, concentrates on the late, longer and more serious compositions, with one exception: Rheinlegendchen, a classic example of the Mahlerian “dancing song”. Its “leisurely” waltzlike inspiration came first; Mahler then searched the Wunderhorn anthology and found these words to fit the tune.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Harding, born in Oxford in 1975, began his career assisting Sir Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After appointments with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, he served as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003), principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic (2010 – 2016) and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2017). Since 2007 Harding is music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. From September 2016 until summer 2019 he took on the same role with the Orchestre de Paris. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna, Berlin and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra honoured him with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. In 2018 he was named artistic director of the Anima Mundi Festival in Pisa. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared in September 2019, when he conducted three concerts with Hector Berliozʼ Roméo et Juliette.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and started his first violin lessons at the age of five. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. Frank Peter Zimmermann is also an active chamber musician: with the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra he founded the Trio Zimmermann in 2007; the trio performs in all major music centres and festivals in Europe. In the 2019/20 season he continues his Beethoven Sonata cycle with Martin Helmchen with concerts in Brussels and Madrid as well as at the festivals of Rheingau and Schleswig-Holstein among others. Zimmermann has given the first performances of four new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. In December 2015 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the London Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Among the awards that the violinist has received are the Premio Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena (1990) and the Music Prize of the City of Duisburg (2002). In 2008 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Federal German Order of Merit. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985 and since then has returned on numerous occasions; most recently he was heard in October 2018, when he performed Martinůʼs First Violin Concerto, conducted by Jakub Hrůša. Zimmermann plays on the 1711 Antonio Stradivari violin “Lady Inchiquin”, which is kindly provided by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

German baritone Christian Gerhaher, born in 1969, studied singing under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach and, together with pianist Gerold Huber, lied interpretation with Friedemann Berger in Munich. While completing his medical studies Christian Gerhaher perfected his vocal training in masterclasses given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Inge Borkh. Together with his regular piano partner Gerold Huber, Christian Gerhaher has devoted himself to lied interpretation for 30 years now. As a concert soloist he has appeared both at home and abroad with such leading orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, as well as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Besides his principle activity giving concerts and recitals, Christian Gerhaher is also a sought-after performer on the opera stage and has received several prizes such as the Laurence Olivier Award and the theatre prize »Der Faust«. His roles have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Pelléas(Pelléas et Mélisande),Posa (Don Carlo) and Wozzeck. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Kirill Petrenko and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared many times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003 and held the position of Artist in Residence in the 2013/14 season. His last appearance with the orchestra was in March 2019 as Petrus in Bach’s St John Passion (conductor: Simon Rattle). Christian Gerhaher, who holds the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, is an honorary professor in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music in Munich.

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