International tour – Basel
About the program
“Yesterday we rehearsed Manfred’s overture, and it has reawakened my passion for poetry. How beautiful it would be to show people proof of the power of poetry of the highest standards! You have given me hope for that, has it occurred to you?… It should not be presented as an opera or Singspiel or a melodrama, but rather as a ‘dramatic poem with music’. That would be something completely novel, something unheard of!” Wrote Schumann to Franz Liszt in November 1851, before the planned premiere in Weimar of his incidental music to Byron’s Manfred . In his letter he elaborated on the difficulties and peculiarities of a work which combined dramatic and oratorical features, as well as the nature of its novelty. Schumann, as with many other composers of his age, was closely connected to literature and many of his compositions are a testament to his extraordinary literary awareness. Like other composers, he also caught the Byron fever and began to work on setting the poem to music during the summer of 1848. Only the overture, perhaps the most passionate and dramatic part of the whole, is regularly performed as a stand-alone piece. Liszt conducted the premiere of the entire incidental music in Weimar in 1852, although before that, Schumann had conducted the overture in Leipzig.
“This concert was another of those where a new composition – one by Mr. Johannes Brahms – premieres to the graves,” began the review of the world premiere of Brahms’ Piano Concerto in D minor. The reception the piece received on 27 January 1859 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus was mixed at best. There was scant applause alongside audible hissing in response to the young composer’s work. “The piano concerto flopped gloriously and resoundingly,” said the composer himself . The audience at the Gewandhaus could not yet cope with Brahms’ style and they were probably taken aback by the unusualness of the work. And possibly, in light of the popularity of Liszt’s concertos, Brahms’ musical language appeared dull and puritanically simplistic. What is more, the near hour-long composition is physically and intellectually exhausting, burdening both the performers and the audience alike. Today however, we know that the story did have a happy ending. Brahms was not put off by the failure, and after a few years he would have been pleased to see the success and growing popularity of his concerto.
When, in May 1990, after forty-one years in exile, the brilliant Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik first directed his former orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, the audience at the Smetana Hall in Prague wept as they were overcome with emotion. The elderly, seriously ill conductor chose the work that best symbolised Czech patriotism. The unforgettable concert featured Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, My Homeland . Nikolaus Harnoncourt, another great interpreter of the work, wrote the following about Smetana’s opus. “…in this cycle, [Smetana] depicts his homeland lovingly, yet mercilessly. Of the six parts that masterfully form a whole through musical means, he devotes two to myths, two to nature and two to history. The composer deals with such conflicting topics as politics and religion, the co-habitation of Germans and Czechs, or the symbolic vocalisation of the issue of matriarchy.”
“Nineteenth century patriotism was different, more innocent and idealistic than today’s nationalism. I feel that the strengthening of national identity within the Hapsburg Empire, in Smetana’s age, was something they had good reason to be proud of. Today however, when European integration is at constant risk, he wouldn’t want to emphasise national pride”, Iván Fischer continues. Therefore Fischer has selected those movements from the beautiful My Homeland cycle that depict nature and the past, and not those with a strong national character. Alongside Smetana’s ‘Czech bouquet’ of tone poems that testify to a peaceful patriotism, he has chosen some rarely performed but atmospherically-fitting duets from Dvořák’s opus.