Double Concerto for oboe, harp and string orchestra
L'Arbre des songes (Violin Concerto)
Symphony No. 6 in F major »Pastoral«
Beethoven described his Sixth Symphony as “more an expression of feeling than painting” even though the “Pastoral” Symphony dates from before the time of a dogged distinction between absolute and programme music. Even more astonishing than Beethoven’s labelling this a musical day in the country is its genesis: he composed the “Pastoral” contemporaneously with his Fifth Symphony and presented both for the first time on 22 December 1808 – what a programme! – along with the Fourth Piano Concerto, parts of the C major Mass, and the Choral Fantasy.
Has any composer more forcefully demonstrated the breadth of his musical invention? To Beethoven it came naturally: he often worked simultaneously on two works in the same genre in order to exhaust its expressive potential. And so the “Pastoral” forms a counterpart to the Fifth: in major instead of minor, in five rather than four movements, inspired by a programme as opposed to absolute music.
The last-mentioned contrast is also exhibited in this concert’s first half: the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski strikes one as absolute music when heard alongside Henri Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, the title of which – L’Arbre des songes – is ripe for programmatic interpretation. Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp) and Jonathan Kelly (oboe), both members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, are the soloists in the Lutosławski Double Concerto; the solo part in L’Arbre des songes (The Tree of Dreams) is taken by artist in residence Leonidas Kavakos.
When Witold Lutosławski meets Henri Dutilleux for the third time during this Philharmonic season, it signifies more than just a common thread running through the orchestra’s programming. As the 21st century progresses, it grows increasingly clear which composers from the second half of the 20th are finding a permanent niche in the repertoire. It looks as if there will be a few more than seemed likely in the heyday of the so-called avant-garde, and not necessarily those masters who were once thought to be the likely candidates.
What unites these two composers, almost contemporaries, isn’t only the scrupulous precision manifested in their work, their drive for perfect craftsmanship. Lutosławski and Dutilleux – both independent, unconventional spirits – avoid those theorizing self-declarations in written form that were once commonly promulgated by “new music” composers. They regard themselves as music practitioners who hold fast to classical concepts and feel no need to break with the system. With full self-awareness, they occupy themselves with such traditional formats as the symphony, the concerto and the string quartet, while confidently acknowledging the necessity of direct artistic communication.
Lutosławski maintained that his first contact with aleatory principles was in 1960 when he heard a radio broadcast of John Cage’s Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra. “While listening to it,” he stated, “I suddenly realized that I needn’t necessarily progress from the small detail towards the whole, but that there also existed the reverse possibility – that I could proceed from chaos and gradually create order in it.” From then on, Lutosławski made use of the principles of chance, but allotting them only limited scope in the context of his dodecaphonically conceived scores. The first minutes of the Double Concerto’s opening movement is a prime example: in the manner of a concerto grosso, fortissimo string ritornelli are contrasted in blocks with cadenza-like passages. The sections become gradually shorter until, finally, soli and tutti come together in a metrically clear and fixed development.
During the seven years he worked on this piece, Lutosławski considered granting “a larger role to chance”, then dropped the idea. The middle movement was initially planned as a variable process with freely interchangeable sections, but it ended up as a through-composed series of short episodes. The heading of this evocative night music is “Dolente” (melancholy, sad). The finale, by contrast, is jaunty: a succession of folk-tinged marches that takes on elements of parody towards the end. Whereas Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto of 1970 theatrically escalates the individual’s confrontation with the group’s superior power, the Double Concerto is, for the most part, a light-hearted divertissement – though one that makes the highest technical demands on players.
Next to the clear contours of Lutosławski’s music, the sensuously blossoming sounds of Henri Dutilleux seem like an opposite phenomenon. The French composer’s oeuvre largely takes its inspiration from literature – for example, Proust’s concept of “involuntary memory” and Baudelaire’s “correspondences”, the subtle correlations between sensory experiences and aesthetic perceptions. A historically charged genre like the violin concerto presented considerable challenges to this self-critical composer. Ultimately it came down not only to devising contemporary solutions but also to the creation of an art form that built upon the achievements of the past. Thus he arrived at the notion of “approaching the problem from the inside: the solo instrument should be closely integrated into the orchestral framework, both of them enlivened by the same pulse”.
In fact, the violin part not only seems tightly woven into the timbres of the orchestral sections, it is also completely involved in the formal transformation process: Dutilleux does not expose ready-made “themes” but rather makes the listener a witness to their gestation out of primal cells, presenting their growth and metamorphoses. Each of the work’s four principal sections represents a traditional type and begins with a statement from the soloist: a thematically developmental first movement is followed by a rhythmically active scherzo, with the slow movement’s island of tranquillity leading to the virtuosic finale. But the interludes also have an unmistakable profile: the first consists largely of terse gestures rushing breathlessly through the orchestra; the second is limited to rapidly moving single lines; while the third becomes completely static. The work grows “like a tree, whose lyrical essence is the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches”, writes Dutilleux. “This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of The Tree of Dreams as the piece’s title.”
