Programme guide

Roads to Freedom

When people referred to the “Great Bach” in the 18th century, they did not mean Johann Sebastian, but rather his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The composer and harpsichord virtuoso, who first served at the court of Frederick the Great and was then appointed music director in Hamburg, won fame throughout Europe particularly because of his improvisations, in which he boldly put his artistic credo into practice: “One must play from the soul, not like a trained bird.” Bach stands out like a bird of paradise in the grey area of the transition from the Baroque to Viennese Classicism. His compositional originality is revealed in sharp contrasts, abrupt changes of mood, harmonic audacity and unexpected melodic progressions. That is also true of his last four symphonies, composed in 1775/1776, in which he expanded the string orchestra with luminous wind colours, in keeping with the expressivity of the Sturm und Drangstyle. Bach himself considered this series, the first work of which we hear at this concert, the pinnacle of his symphonic oeuvre.

“It seems to me just as impossible to struggle against the apparatus mobilized to defame me as it is unworthy to put myself on the same level to defend my work. I rely on the power that is the essence of my life: music,” Paul Hindemith wrote on 9 December 1934. Three days earlier, Joseph Goebbels had publicly denounced him as an “atonal noisemaker”; the violist and composer was threatened with being barred from practicing his profession in Germany. Outwardly, he faced the hostility with the support of prominent advocates such as Wilhelm Furtwängler. Privately, he planned his inevitable departure, presaged by his Viola Concerto, composed in 1935, with the enigmatic title Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner). During the work, the solo viola interprets expressive lines from medieval German folk tunes, on which Hindemith, as a “minstrel”, “improvises and fantasizes”, as he explains in the introduction: “Happiness is everywhere” (first movement) – “I cannot bear it any longer” – “I have such a sad day” (second movement). Hindemith finally emigrated to Switzerland in the summer of 1938.

He felt “like a musician of olden times, the invited guest of a patron of the arts,” Béla Bartók wrote when he visited the conductor and entrepreneur Paul Sacher in August of 1939 in the idyllic Swiss Alps, where he composed a Divertimento for string orchestra commissioned by Sacher. An old, bygone world also emerges in the outer movements of the three-part work. Dancelike, at times audibly inspired by Bartók’s folk music studies, on the one hand they evoke the style of Mozart’s entertaining divertimentos, and on the other, the Baroque concerto grosso principle, with its interplay between solo groups and orchestral tutti. The middle movement provides a striking contrast – an oppressively sombre Molto adagio in which the Second World War, which broke out a few days later, seems to cast its threatening shadow. The Divertimento was the last work that Bartók composed in Europe; after his native Hungary joined the Nazi regime, he fled to the US in 1940.

Susanne Ziese

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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