Simon Rattle conducts Strauss and Beethoven

07 Mar 2020

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Jonathan Kelly

  • Richard Strauss
    Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, AV 144 / TrV 292 (28 min.)

    Jonathan Kelly oboe

  • Benjamin Britten
    Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op. 49: Pan (3 min.)

    Jonathan Kelly oboe

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Oratorio, op. 85 (53 min.)

    Franz Xaver Huber, Iwona Sobotka soprano, Benjamin Bruns tenor, David Soar baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey chorus master

  • free

    Interview
    Jonathan Kelly in conversation with Tobias Möller (16 min.)

In his concerto for oboe and small orchestra, Richard Strauss succeeded almost magically in composing in the spirit of Mozart and Schubert – including many a harmonic side leap and without compromising his own identity. Flowing melodies characterise this work, which is unjustifiably played only rarely; it was premiered in Zurich on 26 February 1946. Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the Berliner Philharmoniker will take on Strauss’s Oboe Concerto. The soloist is Jonathan Kelly, who found his instrument at the age of eleven when a recording by Lothar Koch (the former principal oboe of the Berlin Philharmonic) greatly impressed him.

After the interval, another rarely programmed work can be heard: Ludwig van Beethoven’s only oratorio: Christ on the Mount of Olives. Besides the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the soprano Iwona Sobotka, who received international attention as Grand Prize winner of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium in 2004, tenor Benjamin Bruns and British baritone David Soar will also sing.

The successful premiere of Beethoven’s oratorio took place during “Tempora sacrata” (Lent) on 5 April 1803 at an Academy Concert at which his Second Symphony and his Third Piano Concerto were also presented to the public. The libretto, which draws a very human picture of Jesus, comes from Franz Xaver Huber, a well-known Viennese opera librettist of the time.

The text in free verse invokes all four Gospels and consists of the short scene in the garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus in deep despair asks for strength to bear the afflictions that are impending. The appearance of an angel providing solace (Seraph), only briefly mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, plays a key role in the first part of the oratorio text, while other central Biblical episodes are disregarded. In the second part, the action escalates dramatically with the arrest of Jesus, finally erupting in the cathartic and expansive choral jubilation of the angels: “Welten singen Lob und Ehre dem erhabnen Gottessohn” (“Halleluiah unto God’s almighty son”). The libretto, the critic from the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote on the occasion of the work’s printing, has given “the composer abundant opportunity to express a variety of lively and deep feelings, so that the whole also contains a rare richness, a great fullness, much variation, and an interest that never wavers, but on the contrary rises ever higher and higher.”

The Lure of the Periphery

The young Beethoven, the old Strauss and their Gethsemane moments

The composer had worked on the score until the very last minute. The trombone parts were not finished until early on the morning of the premiere. The final rehearsal lasted from eight o’clock until early afternoon – immediately afterwards the composer insisted on another run-through of the new passion oratorio. The mammoth concert began already at six o’clock that evening. The fact that the concert at the Theater an der Wien on 5 April 1803 was not a unanimous success in the end was not only due to the hectic preparation or the hastily assembled ensemble of soloists and instrumentalists. The sheer volume of the concert was enormous: Ludwig van Beethoven’s three-year-old First Symphony was repeated and, in addition to Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), not only the Second Symphony but also the Third Piano Concerto had their premieres. The composer, conductor and organizer of the concert played the solo part, improvising from sparse notes. The oratorio itself met with a mixed response; approval and criticism were more or less equal. On the whole, the press criticized not only the uneven performances but also the high admission charges, which were as much as three times the usual price.

Early meets late

Beethoven’s brilliantly extravagant oratorio from the musically revolutionary year of the “Eroica” paired with Richard Strauss’s classically lean Oboe Concerto from 1945, a fateful year in world history: two compositions which occupy a peripheral position among the works of their composers meet on today’s concert programme. Beethoven was never really satisfied with Christus, his only oratorio. He completely revised the score already during the year after its premiere and, as he corrected the proofs for publication by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1811, he admitted to the publisher: “What is certain is that now I should compose an absolutely different oratorio from what I composed then.” Christus am Ölberge – only its belated publication explains the high opus number of 85 – is still regarded as one of Beethoven’s most problematic works.

The peripheral positions of the two works within their composers’ oeuvres mentioned above are the result of contrasting situations: whereas Beethoven had a difficult time with the development of the large vocal-instrumental form, Strauss, the composer of fifteen operas, did not want to recognize the significance of his late works for the concert hall. The 80-year-old considered his life’s work to be finished. Deeply depressed about the destruction of German opera houses during the nights of bombing in the Second World War, he believed he had witnessed the end of a musical culture and regarded his own stage works as its final culmination. He occupied himself half-heartedly with occasional works, sought spiritual orientation by reading Goethe, but for the most part seemed to fall silent. Hardly to be expected was his new impetus in these late works – particularly the Metamorphosen, the Oboe Concerto and the Four Last Songs – whose depth of human expression evoked admiration, even from declared Strauss sceptics.

Composing after the fall

The success-spoiled star composer, who had been president of the Reichsmusikkammer from 1933 to 1935 and later also felt obliged to all sorts of compromises with the Nazi regime, was automatically classified as a “major offender” by the American occupying forces because of his public position, without incurring reprisals, however. When the 24-year-old American soldier John de Lancie, oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, visited the composer in Garmisch in early summer of 1945, he shyly asked whether Strauss, who had written some of his most beautiful music for the oboe, could imagine composing a concerto for his instrument. Strauss answered with a brusque “no”. The idea suited his retrospective interests of that time perfectly, however: he had composed the first of several late instrumental works, his Second Horn Concerto, in late 1942. The two Sonatinas for sixteen wind instruments which followed shortly after also looked back to an imaginary 18th century, with courtly serenades and graceful dialogue between soloists and transparent ensembles. Strauss had dedicated the large-scale second Sonatina – subtitled “Happy Workshop” – “to the spirit of the immortal Mozart, at the end of a life full of thankfulness”. Mozart’s spirit was obviously active in the background of the Oboe Concerto as well. The score of the Concerto was completed in mid-October of 1945, and the premiere took place in Zurich at the beginning of 1946. John de Lancie, who had joined the Philadelphia Orchestra by then, was not able to play the work himself to begin with: the right to appear as soloist was reserved for the orchestra’s celebrated principal oboe, Marcel Tabuteau.

Letting go as utopia

“Music whose pleasures and discoveries are premised upon letting go, upon not asserting a central authorizing identity ... becomes a mode for thinking through or thinking with, generously, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.” The literary theorist Edward Said wrote these words about Strauss’s Metamorphosen, but they can certainly be applied to the Oboe Concerto as well. While Strauss makes the small orchestra shine with solo colours – the second-chair winds have little to contribute on their own – while he cuts back on counterpoint and harmonic richness, he allows his themes to grow organically and blend associatively. The correspondences and references are so finely woven, the transformations so subtle that the impression of a dreamy memory is created, without any compulsion for chronological stringency. Strauss’s personal Gethsemane moment – the phase of anxiety, doubt and the feeling of profound desolation – already seems to be behind him at this point.

The dramaturgy of binary oppositions

Beethoven had also probably already overcome this moment during the composition of Christus am Ölberge. Since Maynard Solomon’s biography (1977), it has often been assumed that there was a psychological connection between the Heiligenstadt Testament of 6 October 1802 and the Christusoratorio. From this it could be concluded that at least the plan for the work could already have been developed during the weeks of his deepest crisis. The identification of the despairing composer – forced into social isolation because of his hearing impairment – with Christ, the Redeemer, seems plausible, for the simple reason that in Beethoven’s oratorio Christ is depicted as a sensitive man of flesh and blood, who recoils from the ordeal that lies ahead. A stern angel, who is only found in Luke’s Gospel, confronts Christ as a female protagonist. The librettist Franz Xaver Huber makes characters speak who are silent in the biblical account of the events. He skilfully creates an independent scenario that departs from every stylistic tradition. For example, the libretto not only calls for the traditional trio of soprano, tenor and baritone – including the chance to let conflicting emotions clash and finally become reconciled – but also allows sufficient opportunity for vividly structured choruses. Quite unusual is the lack of a narrator who could coherently summarize the action between the large musical numbers. Beethoven himself spoke disparagingly about the stylistic and intellectual level of the text. Nevertheless, Huber’s libretto provides him with a text that perfectly suits his dramaturgy of sharp contrasts, even binary oppositions. If one understands Christus am Ölberge as a step along the path to works such as the “Eroica”, the Fifth Symphony and Fidelio, it is striking how systematically the narrative pattern of “through darkness to the light” is already played out here.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Sir Simon Rattle was chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonie from September 2002 until June 2018. Even before taking up his post as principal conductor, Simon Rattle had already collaborated regularly with the Berliner Philharmoniker for fifteen years: he conducted the orchestra for the first time in November 1987 in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Most recently, he conducted the orchestra in three concerts with works by Helmut Lachenmann and Robert Schumann in March 2019. In September 2017, Simon Rattle took up the position of Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Rattle is also principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and works with leading orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Liverpool in 1955, Simon Rattle studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1980 he became principal conductor and artistic adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, stepping up to music director from September 1990 until August 1998. In the concert hall and opera house, Simon Rattle’s extensive repertoire covers compositions ranging from the Baroque era to contemporary music. He has conducted operas by Rameau, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Debussy and Poulenc in Aix-en-Provence, London, Salzburg, New York, Baden-Baden and Berlin. Music education is an important part of Sir Simon’s work; the Education Programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker was established on his initiative. For this commitment, as well as for his artistic work, Simon Rattle has won many awards: In 1994 Simon Rattle was knighted by the Queen of England. He also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, a knighthood in the French Legion of Honour and the British Order of Merit.

