(photo: anonym)

Peter Eötvös and Isabelle Faust

This concert is innovative, virtuosic and cosmopolitan. Conductor and composer Peter Eötvös presents his Violin Concerto No. 3, known as the Alhambra (soloist: Isabelle Faust), which musically roams the fortress of the same name in Granada. In contrast to this airy Mediterranean world are Edgard Varèse’s famous impressions Amériques from the noisy New York of the 1920s. An insider tip is Shaar by Iannis Xenakis: eerily inscrutable and ingeniously eccentric.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Peter Eötvös conductor

Isabelle Faust violin

Peter Eötvös

Alhambra, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 3 – commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation together with the Granada Festival, Orchestre de Paris and BBC Proms German Première

Isabelle Faust violin

Iannis Xenakis

Shaar for large String Orchestra

Edgard Varèse

Amériques (1st Version from 1918 − 1922, revised 1997)

Berliner Philharmoniker in co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin

Dates and Tickets

Sat, 07 Sep 2019, 19:00

Philharmonie | Introduction: 18:15

Serie A


In the past, “Japanese, French, German, English and American culture” have inspired Peter Eötvös, born in Hungary in 1944, to musical works, as he has stated. In recent years, the compositional cosmopolitan has placed more focus on yet another cultural sphere: the music traditions of the Basque Country and of Spain. Eötvösʼs third violin concerto was commissioned by the International Dance and Music Festival in Granada, the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, the BBC Proms and the Orchestre de Paris. It is inspired by the architecture and history of the Alhambra – as Eötvös writes, the “intersection of Spanish and Arabic culture”.

Violinist Isabelle Faust, soloist at the premiere in Granada in July 2019 and, in addition to conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, one of the work’s dedicatees, has been acclaimed around the world for the past quarter of a century. At this concert, she will present the German premiere of Eötvös’s third violin concerto Alhambra in Berlin, conducted by the composer.

The second half of the concert is no less international: in 1983 the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis composed the string piece Shaar based on Old Testament ideas as a commission for an Israeli festival of contemporary music. In contrast, Amériques for large orchestra was the first composition that Edgard Varèse, born in Paris in 1883, wrote in the US after emigrating there in 1915. The work was premiered in 1926 by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. According to Varèse, the composition depicts journeys of discovery to “new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men”.

About the music

Behind Every Gate, a New World

Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and Peter Eötvös connect past and future.

Unity or mix? Identity or diversity? Probably no other art form so forcefully invites one to ponder the vital social issue of our day as the so-called “world language” of music. This evening’s concert provides some material: its programme takes the Greek-French Iannis Xenakis to Jerusalem, the Hungarian Peter Eötvös to Granada and, finally, accompanies the French-American with Italian roots Edgard Varèse to the Hudson River in New York City. The spectacular musical visions come from cosmopolitan 20th-century composers, masters of adaptation to new personal circumstances – who nonetheless remained conscious of their origins. Moreover, the metropolis connected with each of the three scores is an interface between continents, ethnic groups and religions. Each city owes its existence to the cultural melting pot that enabled the dream of diverse humanity’s productive cohabitation to become a concrete utopia.

Scientists and inventors among themselves

Varèse and Xenakis are the two 20th-century composers who perhaps more radically than any other broke with the traditional European understanding of music as something speechlike and made out of a monophonic or polyphonic succession of pitches. Suddenly, everything narrative or expressive was passé. Varèse and Xenakis practised their art using scientific and quantitative methods, respectively. Both shared the conception of music as “organized sound”, as physical events which they sought to compile in categories like texture, saturation and motion. Varèse tended to compose in terms of moving sound-masses rather than ordered sequences of notes. He compared his creative approach to that of a scientist or inventor and referred to himself as “a worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities”.

Xenakis, on the other hand, some 40 years younger than Varèse, had Olivier Messiaen’s reassurance that a lack of formal compositional training could be understood not as a deficiency but as a distinguishing feature: “You are already 30,” Messiaen advised his pupil. “You have the good fortune of being Greek and of having studied mathematics and architecture. Take advantage of these things.” Xenakis’ world view had been shaped by the writings of Plato and Karl Marx as well as by the resistance against the German and, later, British occupiers of his homeland, in which the young man was gravely wounded, losing an eye and suffering a crushed cheekbone. Xenakis’ perceptive faculties, as he later acknowledged, were thereafter so seriously impaired that for a long time he felt himself isolated, “like being in a shaft… Because of my weakened senses, I cannot directly grasp the world that surrounds me. I think this is also the reason why my brain has turned more and more towards abstract thinking.”

An ensemble of 60 string soloists

Condemned to death in absentia by the Greek military junta, Xenakis began a new life in Paris in 1947. By the end of the 1990s he had created an immense, wide-ranging oeuvre of 150 works. The unique combination of eruptive, often brutal energy and meticulous structural planning earned the composer the reputation of a “constructive Fauvist” (Rudolf Frisius). Unlike Varèse, who considered string instruments feeble and anachronistic, Xenakis dedicated several compositions to this family. Their scoring ranges from string quartet to large string orchestra of 60 players, as in Shaar from 1982-83. In its anti-ingratiating roughness, Xenakis’ treatment of the string timbres is thoroughly original.

There is no programme in the narrower sense. The work was commissioned by Recha Freier, the Zionist resistance fighter who saved thousands of German-Jewish youth from the Nazi regime and later founded the “Testimonium” (Witness) Festival in Jerusalem. It was Freier who suggested an imaginary action involving the Assumption of Moses and the opposing forces of Satan. Xenakis went along with the idea in fun but called for “much more Devil” for his music. The associations then shifted to Joseph della Reina, hero of a Kabbalistic legend who attempted to destroy Satan’s power but ended up enslaved by it. Freier altered the ending of the legend so that Joseph was ultimately able to escape from the earthly world through a secret gateway. Thus sha’ar, the Hebrew word for “gate”, became the composition’s title.

The Alhambra on Google Earth

Sha’arim (“gates”) is also the name of the architectonically prominent entryways to Jerusalem’s Old City, and quite similar historical gates run through Peter Eötvös’s third violin concerto, Alhambra, during its musical stroll through the courts of the Moorish fortress on Granada’s Sabikah Hill. Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, it is articulated by a recurring theme – a lyrical idea that revolves around itself in small steps, introduced by the soloist alone at the beginning of the work. The violin – at the centre of the action, never pressurized by the orchestra – wanders through the vast palace complex, surprised by the constantly changing decor and illumination of its patios and halls. The memorable melody encircles the note G, the first letter of Granada.

Having no previous first-hand knowledge of the Alhambra, the composer was aided by Google Earth and Wikipedia to form an idea of the site. Schopenhauer’s oft-cited description of architecture as “frozen music” takes on a meaning of its own in Alhambra: Eötvös has not composed a musical illustration of a building but rather an atmospheric and structural equivalent. Dancing rhythms are, at most, suggested, and, as so often with Eötvös, the melodic shapes are created by means of a dense network of cryptograms, in which the letters of “Alhambra” and the first and last names of the soloist Isabelle Faust are translated into music notation.

Music on and under the skin

From the magical World Heritage Site at the foot of the Sierra Nevada we travel into the thick of Manhattan’s soundscape 100 years ago – into the cheerful cacophony of industry, transport and the daily affairs of thousands of people. Over 140 musicians take their places onstage playing 27 woodwind and 29 brass along with two timpanists and no fewer than nine further percussionists. In addition to conventional instruments, they operate – among other sound effects – a siren, a steamboat whistle and a crow call. For the first time, the percussion group confronts the other instrument sections as an independent driving force. The simultaneous downgrading of the strings adds a perfect touch to the culture shock.

Composed between 1918 and 1921, Amériques was the first work Varèse completed in the USA. Because his earlier scores were left behind in Berlin and later destroyed in a fire, it became his de facto Opus 1. “When I wrote Amériques, I was still under the spell of my first impressions of New York, not only New York seen but New York heard”, explained the composer in a note about the work’s title. “As I worked in my Westside apartment, where I could hear all the river sounds – the lonely foghorns, the shrill peremptory whistles – the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before. Besides, as a boy, the mere word ‘America’ meant all discoveries, all adventures. It meant the unknown … new worlds on this planet, in outer space, and in the minds of man.”

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Richard Evidon


Peter Eötvös, born in Transylvania in 1944, is regarded as one of the great musical luminaries of our time as a result of his activities as composer, teacher and conductor. He studied at the Academy of Music in Budapest (composition) and at Cologne University of Music (conducting). He worked regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble between 1968 and 1976, and with the Electronic Music Studio of WDR in Cologne between 1971 and 1979. At the invitation of Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös conducted the inaugural concert of the IRCAM in Paris in 1978. Until 1991, he was musical director of the Ensemble intercontemporain. He has conducted leading orchestras in the USA, Japan and Europe, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, and at opera houses like La Scala Milan, Covent Garden London and the Théâtre du Châtelet Paris. In 1991 he founded the International Eötvös Institute and the Contemporary Music Foundation for young conductors and composers in Budapest; from 1992 to 2007, he taught at the music universities in Karlsruhe and Cologne. Peter Eötvös has composed new works for prestigious orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic (Senza Sangue, 2015), Wiener Philharmoniker (Halleluja – Oratorium balbulum, 2016 at the Salzburg Festival) and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Multiversum 2017). His awards include the Hungarian Kossuth Prize, the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award, the “Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” and the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Venice Biennale. Peter Eötvös made his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 1999 and led the orchestra most recently in two concerts in September 2014 in works by Brahms, Rihm and his own Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaya. On 8 December he will present compositions by Donghoon Shin and Igor Stravinsky along with the premiere of Aurora, his concerto for double bass and chamber orchestra with the Karajan-Academy and Berliner Philharmoniker principal bass Matthew McDonald.

Isabelle Faust already gained musical experience in a string quartet when she was eleven years old. After winning the “Leopold Mozart” Violin Competition in Augsburg in 1987, she became a student of Christoph Poppen, the long-time leader of the Cherubini Quartet. Her international career took off after winning the 1993 Premio Paganini in Genoa. Isabelle Faust has performed as a concert soloist with many major orchestras. This led to close and sustained cooperation with conductors such as Giovanni Antonini, Frans Brüggen, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Philippe Herreweghe, Andris Nelsons and Robin Ticciati. Under the baton of Claudio Abbado she recorded the Beethoven and Berg violin concertos, which received several awards. In addition to the established repertoire, Isabelle Faust is also much in demand as a performer of contemporary works for the violin. Olivier Messiaen, Werner Egk and Jörg Widmann are among the composers whose works she has premiered. She is also passionately committed to the music of György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi, and for long neglected works such as the Violin Concerto by André Jolivet. The pianist Alexander Melnikov is a prominent partner for the artist’s many chamber music activities. During the 2019/20 season Isabelle Faust is Artist in Residence at the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, the Philharmonie Essen, the Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical Madrid and the Philharmonie de Luxembourg. Isabelle Faust made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2009 under the baton of Sakari Oramo as the soloist in Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. In her last appearances with the orchestra in March 2015 she performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Bernard Haitink.

(photo: anonym)

Peter Eötvös (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Isabelle Faust (photo: Felix Broede)