Saved events

Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Jurowski: Alpine Symphony

Vladimir Jurowski conducting

In the first of two concerts Vladimir Jurowski directs the Bayerisches Staatsorchester – which is celebrating its 500th birthday – in a claustrophobic vision of snow, an elegiac 20th-century violin concerto and a mighty Alpine tone-poem.

Humanity’s rich and complex relationship with nature is a theme that threads its way through this programme. Immersion in the natural world may elicit strangely contradictory emotions: a sense of our insignificance in its vastness; an awareness of mortality when the forces of nature are pitted against us; a sense of pride in ‘conquering’ the apparently unconquerable.

Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva regularly addresses these themes in her scores. Her single-movement White Interment was composed in 2002 for oboe and strings before she arranged it for full orchestra, turning it into her Third Symphony. The work is founded on the rhythm of the words ‘teper’ vsegda snega’, meaning ‘now always snow’, and evokes the sense of being trapped in an icy prison: drawn into a blizzard, buried beneath a snowdrift, succumbing to sleep as the surrounding space implodes. These claustrophobic impressions are conjured by Poleva using static effects designed to provoke an almost psychedelic response in the listener. Blocks of sounds are structured using classical allusions, including circulatio (the Latin for ‘circle’), a whirling melody that evokes the infinity sign; catabasis (the Greek for ‘descent’), represented by a falling shape; the ascending anabasis (the Greek for ‘climbing’); and aposiopesis (the Greek for ‘concealment’ or ‘disguise’), reflected by a general pause depicting death and eternity.

Death and eternity were at the forefront of Alban Berg’s mind as he composed his Violin Concerto. The work was commissioned in 1935 by Ukrainian-American violinist Louis Krasner; soon afterwards, Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband Walter Gropius, died of polio. Berg was distraught and quickly composed the concerto in tribute, dedicating it ‘to the memory of an angel’. Other figures inhabit the score: Berg’s enduring affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin is represented by the notated equivalents of their initials, and a reference to a Carinthian folksong A Bird in the Plum Tree hints at an earlier dalliance with a woman on the staff of his family’s summer residence in Carinthia. These elements soften the effect of the 12-tone serial procedures used by Berg in the work, based on a system pioneered by his teacher and fellow member of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg. Other tonal allusions include a quotation of J S Bach’s funereal chorale ‘Es ist genug’ from his Cantata BWV60 – the text of which describes a soul’s journey from earth to heaven.

Whereas Berg included hidden programmes in other works, the message of this score was explicitly described by him to his first biographer Willi Reich. It is written in two movements, both of which are in two sections: the first movement portrays Manon, the second her illness and death. Berg’s annotations on the score mention ‘cries’ and ‘groans’; tragically, it was to become his own requiem, as he died not long after finishing the score and didn’t live to hear it performed.

Strauss was working on his Alpine Symphony when he learned of the death of Mahler in 1911. He wrote in his notebook: ‘the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity … I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, adoration of eternal, magnificent nature’. These ideals recall Friedrich Nietzsche, and musically there are also nods to Strauss’s Nietzschean tone-poem Also sprach Zarathustra. In the end, Strauss rejected the ‘Antichrist’ idea in favour of a celebration of Nature.

The scoring of the Alpine Symphony was completed on 8 February 1915, and Strauss dedicated the work ‘in profound gratitude’ to Count Seebach, director of Dresden’s Royal Opera House, where several of his operas had been premiered. The premiere was given on 28 October in Berlin by the Dresden Court Orchestra under the composer’s direction. At the final rehearsal Strauss observed: ‘At last I have learned to orchestrate. I wanted to compose, for once, as a cow gives milk.’

The scale of the Alpine Symphony is unparalleled in the composer’s output, calling for an orchestra of over 140 players including eight horns, 12 offstage horns, wind and thunder machines, cowbells, celesta, quadruple woodwind and organ. The work portrays 24 hours in the mountains through a series of tableaux. The sense of place is vivid, with Mahlerian cowbells leaving us in no doubt as to the setting; and the music exudes a pastoral grandeur reminiscent of Bruckner’s Alpine evocations. The opening, recalled at the end, is particularly striking, involving a descending succession of sustained pitches built up until every degree of the scale is heard simultaneously. But although Strauss lived in the Alpine town of Garmisch for over three decades, it seems this ambitious and exhaustive account of the Alps was all he needed to say on the subject. Apart from quoting the Alpine Symphony in a couple of songs, he never again attempted so specific a tribute to the spectacular beauty of his surroundings.

© Joanna Wyld

Programme and performers

Victoria Poleva White Interment (UK premiere)
Alban Berg Violin Concerto
1. Andante
2. Allegro

Richard Strauss Eine Alpensinfonie
Night – Sunrise – The ascent – Entering the forest – Wandering by the brook – At the waterfall – Apparition – On the flowery meadows – On the mountain pasture – Lost in thickets and undergrowth – On the glacier – Precarious moments – On the summit – Vision – Mists rise – The sun is gradually obscured – Elegy – Calm before the storm – Thunderstorm, descent – Sunset – Epilogue – Night

Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Vladimir Jurowski
Vilde Frang violin

Artist biographies

Audience in the hall

Our Patrons and supporters

Find out about our Patrons, who help us keep our programme accessible to everyone and allow us to continue investing in the artists and communities we work with.

Love the arts? Become a Patron to engage more closely with our programme.