Tonight’s concert is headlined by powerhouse conductor Simone Young, a towering exponent of the Austro-German repertoire, who joins the Philharmonia for the first time to take us on a journey full of rich drama and deep emotion. “Music,” she says, “should elevate, inspire, console, excite. It can push every emotional button, and that’s just for starters.” Franz Liszt, whose lush and lyrical Orpheus opens the concert, knew a thing or two about pushing an audience's buttons – his pop-star level of fame as a captivating virtuoso almost eclipsed his visionary composing work in his lifetime.
Another quintessential Romantic, Robert Schumann, follows, with the expressive Cello Concerto – a favourite of long-time Philharmonia friend Steven Isserlis, who champions the composer’s work and cherishes this once lost masterpiece. And, to top the evening, Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, ‘Tragic’, a work of full of energy and vigour.
We hope you enjoy the concert. You can share your thoughts on social media tagging us @Philharmonia and don’t forget that you can watch as many times as you like for 30 days after the premiere.
Header image: Simone Young © Monika Rittershaus
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Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Orpheus (1853 – 54)
Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of the 19th-century and a musician whose unprecedented following even spawned its own noun: Lisztomania.
In 1847, Liszt gave up his career as the world’s most famous pianist to work as a conductor and composer. He hoped the change would give him the time and opportunity to reimagine the language of music.
Liszt at the Piano by Josef Danhauser, 1840 (public domain)
In short, Liszt wanted to bring about the “rejuvenation of music by its more profound link with the art of poetry.” In 1853 he coined the term “symphonic poem”, describing a piece of music inspired by literature, painting, poetry or landscape.
The following year, Liszt conducted a performance of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice from 1774 at the opera in Weimar, in celebration of an aristocratic birthday. He wrote a new orchestral prelude to the opera for the occasion, as well as an epilogue. Liszt then extended that prelude into his fourth symphonic poem, Orpheus.
It wasn’t Liszt’s intention to tell any particular story associated with Orpheus. Rather, he wanted to present an image of the character and, in so doing, suggest his broader relevance to humanity. Much is left to the imagination of the listener.
Orpheus singing before the Thracians, clay vase, c. 430 BC (public domain)
The composer had recently seen an Etruscan vase in the Louvre museum in Paris, depicting Orpheus playing his lyre and calming the souls of men and animals. It’s easy to hear this referenced in the strumming harps that appear at the start of the piece.
Over the top of the harps, Liszt begins to outline a simple tune that could be said to personify Orpheus. The overall impression across the composer’s three-part poem, in which the third part reprises the first, is of the ennobling power of music.
Eventually, the music floats away with a series of chords that Liszt compared to rising incense, “unspeakably mysterious.”
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 129 (1850)
- Nicht zu schnell
- Sehr lebhaft
Robert Schumann embodied the musical world that emerged after Beethoven – one of emotional intensity, heart-on-sleeve openness and the propensity to dream big dreams.
Schumann did all those things. But like many great artistic minds of the Romantic period, he was also a tortured soul. Poor mental health and physical frailty frightened and destabilised the composer. When he was offered the relative stability of a job directing the orchestra in Düsseldorf in 1850, Schumann accepted.
Lithograph of Robert & Clara Schumann by Eduard Kaiser, 1847 (public domain)
The first big work Schumann wrote in Düsseldorf was his Cello Concerto. The composer had played the cello in the 1830s and had written a number of small-scale works for the instrument.
A concerto, however, was different. The cello is one of the hardest instruments to balance with an orchestra, often sounding too low and too soft to cut through (unlike a violin). That, and Schumann had a fondness for busy, churning orchestral textures.
The composer solved those problems by limiting the number of wind and brass instruments in the orchestra and allowing the solo cello effectively to lead the musical conversation.
"The first movement is a real journey of the soul, opening with a love song, travelling to dark regions in the central section, and then returning to love..." Steven Isserlis
Schumann’s lyrical aesthetic resonated with the singing, dreamy qualities of the cello like few others. The Concerto proceeds with the feeling that the orchestra takes its time to get a foothold. In the first two movements the orchestra reacts to the cello. In the third it comes into its own, stepping up the volume and increasingly challenging the cello’s authority.
The cello’s first response to the soaring, elegiac main theme that launches the first movement has been described as “an archetypal flight of Romantic fancy”.
