One of the most yearning compositions ever written opens this concert: Wagner’s “Tristan” prelude. The main works of this evening conducted by Simon Rattle are Jean Sibelius’s mystical tone poem “The Swan of Tuonela” and austere Nordic Fifth Symphony and the premiere of the piano concerto “Trauermarsch” by Jörg Widmann, one of the most interesting composers of the younger generation, with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist.
Prelude to Act I from Tristan und Isolde
Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra commissioned jointly by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, San Francisco Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra Première
Yefim Bronfman Piano
The Swan of Tuonela from the Lemminkäinen Suite
Dominik Wollenweber Cor Anglais, Bruno Delepelaire Cello
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major
Many of Jörg Widmann’s works reveal a specific engagement with traditional musical forms, and his new Piano Concerto Trauermarsch – his first work in the genre – is no exception. “I don’t consider what is new a self-contained quality,” says the composer. In these concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, none other than Yefim Bronfman will premiere Widmann’s Piano Concerto. “What keeps me going is the new repertory,” the world-renowned pianist tells the Los Angeles Times. “Learning new pieces and commissioning new works is what I enjoy most.”
The concert begins with the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and ends with Jean Sibelius’s mystical ton poem The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony. The last work clearly links to Sibelius’s impressionist tone poems from the same era and boasts an entire palette of brilliant orchestral effects. Despite the success of the premiere, Sibelius revised the work and wrote as he worked on the Finale, “The entire piece [...] is a vital heightening towards the end. Triumphant!” In this form, the Fifth quickly became the most popular of Sibelius’s symphonies.
It is often said that the whole of modern music hinges on Tristan, or, more precisely, on the Prelude to its first act. And there’s no denying it: the way in which Wagner transforms the “most famous dissonance in music history” (musicologist Carl Dahlhaus) – the “Tristan chord”, made up of the notes F, B, D sharp, G sharp – into another, milder dissonance without actually resolving it has had irrevocable consequences for Western harmony. When he withholds cadential points of repose from the listener, when he undermines the hierarchy of major and minor intervals, he has indeed, in 1857-58, paved the way for the complete “emancipation of the dissonance” (Arnold Schoenberg’s 1926 formulation), which will determine the course of New Music in the 20th century. It is often claimed, in Germany and elsewhere, that Schoenberg’s venturing into atonality in 1908 was an inevitable historical consequence of Wagner’s innovations. The Tristan Prelude’s maelstrom effect is built up within the tension of the illusory principal key of A minor: the wide spectrum of dissonance signifies an expansion of the tonal system, not its dissolution. The other composers represented in this evening’s programme demonstrate how widely ramified the paths of European music have become since 1900.
“One never writes the piece one had in mind”, says Jörg Widmann. He isn’t interested in abstract planning – it’s the material that generates the form. The gravitation of sonic events emerges only in the course of working. “Initially I had in mind a multi-movement layout”, he states in connection with the piano concerto to which he has given the title Trauermarsch (Funeral March). “Then I realized that the entire piece must revolve around this archaic funeral march and its variations. Later the idea of a fast movement took hold, because there are these escapist moments where it really does break out.” Often these percussive, motoric discharges abruptly insert themselves into the march. In other places, Widmann creates a gentle, ethereal mediation between types of music, with a central role in this process played by glissando effects, for example on the slide whistle. There was no autobiographical occasion that induced him to delve into the form of the funeral march with “almost manic intensity”. In fact it was a search for the expressive significance which this heavily fraught topos holds today. And for the applicability of the “funeral march” model to a genre that, by definition, is aimed at interaction between unequal partners.
“What preoccupied me was the piano’s attack and the relatively fast fading away of individual notes. I needed to provide the piano part with an abundance of aural impulses in order for it to stand up to the orchestra. The concentration of the piano writing is readily apparent in reading the score: in soft passages the solo part is frequently notated in three or four staves, and with the help of the sustaining pedal it produces a multitude of impulses from a very wide range of pitches. The technical demands are enormous as the dense piano writing is loaded with contrapuntal internal relationships. And apart from five short bars towards the end, the soloist plays all the way through the piece. During the final bars, denoted Abgesang (swansong) in the score, the music sinks in resignation down to the lowest register until it comes to a standstill on a slightly troubled C sharp minor chord. Just as Widmann possesses an obvious feeling for the compelling gesture, he also shows remarkable assurance at calibrating colours in the medium of a large orchestra.
The Swan of Tuonela is one of the “Lemminkäinen Legends”, four tone poems based on the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, that Sibelius composed in 1893–96. The suite’s eponymous hero – a kind of Nordic Don Juan – desires as his wife a maiden in Pohjola, the far North. Her mother, the powerful witch Louhi, sets Lemminkäinen a series of tasks. The last of these is to slay with a single arrow the sacred swan that guards the realm of death as it sings and swims majestically on Tuonela, the dark river of the underworld in Finnish mythology. A cor anglais (English horn) symbolizes the swan’s song, and Sibelius gives another theme to the solo cello. The music’s gloom and pervasive sense of death are penetrated only once by bright C major, which disappears into the mists as quickly as it appears.
From 1904 Sibelius lived in seclusion in Järvenpää, near Helsinki. When he started composing his Fifth Symphony shortly before his 50th birthday, he found himself an increasingly isolated figure. Bitterly disappointed by the uncomprehending reception of his sombre Fourth Symphony, in which he ventured closer than ever before to the brink of atonality, Sibelius turned away decisively from the Modernism of the great musical centres such as Vienna, Berlin and Paris. The Fourth was already regarded in Finland as a “protest against the prevalent musical style”. In his next effort in the genre, he not only renounces many of the modern orchestra’s coloristic possibilities; he also resolutely rejects the dissolution of tonality, definitively returning to a diatonic harmonic language dominated by warm 3rds. Repeatedly he exhorts himself not to let his own work be disturbed by the innovations of the day. With self-irony he takes up the critics’ cliché of the “apparition from the forests”. From now on he regards himself as “a vessel” of timeless truths, as a medium that derives its messages largely from nature. Almost pantheistically, he identifies his music with the elemental forces that he experiences in his immediate surroundings. In April 1915 he sees a flock of migrating swans and identifies their call with the hymnlike theme he has long contemplated for the finale: four horns swinging up and down in parallel thirds, initially emerging from the strings’ tremolo storm at the beginning of the movement. “One of the great experiences of my life! God, how beautiful,” wrote Sibelius in his diary. And a few days later: “That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider. I have thus been in the sanctuary today.”
Yefim Bronfman, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1958, emigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 15 and became an American citizen in 1989. His teachers included Arie Vardi in Israel and Rudolf Firkušný, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin in the USA. Yefim Bronfman launched his international career in Montreal under Zubin Mehta in 1975; his first concerts with the New York Philharmonic followed three years later. Since then Yefim Bronfman has appeared with the leading international orchestras, collaborating with many distinguished conductors. Recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1991, he performs with such chamber music partners as Shlomo Mintz, Lynn Harrell, Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman and the Emerson, Cleveland, Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets. During the 2007/2008 season the pianist was Perspectives artist at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Artiste étoile at the Lucerne Festival in summer 2009. In May 2012 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto commissioned for him by the New York Philharmonic, in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Alan Gilbert. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 Yefim Bronfman has appeared frequently at the Philharmonie as a concert soloist, chamber musician and in solo programmes, serving as the orchestra’s pianist in residence during the 2004/2005 season. In the season opening concert at the end of August 2012, he performed Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle.