The Philadelphia Orchestra
- Saturday, 3 September 2011
Hector Berlioz never had regular piano lessons. In the limited possibilities afforded by his provincial hometown of La Côte-Saint-André, this doctor’s son was instructed in flute, guitar and singing. Later he wrote: “I can only offer up my gratitude to chance which taught me perforce to compose freely and in silence and thus saved me from the tyranny of keyboard habits, so dangerous to thoughts, and from the lure of conventional sonorities.” And so Berlioz’s conception of sonority was not oriented to the constraints of piano writing – he composed directly with the more variegated sound of an orchestra in his ear. With the Symphonie fantastique he devised novel instrumental sounds to represent the drug-induced dreams of his lovesick anti-hero as an orchestral drama in five acts.
Ever since he attended the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique, Liszt held up Berlioz as his great model. In an essay on Berlioz, Liszt asks rhetorically: “Should those who feel themselves driven by their own genius and the spirit of the time to invent and mould new forms bend under the yoke of already finished forms?” Obviously not. This encouraged the piano virtuoso Liszt to go his own way as well and to explore new terrain. The raison d’être of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major is neither pianistic brilliance as an end in itself nor competition between soloist and orchestra. In the unconventional number of six movements, which follow on without a break and give the impression of being a single movement, Liszt constantly varies the main theme of his concerto and leads it into ever-changing, highly contrasting contexts – much as Berlioz treated his idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique. The concerto, which Liszt originally intended to call a “concert symphonique”, becomes a symphonic poem with obbligato piano, though without any concretely formulated programme. Liszt does away with the conventions of traditional piano concertos, replacing them with the principle of transformation of the opening material.
Wolfgang Rihm’s “music for orchestra” Verwandlung (Transformation) 3 already takes up that principle in its title. Playing for around ten minutes, the piece draws on the opulence of the highly developed Romantic orchestral apparatus available to Berlioz and Liszt’s successors at the beginning of the 20th century. Verwandlung 3 spectacularly reflects the dizzying orchestral effects that composers like Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold exploited and exhausted for modern music. At the same time, Rihm clearly demonstrates how vulnerable these hypertrophic masses of sonority can be.