Performance Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 8 PM

Berliner Philharmoniker

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The Berliner Philharmoniker has long been among the premier orchestras in the world, and under Sir Simon Rattle it is “achieving a new kind of invigorating glory” (The New York Times). For their first of three concerts at Carnegie Hall this season, they perform music that shows the range of fin-de-siècle music, from the august Dvořák’s Golden Spinning-Wheel to Debussy’s languid response to a Mallarmé poem.
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The Program

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

An Understated Revolution

The seductively understated sounds of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) make it an unlikely candidate for a revolutionary landmark in the history of music, but that is exactly what it is. Begun in 1891 and premiered in 1894 at the Société Nationale in Paris, it announced, in its own quiet way, a new concept of harmony, rhythm, melody, orchestration, and musical emotion in which all these elements take on an endlessly shifting ambiguity and irresolution.

Modern Music Awakes

Debussy’s tone poem came two years before Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning-Wheel but already inhabits a new world. In the words of Pierre Boulez, whose own music has come under the “mysterious and spellbinding” Debussy spell, “the flute of the Faun breathes a new air into musical art: Here it is not so much the art of development that is upset, but the concept of form itself, freed from all the impersonal constraint of a preordained scheme, lending wings to a lithe and mobile expressiveness … This score has a potential of youthfulness that defines exhaustion or decrepitude; and just as modern poetry is firmly rooted in certain poems by Baudelaire, one is justified in saying that modern music awakes with the premiere of L’après-midi d’un faune.”

Limpid Precision

As for the programmatic aspects of the work, Debussy himself has made clear, in prose as limpidly precise as his music, that Mallarmé’s 1876 poem provided only a context for free-association, not a text to be realistically rendered: “The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of the beautiful poem of Stéphane Mallarmé. It makes no pretensions whatever to being a synthesis of the poem. It projects, rather, a changing background for the dreams and desires of the Faun in the heat of that summer afternoon, as, weary from pursuing the frightened Nymphs and Naiads, he falls into a wine-drugged sleep, free at last to enjoy every bounty that he had craved of Nature.”

—Jack Sullivan

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


The Golden Spinning-Wheel, Op. 109

Coming Home

After he returned from America, where he had composed his revolutionary “New World” Symphony inspired by African American Spirituals, Dvořák plunged headlong into the folk culture of his own country. Abandoning symphonic and classical structures (much to the dismay of Eduard Hanslick and other supporters from the conservative wing), he knocked off four folkloric “orchestral ballades” in 1896 and had three of them ready for a London premiere in October and November of the same year.

Fairy Tales Grimmer than Grimm

Folktales are notoriously grim, but these from Bohemia are spectacularly so. The heroine of The Golden Spinning-Wheel attempts to marry an enraptured young king only to have her hands and feet dismembered and her eyes gouged out by a jealous stepmother and stepsister; she is brought back to life by a sorcerer whose magic spinning-wheel tips off the king, who then feeds the two villainous women to the wolves.

Banishing the Darkness

Little of this darkness is apparent in Dvořák’s rapturous music for The Golden Spinning-Wheel, which is Bohemian in its material but maintains the spaciousness and open intervals from his American period. Opening with the young king’s hunting calls and a recurring spinning-wheel motif, it features silvery violin solos against shimmering winds, eloquent brass chorales over whispered timpani in the slow section, and a galloping coda. Dvořák often used classical sonata form in his symphonic works, but the structure of The Golden Spinning-Wheel, based directly on the verbal rhythms of folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben’s text, is as far from Viennese classicism as possible, giving the piece a liberating unpredictability that was later celebrated and built upon by Leoš Janáček.

Despite its enormous melodic and harmonic appeal, The Golden Spinning-Wheel (like its three companions) has largely been relegated to the ghetto of Czech specialty music, both in recordings and live performances. An exception is Sir Simon Rattle, a champion of Dvořák’s tone poems who has been performing them with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his earliest years as the orchestra’s music director.

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4

About the Music

Composed in 1899, the same year as the Elgar piece on this program, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is a transitional work in every sense, a twilight-of-Romanticism tone poem by a composer whose atonal revolution was soon to stand Romanticism on its head. Lush and luscious in its tonal richness, Verklärte Nacht nonetheless expands tonality to its limits, so that there was little place to go afterward. Unlike Richard Strauss, who expanded tonality to the breaking point but still stuck with it, Schoenberg was soon to abandon the late-Romantic rhetoric of Verklärte Nacht for atonality and then serialism, an abandonment that only adds to the work’s melancholy poignancy.

Verklärte Nacht
was originally written for chamber ensemble and expanded for string orchestra in 1917, then revised in 1943. The narrative behind the notes, based on a poem from Richard Dehmel’s Weib und Welt (Woman and World), depicts two lovers in a moonlit forest. In anxiety and remorse, the woman confesses that she is pregnant by a previous lover; though she fears her current lover’s reaction, she hopes that motherhood will at least instill a purpose in life. The man’s reaction is unexpected: The beauty of the forest inspires him to rise to the occasion and proclaim that love will unite them and make the child genuinely their own. At the end, he embraces her and they continue their nocturnal walk.

It is fascinating to compare Verklärte Nacht with Erwartung, Schoenberg’s 1909 stream of consciousness “monodrama,” which also has its heroine meeting her lover in a moonlit forest. In Erwartung, we enter a new, terrifying century: The music is feverishly atonal; the woman kicks her lover’s bloody corpse—which turns out to be a figment of her imagination. In Verklärte Nacht, we are still in the 19th century, with both scenario and music, even though Schoenberg plays with the limits of the tonal system.

The music paints a dark, ominous forest, then proceeds with two sonata structures, the first depicting the anxious, confessing woman, the second her warm, empathetic lover. The delicate coda shimmering over pizzicato notes provides a magical rejoinder to anyone who thinks Schoenberg was incapable of writing beautiful music. Like the abstract modern painter whose early works show that he certainly could paint representational pictures, Schoenberg demonstrates here that before he ventured into new worlds of sound, he could compose lush, Romantic melodies with the best of them.

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” Op. 36

A Risky Embrace

“The vulgarist and most nouveau-riche trait in all connoisseurship,” wrote Donald Francis Tovey, “is the fear of vulgarity.” What Tovey was deploring in this 1935 remark was the fashionable distaste for Elgar among the musical intelligentsia, who feared endorsing his music precisely because of its mastery and its “vulgar” popularity among the general public.

The championing of Elgar has always seemed risky. (Recent Elgar revivals have been more theoretical than real, with only the Violin Concerto, a few of the songs, and the work on this program performed outside Britain with any regularity.) According to George Bernard Shaw, it was often easier in the early 20th century to endorse the avant-garde. “You can rave about Stravinsky without the slightest risk of being classed as a lunatic,” Shaw wrote in 1920. But if you praise Elgar, “you are either uttering a platitude as safe as a compliment to Handel on the majesty of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, or else damning yourself to all critical posterity by a gaffe that will make your grandson blush for you. Personally, I am prepared to take the risk. What do I care about my grandson?”

Puzzles for the Intelligentsia

With the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar helped his own case a bit by posing a set of riddles for the intelligentsia to puzzle over and write about. First, he dedicated this 1899 score to “my friends pictured within,” and gave each variation either initials or nicknames. (He clarified the identities in a set of notes that became available only after his death in 1934.)

A larger mystery concerns the main theme, itself called “Enigma,” which Elgar declared to be merely the countermelody to “another and larger theme.” That enigma has never been solved.

About the Music

Following is a brief description of the theme and 14 variations in relation to the characters they describe:

Enigma: a grave melody for strings, with Elgar’s characteristically dropping intervals.

I. (C. A. E.): Elgar’s wife, depicted in music of Brahmsian mellowness.

II. (H. D. S.-P.): H. D. Stuart-Powell, a pianist; this variation hops and scampers in an orchestral “travesty” of keyboard warm-up exercises.

III. (R. B. T.): Richard Baxter Townshend, an actor, whose rising falsetto voice is depicted by climbing woodwinds.

IV. (W. M. B.): William M. Baxter, a country squire, who had a habit of bossing people around at parties.

V. (R. P. A.): Richard P. Arnold (Matthew Arnold’s son) whose equally intense seriousness and wit are described in music of unpredictable contrasts.

VI. (Ysobel): Isabel Fitton, a violinist, identified by a sinuous solo for her instrument.

VII. (Troyte): Arthur Troyte Griffith, whose rambunctious personality is evoked with swirling strings, growling brass, and “uncouth” timpani.

VIII. (W. N.): Winifred Norbury, a lady of cheerful refinement, as can be heard in the music’s gently curving lines.

IX. (Nimrod): August Jaeger, a close friend; the hushed strings and rising intensity of this ever-popular variation are “the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven.”

X. (Dorabella): Miss Dora Penny, a young woman whose variation “suggests a dance-like lightness.”

XI. (G. R. S.): George Robinson Sinclair, whose bulldog is depicted with barking brass and thumping timpani.

XII. (B. G. N.): Basil Nevinson, “an amateur cello player of distinction,” whose instrument plays in the foreground.

XIII. (***): Lady Mary Lygon, whose variation was headed with three asterisks instead of initials; some commentators claim the variation really refers to Helen Jessie Weaver, to whom Elgar was once engaged. Whoever the woman is, she is depicted on a sea voyage, dreamily alluded to in a clarinet quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

XIV. (E. D. U.) Finale: Elgar himself, as “Edoo” was Lady Elgar’s nickname for her husband.

One More Enigma

A rousing coda was added at the suggestion of Hans Richter, who conducted the 1899 premiere. This addendum supplied yet another “enigma” for Tovey and others who wanted to know “how Elgar rounded off the work before he was induced to put a brass hat on it.”

For Shaw, the “Enigma” Variations was the ultimate rejoinder to the “clique” (Sir Hubert Parry and others) that insisted on snubbing Elgar: “The ‘Enigma’ Variations took away your breath. The respiration induced by their compositions was perfectly regular, and occasionally perfectly audible.”

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Carnegie Hall presentations of the Berliner Philharmoniker are made possible by a leadership gift from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

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