Michael Barenboim’s and Vasily Petrenko’s debuts with the Berliner Philharmoniker
17 Feb 2018
Overture of the Incidental Music to Rosamunde, D 797 (11 min.)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 36 (47 min.)
Michael Barenboim violin
La Valse (14 min.)
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Vasily Petrenko in conversation with Philipp Bohnen (17 min.)
After the premiere in 1940, one critic wrote that Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto sounded like “feeding time at the chicken farm”. Not only audiences and critics but also Jascha Heifetz, for whom Schoenberg had originally intended the piece, reacted with hostility to the twelve-tone work. The reasons why Heifetz turned down the composer are not known. The first performance was then given by soloist Louis Krasner. The fact is, that the violin concerto is one of the most technically demanding there is: “Some of the playing techniques, particularly the double and triple stop harmonics, are very avant-garde here. Violinists at that time were not familiar with them in this form,” says Michael Barenboim, who performs this piece under the baton of Vasily Petrenko. Both make their debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. For the young violinist, concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which was co-founded by his father Daniel who is also its chief conductor, Schoenberg’s concerto is one of the great works of the 20th century. “It is highly expressive, very emotional, you shouldn’t let yourself be put off by the severity of the twelve-tone”, he says enthusiastically. The concerto is a stark contrast to Franz Schubert’s lyrical and serene Rosamunde Overture which opens the programme.
In 1823, Schubert had written incidental music for the play Rosamunde by the poet Helmina of Chézy. While the play was a failure, the music was a success. But the overture, despite its name, has nothing to do with the play. At a later date, a publisher printed Schubert’s overture to Die Zauberharfe as the prelude to the Rosamunde music. After the interval, the programme continues with two works by Maurice Ravel: La Valse, that ecstatic apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, in which the French composer draws performers and listeners into a breathtaking musical maelstrom. Ravel was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to write La Valse for a dance project by the Ballets Russes. However, Diaghilev rejected it on the grounds that the work is not a ballet, but a portrait of ballet. As a result, La Valse became world famous as a purely orchestral piece.
Ravel evokes an entirely different soundscape in his ballet Daphnis et Chloé which was also written for Diaghilev: lascivious, dream-like, bacchanalian. With the Suite No. 2, assembled from parts of the ballet and which begins with softly shimmering sounds of harp and flute and builds with enormous musical intensity to a Dionysian final dance, the Berliner Philharmoniker bring the programme to a close.
From Start to Finish
Music from Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel
Prelude in the Theatre: Franz Schubert
Who wouldn’t want to be immortal? Unfortunately for Helmina von Chézy, her posthumous reputation is less than enviable. The poetess, absurdly enough, owes her entire fame to flops. On 20 December 1823 her “Grand Romantic Drama” Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Princess of Cyprus)had its premiere at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. It was such a devastating fiasco, derided by audience and critics alike, that the management pulled it from the repertoire after the second performance, leaving it to languish in obscurity ever since. Schubert’s occasional music, on the other hand, though composed within a few days under the tightest deadline, has survived and flourished.
Although nothing of the abortive Rosamunde play is extant but a fragmentary draft of the first act and a never-performed revised version from 1835, its plot can be plausibly reconstructed from descriptions by contemporary critics. Thus Schubert’s music returns, in the mind’s eye at least, to its origin, on the imaginary stage of a Romantic melodrama and tale of intrigue bearing witness to a bygone era of theatre history. The overture alone eludes this reconstruction, having been intended, not for Rosamunde, but for another work – the melodrama Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) D 644 – and only published after Schubert’s death as the supposed prelude to Rosamunde. This borrowing was nonetheless able to establish the piece in the concert hall as an expedient stopgap, and no one nowadays would want to do without this festive, inventive and splendid sounding introduction. Let the play begin.
“The Einstein of Music”: Arnold Schoenberg
The American violinist Louis Krasner is known most widely for having commissioned the violin concerto created by Alban Berg in memory of Manon Gropius, who died tragically young. Many fewer know that he was also the man of the hour in Philadelphia on 6 December 1940 when the violin concerto by the émigré composer Arnold Schoenberg was premiered before a fractious, restless audience. It all began with a rejection. Jascha Heifetz, to whom Schoenberg offered his Violin Concerto op. 36, rejected the work as unplayable. The composer’s brother-in-law Rudolf Kolisch, for whom the concerto was initially conceived, was put off by the challenge on more practical and all-too-understandable grounds – as leader of the renowned Kolisch Quartet he had no room for it in his busy schedule. On a crossing from New York to Europe he encountered his violinist colleague Louis Krasner, who was immediately intrigued when Kolisch described the new concerto. In this work – within the seemingly familiar framework of a classical solo concerto having the outlines of a sonata-form movement, a three-part song form and an “alla marcia” rondo finale – life is exposed and endured: elegiac and expressive, bewitching and bewildering, phenomenally precise and brilliantly bizarre. Schoenberg’s music speaks with the voice of an ambivalent, eccentric and cosmically reclusive soul. It sounds like the work of a tinkerer haunted by oppressive dreams, or of a goldsmith who really wanted to erect cathedrals: utterly artificial and yet wracked internally by tormenting tensions. This concerto is dominated by the logic of the emotions and the pathos of the intellect. Under its craggy surface, the power of creative orderliness prevails in the all-binding formula of a twelve-tone row. Here this foundation begins with the notes A – B flat – E flat (in German: A – B – Es) like a scrambled monogram (Arnold SchönBerg): the predetermined row, the subjective law.