But it’s the brief, intermezzo-like second movement (the three are linked by a recurring motif taken from the opening theme) that arguably has the most Romantic qualities; a heartfelt eloquence that comes from the music’s patient intimacy and speech-like poise. For some time, the cello is accompanied by plucked strings.
"The slow movement is a glimpse of paradise, the last an outpouring of joy." Steven Isserlis
The Concerto ends with a high-spirited finale driven by clipped rhythms. Unusually, the cadenza – the moment when the solo instrument indulges in an expressive monologue – is accompanied by other low strings.
It took Schumann years to get the Cello Concerto just right. He made numerous revisions to the score, sometimes while undergoing bouts of severe depression as his illness worsened. The Concerto had to wait until 1860 for its first performance, four years after Schumann’s tortuous illness had caused his death.
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): Symphony No. 4 in C minor (1816)
- Adagio molto – Allegro vivace
- Menuetto: Allegro vivace
Orchestras were relatively rare beasts in Schubert’s Vienna. Haydn and Mozart had enjoyed ready access to large ensembles of musicians via their positions at aristocratic courts. Schubert, a teacher and domestic musician, wasn’t so lucky.
Still, Schubert had a thirst for orchestral creativity. He started a total of 13 symphonies. He may have finished fewer than half, but you get a good impression of his artistic development from the eight-and-a-half he did complete.
Schubert’s main exposure to orchestral music came as a young violinist in his school orchestra in Vienna. He later played the viola in an orchestra formed of friends and extended family.
Franz Schubert, c. 1827, attrib. Anton Depauly (public domain)
It was for this orchestra that Schubert wrote his symphonies numbered 2–5. Playing in the ensemble, the young Franz reportedly found the symphonies of Beethoven a little hard to stomach, preferring the relative restraint of Mozart.
Both composers make their presence felt in Schubert’s Symphony No. 4. The key of C minor was a favourite of Beethoven’s. There are other, less obvious nods towards that composer. The first movement’s theme references a melody from Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata while there are plenty of the citric harmonies, sudden accents and pronounced syncopations that Beethoven pioneered.
Mozart is there in the Symphony’s operatic passions and sense of melancholy. Though Schubert doesn’t go in for the sort of polyphony that Mozart explored in his symphonies – the braiding of two or more separate instrumental voices to form an elaborate horizontal conversation – here there is a tension and drama in the musical discourse that was entirely new in Schubert’s work.
The Wiener Neustadt Canal in Vienna, anonymous, 1816 (public domain)
Where does that tension – that ‘Tragic’ moodiness – come from? It might be Schubert stylistically recalling the Sturm und Drang aesthetic pioneered by Haydn, in which composers sought to conjure up their own miniature tornadoes of ‘storm and stress’ in their music.
Then again, it could be more personal. The Symphony was written over a three-week period in the spring of 1816 when Schubert was deeply frustrated. Life in Vienna was unfulfilling and the composer earned little money, teaching in poor conditions at his father’s school. His application for the post of Director of Music in Lichtental had just been rejected.
This frustration, or the release of it, is palpable in the imposing minor chord that opens the symphony. The Adagio feels its brooding way towards a nimble Allegro, which remains in a cautious minor key but shows some flickers of optimism.
Where does that tension – that ‘Tragic’ moodiness – come from? It might be Schubert stylistically recalling the Sturm und Drang aesthetic pioneered by Haydn, in which composers sought to conjure up their own miniature tornadoes of ‘storm and stress’.
The Andante is perfectly structured – right up to its last bars, which include Schubert’s manipulating of the rhythmic accompaniment into time bending triplets, gearing-down the music’s gait to charming effect.
Haydn and Beethoven both explored ‘monothematic’ musical structures – music in which all activity is generated from a single, often short figure or ‘motif’. The technique is heard all over Schubert’s Fourth, but most clearly in its final movement.
Here, all discussion is generated from the nifty little tune that sounds almost as soon as the movement has begun. After that, there’s no let-up. Not even the gently rocking secondary music can slow the infectious momentum – as coherent as it is stimulating.
Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor
Steven Isserlis © Philharmonia
Meet Steven Isserlis
Your relationship with the Philharmonia goes back to your MMSF Fellowship, and over the years we have been privileged to have you as soloist over 20 times. What keeps you coming back?
Wow! Over 20 times? I didn’t realise. That’s an honour… I really look forward to my visits to the Philharmonia – not only because it’s a great orchestra, but also because there is such a warm, sympathetic atmosphere within the group. And they’re so patient! I’ve made two recordings with them, the second being of the late music of John Tavener. John’s music always involves a lot of long held notes in the orchestra (and as always, the recording process meant a lot of waiting around for the players); other groups might have been impatient – but not the Philharmonia! Their attitude was perfect – committed and supportive.
You are an enthusiastic advocate for Schumann’s music, always willing to take up the pen to help his cause. What is the impulse behind that effort and why does his music need championing?
I don’t know why I love Schumann’s music (and his personality) so much – I can’t explain it any more than I could explain why my closest friends are my closest friends! I just find his music utterly glorious, and his story heartbreaking. Among my favourite works of his are several of the last ones; unfortunately, a lot of rubbish has been written about his late music, and I feel that it does need defending. I’m ready to do that at any hour of day or night!
Tell us about the Cello Concerto, a piece obviously close to your heart – what is your history with it?
The first movement is a real journey of the soul, opening with a love song, travelling to dark regions in the central section, and then returning to love and tenderness; the slow movement is a glimpse of paradise, the last an outpouring of joy. It’s unlike any other concerto for any instrument (including those of Schumann himself for piano and violin).
I remember hearing it quite a few times as a boy – and it made no impression; then I heard Casals’ recording, and suddenly it made sense, and I could remember the whole thing. I didn’t learn it, however, until I was studying at Oberlin College, in Ohio. I performed it there, with my room-mate, the conductor Michael Morgan, conducting; unfortunately I played really badly at that concert! But all the practice didn’t go to waste; the next time I played it was far better – and since then it’s become the concerto I play most often (along with the Haydn C major). And I’m not tired of it in the slightest – it’s such a magical masterpiece, every note perfect.
Simone Young © Monika Rittershaus
“Music should elevate, inspire, console, excite. It can push every emotional button..." Simone Young
Simone Young is considered one of the most important conductors of our time. She completed her musical studies in her native Sydney, where she started her position as Chief Conductor Designate of the Sydney Symphony in autumn 2020. Her previous titled positions include: Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestre Chambre de Lausanne (2017–2020), Principal Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic (1998–2002); Artistic Director of Opera Australia (2001–2003); Principal Guest Conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon; Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Chief Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic (2005–2015).
Ms Young is well known as a Wagner and Strauss specialist, a reputation she developed early in her career. Beyond her numerous performances of Wagner and Strauss operas on Vienna’s famed Ringstrasse, Ms Young’s long relationship with the Vienna State Opera, which began with her debut in 1993, includes the widely acclaimed rediscovery of Fromental Halevy’s La Juive in 1999. She returned to the Vienna State Opera in the 2011/12 season with a celebrated revival of Strauss’s Daphne, and she remains a regular feature of that house’s programming. Ms Young has appeared as a guest conductor with the Opéra National de Paris, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York; she is a regular guest at the major opera houses in Munich, Berlin, Dresden and Zurich.
Ms Young has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Philharmonia and the Philharmonic Orchestras of Berlin, London, Munich, New York and Vienna. She is a regular guest conductor with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Dresden Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and Konzerthausorchester of Berlin, in addition to several North American and Australia orchestras.
In addition to complete recordings of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Wagner’s Ring with the Hamburg State Opera, the OehmsClassics label has released Ms Young’s recordings with the Hamburg Philharmonic of the complete Bruckner symphonies in their original versions, as well as the complete symphonies of Brahms, Mahler’s Second and Sixth Symphonies, and Franz Schmidt’s The Book with the Seven Seals. Her performance of the rediscovery of Halevy’s La Juive at the Vienna State Opera has also been released on CD, while DVDs have been released of her Bavarian State Opera performances of Pfitzner’s Palestrina, and her Hamburg performances of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Aribert Reimann’s Lear.
Along with her honorary doctorates from the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, Ms Young counts the Brahms Prize of Schleswig-Holstein and the Goethe Medal among her numerous awards and accolades. She is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France, a Member of the Order of Australia, and a Professor at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg.
Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
“He can have the listener in perpetual wonder at the ingredients of his art…” The Australian
Acclaimed worldwide for his profound musicianship and technical mastery, British cellist Steven Isserlis enjoys a uniquely varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, educator, author and broadcaster. He appears with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, and gives recitals in major musical centres. As a chamber musician, he has curated concert series for many prestigious venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s 92nd St Y, and the Salzburg Festival. Unusually, he also directs chamber orchestras from the cello in Classical programmes.
He has a strong interest in historical performance, working with many period-instrument orchestras and giving recitals with harpsichord and fortepiano. He is also a keen exponent of contemporary music and has given many premieres of new works, including Sir John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and many other works, Thomas Adès’s Lieux retrouvés, three works for solo cello by György Kurtág, and pieces by Heinz Holliger and Jörg Widmann.
Steven’s wide-ranging discography includes JS Bach’s complete solo cello suites (Gramophone’s Instrumental Album of the Year), Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano, concertos by CPE Bach and Haydn, the Elgar and Walton concertos, and the Brahms Double Concerto with Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
Since 1997, Steven has been Artistic Director of the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove, Cornwall. He also enjoys playing for children, and has created three musical stories, with the composer Anne Dudley. His two books for children, published by Faber & Faber, have been translated into many languages; his latest book for Faber is a commentary on Schumann’s Advice for Young Musicians, and a book about the Bach suites will appear in 2021. He has also devised and written two evenings of words and music, one describing the last years of Robert Schumann, the other devoted to Marcel Proust and his salons, and has presented many programmes for radio, including documentaries about two of his heroes – Robert Schumann and Harpo Marx.
The recipient of many awards, Steven’s honours include a CBE in recognition of his services to music, the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau, the Piatigorsky Prize and Maestro Foundation Genius Grant in the US, the Glashütte Award in Germany, the Gold Medal awarded by the Armenian Ministry of Culture, and the Wigmore Medal.
Steven plays the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ Stradivarius of 1726, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music.
- Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay
- Rebecca Chan
- Eugene Lee
- Eleanor Wilkinson
- Eunsley Park – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Victoria Irish
- Karin Tilch
- Lulu Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Adrián Varela
- Soong Choo
- Annabelle Meare
- Emily Davis – No. 2 Second Violin Chair is endowed by Nick and Camilla Bishop
- Fiona Cornall – No. 3 Second Violin Chair is endowed anonymously
- Samantha Reagan
- Paula Clifton-Everest
- Julian Milone – Chair endowed by Julia Zilberman
- Sophie Cameron
- Gideon Robinson
- Yukiko Ogura – The Principal Viola Chair is endowed by The Tertis Foundation
- William Bender – No. 3 Viola Chair is endowed by Gillian and Lionel Frumkin
- Sylvain Séailles – No. 4 Viola Chair is endowed by Ruth and Henry Amar
- Michael Turner – Chair endowed by Naomi and Christophe Kasolowsky
- Cheremie Hamilton-Miller – The Philharmonia Deputy President’s Chair is endowed by The Fernside Trust
- Linda Kidwell – Chair endowed by AgCo Tech Pte Ltd
- Timothy Walden – The Principal Cello Chair is endowed in memory of Amaryllis Fleming (1925–1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd
- Karen Stephenson – No. 2 Cello Chair is endowed by Jane and Julian Langer
- Richard Birchall
- Deirdre Cooper
- Ella Rundle
- Anne Baker
- Tim Gibbs – The Principal Double Bass Chair is endowed by Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth in memory of Bertrand Lipworth
- Gareth Sheppard
- Michael Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
- Simon Oliver – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
- Owen Nicolaou
- Amy Yule – The Principal Flute Chair is endowed by Norbert and Sabine Reis
- June Scott
- Tom Blomfield – The Principal Oboe Chair is endowed by Elizabeth Aitken
- James Hulme
- Maxwell Spiers – The Principal Cor Anglais Chair is endowed by Mervyn and Barbara King
- Peter Sparks
- Laurent Ben Slimane – The Principal Bass Clarinet Chair is endowed by Philip and Judy Green
- Emily Hultmark – The Principal Bassoon Chair is endowed by Penny and Nigel Turnbull
- Luke Whitehead – The Principal Contrabassoon Chair is endowed by David and Penny Stern
- John Thurgood – The Principal Horn Chair is endowed by John and Carol Wates in memory of Dennis Brain
- Kira Doherty – The President’s Chair is endowed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in honour of Sir Sydney Lipworth QC and Lady Lipworth CBE
- Daniel Curzon
- Carsten Williams
- Jonathan Maloney
- Chris Evans – The Principal Trumpet Chair is endowed by Daan and Maggie Knottenbelt
- Robin Totterdell
- Byron Fulcher – The Principal Trombone Chair is endowed by the National Friends Council
- Philip White
- Heidi Krutzen
- Anneke Hodnett