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Herbert Blomstedt and Maria João Pires perform Mozart

Herbert Blomstedt and Maria João Pires perform Mozart
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09 Dec 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

Maria João Pires

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A major, K. 488

    Maria João Pires piano

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1st Version from 1873)

A number of Anton Bruckner’s most painful artistic setbacks were associated with his Third Symphony, composed 1872-1873 and which later underwent repeated revisions. For example, in 1874, the Wiener Philharmoniker refused to play the premiere of the work as presented to them – which moved Bruckner to revise the score, dedicated to “Master Richard Wagner in deepest reverence”, for a first time. Unfortunately without the desired success, as the composer noted in his diary in 1877: “3rd rejection of my Wagnerian Symphony No. 3 / 2nd rejection 1875.” However, Bruckner was by no means ready to give up: After making further changes to his Third, it finally received its belated premiere in Vienna on 16 December 1877. But the evening, ill-starred from the outset, was a fiasco: After the conductor Johann Herbeck had passed away a few weeks previously, Bruckner, inexperienced as an orchestral conductor, agreed at short notice to conduct the concert himself – and in doing so, proved himself to be perhaps not the most adept interpreter of his own music.

More self-critical as a composer than as a conductor, Bruckner then created another, now heavily cut, version of his Third. In this form, the work was presented again in Vienna on 21 December 1890 under the direction of Hans Richter. And this time, Bruckner was finally able to enjoy the popularity he had longed for. The question of whether the composer had rejected his original intentions to better suit the public taste of his day, or whether the final version of the Third is actually the ʻbestʼ, was not raised until the middle of the 20th century. Among the conductors who continue this debate – even in our times – is Herbert Blomstedt who on this occasion with the Berliner Philharmoniker, shows his preference for the original version of Bruckner’s problem child.

In the first part of the concert, a work is performed whose genesis and reception were more straightforward: the A major Piano Concerto K. 488 was entered by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on 2 March 1786 in his “Catalogue of all my works” which he had begun two years previously. It was given its first performance in Vienna not long after, and quickly became one of the composer’s most popular contributions to the genre – not least because of its dream-like, middle movement which anticipates the age of Romanticism. The soloist is the admirable pianist Maria João Pires, renowned for her sensitive touch.

 

All Good Themes Come in Threes

Works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Anton Bruckner

Where the two clarinets are playing: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

The path from unfathomable genius to solid pragmatism can be surprisingly short. In 1786 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offered several compositions to the “Prince de Fürstenberg” from which His Highness selected, among others, the piano concerto which Mozart entered in his catalogue of works (Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke) on 2 March of that year and which can be found now as number 488 in the Köchel catalogue. In his correspondence, Mozart noted that “there are two clarinets in the A major concerto. Should His Highness not have any clarinets at his court, a competent copyist might transpose the parts into the suitable keys, in which case the first part should be played by a violin and the second by a viola”. As easy-going as Mozart seems to have been about the conditions for performing it, the work was close to his heart. In the same letter of 30 September 1786, he made a distinction between his popular works and special pieces like this one, “which I keep for myself or for a small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs, who promise not to let them out of their hands.” The two clarinets are one of the A major Concerto’s salient features, lending the orchestra its particular colouring while other instruments (for example, a pair of oboes and a second flute) are omitted.

The Allegro begins softly and delicately, blithely avoiding the fundamental pitch “A” at first and sparing in the use of forte chords. No less gentle and lyrical, the second theme leads to another peculiarity: after some 140 bars, Mozart introduces a new idea which is related to neither the first nor second theme group and flows directly into the development section. This formally unconventional introduction of a third theme looks ahead to Anton Bruckner who habitually constructed his symphonic first movements with three themes. The cadenza towards the end of the movement was written out by Mozart; he would hardly have needed it for himself, more likely for a pupil such as Barbara Ployer. Mozart wasn’t so easy-going about performance practice after all.

The biggest surprise comes with the Adagio. It is in F sharp minor, a key rarely used at the time and, by Mozart, almost never. It would most likely have reminded that “small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs” of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony in the same key. In 1784, two years before the completion of this concerto, the theorist Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart noted in his Thoughts on Musical Aesthetics: “F sharp minor. A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language. It really does not seem to like its own position: therefore it languishes ever for the calm of A major or for the triumphant happiness of D major.” After the first theme’s swaying threnody in siciliano rhythm, there does appear a consoling idea in A major which is related to themes of the opening movement. Yet the Adagio concludes in pianissimo lamenting that works its way well into the concluding rondo in exuberant A major.

Where the splendid trumpet is sounding: Bruckner’s Third Symphony

Same city, 104 years later. In 1890 Anton Bruckner presented his Third Symphony in Vienna – again. The Vienna Philharmonic had premiered it in 1877 under the composer’s baton although Bruckner was inexperienced as a conductor. The resulting fiasco caused him protracted suffering. Then in 1890, under Hans Richter’s direction, the symphony was suddenly a success. Even the famous critic Eduard Hanslick could not deny as much in his otherwise scathing review: “In Bruckner’s compositions we miss logical thinking, a refined sense of beauty, clearly discernible artistic understanding. It would be an understatement to say that the D minor Symphony was roundly applauded. It was met with clamorous stomping and raving. The grateful composer was obliged to come forward repeatedly after each movement.”