When Schoenberg’s son-in-law Felix Greissle received the commission to prepare a piano reduction of the Violin Concerto, he noticed at once that the “Einstein of Music” (as Schoenberg was dubbed in the US) had committed an “error”: the master had not applied the row correctly. He promptly informed Schoenberg and, receiving no reply, repeated his complaint until finally he found a postcard from the composer in his letterbox. Schoenberg’s only comment: “So, who cares?”
Ball, Ballet and Bacchanal: Maurice Ravel
In the winter of 1919-20, Maurice Ravel was living in seclusion at a country house in the Cévennes. He had retreated there to resume work after overcoming a protracted creative crisis in which he was afflicted by headaches, insomnia and disturbed concentration. The composition he conceived during those weeks of solitude was La Valse, an effusive waltz that he labelled a “poème chorégraphique”. Ravel connected his music to a theatrical vision: “Billowing clouds part from time to time, letting us glimpse waltzing couples. As the clouds gradually dissipate, we can make out an immense ballroom crowded with people whirling about. The stage grows progressively brighter. At the fortissimo, the chandeliers are fully illuminated. An imperial court around 1855.”
From its beginnings, the waltz entailed an element of intoxication, of oblivion, of “dancing on the volcano”. Ravel took this inner propulsion to the flash point, to the moment in which exuberance turns into self-destruction. After elegant, insinuating and intimate moments, after high spirits and champagne effervescence, the dance burns up in feverish obsession – like a “cry from the whole orchestra”, related Manuel Rosenthal, Ravel’s former composition pupil and close friend, who perceived the ending of the piece as “a kind of anguish, a very dramatic feeling of death”.
The success story of the Ballets Russes began with an acclaimed engagement in Paris in the summer of 1909. But that year was momentous for other reasons as well. Sergei Diaghilev, who managed and inspired the remarkable company, commissioned Ravel to compose a ballet based on the ancient Greek pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe. This bold joint effort does betray certain cracks in its foundation: whereas Ravel dreamt of an idealized Greece, as depicted by French artists at the end of the 18th century, Mikhail Fokine’s choreography was strictly guided by the sculpture and vase painting of antiquity.
Its symphonic autonomy notwithstanding, Ravel’s “choreographic symphony” Daphnis et Chloé cannot be entirely divorced from its scenario, even when “only” the second suite is being performed. Here is a rough outline of the plot: A throng of young people assemble at the edge a sacred wood to honour Pan, the shepherds’ god, with offerings and a religious dance. Among them are the shepherd Daphnis and the maiden Chloe, who, in naïve playfulness, discover a mutual attraction. In a dancing contest for Chloe’s favour, the coarse cowherd Dorcon makes a fool of himself while the gracefully athletic Daphnis wins the day. The idyll is disrupted by the arrival of pirates who abduct Chloe away from Pan’s sanctuary, but the god comes to the distraught Daphnis’ aid and sends the pirates fleeing. After the break of day (the second suite begins here), the couple is happily reunited. Daphnis and Chloe mime the tale of Pan and Syrinx. An all-embracing bacchanal concludes the ballet, the suite – and our concert.
Vasily Petrenko was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1976 and trained at the St. Petersburg Capella, Russia’s oldest music school for boys. He then studied at the conservatory in his home town and attended masterclasses with Ilya Musin, Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov; he also won several international conducting competitions. From 1994 to 1997, Vasily Petrenko gained his first experiences in stage and concert life at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. After his debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in November 2004, he took over the direction of the orchestra in September 2006; he has now been its chief conductor since September 2009. At the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, Petrenko took on the same role with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. As a guest conductor, he has appeared with the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Russian National Orchestra plus the Los Angeles and the Israel Philharmonic. He also works with youth orchestras in Great Britain and the European Union. Vasily Petrenko also enjoys success at leading opera houses: in 2010, he made his debut with Macbeth at the Glyndebourne Festival and with Eugene Onegin at the Opéra de Paris; in Germany, he has conducted Pique Dame in Hamburg and Boris Godunow at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. In 2007, the musician was voted Young Artist of the Year at the Gramophone Awards. Vasily Petrenko makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in these concerts.
Michael Barenboim was born in Paris in 1985 and moved to Berlin with his parents in 1992. At the age of seven, he began playing the violin, taught initially by Abraham Jaffe and later by Axel Wilczok. A globally active performer, Michael Barenboim is not only committed to the Classical and Romantic core repertoire, but also devotes himself intensively to compositions of the 20th and 21st century, notably, he worked together with Pierre Boulez for many years. As a soloist, he has performed with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He regularly works with the Komische Oper Berlin and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice. As a chamber musician, the co-founder of the Erlenbusch Quartet regularly appears at music festivals including in Verbier and Salzburg, and at the Lucerne Festival and the Rheingau Musik Festival. Michael Barenboim performs with his mother, the pianist Elena Bashkirova, and with artists such as Guy Braunstein and András Schiff. In addition to his solo performances and recitals, e.g. at the Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Konzerthaus Dortmund, and in Melbourne and Sydney, Michael Barenboim is concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He also teaches at the newly-founded Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin and in masterclasses all over the world. In these concerts he performs for the first time as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker.