In the autumn darkness, Nathalie Stutzmann leads a programme full of Romantic warmth and passion.
Brahms’ second symphony is often nicknamed his “pastoral”, and here, German symphonic structures radiate sunny landscapes and a life-affirming force. In The Damnation of Faust, Berlioz has cloaked one of the key figures of Romanticism in French colours. Many remember Measha Brueggergosman’s passionate Gershwin interpretation from the Palace Square concert in 2017. This time, she is the soloist for Berlioz’s passionate songs about love and loss in the cycle Les Nuits d’été.
Johannes Brahms (1833−1897) spreads out the canvas of his second symphony like a grandiose landscape painting, featuring horns, long legato tones and a beautiful chorus of woodwinds and strings. The symphony has been nicknamed the “pastoral”, both as a reference to Brahms’ spiritual father − Beethoven − and to mark the contrast with the former’s tragic, dramatic first symphony. But most of all, the work is characterised by complex counterpoint structures and driving rhythms. Already in the first movement, the rural peace must gradually make way for an intense thematic development. The finale communicates tremendous energy − the vitality, humour and life force of this movement is reminiscent of Haydn, a composer Brahms didn’t often mention, but who might have been an important source of inspiration for the effervescent ending of this life-affirming symphony.
Brahms was staying in the Austrian village of Pörtsach when he composed his second symphony, and he was inspired by the postcard-pretty landscape. He pronounced that “the melodies flow so freely here that one must take care not to stumble over them”. It’s not surprising then, that this turned out to be Brahms’ most sunny and melodious symphony. At the same time, the work also contains some deeply serious material, especially in the dark and unsettled second movement. Brahms might have had this section in mind when he, oddly enough, remarked to his publisher that the work was “so melancholy that it’s hardly to be endured”. The work was premiered in Vienna in 1877 and has since been a cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire.
In contrast to Brahms and many other German composers, Hector Berlioz (1803−1869) believed that music could describe or express something beyond itself; for instance, a story, a landscape, or a particular mood or feeling. Berlioz proved to be one of the champions of the programme music of the 19th century, and wrote many works where the title or accompanying programme explains what the music is about. In addition, Berlioz wrote many songs. Most of them have been forgotten, but some have seen new life in recent years and one of the most successful is the song cycle Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights). Here, it is love’s different stages, from new love to loss, that are illustrated and expressed by the music.
Les nuits d’été consists of six songs set to poems by the French poet Théophile Gautier. First, spring and love are celebrated in Villanelle, where the couple in love wanders through the forest, picking flowers before turning home, hand in hand. In Le Spectre de la Rose, the soloist sings of the rose she was given at last night’s ball. The rose has withered but its spirit lives on in paradise. After the two rosy first songs, three laments follow: Sur les lagunes: Lamento, Absence, and Au Cimetière: Clair de Lune, which are all about longing and loss of loved ones. The cycle ends with L’Île Inconnue, expressing the elusive idea of an unknown island, where love can blossom forever. Berlioz has used an, uncharacterically for him, sparing orchestral apparatus. Nevertheless, the sound remains inventive, colourful and illustrative of the content of the text.
Berlioz had originally written the songs for piano accompaniment in 1841, but later in the 1840s and 1850s he orchestrated all six. As far as it is known, Les nuits d’été was never performed as a cycle of orchestral songs in the composer’s lifetime. The songs were forgotten for many years, but have been given a new lease of life thanks to many performances in the course of the second half of the 20th century. Today the work counts among Berlioz’s most successful vocal compositions, and is a crowning example of French Romantic music tradition.
The same might be said of one of Berlioz’s most grandiose composition projects − La Damnation de Faust (The Condemnation of Faust) for four vocal soloists, large choir, children’s choir and orchestra. The work, which the composer himself called a “dramatic legend”, is a typical example of Berlioz’s break with traditional genres and forms, and his championing of programme music. It’s now common to play three of the instrumental parts of this great work as an independent feature of a concert programme, and in this concert we perform Marche Hongroise (Hungarian March), Ballet des Sylphes (Dance of the Fairies) and Menuet des Follets (Minuet of the Gnomes). La Damnation de Faust received its world premiere in Paris in 1846.
Brahms’ four symphonies were assured a firm place in the Oslo Philharmonic’s repertoire from the beginning, and all four were performed in the course of the orchestra’s first two seasons. Incidentally, the second was the only symphony not performed in the opening season itself, but it was on the programme three times in the orchestra’s second season, with Principal Conductor Georg Schneevoigt and the two German guest conductors Max Fiedler and Carl Maria Artz performing it respectively. Especially Fiedler was known as a great Brahms interpreter in his time, and his concerts in 1921 were a great occasion in Oslo. After he conducted the work, Reidar Mjøen wrote in Dagbladet:
Max Fiedler led the Philharmonic evenings Saturday and yesterday, and imbued these concerts with his great and uncommon art of conducting, surely the most spiritual we will witness in our times. The meeting again with the old master was accompanied by great love from the public and from the orchestra, he was lauded with fanfares and wreaths, and the fine old musician was visibly moved.
(Reidar Mjøen, Dagbladet, 08.03.1921)
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Nathalie Stutzmann; Photo: Simon Fowler)Read more
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