This is a programme full of contrasts: After opening with Haydn's Symphony No. 80, the pianist Krystian Zimerman plays Brahms' First Piano Concerto, one of the most important late-Romantic contributions to the genre. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, on the other hand, is the soloist in the German premiere of Unsuk Chin's “Le Silence des Sirènes”, a work full of lyrical moments and psychedelic sound effects.
Symphony No. 80 in D minor
Le Silence des Sirènes for soprano and orchestra German Première
Barbara Hannigan Soprano
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
Krystian Zimerman Piano
When Krystian Zimerman, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto at the Easter Festival 2013 in Baden-Baden, the critics unanimously loved it: rarely did one experience such a cooperation between an interpreter and an orchestra, they wrote. The breathing together, the mutually inspiring dialogue is impressive, they added. “The exceptional Polish pianist is completely at one with himself in his atmospherically dense playing, structurally as clear as glass – and yet the orchestra gives him the royal treatment,” the Badische Zeitung wrote. So Krystian Zimerman and the Philharmonic are quite literally an experienced team – not just as concerns this work. After all, the pianist has been one of the Berlin Philharmonic’s guest soloists for close to 40 years.
Likewise, a fortunate collaboration has developed between the orchestra and the Canadian singer Barbara Hannigan. Whenever a soprano is needed to perform a contemporary work, she’s on the scene. In the last season she beguiled the Philharmonic audience with her crystalline singing at the premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you. In this concert Barbara Hannigan will take part in the performance of Le Silence des Sirènes for soprano and orchestra that South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who now lives in Berlin, wrote as composer in residence for the Lucerne Festival. The music of Ligeti’s student, who has been inspired by French “musique spectrale” and Asian gamelan music, is characterised by a lucid, dazzling splendour of sound.
The concerts open with music that is neither contemporary nor Romantic, but Classical. The Symphony No. 80, which Haydn completed in 1784, has a cheerful, lively character despite its key of D minor, and thus forms a prelude to the subsequent works in the programme that is as contrasting as it is spirited.
Joseph Haydn was as sly as a fox. At a time when there were no copyright regulations yet and the exchange of information was much slower than today, he saw no harm in selling one and the same work to several publishers. He had been in the service of the princes of Esterházy since 1761 and for many years was contractually obligated “to compose nothing for any other person”; in 1779 he signed a new contract in which this restriction was no longer mentioned. By this time Haydn was regarded as one of the leading composers of his day, and international publishers showed keen interest in his works – understandably, he wanted to reap the greatest possible benefit from the situation. Symphonies No. 79 to 81, composed as a trio in 1784, were among the works he offered to different publishers at the same time.
The symphony was a musical terrain on which Haydn could experiment to his heart’s content. He attempted and risked a great deal in this genre – which is obvious in the Symphony No. 80. The opening Allegro spiritoso in D minor begins with an agitated, almost threatening gesture. Energetic string tremolos and a persistently advancing bass line create a darkly heroic mood, but there is no recognizable theme. After a time, a theme suddenly appears for four bars in the first violins as a variant of the bass melody, only to immediately disappear again in the propulsive force of the music. Was that the principal theme or a secondary theme already? This question naturally arises, since another “clear” theme appears at the end of the exposition. Leisurely, dancelike, in imitation of a rustic Ländler, it forms the greatest possible contrast to the nervous excitement of what preceded it. One thing becomes increasingly obvious: Haydn likes to tease his listeners. It makes no difference whether he unexpectedly begins the development section in D flat major after a general pause, whether he ends the first movement in major rather than minor or obscures the overall metrical structure in the Finale with syncopations and brief motifs inserted on unaccented beats – he invariably proves to be a master of acoustic confusion. In the two middle movements Haydn varies the dualism of the first movement between rather abstract musical material, with which he develops exciting moods and fascinating progressions, and simple melodies.
Like Haydn, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who lives in Berlin, also shows the courage to take risks in her works. “I actually want to discover something new with every work, something that I don’t know yet, and that I haven’t heard elsewhere.” Her monodrama for soprano and orchestra Le Silence des Sirènes (The Silence of the Sirens) – premiered by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle in August 2014 – was inspired by an archetype of European literature: the mysterious creatures who lure sailors to certain death with their seductive singing. “Their singing kills, but also promises vast knowledge and great pleasure; somehow the sirens, who represent both the horror and the fascination of chthonic nature, are associated with the superhuman or even inhuman facets of music.” In the work, Unsuk Chin refers to various layers of reception: Homer’s legend of Odysseus, who has himself tied to the mast of his ship in order to pass the island of the Sirens safely, Franz Kafka’s story Das Schweigen der Sirenen(The Silence of the Sirens), a variation and reinterpretation of the ancient myth, and finally, the Sirens episode from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which, with its onomatopoeic, often contrapuntally treated text, is a kind of word music. The starting point for Unsuk Chin’s music is not the textual, but rather the semantic level of these texts. The creative process of composition is sparked by it, giving rise to pitches, timbres and rhythms. Le Silence des Sirènes opens with a minimalist gesture, starting from an interval of a second, which the singer intones while still offstage, then circles around and expands melodically in a solo introduction as she comes onto the stage; a “leitmotiv” is formed, which appears in entirely different characters during a dialogue with the orchestra. In keeping with the disjointedness of Joyce’s text, Unsuk Chin works with brief fragments strung together, which combine in a labyrinthine overall structure and display a hypnotic, almost psychedelic attraction. The soloist’s song ends in a silent cry, while the orchestra takes over her part and lets the music fade away in pianissimo. The boundary between song and silence is inaudible. Who is singing, who is silent? That must remain a mystery for the moment.
Johannes Brahms’s artistic development from a beacon of hope for the future, prophetically announced as the new “messiah” of music, to the leading symphonist of his day was hard, tedious and filled with despair. Along the way he tried various approaches to finding a new, modern and convincing solution for the symphonic genre, based on Ludwig van Beethoven’s guidelines. The First Piano Concerto was one of these attempts. A sonata for two pianos from 1854, now lost, was the original form of the work, about which Brahms observed: “Actually, not even two pianos are really enough for me.” What was more obvious than the idea of turning the sonata into a symphony? While working on the orchestration, however, he soon reached his limits and set the work aside for the time being. He finally decided on a “compromise”: the Piano Concerto in D minor, in which pianistic and symphonic elements are combined.
In the first movement (Maestoso) the orchestra and soloist hurl an abundance of seemingly heterogeneous musical material at the listener. Above an ominous timpani roll, the first violins and cellos enter with the fortissimo principal theme, the beginning of which features a tumultuous melody characterized by large interval leaps and a striking succession of trills. Later, a songlike secondary idea, an other-worldly tune in B flat minor and a characteristic fourth motif reminiscent of a hunting call are heard. The soloist’s entrance expands this wealth of material with a second theme: a fervent, chorale-like melody which gives way to the “hunt motif” after a few bars. Here, at the latest, it becomes clear that this outward heterogeneity is held together by a subtle web of motivic relationships. The following Adagio offers a sharp contrast to the opening movement. Its principal theme is a tranquil melody which moves stepwise and evokes a sublime, sacred character. The comparison with a chorale seems obvious, particularly because of the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine” (Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord), which Brahms wrote at the beginning of the movement between the piano staves in the manuscript. The pianist enters, takes up the material, refashions it, develops it further and enters into an intimate dialogue with the orchestra. In the Rondo finale Brahms – like Haydn in his D minor Symphony – plays a rhythmic game of deliberate confusion, to which the syncopated opening bar of the rondo theme, which is heard as an upbeat rather than a downbeat, and constantly shifting metric accents contribute substantially. Although the playful, virtuosic element is emphasized more strongly in this movement than in the two previous movements, the soloist does not stand out from the orchestra with superficial virtuosity but blends with it symphonically.
Barbara Hannigan was born in Canada and studied at the University of Toronto with Mary Morrison, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague with Meinard Kraak and privately with Neil Semer. She performs with leading orchestras and specialist ensembles around the world, and since 2006 the singer has performed on many occasions in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, most recently just two weeks ago in a Late Night concert with songs by Kurt Weill and William Walton’s Façade (Part 1). Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen Alan Gilbert, Susanna Mälkki, Sir Simon Rattle Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka Pekka Saraste are among the conductors she works with. Barbara Hannigan is best known for her interpretations of contemporary music. She was involved, for example, in the opera world premieres of Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer, Jan van de Putte’s Wet Snow, Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. The artist’s past and current artistic partnerships with composers include those with György Ligeti, Luca Francesconi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Peter Eötvös, Oliver Knussen and Henri Dutilleux. Barbara Hannigan has been widely acclaimed as an interpreter of works by György Ligeti (Mysteries of the Macabre,Aventures and NouvellesAventures, Requiem). In October 2012 the singer made her role her debut as Lulu at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. In addition to her work as an opera and concert singer, Barbara Hannigan is also active as a conductor: In 2010, she made her conducting debut at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Igor Stravinsky’s burlesque Renard. Other orchestras she has conducted since then include the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Gothenburg and Helsinki symphony orchestras, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. For her conducting debut with the Ludwig ensemble at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, she received the De Ovatie 2014 prize which is awarded to a performance that makes an important contribution to classical music in the Netherlands.
Krystian Zimerman was born in Zabrze (Poland), the son of a pianist. After early piano lessons from his father, he became a pupil of Andrzej Jasinski at the age of seven. Jasinski remained Zimerman’s only teacher. The musician started performing in public at an early age, but his real career began when he won not only the first prize, but also a gold medal and all the special prizes as the youngest of 118 participants from 30 countries at the 10th Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975. As early as one year later, he performed for the first time with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini and Herbert von Karajan have had a major influence on Krystian Zimerman’s artistic development. He works with major European and American orchestras under the baton of conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Since 1986 the pianist has dedicated up to twelve of his concerts to charitable events every year. He also tries not to give more than 50 concerts a year in total. Krystian Zimerman’s numerous CD releases include a recording of the First Piano Concerto by Johannes Brahms, together with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker – a recording made during his concerts with the orchestra in September 2003. He also appeared with this work together with the Berliner Philharmoniker as part of the 2013 Easter Festival in Baden-Baden. In the orchestra’s Berlin concerts, the artist most recently appeared over three evenings in February 2013 with Witold Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto which was composed for the pianist in 1987; the conductor was Sir Simon Rattle.