No other work occupied Bruckner as long as the Third; and when the original version is given, as in this evening’s concert, none of his other symphonies is so vast. Ignoring any practical advantages of the second and third versions, not to mention questions of taste, the first – playing some 15 minutes longer – is especially impressive for its clearly delineated musical sculpturing and the space it allows for thematic unfolding. By completing a symphony in D minor, Bruckner also satisfied his desire to compose in the tonality of two of his favourite works: Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In his own early Requiem (1849), in his first great mass setting (1864) and in his discarded symphony (the so-called Nullte, or “No. 0”), he had already explored this key and relished its archaic expansiveness. Predictably, his last symphonic creation was also in D minor, the Ninth, which Bruckner dedicated to the Almighty.

The Third Symphony can already be interpreted along these lines, especially the noble motto with which the trumpet opens the work. That this simple motif, joining a descending 4th to a descending 5th, is not the actual main theme soon becomes apparent with the entrance of a unison interrupted by abrupt general pauses. It is this idea that will become the basis of the sonata form. Bruckner contrasts it with a shapely second theme that he labels “Gesangsperiode”, or “lyrical period”. A third theme is developed from his characteristic rhythm, again presented in dramatic unison – a phenomenon that is repeated in the final movement.

The connection between Misterioso and theatrical thunder suggests the model for this work: Richard Wagner, to whom Bruckner dedicated it. In the Feierlich (“Solemn”) second movement, the father figure is clearly evident. The sustained hymn culminates in slowly celebrated “Tristan chords”, and though the magnificently extended second theme leads to other realms, similarly suggestive of religion, Wagner’s ill-starred hero continues to hold sway until strains of Tannhäuser pipe up in a richly embellished reprise.

Back in D minor, the brief Scherzo rolls in – a spooky movement at first, which stamps insistently on the tonic and whose effect can occasionally be a bit mechanical. By contrast, the waltz-like second theme in B flat major seems even livelier, as does the folksy A major Trio introduced by a buoyant octave leap on violas. The da capo section prepares the finale’s approach in eerie D minor. This Allegro’s apocalyptic opening is marked by ferocious build-ups, monumental intervallic leaps and surging strings, yet the second idea is surprisingly dancelike. Its exotic F sharp major tonality hints at what Bruckner is ultimately aiming at: he needs this note, F sharp, as the 3rd degree in the resplendent final D major chord. Just how much is at stake here is suggested by the bifurcation of the second subject – the dance is followed by a chorale. Contemporaries saw earth and heaven symbolized in this juxtaposition, a meditation on Media vita in morte sumus – “In the midst of life we are in death”. When at the end of the recapitulation, shortly before the final turn to D major and the return of the trumpet motto, Bruckner has the preceding movements pass in review, the effect is like the near-death experience of seeing one’s whole life flash before one’s eyes. Appearing in the course of three interpolations are visions of the opening movement’s second theme, the chorale from the Adagio and the figure that begins the Scherzo. A turbulent life comes to an end.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

The pianist Maria João Pires, born in Lisbon in 1944, gave her first concert at the age of four and won the Portuguese Jeunesses Musicales competition at the age of nine. Numerous other prizes followed. She began her training at the conservatoire in her home town under Campos Coelho and Francine Benoît. In 1961, she received a scholarship which enabled her to continue her studies under Rosl Schmid and Karl Engel in Germany. In 1970, she won first prize at the Beethoven Competition in Brussels, which laid the foundation for her international career and led to many concerts and solo recitals throughout Europe, Canada, Japan, Israel and the USA. In 1986, Maria João Pires enjoyed great success at her debut in London and again in New York three years later. Since then, she has made guest appearances at music capitals all over the world, not least as an excellent chamber musician. She has performed at renowned festivals such as the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, the Schubertiade Feldkirch, at Tanglewood, the BBC Proms and the Ravinia Festival. In 1990, she made her debut at the Salzburg Easter Festival with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1996, the artist performed with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly in Salzburg and Lucerne. Educational work plays an important role for Maria João Pires: in the course of her teaching activities, she founded an intercultural centre in 1999 in Belgais, Portugal near the Spanish border, dedicated to the training of young artists from all fields. She also initiated the “Partitura” project, which brings together young players and seasoned professionals to perform away from the world of competitions, while her “Equinox” project provides musical support for disadvantaged children under the age of fourteen. Maria João Pires has appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since 1991, most recently in October 2008 performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major K. 271. The conductor was Trevor Pinnock.

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. His musical education began at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he later studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in January 2017, when he conducted three concerts with symphonies by Béla Bartók and Johannes Brahms. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. Blomstedt was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003; in 2016 he received the prestigious Danish Léonie Sonning Music Prize for his lifetime achievement.

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