Honeck in a time of reflection
From Dvořák’s mournful, spellbinding fairytale opera, Rusalka, to Schubert’s and Richard Strauss’s songs, it is a concert characterized by story-telling, by longing and love. The opera’s unfortunate lovers, the water nymph who falls in love with a human prince, is perhaps comforted by Schubert’s tender Litanei or, for that matter, Strauss’s Allerseelen about longing and the yearning for a departed loved one. Brahms’s romantic Symphony No. 4 rounds off the concert in a grand and dignified fashion.
Once again, Berwaldhallen will be welcoming the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s former chief conductor Manfred Honeck and the young baritone Andrè Schuen, who we last heard in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Honeck has long wanted to do a Dvořák programme, and has been personally involved in putting together the suite with music from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka.
The libretto is based on a Slavic fairy tale about a water nymph who falls in love with a prince. In the most famous aria from the opera, “O silver moon”, she wishes to become human, and her wish is granted. However, the conditions are that both she and the prince will die if she does not find her love. Unfortunately, the story has a sad ending.
Strauss’s song of youth Allerseelen also deals with unrequited love, as the narrator wishes to regain his beloved and her love on All Souls Day. Strauss is perhaps best known for his symphonic poems from the 1890s and also later for his operas. But throughout his life he wrote songs and orchestrated many of them himself. Ruhe meine Seele was orchestrated as late as 1948. The talk of “difficult times” in the writings might reflect Strauss’ reflections on the fate of Germany.
“Vier Lieder”, which include Morgen and Ruhe meine Seele, were written by Strauss for his wife as a gift on their wedding day on September 10, 1894. The texts were chosen from the young avant-garde poets that had befriended on a trip to Berlin. The musical style is now regarded as Art Nouveau, meandering and richly ornamental. Traum durch die Dämmerung, characterized by rapture, ecstasy and delight, also belongs to this creative period. After 1906, he takes a break and does not compose any more songs for twelve years.
Schubert’s beloved, Litanei, with its simple, tender and comforting song “to the memory of all souls”, is the result of his newly acquired experience of the bel canto style, following lessons with Antonio Salieri. Des Fischers Liebesglück is about the fisherman’s fortunes in love, while at the same time the key of A minor betrays something else: loneliness and isolation. Schubert often used A minor in his works to describe this.
The crowning glory of the concert is Brahms’s final symphony. In 1885, he was considered to be Beethoven’s heir, and he considered himself to be the end point in a long golden age. He was not fond of the new, avant-garde music with Wagner at the helm. He did not even approach the musical drama and the programme music was alien to him. Instead, he can be seen as a romantic, but one who moulds his works into a classicist form. He derives the melodics from the popular folk roots. In Symphony No. 4, his thoughts converge on a conclusion, but not a sad one, one with the head held high. An autumn song with references to his major sources of inspiration: Palestrina, Bach and Beethoven.
Text: Andreas Konvicka
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is known worldwide as one of Europe’s most versatile orchestras with an exciting and varied repertoire and a constant striving to break new ground. The orchestra’s high-quality music making as well as its collaborations with internationally renowned composers, conductors and soloists have been rewarded with numerous prizes and accolades.
“The orchestra has a unique combination of humility, sensibility and musical imagination”, says Daniel Harding, chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007. “I have never had a concert with the orchestra where they haven’t played as though their lives depended on it!”
The first radio orchestra was formed in 1925, the same year that the Swedish Radio Service began its broadcasts. Since then, the orchestra’s concerts have always been broadcast by the Swedish Radio. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra received its current name in 1967.
Through the years, the orchestra has had several distinguished chief conductors. Two of them, Herbert Blomstedt and Esa-Pekka Salonen, have since been appointed conductors laureate together with Valery Gergiev, a regular guest conductor and co-founder of the Baltic Sea Festival.
Johannes Brahms completed his symphonies in pairs: the first and second symphonies in 1876–1877, and the third and fourth in 1883–1885. The first three were immediate successes, but Brahms was initially sceptical about the fourth symphony. His need of a second opinion was strong enough that he wrote an arrangement for piano four hands, that he performed himself with pianist and composer Ignaz Brüll to a small circle of friends.
The reception was not kindly. Music critic Eduard Hanslick, otherwise quite positive about Brahms’ music, is said to have remarked about the first movement: “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people.” Max Kalbeck, a good friend, was devastatingly upset and begged Brahms to discard the two, in his opinion, unbecoming central movements. Violinist Joseph Joachim, another close friend and collaborator, was similarly confused and disappointed. But gradually, after hearing the orchestral version, they all changed their minds and later hailed the symphony as one of Brahms’ crowning achievements.
Today, it can be easy for music enthusiasts to discard these reactions as poor judgment, but if taken seriously, they are in fact key to understanding the work. Joachim suggested opening the first movement with a constant two-bar chord. This highlights an important fact: the symphony begins in medias res, as if you’re opening the door to an orchestra that is already several bars into a piece. Hanslick’s reaction points to the violent character of the first movement. The symphony is sometimes called “the tragic”, but could just as easily be called acerbic or harsh.
Kalbeck, who criticised the central movements, was on the other hand the only one who appreciated the final movement even in piano reduction. The others deemed it unsuitable as a symphonic finale, likely in part because it maintains its minor characteristic throughout. It even ends on a minor chord, which was – and still is – relatively rare. Another reason may have been Brahms’ choice of musical form, the passacaglia, which was popular during the Baroque era: a series of variations over a bass line or sequence of chords.