Jeu de cartes
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major
Symphony No. 8 in G major
Lisa Batiashvili’s playing has a luminous inward quality; it is gripping and inspired, virtuosic and intelligent. So opined the critic of Berlin’s Tagesspiegel after the Georgian violinist’s Philharmonic debut in 2004. On that occasion she presented Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. This season, with Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer on the rostrum, she will take up her Stradivari to play Sergei Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, a work of serenity and humour, combining lyricism and a delight in virtuosity.
Another work of wit and burlesque is Stravinsky’s ballet Jeu de cartes. The Russian composer describes a poker game in three deals with irony and in the spirit of parody. In the end heart trumps the joker. Composed in collaboration with the choreographer George Balanchine in 1936-37 for the American Ballet in New York, it is one of the chief works of neo-classicism.
Uninterrupted high spirits and exuberance mark the last work in the programme: in his Eighth Symphony, Antonín Dvořák strikes that Bohemian folk tone that has made him world-famous. For the movements of this symphony, the Czech composer has assembled a series of poetic impressions that approach the sphere of the symphonic poem. He himself declared his intention of creating a work that distinguished itself from his other symphonies in its individual and novel way of working out musical ideas.
Today’s concert presents three facets of late 19th- and early 20th-century composition. Igor Stravinsky often astonished audiences with stylistic changes during his long life. Sometimes he was modern, even avant-garde, provoking listeners with frenzied rhythms and harsh tones; at other times he returned to tradition and paid his respects to the Baroque and Classical periods. In Jeu de cartes (The Card Game) he looks back at musical history and recalls an incident from his own life. Antonín Dvořák has not yet received the recognition he deserves. The splendid Eighth Symphony, a work full of surprises, exemplifies his creative power. Like his contemporary Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev went through several stylistic changes and phases. In his First Violin Concerto he shows his lyrical side.
The three-part ballet Jeu de cartes by Igor Stravinsky was composed in 1936 to a scenario which the composer wrote in collaboration with Nikita Malayev. Stravinsky described the story as follows: “The characters in this ballet are the face cards in a game of poker, distributed among several players on the green cloth of a card room. At every deal the situation is complicated by the endless guiles of the perfidious Joker, who believes himself invincible because of his ability to become any desired card.” In Jeu de cartes the composer, who was an enthusiastic poker player himself, returned to a childhood experience which had obviously made a deep impression on him – a visit to a German casino with his parents: “The trombone theme with which each of the ballet’s three ‘Deals’ begins imitates the voice of the master of ceremonies at that casino. ‘A new game, a new chance,’ he would trumpet – or, rather, trombone – and the timbre, character and pomposity of the announcement are echoed, or caricatured, in my music.” The composer had in mind a casino in Baden-Baden in the age of Romanticism. In this scene “the marches and melodies of Rossini, Messager, Johann Strauss and from my own Symphony in E-flat major may well be imagined, as they drift over from the local opera house or concert hall to the casino.” Eric Walter White discovered even more sources of musical allusions in addition to those mentioned by the composer: the second movement (Allegretto scherzando) of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, an overture by the Italian composer Jacopo Foroni from the mid-19th century, Ravel’s La Valse and other compositions by Stravinsky.
Sergei Prokofiev was not only a leading composer but was equally distinguished as a pianist – the piano was his instrument. At first glance, the violin does not seem to have been very important to the composer, who wrote nine sonatas and five concertos for the piano alone. Yet, as David Oistrakh pointed out in 1954, Prokofiev’s music for the violin and his attitude towards the instrument were a broad topic. “Even a list of the works written for the violin will suffice to appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment in this field – two concertos, both of them now part of the repertoire of all leading world violinists; two sonatas, one better than the other; a sonata for solo violin, op. 115, written as an exercise for violin students but suitable for concert performance by a unison of violins (as the composer intended).”
The Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19, was composed between 1915 and 1917, at the same time as the First Symphony, which is also in the key of D major. According to Christoph Rueger, the concerto is “an affirmation of lyricism”, as the sensitive, subtle Andantino opening of the first movement already shows: “The dramaturgical significance of this enchanting cantilena, which has an almost delicate effect, is intensified even more because the composer wraps it around the entire work like a frame – the coda of the finale presents this moving melody again in augmentation, combined with the principal theme.” Despite its tranquillity, the movement is animated by the contrasts between the melodious, opulent principal theme and the lively second theme. The rondo at the centre of the concerto is marked Vivacissimo and must be played that way – as a musical perpetuum mobile with two stopping points. The concluding Moderato refers back to the first movement by juxtaposing two themes and also takes up the lyrical theme of the Andantino again. For a finale, this movement ends with unusual restraint, just as the work began.
The Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88, by Antonín Dvořák is still underrated and is, at any rate, unjustly overshadowed by the far more popular Ninth, with which it is at least on a par. The Eighth Symphony is one of Dvořák’s most beautiful, interesting and fascinating works. It shows the composer at the height of his powers and creativity, displays his artistic freedom and independence from classical models and contemporary trends and also marks a turning point in Dvořák’s symphonic œuvre. After early attempts, in the middle symphonies he had demonstrated his mastery of composition and the traditional sonata form. Now he was eager to experiment with the form and structure of the genre. Although he followed the conventional form by adhering to the usual four-movement structure and sequence (Allegro – Adagio – Scherzo – Allegro), he applied these principles flexibly. In the autumn of 1889, Dvořák wrote that he was working on a symphony which would be different from any he had composed thus far: “There are individual thoughts worked out in a new way.”
The work is full of surprises, already in the first movement. It does not begin in the home key but opens with a theme in the variant key of G minor (played by the cellos, clarinets, bassoons and horns). It appears as a motto-like introduction at the beginning of each of the main sections of the movement – exposition, development and recapitulation. The actual theme, a triad motif in the principal key of G major, is introduced by the flute and contrasts with the B minor second theme heard in the woodwinds. Dvořák’s “liberties” are most conspicuous in the second movement Adagio, which has characteristics of the symphonic poem and rhapsody. This slow movement features unexpected modulations and unusual instrumentation. It begins like a funeral march in C minor and subsequently reaches C major, but the serious, dark-toned principal theme dominates its character. The third movement, which is not marked Scherzo but Allegretto grazioso, is a stylised waltz, with a trio in the major mode, a graceful flow and a Bohemian folk tone, but is reserved, almost introverted. In the middle section the composer draws on a song from his early opera The Stubborn Lovers. The third movement of Johannes Brahms’s Second Symphony, with the same designation, may have been the model for this Allegretto, which is orchestrated without low brass. In the three-part finale Dvořák combines sonata form with a set of variations. He begins the Allegro ma non troppo, like the first movement, with a motto, a trumpet fanfare. The principal theme, introduced by the cellos, is varied four times. The composer uses only portions of this theme in the development. The return of the opening fanfare (in the horns and trumpets) signals both the climax and the beginning of the recapitulation, in which new variations of the principal theme are heard until the work comes to a close with a spectacular, turbulent stretta.
Iván Fischer has been Music Director of the Konzerthaus Berlin and principal conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin since the start of this 2012-2013 season. Born in Hungary, Fischer studied piano, violin, cello and composition in Budapest, continuing his education in Vienna where he was in Hans Swarowsky’s conducting class. For two years he was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s assistant. His international career took off in 1976, when he won the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in London. He is founder and Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Fischer has been a regular guest in major opera houses of the world (e.g. London, Zurich, Paris and Brussels). As a guest conductor he works with the finest symphony orchestras of the world, like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Munich and Israel Philharmonic. In 1989 he gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker and has returned several times since; his last performance with the orchestra was in December 2011 when he conducted works by Dohnányi, Hubay and Schubert. Fischer has also been active as a composer; he is a founder of the Hungarian Mahler Society and patron of the British Kodály Academy. Iván Fischer received the Golden Medal Award from the President of the Republic of Hungary, and the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum for his services to help international cultural relations. The French Government named him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2006 he was honoured with the Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s most prestigious arts award.
Lisa Batiashvili, born in Georgia, won the second prize at the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki when she was 16. After studying with Mark Lubotski (Hamburg) and Ana Chumachenko (Munich), she began her spectacular international career as a concert soloist, violin recitalist and chamber music performer. Top orchestras such as those in Dresden, Leipzig, Amsterdam, London, Birmingham, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia have invited Lisa Batiashvili to perform – several on more than one occasion. She last performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2007 as the soloist in Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. Conductors she has worked with include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Thomas Hengelbrock, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Zinman. In the field of chamber music, she plays in a piano trio with Adrian Brendel and Till Fellner, and in a quartet with oboist François Leleux, violist Lawrence Power and cellist Sebastian Klinger. A winner of many awards (e. g. the Bernstein Award at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the Beethoven Ring of the Beethovenfest Bonn, and the prestigious International Accademia Musicale Chigiana Prize in Siena), the violinist performs regularly at the festivals in Edinburgh, Salzburg, Tanglewood and Verbier. She plays what is known as the Engleman Stradivarius from 1709 – on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.