Jonathan Kelly was born in Hampshire, England. He initially read history at the University of Cambridge but later studied the oboe at the Royal Academy of Music in London and at the Paris Conservatoire. He became principal oboist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1993, remaining there until 2003. During that period he appeared frequently not only with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe but also as a concert artist in Birmingham, Cardiff, Chicago, Helsinki and Vienna. He was also a member of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, in which capacity he took part in the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ Sonata da caccia and in the local premiere of Thea Musgrave’s oboe concerto Helios. Since the autumn of 2003 Jonathan Kelly has been principal oboist with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He also appears with the orchestra’s wind formation and other chamber groups; he is a frequent guest with the Scharoun Ensemble and takes part in its Festival in Zermatt. Jonathan Kelly gives masterclasses all over the world, he teaches at the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Karajan Academy, he is a visiting professor and member of the Royal Academy of Music, and is an honorary member of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. In mid-April 2013, together with his orchestra colleague Marie-Pierre Langlamet, he performed the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski on three evenings under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Iwona Sobotka studied singing at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía in Madrid. The Polish soprano attracted international attention in 2004 as Grand Prix winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium. Other successes include winning the East & West Artists International Auditions in New York, whose prize included her debut recital at Carnegie Hall. Since then, Iwona Sobotka has appeared as Violetta (La traviata) in Poznań, as Micaëla (Carmen) in Kraków, as Ygraine (Ariane et Barbe-Bleue) at the Opéra national de Paris and at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in the title role of Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka and as Liù (Turandot). Recent engagements include her debut at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival as a Flowermaiden (Parsifal) with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) at Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, and Mimì (La Bohème) at Opera Podlaska in Białystok. Iwona Sobotka also sang the soprano parts in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as well as with the Berliner Philharmoniker during the 2016 Asian tour) and in Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem (with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestras). Concert engagements have taken the singer to prestigious orchestras (London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and others), under the baton of conductors such as Sir Colin Davies, Marco Armiliato, Sylvain Cambreling and Massimo Zanetti. The last time Iwona Sobotka appeared in the concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation was at the beginning of April 2018 as a Flowermaiden in a concert performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

David Soar was born in Nottinghamshire and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and National Opera Studio. In 2010, the British bass made his debut as Quinault (Adriana Lecouvreur) at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London and has since made guest appearances at leading opera houses. Further engagements have taken him to the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the Grange Festival. The singer has also appeared at Opera Holland Park London, English National Opera and Welsh National Opera. On the concert stage, David Soar has appeared with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra and the Orchestre national de Lyon, among others, as well as with period instrument ensembles such as The English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music, working with conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Andrew Davis, Alain Altinoglu, Harry Bicket, Richard Egarr, Philippe Herreweghe and Sir Mark Elder. The singer now makes his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

With around 60 concerts annually and international guest performances, Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is one of the world’s foremost choruses. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation and richly nuanced sound have made it the chosen partner of major orchestras and conductors. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards, document its work. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: The “human requiem”, an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig and a team of Sasha Waltz & Guests, became a milestone, with guest performances in Europe, New York, Hongkong and Australia. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). With the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as principal conductor and artistic director.

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