“Nature doesn’t act, it exudes,” the German musicologist Martin Geck has trenchantly remarked with a view to Beethoven’s “Pastoral”. From that perspective the Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68 is particularly well suited for replying to the Dutilleux. It was composed at the same time as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, op. 67, between 1803 and 1808, and commentators quickly pointed out that they form a contrasting pair. A whole host of structural similarities bears this out – among others, the two works’ opening with a motto-like presentation of the main theme, their common orientation towards a final peroration, and the connection of the last two movements with no break in between. If the musical “action” of the Fifth pursues its ultimate goal with single-minded urgency, the details in the “Pastoral” form themselves into a harmonic whole with no apparent stress or strain. The characteristic contrast between themes is absent here – what catches the ear is not the tension of conflict but rather the uniformity of mood.
All the more care, therefore, does Beethoven lavish on the differentiation of orchestral sonorities. The “Scene by the Brook” is a little miracle in this regard, the gentle splashing captured in divided strings, delicate woodwind contours and sparkling trills. Beethoven asserted that his “Pastoral” Symphony was “more an expression of feeling than painting” – even having this remark printed on the reverse of the orchestral materials’ title page. But now and again his music belies that claim: of course Beethoven also practises nature painting, for instance in the stylized trio of birds at the end of the “Scene by the Brook”, and more graphically still in the fourth movement (“Thunderstorm”), where the stages of a summer storm are depicted as naturally as can be imagined.
The “Pastoral” is a symphony of ideas, like all of Beethoven’s mature symphonies. It can also be read as a sceptical reply to the Fifth’s heroic vision of freedom: man in the age of revolution, in Beethoven’s words, sought to “seize Fate by the throat”, to find his destiny and make possible the impossible. At the same time, he was aware of the immutable cycles of nature. Beethoven wrote: “How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks.” It is paradoxical: the pre-eminent political utopian among composer was also the greatest nature mystic…
Leonidas Kavakos, this season the Berliner Philharmoniker’s artist in residence, was born in Athens, Greece, in 1967 and started playing the violin at the age of five. After studies at the Greek National Conservatoire in his hometown, an Onassis Foundation scholarship enabled him to attend master classes with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. In 1985 he won the Sibelius competition and then the Paganini competition in 1988. Following these successes, he received invitations from all corners of the world. Kavakos now appears in concert with the world’s great orchestras and conductors both in Europe and in North America, in addition to regular visits to renowned festivals worldwide. His partners in chamber music include Emanuel Ax, Renaud and Gautier Capuçon as well as Hélène Grimaud and Elisabeth Leonskaja. After having held the position of Principal Guest Artist of the Camerata Salzburg for six years, Kavakos was Artistic Director of the orchestra from 2007 until September 2009. He gave his debut as soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2003 with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. As part of the Artist in residence series, his last appearance in a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation was in February 2013 performing Beethoven Violin Sonatas together with Emanuel Ax. Leonidas Kavakos plays the “Abergavenny” Stradivarius of 1724.
Jonathan Kelly was born in Hampshire, England. He initially read history at the University of Cambridge but later studied the oboe at the Royal Academy of Music in London and at the Paris Conservatoire. He became principal oboist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1993, remaining there until 2003. During that period he appeared frequently not only with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe but also as a concert artist in Birmingham, Cardiff, Chicago, Helsinki and Vienna. He was also a member of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, in which capacity he took part in the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ Sonata da caccia and in the local premiere of Thea Musgrave’s oboe concerto Helios. Since the autumn of 2003 Jonathan Kelly has been principal oboist with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He also appears with the orchestra’s wind formation and other chamber groups. In December 2012 he was heard in a concert with the Berlin Baroque Soloists featuring works by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Marie-Pierre Langlamet was born in Grenoble (France). She received her first musical training at the Nice Conservatoire with Elisabeth Fontan-Binoche, later participating in master classes given by Jacqueline Borot and Lily Laskine. She was only 17 when she was engaged as principal harp in the Nice Opera Orchestra, but a year later she gave up this position to continue her studies in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute. From 1988 she was deputy principal harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York; she joined the Berliner Philharmoniker five years later in 1993. Marie-Pierre Langlamet appears all over the world as a soloist with leading orchestras and chamber ensembles, and she also gives numerous solo recitals. Since 1995 she has taught in the Orchestra Academy. In June 2009, Marie-Pierre Langlamet was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.