Artists

Orchestra

2 Mar '20

Concert
2 Mar '20

SWR Symphonieorchester

Tour

Concert dates and locations

Artists

Programme

During the years 1886-1889, Richard Strauss worked – partly in parallel – on the three tone poems that forged his reputation of being an "orchestra magician": Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. The latter doesn’t owe anything to a literary impulse, but results from a spontaneous idea the composer had "to evoke through a symphonic poem the hour of death of a man, probably an artist, who had strived throughout his life to reach the highest goals".
This man has no name; to equate him with Strauss, then 25 years old, would probably be somewhat shortsighted. The focus is far more on the ideal type of an artist who has strived throughout his life to create something lasting. To a certain extent, this tone poem raises the question of the traces we leave behind after our death. However unsatisfactory an answer expressed in words might seem, Strauss' music has lost none of its fascination to date.
Formally speaking, Death and Transfiguration is a sonata movement with an introduction and an extended coda. The prelude depicts the gradual withdrawal of a terminally ill patient: the pulse weakens, punctuated from time to time by a sigh. Then comes a sudden awakening (main section, Allegro), accompanied by pain and fever that trigger a flood of memories. From these images of life, a theme gradually emerges, "an ideal that could not be accomplished because it was not meant to be accomplished by man," according to Strauss. However, this theme is only heard in its full and transfigured form after the artist's death, signalled by drumming on the tam-tam.
Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, a purely instrumental work of classical structure, is nowadays considered to be the most traditional of the composer's nine symphonies. This has not always been the case. When the work was premiered in Budapest in 1889, the audience heard a symphonic poem in two parts and five movements. At a new performance four years later in Hamburg, Mahler explained the content of each movement and gave the piece a new title: “Titan, a symphonic poem in the form of a symphony”. It was only when the work was published in 1899 that this symphony finally appeared in its final four-movement form, without any programmatic headings. Mahler's ambition to innovate in the symphonic field explains this uncertain approach. To achieve his goal, the composer made use of previous compositions as well as melodies and music evoking "living images". He also drew his inspiration from extra-musical sources, such as the idea of the awakening of spring in the first movement or parodistic engravings in the slow movement. He then processed this disparate material according to symphonic principles, with a triumphal finale as his objective. Nevertheless, this work already reveals typical Mahlerian traits in the juxtaposition of splendour and misery, the expression of inner conflict, the choice of a straightforward popular expression or, on the contrary, a distorted triviality. Harmonies born from "natural sounds" (1st movement, introduction) or a grotesque staging of the "Frères Jacques" canon (3rd movement): who else but Mahler could have written such music? And when, in the end, the most profound despair turns into a solemn apotheosis, it is already the Mahlerian concept of the symphony as a world creation drama that is taking shape.

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Good to know

Two renowned German orchestras – the Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra – merged in 2016 to form the SWR Sinfonieorchester (SWR Symphony Orchestra). There was a controversy over this fusion since each orchestra had a very distinct profile as far as the repertoire was concerned. The Baden-Baden ensemble was mainly focused on contemporary music, while the Stuttgart orchestra was particularly committed to historical performance practice. Each of the orchestras had distinguished itself in the past with numerous recording awards and Grammy nominations and had gathered years of experience under the renowned conductors such as Ernest Bour, Michael Gielen and Sylvain Cambreling for the one or George Priest and Roger Norrington for the other. Teodor Currentzis’ appointment in 2018 gave rise to the hope of merging the best of both sound worlds. His opening concert with a Bruckner-Ligeti programme certainly met with an enthusiastic response, particularly in the Neue Musikzeitung, who described the evening as "memorable".

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