Christian Thielemann and Albrecht Mayer with works by Strauss and Bruckner
04 Mar 2012
Concerto for Oboe and small Orchestra in D major, o. op. AV 144 (28 min.)
Albrecht Mayer Oboe
Johann Sebastian Bach
Cantata, BWV 156: Sinfonia (4 min.)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major “Romantic” (1878/80 version) (83 min.)
Albrecht Mayer on the oboe concerto by Richard Strauss (7 min.)
Christian Thielemann on Strauss’s Oboe Concerto and Bruckner’s Fourth (7 min.)
Christian Thielemann’s international fame rests to a large extent on his interpretations of Bruckner. In this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker he conducts the composer’s most popular work, the Fourth Symphony. As the epithet Romantic implies, Bruckner here creates a vision of a better past. The Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss which opens the concert has a similarly nostalgic flavour. The soloist is Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1992.
To a friend, Bruckner outlined a historical scene which forms the basis of the first movement of his symphony. There is mention of a “medieval city”, “the rustle of the forest” and of knights who “gallop out into the fields on their proud steeds”. But we must assume that Bruckner devised these poetic descriptions only later to facilitate access to his music to his audiences. Indeed, the Fourth Symphony is in no way programme music, but is “Romantic” through its use of melody which surges between pride and melancholy, through its horn calls and archaic fanfares.
Richard Strauss had a decidedly low opinion of Bruckner’s work, which he described as “boring peasant music.” It may be that Strauss – who had long seen himself as the spearhead of the avant-garde – simply found this music to be too old fashioned. However, in his 1945 Oboe Concerto, composed in the face of the devastation of World War II, he dreams himself into history. And so Strauss’s work, infused with Mozartian grace is, in the words of Albrecht Mayer – “one of his most heartfelt and among the best he ever wrote.”
After the war in May 1945, nearing his 81st birthday, Richard Strauss was visited and viewed like a tourist attraction at his villa in Garmisch. The American soldiers were, however, “extremely kind and friendly”, observed the relieved composer in a letter. One of those friendly GIs was, in civilian life, the principal oboist of Fritz Reiner’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: the young John de Lancie who, “overcome by shyness and awe”, had an opportunity to converse with Strauss – in French – for a number of hours. “I remember thinking that I would have nothing at all to contribute to the conversation that could possibly be of any interest to the composer. Once, though, I summoned up all my courage and began to talk about the beautiful oboe melodies one comes across in so many of his works... I wanted to know if he had a special affinity for that particular instrument, and, since I was familiar with his Horn Concerto, I asked him whether he had ever thought of writing a concerto for oboe. His answer was a plain ‘No!’ That was about the most I could get out of him.”
Oboists all over the world are thankful to Strauss that this “No!” soon turned to a “Yes!”. It was in that same summer of 1945 in Garmisch that Strauss drafted his Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, a playfully Arcadian – in other words, “uncontemporary” – piece. The Oboe Concerto might be interpreted as an escape from reality, a luminous, classical homage to Mozart and the 18th century. Strauss’s affinity for this weightless, southern style goes back further than the destruction of the German cultural nation he faced at the end of the war, further even than the war itself during which he wrote the ivory-tower “conversation piece” Capriccio. It developed under the beneficial influence of his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who won Strauss over to his concept of a “creative restoration”, encouraging him with discoveries of Italian commedia dell’arte and the grand siècle, and cautioning him: “The lighter, the more light-headed your approach to the work, the better it will turn out; a German artist in any event treats every work more heavily than he should.”
The sunny side of “light-headed” music
Strauss remained subject to the law of German gravity, but with his sense of humour, his feeling for instrumental sophistication and Mozartian melody, as well as with his lifelong yearning for the Mediterranean south, he managed to hold Wilhelmine German temptations and Germanic impulses in balance. The late Oboe Concerto belongs entirely to the sunny side of “light-headed” music: for small orchestra, terse, witty and diverting. It wasn’t yet this composer’s last word, but it could certainly have filled the bill as his closing remarks.
“I always like coming to one of your concerts as long as no Brahms, no Bruckner and no Respighi or that sort of thing are on the programme”, admitted Strauss to his “dear friend” Karl Böhm in a letter from 1943. “I knocked off these things ad nauseam myself in a 60-year conducting career, and my requirements at this stage of life are limited to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz and the great Richard.” Nonetheless the old Strauss passed the time in Garmisch drawing up “stylish concert programmes” in which Anton Bruckner found a prominent place, if not in the first rank of composers, then at least in the second. Strauss wanted to couple the Symphony No. 4 in E flat major with the symphony In the Forest by the now largely forgotten Bruckner contemporary Joachim Raff and then cap off the concert with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. But as he also suggested following Bruckner’s Ninth, in another of his model programmes, with the overture to Smetana’s Bartered Bride, we probably need to construe this as deliberate mischief-making. Strauss complained about “audiences trained in Brucknerian boredom” and admitted that he himself sought to avoid “lapsing into Brucknerian organ-loft repose”. This deeper discomfiture was surely not only a matter of tempo but also caused by differences of temperament, artistic nature, musical and religious ideology, all of which stood irreconcilably between Strauss and Bruckner, between the freethinking sceptic and the devout Catholic.
“Mysterium tremendum et fascinosum”
Lofty ideas and wide expanses, solemnity and monumentality, mathematical and architectonic organization, extremes of expression and dynamics, contact with the sacred, the numinous and the terrifying yet heartening “mysterium tremendum et fascinosum” – these basic features, standards and modes of experience characterize the symphonies of Bruckner: “masses without words” by a Catholic visionary. But does this generalization necessarily apply sight unseen to, say, the Fourth Symphony, on which Bruckner worked all told from 1874 to 1889, struggling for 16 years to achieve a definitive version? This composition also seeks expansiveness, to build up to immeasurable climaxes, to overwhelm by means of marrowy, martial and majestic mega-music. But because he allocates the voices and structural levels of his symphony largely to his own processes, tempos, syncopations and accents, Bruckner achieves that “convoluted polyphony” of which his first listeners spoke with awe and bemusement. Or else with polemics, with the deliberate misunderstanding feigned by the critic Max Kalbeck in his review of the Fourth’s Vienna premiere on 20 February 1881: “The work’s ideas are dominated by the disorder of an absent-minded professor’s room, where everything lies in confusion and only the master of the house, if needs be, can gropingly find anything. Even the paltriest and most commonplace ideas are spun out into infinity and are treated ad nauseam.”
The same phenomenon can, however, be heard and evaluated quite differently. Those constant, mantra-like repetitions – say it and say it again – are like the magical practices of an incantation, a religious ritual. In any case, they establish the hypnotic, literally spellbinding, paradoxically both oppressive and liberating effect of this “powerful music”. Arcadian serenity, a gentle spirit and Mediterranean luminosity are not likely to be associated with this symphony: there is nothing here of “play for play’s sake”.
But what then is Bruckner’s Fourth about? He himself had the attribute “romantic” in mind and, moreover, circulated all sorts of programmatic details, for example in a letter of 1890 to the writer Paul Heyse: “The 1st movement of the ‘Romantic’ Fourth Symphony is meant to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall! Then life goes on; in the second subject the theme is the song of the great tit. 2nd movement: song, prayer, serenade. 3rd: hunt and in the Trio how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest.” Bruckner also headed the Finale (though not in its definitive version) “popular festival” and went on to detail its content: “Medieval city – daybreak – the gates open – the knights break out into the open on proud steeds”.
A topsy-turvy world and reversed roles – at least for the duration of this concert: Bruckner the symphonist talks about his Fourth as though it were a symphonic poem; Strauss the symphonic poet, who left nothing from mountain peaks to marital rows uncomposed, persisted into old age with his autonomous, “absolute music”.
Albrecht Mayer initially received piano, recorder and singing lessons before taking up the oboe at the age of ten. His teachers were Gerhard Scheuer, Georg Meerwein, Maurice Bourgue and Ingo Goritzki. Even in his youth, he was invited to perform with various orchestras, including the European Community Youth Orchestra. A winner of many prizes and scholarships, Albrecht Mayer became principal oboist with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 1990. Two years later, he took on the same position with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He regularly performs all over the world as a concert soloist. As a chamber musician, his partners have included, among others, Nigel Kennedy und Hélène Grimaud. He also teaches at major international festivals. He has already been awarded the ECHO Klassik Prize on more than one occasion, and in December 2006, he received the E.T.A.-Hoffmann Prize from his home town of Bamberg. In the search for his personal ideal sound, Albrecht Mayer recently founded his own ensemble, New Seasons.
Christian Thielemann, designated principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden from autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 2013, has been general music director of the Munich Philharmonic since the start of the 2004/05 season. He previously held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from the autumn of 1997 to the summer of 2004. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. Since then he has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he has concentrated increasingly on a relatively small number of opera houses, most notably the Vienna State Opera and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, while at the same time limiting his concert appearances to a select group of world-class orchestras. Since 2000 he has been particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertory are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods – above all the music of Wagner and Strauss – as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. From 2006 until 2010 he conducted Tankred Dorst’s new production of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth. Christian Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently in May 2011, when he conducted several works by Richard Strauss. In October 2011, he was awarded the honorary membership of the Royal Academy Music in London.
Albrecht Mayer appears in the Digital Concert Hall by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.
A coproduction of Berlin Phil Media and Unitel