Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein and Daniel Barenboim
27 Apr 2010
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg): Prelude to Act 3 (8 min.)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, op. 85 (33 min.)
Alisa Weilerstein Cello
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 (55 min.)
Alisa Weilerstein in conversation with Ludwig Quandt (16 min.)
On the first of May the Berliner Philharmoniker give their traditional European Concert, an annual event to celebrate the founding of the orchestra on 1 May 1882. In 2010, the concert, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, took place at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre. And, as is often the case, the musicians presented their programme to the audience in the Philharmonie a few days earlier.
In keeping with the occasion, the musicians put together a German-British programme, the first half of which featured Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Barenboim had conducted this work once before with the orchestra – 40 years before, together with his then wife, Jacqueline du Pré. The soloist in this concert, making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, was Alisa Weilerstein. Yo-Yo Ma wrote about this young American artist: “I remember that one of my first impressions of her playing was that she is so full of passion. More recently I was struck by how fearless Alisa is. Those two qualities, in combination with a great musical intelligence, really define her artistry for me.”
The German contribution to the programme consisted of the Prelude to Act 3 of Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger and Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. It was Hans von Bülow – principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker – who, with regard to this work of Brahms, spoke of “Beethoven’s Tenth” – a bon mot that doubtlessly promoted the popularity of the work but which fails to do full justice to its forward-looking, individual characteristics.
Writing music in the shadow of tradition
Works by Brahms, Wagner and Elgar
New paths? Notes on Brahms’s First Symphony op. 68
In the course of the nineteenth century several generations of composers wrestled with the question of if and how it was possible to go on writing symphonies in the wake of Beethoven. Writing in Opera and Drama in 1851, Wagner had proclaimed the end of the age of the symphony and declared that the music drama was the field where Beethoven’s true successor would be found, but other composers, most notably Schumann, remained convinced that the symphony – the highest form of instrumental music – was still relevant as a genre. And when the young Johannes Brahms turned up at the Schumanns’ front door in Düsseldorf in 1853, Schumann felt that his faith in the future of the symphony had been confirmed. In an article published under the programmatic title of “New Paths” he hailed the barely twenty-year-old Brahms as a composer whose piano sonatas were “symphonies in disguise”. And he proclaimed a great future for his young colleague “when once he lowers his magic wand over the massed resources” of the orchestra.
It was not just that the towering figure of Beethoven was forever breathing down Brahms’s neck but that every step that Brahms took in the field of the symphony had to withstand the scrutiny of his own self-criticism and the expectations of his contemporaries, expectations unwittingly fuelled by Schumann’s article. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the young Brahms’s early experiments in the medium were either broken off prematurely or diverted into other areas. This situation seemed suddenly to change in the late spring of 1862, for on 1 June we find Clara Schumann writing euphorically to Joseph Joachim: “Johannes recently sent me – and you can imagine my surprise – the first movement of a symphony …. The movement is full of wonderful beauties, with a mastery in the treatment of the motifs that is indeed becoming more and more characteristic of him.”
But the compositional process once again ground to a halt, and the movement, which is in C minor and which in its revised form was to become the opening movement of the First Symphony, was for the present set aside. Not until fourteen years later did Simrock receive a letter by the composer from the island of Rügen: “A beautiful symphony has been left hanging on the Wissower Klinken” – a reference to one of the island’s chalk outcrops overlooking the Baltic Sea. On completing the First Symphony, Brahms played it through to Clara Schumann on the piano. She first heard it in the concert hall in Leipzig in January 1877: “On the 17th there was a rehearsal for the Gewandhaus concert – the symphony was wonderfully grand, quite overwhelming! I was especially taken by the final movement, with its inspired introduction!”
This powerful final movement is not only the goal and culmination of the entire musico-dramatic argument, it also marks the composer’s most obvious creative engagement with Beethoven. The starting point of its “inspired introduction” is the tragic underlying mood that had already dominated the first movement’s slow introduction. The momentum and the expressive intensity continue to grow in a passage marked “Animato”, but the timpani roll that enters at its climax leads to a radical change of mood and a tonal shift to the brightness of C major. Over a light carpet of sound provided by the mellow trombones and rocking string tremolandos, the first horn states a melody that Brahms had described as an “alphorn call” in a card that he had sent to Clara Schumann from Switzerland to mark her forty-ninth birthday in September 1868. When the alphorn theme returns after an interpolated chorale, it engages in dialogue with various other groups of instruments before leading to the hymn-like main theme of the Allegro section that follows.
Ever since the First Symphony was unveiled in Karlsruhe in November 1876, commentators have noted the striking similarity between this eloquent melody in the full-toned strings and the theme associated with the words “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But the German musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has quite rightly pointed out that the way in which Brahms develops this theme in the course of the rest of the movement is a clear indication of his own creative independence and historical distance from Beethoven. To take a single example: when the recapitulation enters in the strings, we do not hear the hymn-like theme, but the alphorn call from the introduction. Only at the climax of the coda does the full orchestra state the chorale. In other words, the thematic reminiscence of Beethoven becomes increasingly restrained as the movement pursues its course and is replaced by the two key elements from the introduction. According to Reinhold Brinkmann, “Nature and religion emerge here as superior solutions to the dramatically intensified conflict”.
Resignation and Self-abandonment: the Prelude to Act Three of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
For lovers of German music in London, the spring of 1877 was a time of plenty. Brahms’s First Symphony was performed at the Crystal Palace on 31 March and at Saint James’s Hall on 16 April. And in May English audiences were able to hear Brahms’s antithesis, Richard Wagner, conduct excerpts from his works at eight concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, where he shared the conducting duties with Hans Richter and Edward Dannreuther. Excerpts from Die Meistersinger were performed at two of these concerts.
The true protagonist of Wagner’s three-act opera is the shoemaker Hans Sachs. A respected mastersinger, he renounces the woman he loves, Eva Pogner, and instead helps the young knight Walther von Stolzing to win the hand of the goldsmith’s daughter by means of a Prize Song. According to Wagner the Prelude to Act Three of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg begins with “a soft, tender and profoundly melancholic passage that bears the imprint of the greatest resignation”, which turns the mastersinger’s process of foreswearing love and abandoning himself entirely to his art impressively into music.
A melancholic envoi? – Elgar’s Cello Concerto
Among the young Edward Elgar’s formative musical experiences were the performances of works by Brahms and Wagner that Hans Richter conducted in London. In 1881 the twenty-four-year-old Elgar heard the overture to Die Meistersinger for the first time, and three years later he was present when Richter introduced English audiences to Brahms’s Third Symphony. Wagner and Brahms took pride of place in Elgar’s pantheon of composers and were important points of reference and orientation in his own developing career. With Brahms, who was a central figure in the field of the symphony, Elgar shared not only a fundamental melancholy but also the feeling that he belonged to a bygone generation.
The Cello Concerto in E minor op. 85 was Elgar’s last great orchestral work and was written at the end of the First World War, following a period of creative depression. The war was still being fought when in March 1918 Elgar noted down a number of initial sketches, but he then set the work to one side and wrote three chamber pieces, not returning to the concerto until the early summer of 1919. After only a limited number of sessions at his desk and after playing through the piece with the cellist Felix Salmond, who was the soloist at the work’s first performance, he was able to announce its completion in August 1919.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto has regularly been regarded as the work of a composer deeply rooted in the nineteenth century and gazing back wistfully to a bygone age which, following the catastrophe of the First World War, was lost forever. Although Elgar himself described his new concerto in a letter as “good & alive”, there is no denying its underlying mood of melancholy. The slow first movement begins with a recitative-like passage for the solo cello, its elegiac opening gesture echoed by the dark and muted sounds of the clarinets and bassoons. The following Moderato, too, is dominated by muted colours.
The second movement is a virtuoso Scherzo which is followed by a highly expressive Adagio. Like the opening movement, the concluding Allegro, ma non troppo begins with a recitative-like passage for the solo cello. Here, too, the tempo is suddenly cut back at the climax of the movement. In an expressive final section whose sostenuto harmonies evoke the world of Wagner, key elements from the earlier slow movements are recalled. The movement ends with a return of the opening gesture in the solo cello leading into an Allegro molto with which the concerto comes to a sudden end.
Translation: Stewart Spencer
Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on an artistic partnership lasting more than forty-five years. As a pianist he made his debut with the orchestra in June 1964, performing Bartók’s First Piano Concerto under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Five years later he appeared with them for the first time as a conductor. His most recent appearance as a conductor was in mid-June 2009, when he conducted works by Richard Strauss and Elliott Carter. He returned in early October 2009 to perform Chopin’s two piano concertos under the direction of Asher Fisch. Today’s Europa Concert programme is a repeat of one given only a few days ago at the Philharmonie in Berlin.
Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942. Ten years later he and his parents moved to Israel. He received his first piano lessons from his mother, later from his father. He was ten when he first performed in public in Vienna and Rome. These early appearances were quickly followed by international tours. He made his conducting debut in London in 1967 and since then has appeared with every leading orchestra in Europe and the United States of America. Among his most important appointments are principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris (1975–89), music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1991–2006) and general music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin (1992 to the present). In the autumn of 2000 the Berlin Staatskapelle appointed him its principal conductor for life. With the start of the 2007/8 season Daniel Barenboim was additionally appointed “maestro scaligero” at La Scala, Milan, and since then he has worked very closely with the Italian company. Guest appearances continue to take him to leading opera houses and festivals all over the world.
In 1999 Daniel Barenboim and the Palestine scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Workshop that each summer brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab world to encourage dialogue between the different Middle Eastern cultures by enabling them to perform music together. For their contribution to international understanding and world peace, Barenboim and Said were awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in 2002. In 2009 Barenboim’s commitment to this field was further recognised when he received the Moses Mendelssohn Medal. Among his numerous honours are the Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the German Culture Prize of the Munich Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts.
Alisa Weilerstein was thirteen when she made her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1995, performing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Two years later she appeared for the first time at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra. As a participant in the Young Artist Program of the Cleveland Institute of Music, she was trained by the cellist Richard Weiss. Since making her professional debut in 1995, she has appeared with leading orchestras in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the Orchestre National de Paris, the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, the Leipzig Bach Collegium and the Israel Philharmonic.
Among the conductors with whom Alisa Weilerstein has worked are Christoph Eschenbach, Manfred Honeck, Paavo Järvi, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Kirill Petrenko, while her chamber music partners have included the violinist Maxim Vengerov and the pianist Lilya Zilberstein. Together with the pianist and composer Lera Auerbach she has performed the latter’s Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues for cello and piano at the Caramoor and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festivals. Her commitment to contemporary music is also clear from her performances of Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul. Alisa Weilerstein is a regular and welcome guest at such leading international festivals as the Aspen Festival, New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Kissingen Summer Festival and the Verbier Festival. In 2006 the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival honoured her with its Leonard Bernstein Award. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker only a few days ago, when she performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto op. 85 under the direction of Daniel Barenboim.