The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle are celebrating the new year together! Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 488 is part of the fun: soloist is the legendary Menahem Pressler, who gave his acclaimed debut with the Philharmoniker last January at the age of 90 and was praised by the press for his “masterful exhilaration” and his “unique tone”. And there’ll be sparkling colours and dance-like elan in works by Rameau, Kodály and Dvo?ák.
Suite from Les Indes galantes
Piano Concerto in A major K. 488
Menahem Pressler Piano
Háry János Suite (Excerpts)
Slavonic Dances (Selection)
A recording of the concert is available online at our Digital Concert Hall.
Pianist Menahem Pressler has made recording and interpretation history for more than half a century with the Beaux Arts Trio, which he founded in 1955. Pressler was born in Magdeburg in 1923 and fled the National Socialist regime with his family. The grand seigneur of piano gave his long-overdue debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2014 with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. The audience hailed Pressler with a standing ovation; the press raved about the “masterful exhilaration” of his musicality and his “unique tone, as full as it was intimate”. For his appearance at this year’s New Year’s Eve Concerts in the Philharmonic Hall, Pressler has selected Mozart again: the Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, composed during Mozart’s prime in Vienna and one of his most beautiful contributions to the genre.
The New Year’s Eve Concerts open with Sir Simon Rattle conducting music by Jean-Philippe Rameau: a suite of instrumental pieces from the opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes show French Baroque music at its finest. Following the intermission, the musicians ring in the new year in a lively way with Slavic strains: an orchestral suite from Zoltán Kodály’s charming folk opera Háry János as well as a selection from the popular Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák.
After contributing two works to the genre of the tragédie lyrique, Rameau composed Les Indes galantes, his third stage work and first opéra-ballet, a theatrical spectacle usually lasting three hours or more consisting of operatic acts, dance scenes and instrumental interludes. Orientalism and exoticism, Turkish operas, Saracen music, Persian themes and fascination for distant lands and fairy-tale motifs were fashionable during the Rococo period, a departure from Greek and Roman mythology. The libretto for Les Indes galantes was written by Louis Fuzelier, a master of exotic subject matter. The title could be freely translated as “Love Stories in the Indies”, but Fuzelier presented Europeans and, in particular, non-European characters from several distant continents in a sequence of acts without dramatic coherence. The work deals with romantic rivalries throughout the world, a tragedy of jealousy and happy conflict resolutions. It tells the stories of a Turk who generously abandons his own ambitions in favour of his French rival, a Peruvian Inca priest who is tragically inferior in a romantic rivalry but deserves the sympathy of the audience if only because of his stirring hymn to the sun, two pairs of Persian lovers who overcome their romantic problems during a flower festival and, finally, a Spanish and a French officer who become involved in a three-way conflict – this time in the forests of Illinois – over the daughter of an Indian chief. She settles the dispute herself by choosing a member of the tribe, and at the close they all smoke the calumet, the ceremonial peace pipe. The Indians were referred to as les sauvages, savages, but not in a derogatory sense. In the enlightened spirit of this age, the term meant the “noble”, “civilized” savages of non-European countries and continents, who proved to be culturally and morally at least equal, if not superior, to their Western conquerors.
He must learn to thoroughly master the technique of chiaroscuro, the painter’s art of contrasting between light and dark, Leopold admonished his son Wolfgang – at a time when the son was already far ahead of his father in this respect.
After an unusually long initial phase, Mozart completed his Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, at the beginning of 1786, during a period in which the composer, who was predestined for opera, was busy working on Figaro. The impulses of his symphonic and concertante inspirations, which could be described as non-staged “productions”, are as nimble as the characters in his operas. The premiere of the A major Piano Concerto probably took place in spring of 1786, during a subscription concert with Mozart himself as soloist.
The first and last movements are in fact evocative of the agility of an Italian Singspiel, a commedia per musica – the designation that appears on the title page of the first printing of Figaro. Not everything about this piano concerto is opera buffa, however. The colour contrasts of the unpredictable modulations from C major to E minor are spread throughout the rondo finale, from the “romantic” F sharp minor – extremely unusual and almost progressive in Mozart – to the D major intervention of the clarinets. That corresponds closely to the bewildering appearance of unexpected characters on the Figarostage but also casts an eerie ambivalence over the instrumental proceedings during the concerto. The “transported” key of F sharp minor in the second movement, the central Adagio, is taken completely at its word. With wide intervallic leaps, the piano part depicts a line that demands immunity to vertigo. Individual voices soar from the restrained siciliano tempo in 6/8 metre to immeasurable heights and solitude. Before the horror vacui [fear of emptiness] overtakes them, they are caught just in time by the closing chords of the orchestra.
Zoltán Kodály and his friend Béla Bartók insisted on making a distinction between music which they disdained as “popular art music” and “music of our peasants”, which aroused their curiosity and interest as researchers. Armed with a phonograph and manuscript paper, they set off in search of a musical “mother tongue”. In anthologies they documented the folk songs they discovered in remote areas.
This obsession with folklore research is not perceptible in the music of Háry János, however. The idiomatic inflection, which evokes a clear association with Hungary even in the dispassionate listener, is present in every bar, and when the hammering sounds of the cimbalom are heard – predominantly in the Intermezzo – one feels transported to a fairyland. The hero is telling fantastic tales, after all.
The story is set in an inn in the village of Nagyabony, east of Bratislava (in modern-day Slovakia), a guard post on the Russian-Hungarian border, the Imperial Palace in Vienna, a fortress in Milan, Vienna again and, finally, the inn in Nagyabony. János, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, sits there every day and regales the villagers, who listen breathlessly, with his incredible exploits in the army and in love. He recounts how he rescued Marie-Louise, the daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Franz I and Napoleon’s second wife, from Russian guards and brought her safely to Vienna. How his betrothed, Örzse, faithfully followed him everywhere. How he defeated Napoleon, how Marie-Louise made preparations to marry János and argued with Örzse over him. How he, already seated at the wedding table in Vienna, was moved by Örsze’s tears and overcome with homesickness. In the end, Háry János, united with Örzse and surrounded by his fellow villagers, is happy in the world he has created himself.
The already successful Johannes Brahms admired the eight-year-younger Antonín Dvořák and recommended him, a virtually unknown Bohemian colleague, to his publisher Fritz Simrock in Berlin. Simrock had made a good profit on Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and was willing to commission a “Slavic” counterpart from Dvořák. While Dvořák was still composing the set of eight Slavonic Dances for piano four hands, he also arranged them for orchestra. He presented both versions to his publisher at the same time in 1878; Simrock published the dances immediately and made a huge profit on them. Dvořák complained with good reason that his publisher had pocketed the profits himself and fobbed him, the composer, off with a pittance. Nevertheless, it paved the way to lasting worldwide fame which he might otherwise never have achieved.
Although Simrock pressured him, Dvořák took his time with his second set of eight Slavonic Dances until 1886/1887, then had them published as op. 72, again concurrently in versions for piano four hands and orchestra. They go far beyond the boundaries of the familiar Bohemian ambience, expanding the Slavic horizon, but are more restrained in their impulsiveness and less intent on effect than most of the dances from the first set.
Menahem Pressler was born in Magdeburg in 1923 and emigrated to Israel in 1939, where he studied piano with, among others, Eliahu Rudiakov and Leo Kestenberg. After being awarded first prize at the International Debussy Competition in San Francisco in 1946, he made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra (conductor: Eugene Ormandy). Numerous appearances with major international orchestras in the U.S. and Europe followed. Menahem Pressler had already been pursuing a successful solo career for almost 10 years when he began his unprecedented career as a chamber musician: A founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, with which he made his debut at the Berkshire Music Festival in 1955, the artist remained the sole pianist in the ensembles’ long history. The legendary piano trio, which ultimately also included Daniel Hope (violin) and Antonio Meneses, continued performing until 2008. Pressler continues to dazzle audiences throughout the world, both as soloist and collaborating chamber musician, including performances with the Juilliard, Emerson and Cleveland Quartets, the Israel Quartet and the Pasquier String Trio. For nearly 60 years, he has taught at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, currently with the rank of “Distinguished Professor”. He has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Nebraska, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the North Carolina School of the Arts, to name but a few. Menahem Pressler’s further awards include the “Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award” and the “Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters”. In 2005, the musician was named “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture, and in the same year he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany 1st Class. In September 2012, Menahem Pressler was granted German nationality. He first appeared as soloist in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in January 2014 with Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 453, conducted by Semyon Bychkov.