Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Christian Tetzlaff Violin
His whole life long, Benjamin Britten – now considered among the most important of 20th-century composers, whose operas were instrumental in that genre’s renewal – felt connected with the sea. The seaside towns of Lowestoft (his birthplace) and Aldeburgh in the east English county of Suffolk were focal points of his life to which he constantly returned. At the same time, Britten felt himself an outsider, both socially and musically, and that sense of alienation became a subject of several of his stage works.
Already in his first performed opera, Peter Grimes, he combined these two themes. The fisherman Grimes is blamed by the borough community for the death of his young apprentice at sea. Although he is apparently innocent, the villagers’ animosity increases. Finally, in the face of another accidental death of an apprentice for which he is again held responsible, Grimes is compelled to take his boat out to sea and sink it. In Peter Grimes Britten achieved a compellingly dramatic musical language, in which modern instrumentation is brilliantly merged with traditional melodic and harmonic structures and highly sophisticated sonorities.
Andris Nelsons opens the programme on these three concerts with one of the opera’s graphically vivid “sea interludes”, the Passacaglia. In Jörg Widmann’s 2007 Violin Concerto, which follows, the composer lets the soloist unfold his great song almost without interruption. At the beginning and end of the work the violin plays completely unaccompanied; in the middle section it is supported by carefully darkened orchestral colours. Here the composer does not exploit the extreme possibilities of the solo concerto but rather conceives the form as freedom to explore intermediate shadings in terms of sonority and tempo.
The solo part in these three concerts is played by Christian Tetzlaff, one of the leading violinists of our day, who gave the concerto its premiere. French impressionism informs the concert’s second half: Claude Debussy’s three-movement symphonic poem La Mer, glistening in every imaginable orchestral colour, and Maurice Ravel’s enigmatic tone poem La Valse, a musical distorting mirror that reflects the crumbling Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which finally disappeared in the First World War.
In 1945 Benjamin Britten observed that he had spent most of his life in close contact with the sea: “In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea.” Britten’s most famous stage work tells the tragic story of a fisherman accused by narrow-minded villagers of responsibility for the deaths of two of his apprentices. At the end he takes his own life, sinking his boat out at sea. Among the many fascinating aspects of the opera is Britten’s virtuosic and individual handling of the orchestra. The Passacaglia, heard at a key point in the action, adumbrates by purely instrumental means the catastrophe of the following scene: the death of Grimes’s second apprentice. The foundation of this interlude is a bass theme punctuated by rests, above which Britten develops a series of variations that increase in sonority and expressive intensity, culminating in a wild outcry from the whole orchestra. This developmental arc in the form of an orchestral drama represents the conflict-laden relationship between the choleric fisherman and the frightened boy, who falls to his death over a cliff after Grimes drives him out of his hut.
Although worlds separate the idioms of Britten and Jörg Widmann, the two composers are connected by the desire to write music that in its emotional intensity and expressive power speaks directly to the listener. Thus the ideal of lyricism plays a central role in the output of the composer-clarinettist, born in Munich in 1973: “It’s something that’s very important for me, including in my own compositions: line, melos. We should not be leaving this lyricism only to past centuries. Of course we composers of today have to find a new kind of singing after years in which writing this way was frowned upon.” Widmann’s Violin Concerto is one fruit of that search for a “new singing”. It was commissioned for the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave its premiere in the Essen Philharmonie in September 2007. Whereas in his previous instrumental concertos, Widmann was concerned with sounding out extremes, the Violin Concerto marks a new stage in his approach to works for solo and orchestra: “Gesturally it seems lighter, looser, relaxed in a way that was new to me.” This relaxed quality is expressed in the lyrical flow and the dreamlike formal development of the single-movement work. Playing without interruption for nearly 30 minutes, the soloist, with orchestral support, spins out an “endless melody”. In spite of its basically lyrical character, however, Widmann’s Violin Concerto doesn’t dwell in the realm of blossoming cantilena. Rather it traverses widely varied realms of sound and expression. Time and again there are unexpected character shifts and surprising irruptions. The climax of the rising arc of tension is a feroce section in the last third of the concerto, charged with intensity, marked by violent drum and tam-tam blows and – as the composer indicates in the score – a “clattering sound” on the harp.
While Britten had the raw North Sea off the Suffolk coast directly before his eyes while composing Peter Grimes, Claude Debussy had to rely on his memory when he began work on La Mer. On 12 September 1903, writing from a small village in Burgundy, he reported to his friend, the conductor and composer André Messager: “I’m working on three symphonic sketches entitled: 1. ‘mer belle aux iles Sanguinaires; 2. ‘jeu de vagues’; 3. ‘le vent fait danser la mer’; the whole to be called La Mer. … To which you’ll reply that the Atlantic doesn’t exactly wash the foothills of Burgundy…! And the result could be one of those hack landscapes done in the studio! But I have innumerable memories, and those, in my view, are worth more than a reality which, charming as it may be, tends to weigh too heavily on the imagination.” In La Mer the anti-academically inclined composer departed radically from ossified conventions of form and exposition. Driven by the desire to break out of traditional perceptual patterns, he developed a music that seeks correspondences between art and nature outside of the conventional illustrative approaches. Thus the titles of the three movements are not the headings of a concrete musical programme but rather poetic indications that open up a field of association to listeners and performers. The freedom eavesdropped from the sea is reflected not only in the novel treatment of the orchestra (“as wild and changeable as the sea”), but also in the work’s original dramaturgical form. The thematic developmental process of these symphonic sketches cannot be reduced to any traditional formal scheme. Following a coherent yet inexplicable logic, the music unfolds as unpredictably as the mysterious play of the sea.
Maurice Ravel also had to rely on his memory when he composed his “choreographic poem” La Valse in the winter months of 1919-20. As early as 1906 he had been planning to write a “grand waltz” with the title Wien (Vienna). It was to be a symphonic poem conceived as a musical homage to the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss and his native city, immortalizing the dance’s rhythms and the “joie de vivre” contained in them. When he came to realize this project 14 years later in a remote country house in the Ardèche, however, the situation had drastically altered. In the vortex of World War I, not only had the Habsburg Empire fallen, Vienna, the dream-palace of waltzes, had also been shattered. Against this background, it isn’t surprising that the originally intended apotheosis of the waltz turned into an apocalyptic dance of death. Dark premonitions are already aroused in the work’s pitch-black nocturnal opening. A gloomy waltz accompaniment – initially almost inaudible – develops in the lowest register of the orchestra; above it drift scraps of a waltz melody on bassoons. Gradually the sound picture acquires light and focus and leads to a captivating sequence of waltzes. At first glance, the opening formal section of this work, conceived as a ballet, may give the impression that the waltz-obsessed imperial capital Vienna is being wakened to life with musical means that are still intact. But closer listening already reveals the strong prevailing draught surrounding the whirling couple. Exaggerated glissando figures on the strings and harps, overstretched tremolo effects on the flutes and relentlessly propulsive rotating figures lend the music a hypertrophic quality. In the second section of this “poème chorégraphique” – a free reprise of the material exposed thus far – the façade finally shatters. In a fatal, now unstoppable whirlwind, the waltz homage hurls inexorably towards the cataclysm. It culminates in the apocalyptic final passage with a complete breakdown of metric and harmonic order and the utter transgression of cultivated playing.
Andris Nelsons was born to a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; since 2002 he has been a student of Mariss Jansons. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, taking on the same role the year after with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, he completed his tenure as principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. In summer 2012, he returned to the Bayreuth Festival in a production of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuenfels, which Nelson premiered in 2010. Andris Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras. He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in June 2012 for the Waldbühne concert, in an all Tchaikovsky programme.
Christian Tetzlaff, a native of Hamburg, studied at the Lübeck University of Music with Uwe-Martin Haiberg, and in Cincinnati with Walter Levin. As one of the leading violinists of his generation, he performs all over the world on the concert stages of the music capitals and at major international festivals – either as a soloist with renowned orchestras, with violin recitals or as an equally enthusiastic chamber musician. His outstanding interpretations of Bach’s solo suites and sonatas as well as the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Ligeti exemplify the universality and the many facets of his repertoire and artistic ability. Christian Tetzlaff is Artist in Residence with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich for the 2012/2013 season. He began the current season with festival appearances at the London Proms and at the Grant Park Festival in Chicago. The violinist also performed in the Chamber Music Hall in Montreal. Christian Tetzlaff’s chamber music partners include Leif Ove Andsnes, Lars Vogt, Sabine Meyer, Heinrich Schiff and Tabea Zimmermann. The artist has been heard in Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts several times since he made his debut in 1995, most recently in February 2012 together with Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen in the Chamber Music Hall: The programme consisted of piano trios by Franz Schubert and Antonín Dvořák. Christian Tetzlaff plays a violin by the Bonn violin maker Stefan-Peter Greiner.