2022 Europakonzert in Liepāja

Music of independence

Great-Amber-Konzerthalle in Liepāja
(Photo: Karlis Volkovskis)

The Europakonzert, which has been held every year on 1 May in different European cities since 1991, is a tribute to the diversity of the countries and cultures of this continent.  This year’s concert was originally scheduled to take place at the Odesa National Academic Opera. The Berliner Philharmoniker watched with dismay as the noose around Ukraine was tightened ever since last winter, then the fighting openly began. The concert plans stayed in place for as long as possible, but a performance in Odessa has now become unthinkable for the foreseeable future.

So instead of the Black Sea, the Berliner Philharmoniker will be guests on the Baltic Sea, in the Latvian city of Liepāja. In one of the world’s most spectacular venues, the Great Amber Concert Hall, music will be performed that gives voice to the idea of self-determination and independence. The concert will be broadcast live on German television on Das Erste, in the Digital Concert Hall and on rbb radio.

The Programme

The programme of the Europakonzert continues to reflect the original intention as well as the dramatic events of recent times. While Taras Bulba continues to represent Ukrainian independence, music by a Latvian and a Ukrainian composer testifies to their origins as much as to their artistic individuality. Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs bring together traditional music from about half a dozen peoples. The song cycle will be performed by Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča alongside Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Sibelius’ Finlandia, an anthem for national self-determination, forms the stirring conclusion of the concert.

Luciano Berio
Folk Songs

The song collection Folk Songs was written by Luciano Berio in 1964 for his then wife Cathy Berberian in a version for chamber ensemble; in 1973 he expanded it to a version for voice and orchestral accompaniment with solo winds, harp, percussion and strings. “I return to folk music again and again,” Berio said: “I want to take possession of this treasure with my own means.” America, France, Auvergne, Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, Armenia and Azerbaijan – the templates for the Folk Songs cycle and its eight different languages reflect the multicultural society to which Berio and Berberian belonged. On the other hand, the selection of the songs also aims at contrasts between the respective geographical, stylistic and expressive characteristics of the songs in order to exploit the soloist’s creative abilities. For example, there is a juxtaposition of archaic lament and elegant virelai from the French Middle Ages, of swinging gospel, exuberant lilting and bel canto.

Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča
(Photo: Deutsche Grammophon)

Pēteris Vasks
Musica dolorosa

Probably Latvia’s most famous composer today opens the programme: Pēteris Vasks, born in 1946, experienced the Stalinist purges as a child and knew victims of expulsion and banishment to Siberian penal camps. He began his musical career as a double bass player. Many obstacles were put in the way of the pastor’s son, who didn’t want to be “a Soviet person”. Vasks draws his inspiration from empathy: “I feel that compassion for the pain of the world is the starting point of my work.” His art does not exist for its own sake, there is no “l’art pour l’art” here, but an “art pour l’homme”, directed at human beings. “I have always dreamed that my music – consoling and questioning – could be heard where unhappy people are. [...] My music is meant for a great many people, not just concert hall audiences.” Musica dolorosa was written as a kind of instrumental requiem after the death of Vasks’ sister Marta, to whose memory the work is dedicated.

Valentin Silvestrov
Elegy for String Orchestra

On 8 March this year, Valentin Silvestrov arrived in Berlin, with his daughter and granddaughter. Born in Kiev in 1937, the composer had, at the urging of his family and friends, left his home town, where he had previously lived more or less continuously. His grandson stayed in Kiev to defend his country as a volunteer against the invasion of the Russian army. Silvestrov has long been no stranger to the West. His music has gained a large following in Germany – also thanks to the help of distinguished performers such as Gidon Kremer, Alexei Lubimov and Hélène Grimaud. His oeuvre is large, and even despite his exile, his creative urge remains unbroken. “It is very important that a composition begins with an impetus,” Silvestrov says. “Whether powerful or gentle, it should be the result of an already existing energy that sets the composition in motion.” Here, that impetus is a powerful fortissimo chord, partly bowed, partly plucked. After this accent, a melodic gesture appears that wanders through the parts throughout the piece, changing its tonal shape but always remaining clearly recognisable in outline. The impression of a “freezing of time” (Silvestrov) is created, even though there is no static repetition. The piece fades away into almost infinite silence.

Leoš Janáček
Taras Bulba

The figure Taras Bulba is a literary fiction. Nikolai Gogol first published the story about the Cossack captain, who combines traits of several historical figures, in 1835 as part of a collection of short stories and expanded it by several sections in 1842. Gogol’s Taras Bulba fights with almost ruthless ferocity for the liberation of Ukraine from Polish rule – and so became a kind of national hero who has several monuments dedicated to him. Leoš Janáček was a great admirer of Russian literature. Alongside his Moravian, Bohemian and Slovakian compatriots, Alexander Ostrovsky and Fyodor Dostoevsky in particular were allies in his artistic struggle for the identity of his homeland. Living in the predominantly German-speaking city of Brno, Janáček founded a “Russian Circle” in 1898; it was probably there that he first read Gogol’s story Taras Bulba in 1905. Janáček was captivated by the story of the Cossack leader and his sons. The plot centres on Taras Bulba and his sons Andrij and Ostap. Both are to grow up to be brave Cossacks, but the younger Andrij falls in love with a Polish woman during a stay in Kiev. He betrays the Cossacks for her, after which he is sentenced to death by Taras.

Jean Sibelius

Finlandia this is without a doubt Jean Sibelius’ most famous work. It was premiered some 120 years ago and soon found its way onto concert programmes all over the world. For a long time, Finlandia has also been part of the film music repertoire, where triumphant brass chords underscore the happy ending. The motivation for the composition, however, was a serious one. It was about the self-discovery of the Finnish nation, about the independence of the country from its Russian occupiers. For many hundreds of years, Finland had not been independent and had been under Swedish rule until the Russians took control in the area. In 1899, there was a festival in favour of the pension fund of the press which was suppressed by the ruling powers. A new four-part orchestral work by Sibelius was played, the finale of which later became famous as Finlandia.