Symphony No. 1 in C major
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major
Paavo Järvi, who takes to the conductor’s stand of the Berliner Philharmoniker for these three concerts, has recently caused a furore in the music world with his spectacular Beethoven cycle. So it is only fitting that also in the Berlin Philharmonie, one of the composer’s symphonic works is included in the programme. Beethoven’s First Symphony begins with a dissonant seventh which does not inform the listener of the basic key of the work as was traditional, but forms the starting point of a harmonic puzzle. There had never been a beginning with such tension before in a symphonic work, and it seemed as if the composer wanted to make clear with this opening bar that with the beginning of a new century (the premiere took place on 2 April 1800), the rules of the genre had changed.
Paul Hindemith’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, is famous for its expansive lyrical melodic lines, something Frank Peter Zimmermann with his Stradivarius is certain to bring out. Composed in 1939 – shortly before Hindemith emigrated to the USA, the work assumes occasionally melancholic features, with the clear singing of the solo violin emerging beguilingly again and again from the dark timbre of its surroundings.
Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony appeared almost 24 years earlier, a work whose popularity has remained unbroken ever since its premiere on 8 December 1915. “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of the greatest experiences!” wrote Sibelius during the genesis of the work. “Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. A gentle refrain that sounds like the crying of a small child. Nature mysticism and world-weariness! The final theme of the Fifth Symphony: Legato in the trumpets!!”
The genre of the symphony seemed to have come to an end with Ludwig van Beethoven. Robert Schumann declared that the “limits” of instrumental music had been reached with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Johannes Brahms, on the other hand, went through an extreme symphonic trauma and felt literally haunted by the “giant” Beethoven, whom he constantly heard marching behind him. And Richard Wagner boldly asserted: “The last symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of music from its own element into the realm of universal art. ... Beyond it no forward step is possible.”
Yet even the “redeemer” was once starting out himself and in those days would surely never have dared to dream of such idealization of his art. Nevertheless, from the very beginning his ambition was to achieve a new proportioning of the four movements and to give the finale, which was traditionally less important, more weight. This challenge caused him considerable difficulty, however, and led him to make several revisions. He finally shifted the themes with which his First Symphony was originally supposed to open to the finale and composed entirely new versions of the first three movements.
A comparison of Beethoven’s First Symphony, which had its premiere in Vienna on 2 April 1800, with works of this genre by Mozart and Haydn reveals significant differences in several respects. Beethoven consistently calls for faster tempos in the various movements than was the case with his two older colleagues. The opening Allegro, for example, is to be played “con brio”, and even the slow movement should still be animated – “Andante cantabile con moto”. Extremely unusual, however, is the marking “Allegro molto e vivace” for a minuet; here Beethoven anticipates the new scherzo form. The dynamic character of the symphony is intensified even more, since the various ideas and musical figures follow each other at lightening speed, while accents and dynamic changes provide an aggressive, rebellious and energetic style. In particular, Beethoven’s unconventional humour also comes across, especially striking in the introduction to the finale, where he savours a simple scale almost comically.
Paul Hindemith began his career in the 1920s as an enfant terrible and musical rebel – he had to endure being denigrated by Theodor W. Adorno in 1968 as a petit bourgeois “craftsman” who did not rise above “ordinary ideas” and “academicism” – how quickly value judgements can change! His critics ignored the fact that Hindemith had already been denounced in 1934 by the National Socialist propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who called him an “atonal noisemaker”, banned performances of his works in 1936 and two years later denounced him publicly at the notorious “Degenerate Music” exhibition. In particular, the works Hindemith composed after this bitter experience were generally condemned as reactionary in the young Federal Republic.
The same verdict was given in the case of Hindemith’s Violin Concerto, which he started working on in Switzerland during the spring of 1939 and completed on 24 July of the same year. The work had been preceded by the Kammermusik No. 4, composed in 1925 for a similar, although smaller ensemble. But while Hindemith consciously rejected the traditions of the solo concerto in this early work by choosing a chamber music texture and dispensing with both an emphatic competition between solo and tutti and a virtuosic display of the solo part, fourteen years later he harked back to the classics of the genre. The new concerto showed him to be a master of the craft of composition; he no longer needed to draw attention to himself with provocation but was convincing with a skilful and idiomatic treatment of the solo part. The soloist for this concert, Frank Peter Zimmermann, describes the score as almost “romantic” and considers it equal to works of the genre by Stravinsky, Berg and Bartók: “Here the violin can luxuriate as much as in the Brahms concerto.”
Jean Sibelius was also harshly criticised by philosopher and music theorist Adorno: “You become curious and listen to a few of the major works, for example, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. First you study the scores. They look meagre and unpolished, and you imagine that the secret can only be revealed through actual hearing. But the sound does nothing to change the picture,” he pronounced dogmatically and compared Sibelius’s themes to “a newborn baby who falls off the table and injures its back. They [these sequences of notes] cannot walk properly. They get bogged down. At some unpredictable moment, the rhythmic movement ceases: forward movement becomes inconceivable.”
Adorno’s polemics unquestionably had a negative impact on Sibelius’s reception. This did not prevent the Finnish composer’s symphonies from quickly becoming an integral part of the repertoire of all the great orchestras, however, and captivating audiences worldwide. Sibelius himself was well aware of what a challenge it was to be Beethoven’s successor and confronted it with the bold self-confidence of an outsider. “Since Beethoven’s time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems,” he concluded. “That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal. My symphonies are music – conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician; for me, music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last.”
He did not take the easy way out in his compositions. That is demonstrated by the evolutionary process of his Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 82, which dragged on for more than five years and resulted in three different versions. When we read Sibelius’s diaries and letters we begin to realise what qualms and emotional upheavals he had to struggle with as he worked. “In a deep valley again,” he wrote on 22 September 1914, for example. “But I am already beginning to see dimly the mountain that I shall certainly ascend. … God opens the door for a moment, and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”
The listener should not approach Sibelius’s symphonies expecting to encounter the traditional structural criteria of the genre in its pure form – his music is highly original and holds surprises. That is also true of the Fifth Symphony, which immediately raises the question of whether the first movement is not actually two movements. After the exposition and development, the recapitulation appears to be completely missing. Instead, the Allegro moderato begins without a break – a second section that is more reminiscent of a scherzo and trio but is musically related to the previous section in the “Tempo molto moderato”. A set of variations opens the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto which follows, fascinatingly contrasting a pastoral folk song-like melody with a strangely exciting harmonic foundation. One of Sibelius’s most familiar melodies is the second theme of the finale, however, which has all the ingredients of a catchy tune. He was inspired by the flight of sixteen swans circling above his house. As was so often the case with him, it was nature that fired Sibelius’s imagination during his creative work – not the worst mentor.
Paavo Järvi was born in Tallinn and studied percussion and conducting at the conservatory in his home town. In 1980 he emigrated to the USA and completed his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and – with Leonard Bernstein – at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. After positions as principal guest conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 2001 to 2011, where he still has ties as “Music Director Laureate”. In 2004, he took over the the artistic direction of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and since 2006 he has also been chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. He became music director of the Orchestre de Paris at the start of the 2010/2011 season. The NHK Symphony Orchestra have appointed him their new chief conductor from 2015. The Estonian, who has been honoured with numerous awards, and who received the prestigious French honour of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” in November 2011, is also a welcome guest at renowned orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The artist is particularly interested in the music of Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Lepo Sumera and Eduard Tubin. Paavo Järvi’s artistic work is documented in many recordings, several of which have won awards. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in a series of three concerts in early June 2000, with works by Arvo Pärt, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and was only five when he had his first violin lessons. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos, and two years later he won a first prize at the “Jugend musiziert” Competition. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. He has given the first performances of three new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine, which he performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, which he premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise, which he introduced to Paris audiences in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. Among Frank Peter Zimmermann’s chamber partners are the pianists Enrico Pace, Emanuel Ax and Piotr Anderszewski; with the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra he founded the Trio Zimmermann in 2007, together they have appeared at the festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival and the Rheingau Musik Festival. Among the awards that the violinist has received are the 1994 Rhineland Music Prize and the 2002 Music Prize of the City of Duisburg. In 2008 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Federal German Order of Merit. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985 and since then has returned on numerous occasions; most recently he was heard in December 2012, when he performed works by Johann Sebastian Bach together with the Berlin Baroque Soloists. He plays a 1711 Stradivarius that once belonged to Fritz Kreisler and that has been placed at his disposal by the Portigon AG.