Two exceptional phenomena of the concert world meet: the French pianist Hélène Grimaud, who has shown herself to be a both delicate and headstrong interpreter of the piano repertoire from Bach to Bartók, and Valery Gergiev, the sensitive eccentric whose career took off in 1976 with the first prize of the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition, before he took the tradition-steeped Mariinski Theatre to new heights.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major
Hélène Grimaud Piano
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor
At this Berliner Philharmoniker concert, two performers who stand out in our times as extraordinary will encounter each other: the French pianist Hélène Grimaud, known not only as a sensitive and idiosyncratic interpreter of the piano repertoire between Bach and Bartók but also as a committed animal rights activist, campaigning for the survival of a fascinating species since founding her Wolf Conservation Center more than 15 years ago. And Valery Gergiev, sensitive eccentric, whose career had its start in 1976 when he won first prize at the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition, before he gave the Mariinsky Theatre, so steeped in tradition, a new lease on life, and developed into one of the most sought-after orchestral conductors of his generation on the international scene.
At this year’s concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, the “most influential present-day Russian conductor”, according to DIE ZEIT, will conduct a programme rich in contrasts: first, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Hélène Grimaud as soloist, then Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony. The G-major concerto was the last concert piano composition that Beethoven, who was losing his hearing, was able to launch as soloist. In contrast, Prokofiev’s Sixth, premiered some 140 years later and banned shortly thereafter by the Soviet cultural authorities, is not an example of artistic borderline experiences, but rather musically works through a human crisis of hitherto unprecedented scale: the Second World War.
It was Beethoven’s pianistic virtuosity that first earned him a place in Vienna’s musical life. He appeared frequently as an interpreter and improviser at house concerts and in the palaces of wealthy aristocrats. “Beethoven [is] a musical genius,” reads an entry in the 1796 Vienna and Prague music yearbook. “He is universally admired for the speed of his playing, executed with great ease.” Beethoven’s reputation as a pianist, however, became increasingly overshadowed by his renown as a composer, especially as his hearing steadily deteriorated after the turn of the century. In 1803 he was engaged as opera composer for the Theater an der Wien, which also granted him the privilege of presenting an annual “Academy” – a concert for his own benefit. One of the most memorable of these occasions took place on 22 December 1808. The gigantic programme consisted entirely of Beethoven’s own compositions. It included the first public performance of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58, a work that introduced several novel features into the genre.
According to convention the first movement of a concerto began with the orchestra, but here the piano opens the work with a sonorous G major chord that develops into a brief, rather wistful phrase, marked dolce. Then the strings take up and transform the piano part’s repeated chords, but in the strange-sounding distant key of B major. After quickly finding its way back to the tonic, the orchestral writing opens up above a bustling accompanimental figure. The swaggering dotted rhythms of a new theme lead into some new keys before the opening quaver (eighth-note) motive rejoins and dramatizes the proceedings. A conciliatory conclusion to this section is prevented by the re-entry of the soloist, who takes up and continues the motive of the closing group (another variant of the main idea) like an interested conversation partner. At the end of the development section, the energy of the horn fanfares carries over into the piano part, which increases in scope and brilliance with each new section as it moves towards the virtuosic cadenza. The movement ends with the principal motive superimposed in the orchestra against sweeping cascades up and down the keyboard.
The following Andante con moto was connected with the Orpheus myth by commentators as early as the mid-19th century. A gruff unison string theme is juxtaposed with a melancholy song on the piano. The two musical “worlds” alternate in ever-shorter phrases, with the orchestra constantly diminishing in drama and contour while the piano part expands into a Romantic cantilena. Suddenly the latter darkens dramatically, and the movement concludes with the strings becalmed – the soloist’s song seems to have warded off the terrors of the Underworld.
The beguiling final rondo introduces a completely different world. Expectant string staccatos are elaborated by the pianist, then a heated dispute develops in which the solo part eventually has the last word. Its closing figuration gradually leads to a broadly lyrical new theme, extended with brilliant broken chords on the piano that turn dramatic. A more static passage follows, in which the piano and orchestra colourfully vary the main material. Eventually, after the soloist screws up the tension with impetuous chromaticism, the lyrical subsidiary theme returns. The violas present a warmly relaxed version of the main theme against tinkling piano figuration, and then the full orchestra builds climactically up to another return of the main theme. The short solo cadenza ends with chains of trills – underscored by the returning orchestra – which finally dissolve into lyrical arabesques. In this finale, as in the opening movement, pianist and orchestra collaborate in the final section before resplendent final chords bring their vivid dialogue to a close.
In two of his seven symphonies Prokofiev paid homage to the Viennese Classicists. The Classical Symphony, his first, channels the “clarity” of the style of Haydn and Mozart. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, op. 111, was explicitly dedicated “to the memory of Beethoven” and bears the same opus number as his last piano sonata.
The opening movement is torn and tragic – the music seems constantly pervaded by the greyness of the war experience. The excursively searching principal theme, which follows a sinister brass introduction, is repeatedly interrupted by shrill, agitated episodes. A desolate second melody sounds and subsides. After a brief return of the main theme, a straight-faced march rhythm develops on the bassoons and piano, its accents underpinning the trombone, tuba, cellos and double basses. After an unruffled start, the elegiac melody that rises above this rhythm is relaxed at first but then is swept up into the maelstrom of the march. The music grows increasingly stark, strained and desperate until the rhythmic pulsation of the brass comes to a standstill. With trumpet fanfares, the rasping of the side drum and the blast of the tam-tam, the movement reaches its climax. A kind of slow-motion reverberation – several trombones, swelling and diminishing, are chained together to create a striking effect – leads to the melancholy second theme. After a return of the march, the opening theme briefly flares up and soars in incongruously resplendent major. Just as quickly as it came, however, it is given a melancholy hue by lamenting trumpets.
The central Largo is pervaded by pathos, lyrical melodic lines and drama. Two broad cantabile passages follow the dissonant opening. The first begins with solo trumpet and violin and builds up to a radiant forte repetition by the full orchestra. The second is presented on high bassoon and cellos, passionately repeated by the strings. Then the mood shifts abruptly. There is a brief grotesque moment produced by the stagnating rhythm on muted brass, piano and percussion. A tranquil, almost idyllic horn melody is taken up by the full orchestra; its repetition is wreathed by the sound of harp and celesta. The two themes from the beginning of the movement now return in abridged form and, after a brief quickening of the pace, the opening dissonances erupt again. In the coda, rising lines, motivic fragments and rocking accompanimental figures dwindle and die away.
To follow these two highly dramatic, emotionally concentrated movements, Prokofiev has written a high-spirited, classically inspired Vivace in rondo form. The driving semiquavers (16th notes) of the nimble main theme are soon subjected to a surly commentary in the voices of deep wind and piano. The second theme seems at once unusually two-dimensional and, thanks to the strings’ constant grace notes, restless and driven. Borrowing from Beethoven’s “durchbrochen” technique, the themes are broken down into their component parts and divided between different instruments – all at breathtaking speed. Finally the principal and subsidiary themes are overlaid and closely dovetailed. Shortly before the end of the movement, the mood shifts yet again. An elegiac passage on bass clarinet and bassoon refers back to the beginning of the symphony. The music culminates in a shattering, twofold climax. The dotted rhythms of the main theme are speeded up once again before this finale and all its rhythmic energy evaporate in an ecstatic flourish.
Valery Gergiev was born in Moscow in 1953 and grew up in the Caucasus. After studying music in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, he won first prize in the All Union Conductors’ Competition in Moscow in 1975 at the very beginning of his career; one year later he won the Herbert von Karajan Conductors’ Competition at the Philharmonie in Berlin. Since 1988, he has been artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and has toured with its orchestra and its opera and ballet ensembles to more than 30 countries. The arrival of Valery Gergiev at the helm marked the start of a period of renaissance, careful restoration and artistic development at the Mariinsky Theatre. Valery Gergiev is also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, founder and artistic director of the St Petersburg “Stars of the White Nights” festival and the Moscow Easter festival. In addition, he is artistic director of the international festivals in Mikkeli (Finnland) and in Rotterdam. In 2013 Valery Gergiev became director of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA. The international award winning musician is a welcome guest of leading opera houses and concert venues all over the world, and regularly works with the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna, New York and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras. He made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut at the beginning of June 1993 in a series of concerts of works by his fellow Russians Prokofiev and Shostakovich. For his most recent appearance in December 2010, he conducted works by Shchedrin, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky.
Hélène Grimaud studied in her home town of Aix-en-Provence as well as in Marseilles and Paris, where her teachers included György Sándor and Leon Fleisher. In 1987 she won the Cannes Classical Award at that year’s MIDEM music fair and was recommended as a soloist by Daniel Barenboim to the Orchestre de Paris. Her appearance in Paris was followed by other debuts in Tokyo and at the Roque d’Anthéron International Piano Festival. Among the international orchestras with which she has appeared are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the major orchestras in London and North America. She has also worked with many of the world’s leading conductors. Hélène Grimaud made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1995, when she performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Her most recent appearance was in January 2010, when she played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major under Tugan Sokhiev. Among the musicians with whom she has appeared in the field of lieder and chamber music are Sol Gabetta, Rolando Villazón, Clemens Hagen and Truls Mørk. In 1999 she founded the Wolf Conservation Center in the state of New York. The World Wide Fund for Nature and Amnesty International are other beneficiaries of her ecological and humanitarian concerns. She has also written several books, among them Variations sauvages – also available in English as Wild Harmonies. Her numerous awards include the titles of Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2002) and Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (2008) in her native France.