Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
- Sunday, 11 September 2011
Astonishing music for the beginning of an opera: instead of a conventional overture, a kind of programme music. Franz Liszt, who conducted the world premiere at Weimar, saw the Temple of the Grail reflected “in the mirror of azure waves, beamed back by iris-coloured clouds” in the prelude to his friend Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. “The beginning of the opera has the effect of a psychedelic initiation ritual” writes the opera specialist Ulrich Schreiber, “which causes anyone with ears to hear it to lose their senses.” In this prelude Wagner achieves something new, unlike anything ever heard before: something unearthly, music of the spheres that set new standards of expressivity.
Wolfgang Rihm’s violin concerto Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant) begins in almost unearthly heights. He wrote it for Anne-Sophie Mutter, who gave the premiere and performs it again at musikfest berlin. In conceiving this work, Rihm had in his ear the “uncommon energy and animation” of the high notes that Mutter can elicit from the violin. “I had never encountered in her playing that attenuation and impoverishment in slow playing in the highest regions that is typical of some virtuosos: on the contrary, precisely in remoteness her playing is richest and most alive.” The violin in Rihm’s concerto sings a kind of chant that carries on even in confrontation with the orchestra. “In essence, this is monophonic music,” he once remarked.
Shortly before the premiere of his Fifth Symphony, Mahler lamented in a letter to his wife Alma: “… the public – Oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble in ruin the moment after? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent and flashing breakers?” In his Fifth, Mahler is definitively revealed as the forerunner of modern music, if not of the post-modern: disparate, fragmentary elements everywhere; internal contradictions left unresolved; military, funereal, folk, quotidian, even plaintive circus music; waltz rhythms, chorales and carnival noises – everything cheek by jowl under a spotlight. There is also, however, a haven of repose amidst the turbulence, an idyllic island: the Adagietto, a song without words for strings and harp. Luchino Visconti chose this music for his film of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to accompany a tale of decadence set against a cholera epidemic.