Susanna Mälkki and Gil Shaham
10 Sep 2017
Tanz-Walzer for orchestra, op. 53 (13 min.)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, Sz 112 (39 min.)
Gil Shaham violin
Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita for solo violin No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006: Gavotte en Rondeau (4 min.)
Gil Shaham violin
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 43 (50 min.)
Susanna Mälkki in conversation with Matthew McDonald (15 min.)
Ferruccio Busoni and the Berliner Philharmoniker enjoyed a long artistic partnership: After the German-Italian made his debut with the orchestra on 11 February 1891 playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, he was included in concert programmes on a regular basis. For seven years, the composer, conductor and pianist organised a concert series with the Philharmoniker which featured only new music and rarities of the repertoire: “The composers,” as it said in an announcement in the Signale für die musikalische Welt, “will conduct their respective works, and only when this is not possible does Busoni intend to take over the direction himself”. The ambitious series started on 8 November 1902 with Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, and until 1909, it remained a gathering place for the contemporary avant-garde. Of course, Busoni also presented the Berlin public with his own works which were represented in the musical life of the capital on a regular basis even after his philharmonic new music series came to an end: The Berliner Philharmoniker gave the premiere of his Tanz-Walzer op. 53 on 13 January 1921. And it is with this work, inspired “by the sounds of a waltz wafting from the interior of a coffee house” (Busoni), that Susanna Mälkki starts off her guest appearance conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Finnish conductor, regarded as a specialist in contemporary music, then turns to Béla Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, whose first movement’s main theme is characterised by lyricism and broadly sweeping melodic lines. The contrasting second subject is based on a twelve-tone row which, however, (similar to the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg) has distinct tonal characteristics. The soloist is none other than Gil Shaham, who has often been compared to the likes of Menuhin, Heifetz and Perlman and counts himself among the declared admirers of Bartók’s music: “The music is full of power, but is also sensitive, it is serious and full of humour, revolutionary and classic. ... Whether adapting folk melodies, or composing in the twelve-tone technique, Bartók’s style and artistic judgement constantly inspire me.”
The symphonic main work of the evening is Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony, about which Karl Flodin, the leading Finnish music critic of the late 19th century, enthusiastically wrote: “... the more one listens to this brilliant work, the more powerful one finds its contours, the more profound its spiritual content and the more incisive the indicators that provide for the proper understanding of the composition.”
Prophets, With and Without a Fatherland
Busoni, Bartók and Sibelius
A waltz for the ages: Ferruccio Busoni
“I make little use of modern music,” Hermann Hesse confessed in 1952, “my interest stops at about Ravel and Bartók, but on the radio I listen to some new music not without interest. Of the already almost forgotten modern composers, I love Busoni and Berg.” Apparently forgetting also has its cycles. Alban Berg is ubiquitous on concert programmes with his slender but rich oeuvre. Ferruccio Busoni, on the other hand, has to be content with the ambivalent posthumous reputation of an unknown great. Only a few of his numerous compositions haunt the repertoire as rarities: every performance becomes a discovery. For example, the Tanz-Walzer op. 53, which the Berliner Philharmoniker premiered under Busoni in the (old) Philharmonie on 13 January 1921 – and completely ignored after that: 100 years of silence.
As Busoni himself recounted, the Tanz-Walzer “was originally written in jest (and as a personal test of my own lighter talents), inspired by strains of a waltz issuing from inside a coffee-house, heard while walking in the street. ... The work is dedicated to the memory of Johann Strauss, whom the composer sincerely admires.” Busoni’s suite of waltzes amounts to more of a mega- or meta-Strauss, however. Busoni knew how to ennoble the light, fleeting, old-fashioned character of the dance with a sense of grandeur, light and shadow, classicism and decadence, to idealize it, to elevate it from the moment to the monumental. Everything has its place in this Tanz-Walzer: melodious grace, urbane elegance, Hoffmannesque irony, thrilling energy, the bad omen and the melancholy of bidding farewell (to an era).
Every lie bounces off this artistry: Béla Bartók
Who was the greatest composer of the 20th century? One day the violinist Yehudi Menuhin was confronted with this question. The person he was talking to was none other than Jean Sibelius. An awkward situation, since the questioner was himself one of the prominent artistic figures of his day. But the greatest? Menuhin was saved from embarrassment when Sibelius answered for him without further ado: “Bartók is our greatest composer.” Béla Bartók was by no means regarded as a prophet in his fatherland during his lifetime, however. He had to endure being branded as “cosmopolitan”, “unpatriotic” and a “corrupter of youth”, since his understanding of Hungarian music, which was influenced by his painstaking research on folk music, was incompatible with the nationalist Romantic ideas of his countrymen. In the face of this aggressive propaganda Bartók felt like a stranger in his own land: “Where politics begin, art and science come to an end, equity and good faith cease to exist.” Even before he went into American exile, Bartók chose the path of inner emigration.
With a “visionary insight into the very nature of musical logic” confirmed by his student Sándor Veress, Bartók was able to generalize the unwritten laws, the typical characteristics, even the performance style of folk music from the individual case of a particular song or dance and to write compositions for which musical folklore was not merely exotic seasoning but an inner compass. The Second Violin Concerto is such a work. Bartók was encouraged to compose this concerto, which dates from 1937/38, by the violinist Zoltán Székely. At first Bartók planned only a single movement, a set of variations – presumably the original version of the Andante tranquillo. Then, however, he complied with Székely’s request for a “standard” three-movement violin concerto and began composing the opening Allegro non troppo. Bartók patterned its first theme after a type of slow dance which he had heard in Transylvania. He devised a twelve-tone row as the second theme, without drawing the rigid conclusions of Schoenberg’s doctrine from this idea, however. The themes from the first movement return in the finale, which is structured as a “free variation”.
With his music, as concrete as it is radical, thousandfold thought-out, tested and shaped, Bartók created an alternative world which did not merely survive all ideologies and regimes but fundamentally questioned them. Dictators come and go, but Bartók’s musical truths remain unassailable; every lie bounces off this artistry. It shows a sense of responsibility – no note is superfluous, no bar unconsidered – which explains even his works for the youngest, for beginners on the piano, and treats them with the same seriousness, the same passion as the avant-garde compositions in which even virtuosos recognize their limits.
The movement of the water determines the shape of the river bed: Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius indisputably deserves the status and title of Finland’s national composer. His leading role in the dramatically increasing strength of the independence movement, in which the Finns rebelled against Russian dominance and Swedish cultural hegemony, earned him love and admiration that even the greatest artists are rarely given. Sibelius’s creative beginnings were still influenced by European high and late Romanticism, but his fascination with Finnish mythology and intimate knowledge of the folk music of the region beyond the Romantic era led him to a breakthrough that was unparalleled in its boldness, originality, robustness and imagination.
Sibelius once compared the symphony to a river: “The river is made up of countless streams all looking for an outlet: the innumerable tributaries, streams and brooks that form the river before it broadens majestically and flows into the sea. The movement of the water determines the shape of the river bed; the movement of the river water is the flow of the musical ideas, and the river bed that they form is the symphonic structure.” This mythically idealized law of nature goes far beyond the academic perspective and central European conventional wisdom. Take the Second Symphony in D major, op. 43, which Sibelius began in February 1901 during a trip to Italy and completed after more than a year. Do we hear a single variable theme in the opening Allegretto? Or two? Or even three? It is not difficult to find expert musicologists to support each of these theories, who argue heatedly among themselves not only about the number of themes but also over which bars they appear in. But such questions do not achieve anything anyway; with boundless creative power Sibelius’s Symphony disregards all drawing board drafts yet conveys the overwhelming feeling of musical logic, an irrefutable “this way and no other”.
Sibelius’s musical ideas sound like incantations; they get caught up in the maelstrom of a ritual, fall into the intermediate state of a trance or intensify to a breathtaking musical frenzy. The Finnish composer Sulho Ranta confessed that in the Second Symphony “there is something about this music – at least for us – that leads us to ecstasy, almost like a shaman with his magic drum”. The score began with ideas and sketches for an orchestral work to which Sibelius gave the working title The Stone Guest (a Don Juan theme) but also contemplated a cycle entitled “Festival” and even plans for setting selected verses from The Divine Comedy. In the end, all these literary-inspired beginnings were incorporated into the four movements of the D major Symphony – music that was always modern and is always old. And it has not lost its freshness in more than 100 years.
Susanna Mälkki initially trained as a cellist; between 1995 and 1998, she was principal cellist with the Gothenberg Symphony and also appeared as a soloist and chamber musician. She graduated in conducting from the Sibelius Academy in her hometown of Helsinki where she studied under Jorma Panula, Eri Klas and Leif Segerstam; she additionally attended masterclasses with Esa-Pekka Salonen and again with Jorma Panula. From 2002 to 2005, she was the artistic director and chief conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra (Norway). She then directed the Ensemble intercontemporain in Paris until 2013 where she performed numerous contemporary works, including several premieres. Since the 2016/2017 season, Susanna Mälkki has been the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. She is principal guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon and previously held the same position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Susanna Mälkki has worked with leading European, American and Japanese orchestras, including the San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonics, the New World Symphony, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and, at the beginning of March 2008, with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In addition, she has performed throughout Europe at prestigious venues and opera houses (the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Opéra national de Paris, the Teatro alla Scala, Hamburg State Opera). In Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts, Susanna Mälkki conducted the students of the Karajan Academy at the end of June 2016. She is a member of the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In 2011 she was awarded the “Pro Finlandia” medal in recognition of her contribution to the arts, and in 2016 she was named “Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur”.
Gil Shaham was born in 1971 in Illinois in the USA and grew up in Israel. He began his violin studies at the age of seven with Samuel Bernstein. In 1980, he changed to Chaim Taub, who arranged encounters for him with Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng and Jaime Laredo. After classes with Dorothy DeLay and Jens Ellerman in the USA, the artist won first prize at Israelʼs Claremont Competition in 1982. Gil Shaham then studied at New Yorkʼs Juilliard School of Music, where his training continued under Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang. When he was only ten years old, Gil Shaham made his debut with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; this was followed soon afterwards by a solo appearance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Today, the winner of the coveted Avery Fisher Prize in 2008 and Musical Americaʼs“Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2012 makes regular guest appearances with leading orchestras worldwide (the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra). He has received numerous awards for his more than 30 CD recordings, including the Grammy, the Grand Prix du Disque, the Diapason dʼOr and Gramophone Editorʼs Choice. Gil Shaham, who plays the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius, made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1988 as the soloist in Jean Sibeliusʼ Violin Concerto (conductor: Sir Colin Davis). His most recent appearance here was at the end of September 2015 under the baton of Zubin Mehta as the soloist in Korngoldʼs Violin Concerto.
In co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin