Slavonic Dance in G minor op. 46 No. 8
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major
Slavonic Dance in B major op. 72 No. 1
Slavonic Dance in E minor op. 72 No. 2
Slavonic Dance in C major op. 72 No. 7
Symphonic Dance No. 3
From the Gayane Suite No. 3: Sabre Dance and No. 2 Dance of the Young Kurds
From the Gayane Suite No. 1: No. 7 Adagio Gayane and No. 8 Lezginka
For classical music fans, jaunty dance rhythms are just as much a part of New Year’s Eve as the sound of corks popping and fireworks. But need it be waltzes from Vienna, the city on the Danube, ringing in the New Year? By no means, according to the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle – and they traditionally programme different music for their New Year’s concerts along the river Spree.
For the coming year-end celebration you can hear four of the Slavic Dances by Antonín Dvořák, primitive and elegant rhythms from the geographical centre of Europe, so rich in musical tradition. Not quite as well-known are the melodies from the ballet Gayaneh, premiered in 1942, by the Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian – but hold on: at least one piece from this work – the famous “Sabre Dance” – is familiar to any music fan! An exciting counterpoint to this spirited musical titbit is the third movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances, premiered in London in 1937.
The programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker New Year’s Eve concert will be complemented with Sergej Prokofjew’s Third Piano Concerto. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang, soloist in this work, is a truly exceptional artist who is returning to the stage of Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. His brilliant, sensitive piano playing – which always sounds spontaneous despite all his artistry – equally wows musician colleagues and the public.
Throughout the Middle Ages, dancing was a well-established art that was connected to the realities of life – either robustly popular or ceremonially aristocratic. Michael Praetorius still had genteel society with lavish costumes in mind when he published his dance collection Terpsichore in 1612. The countless French dance movements in Bach’s suites, on the other hand, were strictly a treat for the ears 100 years later. The Romantic nationalism of the 19th century completed the emancipation of dance music from the dance itself. Almost every nation had authentic dance forms, and composers used or imitated these originals in their instrumental works. This led to an unfortunate false reaction. The composers idealized the heritage of their people, while the middle-class public enjoyed their free adaptations as entertaining diversions. The consequence was that all atavistic, ritualistic or belligerent elements of the dance were suppressed or only presented as staged ballet.
Dancing became an imaginative act, a patriotically charged declaration of freedom or a nostalgic sentiment. The notion that composers would have taken to the dance floor themselves was ridiculous. No matter how much rhythm was in their blood, it was impossible – Tchaikovsky lacked a partner for well-known reasons, while Johannes Brahms simply did not want to, like his great idols Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Yet Brahms, of all people – the cool Hamburg native with a lame hip – composed some of the most beautiful artistic or head dances of the 19th century. As a 13-year-old, he had played the piano at outdoor restaurants in the Hamburg suburbs in order to supplement his pocket money, and in Vienna the urge for rhythmic movement finally overcame him – perhaps not the entire person, but his fingers at least. Brahms used to listen to Gypsy bands at the Hungarian restaurants in the Prater night after night. As bourgeois as he was, for him dance music and culinary pleasures were closely connected: “I tell you, the food is decent, goulash delightful, curd cheese pancakes delicious, good beer, good wine and a splendid Gypsy band.” The artistic results of these pleasures are famous the world over – the popular Hungarian Dances.
Brahms was not particularly proud of these dances, however; he was poorly paid for them and later even faced absurd accusations of alleged plagiarism. His Berlin publisher Simrock made a fortune on the Hungarian Dances, though – an international success, which he intended to repeat with Antonín Dvořák. And Dvořák agreed at once. What Brahms had done could not be wrong. The two saw eye to eye on all the fundamental human questions as it was, at least as far as Bohemian beer and the principles of symphonic music were concerned – why shouldn’t they agree when it came to dance! Especially since Dvořák had also been exposed to the popular folk music tradition at a young age. The two volumes of Slavonic Dances op. 46 (1878) and op. 72 (1886) do not need to hide behind their model, either; they even surpass it in variety and originality. Unlike Brahms, Dvořák used his own melodies throughout; he merely borrowed the rhythms from traditional dance forms.
The first cycle includes only Czech dances, with a single exception. It opens and closes with a furiant, a breakneck dance in 3/4 metre which no one should attempt without a doctor’s permission. The furiant op. 46/8 consists of a presto framework, whirling with frenzied repetitions, and a calm G major middle section dominated by flutes and oboes. In the second series Dvořák used various Slavic dances – op. 72/6 is a polonaise, op. 72/2 a Ukrainian dumka with a mazurka as its middle section and op. 72/7 a Serbian kolo.
Paul Hindemith and Dvořák not only had a mutual love for trains, which the Czech composer invariably admired in the original everywhere he went, while the German preferred to expand his model railway, which was 300 metres long when it was completed. They also shared a desire for fresh music with an immediate impact that conceals its demanding technique under a popular disguise and does not reveal all personal feelings at once. It is scarcely necessary to point out that Hindemith also had a special fondness for the dance. His Symphonic Dances, composed in 1937, are by no means music that makes one want to dance, however, but a symphonic version of expressionist dance. A lyrical, solemn, hymnlike, heroic tone predominates. The third movement is particularly characteristic of this “mystical” Hindemith. The element of dance is subtly present in the dotted 3/4 rhythm. The clarinet provides the thematic material, which rises to a powerful symphonic peak, finally ending in a soft variation of the clarinet melody.
Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane was composed five years after Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances – a work from a different universe. By that time Hindemith had finally given up the illusion that he could survive in fascist Germany, while Khachaturian was still deeply convinced of the blessings of Soviet Russia. They were actually similar in nature, and many of Khachaturian’s qualities are also reminiscent of Brahms and Dvořák. Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs characterize his Armenian friend as follows: “Meeting Khachaturian means, first of all, eating a good, filling meal, drinking with pleasure, and chatting about this and that.” Conductors who knew him well recalled that Khachaturian wanted to have his music played as loud as possible – sparks should really fly. Gayane offers the best opportunities for that – particularly during the familiar Sabre Dance.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is not particularly danceable, but it is at the beginning of a path that would lead to Romeo and Juliet – along with Gayane, the most successful ballet of the Soviet era. It was composed around the same time as the Classical Symphony, and in the rhythmically energetic C major Concerto, completed in 1921, Prokofiev also strikes a popular note, favouring diatonicism – in this case, the white keys on the keyboard. Of his five piano concertos, it is the only one with the traditional three movements. The appearance of simplicity is deceptive, however; under the elegant surface there are numerous traces of Prokofiev’s experimental phase, which had still influenced the dissonant, occasionally almost barbaric-sounding Second Piano Concerto. The Third is also a thoroughly artistic work – all his life Prokofiev, Russia’s most colourful composer, never cared about ideologies but only his art. We do not know whether he could dance. But since Sergei Prokofiev could do almost everything – he spoke English, French and German and, not least, was an extremely good driver – let us assume that he could dance as well.
Lang Lang was born in Shenyang (China) in 1982. At the age of three, he received his first piano lessons. At five, he won the piano competition in his home town and made his first public appearance. He began studying piano at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing when he was nine, then in 1997 he became a student of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Lang Lang first came to international attention when he stepped in at short notice for an ailing André Watts at the Ravinia Festival in 1999. Since then, he has conquered the world’s major concert halls and festivals, both with solo programmes and as the guest of major international orchestras. Lang Lang has worked with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Simon Rattle. After his debut recital in the Berliner Philharmoniker piano concert series at the end of May 2004, he made his first appearance as a soloist with the orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon at the Waldbühne concert shortly after. In the 2009/10 season, he was the orchestra’s pianist in residence, and his most recent appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in February 2013, when he performed Béla Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
When not on tour, the artist is actively engaged in both charity work and musical education for children. Lang Lang is an International UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and the youngest member of Carnegie Hall’s Artistic Advisory Board. He also holds a position on the advisory committee of the Weill Music Institute as part of their education programme. The World Economic Forum named the pianist one of the 250 “Young Global Leaders”, and in 2010 he received the Crystal Award in Davos. In August 2012, he was honoured with the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and in January 2013, he was presented with the Medal of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Lang Lang is an honorary professor of several conservatories in China and gives master classes including in Hanover, at the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute.