Sir Simon Rattle (photo: Oliver Helbig)

Simon Rattle conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

The Philharmonie Berlin will be closed until 19 April – as a measure to counteract the spread of the Corona virus. However, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle have decided to give their planned concert with Berio’s Sinfonia and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra anyway: without an audience, exclusively in the Digital Concert Hall. A first broadcast on 12 March will be followed by repeats on 13 and 14 March. Access is free.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle conductor

Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart

Luciano Berio

Sinfonia for 8 Voices and Orchestra

Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart

Béla Bartók

Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116

Dates and Tickets


Enigmatic, experimental, revolutionary – Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra is a milestone of new music. Commissioned for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th birthday and premiered in 1968 with the composer conducting, it combines very different musical ideas and aspects as in a kaleidoscope: it is analytical and sensuous at the same time, quotes European music history from Beethoven to Stockhausen, and seismographically mirrors social sensitivities of the 1960s. Berio used the eight voices, executed here by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, in an entirely new way; he has them not only sing but also speak, whisper, shout and murmur. In the process he uses texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett, as well as the name of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968. It is not the texts’ messages that are of primary importance: “The varying degree of perceptibility of the text is a part of the musical structure”, the composer stresses. Another important element of his Sinfonia is the Scherzo from Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony that – Berio has written – is comparable to a river “going through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another, altogether different place”.

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is also characterised by stylistic variety and musical heterogeneity. Bartók composed the work as a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1943 in American exile, already critically ill and in financial distress. And yet it is an homage to life: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one”, the composer declared. Even the name of the piece seems like an anachronism, but Bartók explains it to mean that the individual orchestral instruments are treated in a concertant or soloistic manner in the course of this symphony-like orchestral work. Typical for Bartók’s tonal language is grappling with Hungarian and Southeast European folk music, which decisively shaped the rhythms, melodies and harmonies of his works – as they did his Concerto for Orchestra, which became of the composer’s most frequently played pieces. Sir Simon Rattle will conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker: after a classical and late Romantic programme, his second performance this season will be with these two 20th-century masterpieces.

About the music

Surprising Expeditions

Music by Luciano Berio and Béla Bartók

In 1931, the Hungarian composer and folk music collector-analyst Béla Bartók gave a lecture in Budapest on the “influence of peasant music on modern music”. At the end of his observations, he dealt with a reproach levelled against his music for lacking originality and against his creative powers for having developed his musical language directly out of his explorations of folk music, not even shying away from the use of actual folk melodies in a portion of his works. Drawing a critical distinction to the Romantic aesthetic of genius, in which the true artist demonstrates his individuality by inventing his own ideas and themes, Bartók argued: “It is a fatal error to attribute so much importance to the subject, the theme of a composition. We know that Shakespeare borrowed the stories of his plays from all sources. ... Is there any sense in talking of plagiarism, of intellectual sterility or incompetence? In music, as in poetry and in painting, it does not matter what themes we use. It is the form into which we mould them that constitutes the essence of our work. It is this form that reveals the knowledge, creative power and individuality of the artist.”

The Italian composer Luciano Berio, born 44 years after Bartók, would surely have endorsed these words. His music also feeds on a myriad of diverse sources, making reference to art and folk repertoire as well as other musics, borrowing themes and material and transforming them with great originality. Taking as an example his creative handling of folk music, Berio described the approach behind it as follows: “I’m not an ethnomusicologist, just a pragmatic egoist. I tend to be interested only in those folk techniques and means of expression that I can in one way or other assimilate without a stylistic break, and that allow me to make a few steps forward in the search for a unity underlying musical worlds that are apparently alien to one another.”

Composing with history – Berio’s Sinfonia

A striking example of Berio’s composing with history and his attempts to trace relationships between the most varied musical materials and make them audible is Sinfonia, composed in 1968-69. Its centrepiece is the third movement. Berio explained the basic idea of this, the most experimental and potent section of the work: “I had long intended to explore a musical work of the past from within – a creative investigation that would, at the same time, be an analysis, a commentary and an expansion of the original.” As the “object” of this undertaking, he chose the Scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If I were to describe the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo in Sinfonia, the image which comes most spontaneously to my mind is that of a river flowing through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another, altogether different place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical events.”

As Berio so vividly describes it by means of the river metaphor, the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo varies throughout the course of the third movement: heard in fragmented individual parts or in the whole orchestra; in its original guise or distorted, instrumentally or vocally; clearly at one moment then once again only suggested or entirely absorbed by the enveloping musical proceedings. A substantial part of those enveloping proceedings – in other words, the “changing landscape” of which the composer speaks – consists of quotations from 250 years of music history. From Bach, Beethoven and Brahms by way of Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berg and Hindemith to Stockhausen, Boulez, Globokar and Berio himself. In one instant, the evocative sound-world of Debussy’s La Mer materializes; in the next, the orchestra plunges into a wildly intensifying passage from Le Sacre du printemps or, heard in one timbral group, into the brusque main motif of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The crucial factor is that the composer doesn’t simply assemble the countless quotes in the manner of a collage. Instead they are embedded in the musical flow so as to give the impression of being generated out of the Mahler scherzo by a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique. And then there are the various texts in the solo voices: layered one upon another, they form a further level that at times seems to be independent, then commenting again, seriously or ironically, on the musical events in the orchestra. And so, the first tenor concludes the brilliant, crazy movement – tailored to this particular evening – with the laconic words: “Thank you, Mr. Simon Rattle.”

Composing in exile – Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Whereas Berio spent part of his life in the USA out of his own free will, Bartók arrived there in autumn 1940 as a refugee. The Nazis’ advance and “the imminent danger that Hungary, too, will surrender to this system of robbers and murderers” had led the composer, with a heavy heart, to abandon his homeland and, at nearly 60 years of age, venture into the unknown. Living in a free but unfamiliar country and making a new existence for themselves was fraught with difficulties for the Bartóks, as it was for many other emigrants. In addition to material hardships and feelings of rootlessness, the composer soon was confronted by massive health problems. It is not surprising that his creative activity nearly came to a complete standstill during the first years in exile: “I don’t know if I ever will be in the position to do some new works,” he wrote resignedly to his publisher in the summer of 1942. Only the commission of a new work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from the famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky as well as a sudden improvement in the state of his health eventually got him through the crisis. In a few weeks of genuine creative frenzy during the summer of 1943, the Concerto for Orchestra, one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century, was composed at a sanatorium far from the hubbub of the metropolis New York.

As mentioned at the outset, Bartók was not only a great composer but also an important ethnomusicologist. On his many research excursions through Eastern Europe, but also to North Africa and Turkey, he collected thousands of folk melodies. After he settled in the USA, he concentrated on his Balkan material. The musical language of the Concerto for Orchestra is marked in numerous ways by this intensive research. Bartók constructed many themes in the style of folk tunes, for example the Slovak-coloured oboe melody at the beginning of the fourth movement. But other musical worlds come to life in the Concerto. In the fourth movement, tellingly entitled “Intermezzo interrotto” (Interrupted interlude), Bartók sets up a collision between three distinct musical spheres: a folk tune, an operetta melody, and the parody of a banal symphony theme. The third movement, “Elegia”, on the other hand, begins with nature music evoking the sounds and atmosphere of the night. All of these diverse musical worlds are enlivened by the orchestra’s ability to adapt and transmute as well as by the virtuosic solo and ensemble possibilities of its multifarious members.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Richard Evidon


Sir Simon Rattle was chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonie from September 2002 until June 2018. Even before taking up his post as principal conductor, Simon Rattle had already collaborated regularly with the Berliner Philharmoniker for fifteen years: he conducted the orchestra for the first time in November 1987 in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Most recently, he conducted the orchestra in three concerts last week with works by Beethoven and Strauss. In September 2017, Simon Rattle took up the position of Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Rattle is also principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and works with leading orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Liverpool in 1955, Simon Rattle studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1980 he became principal conductor and artistic adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, stepping up to music director from September 1990 until August 1998. In the concert hall and opera house, Simon Rattle’s extensive repertoire covers compositions ranging from the Baroque era to contemporary music. He has conducted operas by Rameau, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Debussy and Poulenc in Aix-en-Provence, London, Salzburg, New York, Baden-Baden and Berlin. Music education is an important part of Sir Simon’s work; the Education Programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker was established on his initiative. For this commitment, as well as for his artistic work, Simon Rattle has won many awards: In 1994 Simon Rattle was knighted by the Queen of England. He also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, a knighthood in the French Legion of Honour and the British Order of Merit.

Sir Simon Rattle (photo: Oliver Helbig)