Piano Concerto in B flat major K. 456
Oiseaux exotiques for piano and small orchestra
An imaginary orchestral journey featuring excerpts from Symphonies Nos. 45, 64 and 90 as well as from the Creation and The Seven Last Words
In the singing of birds, the devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen saw musical testimony of God’s love for creation and its creatures. For this reason, the French composer made bird song the basis of his works from the beginning of the 1950s. He transferred its intricate rhythms and intervals to our own tonal system, and imitated its specific timbre using a sophisticated orchestration technique. The soloist in Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques for piano and small orchestra from 1955/1956 is the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who will also perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat major K. 456 in these three concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of its chief conductor. Another focus of the concert is a composer who has always been close to Sir Simon Rattle’s heart: Joseph Haydn. Rattle himself calls this part of the programme “an eccentric journey through Haydn”. The conductor got the idea for this unusual programming combination from Marc Minkowski, who compiled Jean-Philippe Rameau’s best works into a “Symphonie imaginaire”. “I thought how wonderful it would be if all the most outlandish and particularly the most forward-looking pieces of his were all put together like a kind of ‘greatest hits’,” says Simon Rattle. “The idea is to make a musical journey through all that is quirky and extraordinary, humorous and profound in Haydn. Hopefully this pasticcio will give a picture of the composer who most summed up all the ideals of the Enlightenment, of intelligence, respect, humour, wit and profound thought.”
“To tell the truth, I was really worn out in the end after playing so much – and it is greatly to my credit that my listeners never got tired,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his father with great satisfaction in April 1784. Several letters from this period reveal how much the composer enjoyed being “everybody’s darling” on Vienna’s musical scene. He was obviously in demand – as a pianist, teacher and composer. Mozart had been living in the imperial city of the Habsburg Empire as a freelance artist since 1781, and the year 1784 was particularly successful for him professionally. Within a six-week period he appeared in more than twenty academies, concerts which were presented by musicians on a subscription basis and provided them with a not insignificant source of income. Vienna’s social elite met at these academies, and Mozart composed diligently in order to offer new works for such occasions. He wrote six piano concertos alone that year. Although Mozart did not originally compose all of them for himself – some were commissioned by others – he made use of these compositions, presenting them as new works at his academies. In all probability, his B-flat major Concerto, K. 456, was composed for the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis.
The principal theme of the first movement of Mozart’s B-flat major Concerto, K. 456, is reminiscent of a piano concerto by Johann Christian Bach. The theme, with its repeated notes and dotted rhythm, has the character of a march. Mozart takes up this military, marchlike style again and again in several variants, for example, in the fanfare transition which announces the entrance of the soloist and becomes the central counterfigure to the virtuosic piano runs in the development section. In contrast to this brashly triumphant attitude, Mozart provides thoughtful, lyrical passages, often tinged with minor shading, already anticipating the elegiac mood of the G minor second movement. Here as well there are echoes of familiar works, as the Mozart specialist Marius Flothuis points out – the opening of Constanze’s “Traurigkeit” [sorrow] aria from Entführung aus dem Serail. This Andante un poco sostenuto movement is a set of variations in which pianist and orchestra first appear separately, then later enter into an intensive dialogue. The tender and intimate interplay between the soloist and individual instrumental sections, especially the winds, demonstrates how consummately Mozart is able to use the different timbres. In the rondo finale, Mozart emphasizes brilliance and virtuosity – the soloist can pull out all the stops. The rondo theme, which is characterized by repeated notes and arpeggiated triads, is evocative of a hunting fanfare, giving the movement the character of a high-spirited audience rouser.
“Mozart is the most musical of musicians. One searches in vain for a mistake in his music,” said Olivier Messiaen. For the French composer, Mozart’s musical language was a lifelong, inexhaustible source of inspiration, like the singing of birds, which he studied with scientific meticulousness, notated and used for his own works. “In the domain of music, birds have discovered everything,” he declared. “Birds use the roll, the trill, the tremolo with two disjunct notes, the arpeggio, legato and staccato notes, neumes from Gregorian chant, various European and exotic scales, the major third ...”.
Messiaen began using birdsongs as a fundamental element of his compositions in the 1950s. The best-known work from this period is probably his Catalogue d’oiseaux for solo piano, which was performed for the first time in 1959. Prior to that, however, he had already composed two works for piano and orchestra: Réveil des oiseaux (1953) and Oiseaux exotiques (1955/1956). The latter work is a concerto of birdcalls that would never occur in nature – Messiaen combines the songs of exotic birds from India, China, the Malay Archipelago, the Americas and the Canary Islands. A few birds assume the role of principals, such as the Virginia red cardinal, with its shrill, quick song, or the white-rumped shama from India, which Messiaen described as “wonderful singers with a large repertoire”, whose song dominates the entire closing tutti. Another of the composer’s typical stylistic characteristics is his use of Indian and Greek rhythms, since, in his view, the power of irreversibility (non-retrogradable rhythms) is inherent in them.
The depiction of birdsong in music is not new – although no composer before Messiaen attempted to approximate the original sounds in music as exhaustively as he did. In his oratorio The Creation, for example, Joseph Haydn musically portrayed a pair of doves cooing affectionately. Other natural phenomena also stimulated his creative imagination, however, as we will hear in the Haydn pasticcio during today’s concert. Sir Simon Rattle got the idea for this unusual programming combination from Marc Minkowski, who compiled Jean-Philippe Rameau’s best works into a Symphonie imaginaire [imaginary symphony]. “I thought how wonderful it would be if all the most outlandish and particularly the most forward-looking pieces of his were all put together like a kind of ‘greatest hits’.”
Sir Simon not only chose his own favourite movements for the pasticcio but also works that tell a story. The oratorio The Creation begins with an instrumental introduction representing chaos. Menacing timpani blows, swirling expanses of sound, dissonances and tentative chains of notes convey the impression of something in turmoil, in the process of formation, not yet concrete. It goes without saying, however, that everything is in order as far as Haydn’s composition is concerned, despite these elements of chance and disorder. The “Terremoto”(Earthquake) from the instrumental work The Seven Words of Christ on the Crossalso depicts chaotic conditions. After the death of Jesus on the cross, the world is out of balance, the earth trembles – at least musically. The introduction to “Winter” from the oratorio The Seasons portrays, in Haydn’s own words, “the thick fog with which winter begins”. Another spectacle of nature – calm at sea, stormy seas and the gentle play of waves – is depicted in the overture to the Azione teatrale [theatrical action]L’isola disabitata.
Few people think of Haydn as an opera composer today, since his most important genre was instrumental music, particularly the symphony. With the exception of the minuet from Symphony No. 6 (“Le Matin”), which probably dates from 1761, Simon Rattle has chosen movements from symphonies which Haydn composed for the musical entertainment of his employer, Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy, during the 1770s and 80s. The selection illustrates the sense of adventure, variety and, above all, humour with which the composer applied himself to this genre. Every movement surprises the listener with something witty. Sir Simon came up with an original idea for the transition from Symphony No. 45, the “Farewell” Symphony, to the Finale of Symphony No. 90: music for flute clocks. In these mechanical marvels, the clockwork operates a small organ with a pinned cylinder that plays a musical work. Haydn, who was a friend of Father Primitivus Niemecz, Prince Esterházy’s librarian and a clockmaker, composed a number of pieces for his flute clocks, several of which will be played today. “We’ll see whether it works,” says Simon Rattle, “but the idea is to make a musical journey through all that is quirky and extraordinary, humorous and profound in Haydn. Hopefully this pasticcio will give a picture of the composer who most summed up all the ideals of the Enlightenment, of intelligence, respect, humour, wit and profound thought.”
Mitsuko Uchida is admired throughout the whole world for performances marked by a rare degree of intellectual acuity and profound musical insight. She specializes in the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, while also performing a repertory that includes works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Messiaen. This summer Uchida and the Berliner Philharmoniker will look back on an artistic partnership lasting thirty years: She made her debut with the orchestra in June 1984, performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. During the 2008/09 season she was the orchestra’s pianist in residence, performing all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Among the orchestras with which she appears on a regular basis are the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia of London and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam; as artist in residence for the Cleveland Orchestra, she conducted performances of all of Mozart’s piano concertos while also playing the solo part. She is also active as a chamber recitalist and has appeared not only on her own but also with other artists such as the Hagen Quartet and the tenor Ian Bostridge. Together with the pianist Richard Goode she currently runs the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. She also supports young artists through her active involvement with the Borletti Buitoni Trust. In 2009 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Her last appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in October 2013 within the concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonie; last December she performed works by Berg, Schubert and Messiaen in a chamber concert together with members of the orchestra.