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Life in Vienna, Death in Venice Martyn Brabbins – conductor • Steven Osborne – piano

Contents

Welcome

We arrive to the last of this batch of Streamed from Southbank Centre online concerts pleased and proud to have stayed connected with you during the last year, despite huge challenges, and incredibly excited that from now on we’ll be able to make music for you in person once more. We’ll be continuing to stream concerts so that those of you who can’t make it to the Royal Festival Hall can carry on enjoying our music – look out for our last two concerts with Esa-Pekka Salonen as our Principal Conductor in June.

“It’s an astonishing piece,” says Martyn Brabbins of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Many of us will agree with him and also consider it one of our “all-time favourite piano concertos”. Martyn discusses this extraordinary piece and his collaboration with soloist Steven Osborne in the interval interview with BBC Radio 3 presenter Georgia Mann. But first, the brass section of the Philharmonia gets a chance to shine in Strauss’s truly roof-raising Festival Music. Britten’s Suite from Death in Venice (arr. Steuart Bedford) ends the programme with some of the composer’s most evocative musical moments.

Enjoy the concert, and we hope to see you again very soon. In the meantime, do share your thoughts on social media tagging us @Philharmonia.

Header image: Martyn Brabbins © Benjamin Ealovega

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Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949): Festmusik der Stadt Wien, Op. 133 (1943)

In 1942, the 78-year-old Richard Strauss wrote to his friend and biographer, Willi Schuh, saying, “My life’s work is at an end.” However, as this dazzling fanfare testifies, there was plenty of music still to come from the German-born composer, and given the strain that he was under, both personally and politically, we might forgive him for sounding world-weary.

Both Strauss and his wife, Pauline, were suffering from ill health, and in a bid to ensure his own survival and that of his family – his daughter-in-law was part-Jewish – he had moved from his home in Garmisch, near Munich, to the relative safety of Vienna. There, under the dubious protection of the city’s Gauleiter, or Nazi party leader, he was able to continue composing.

Richard Strauss in Vienna, c. 1924 (public domain)

Soon afterwards, at the premiere of his Second Horn Concerto, Strauss was awarded the city’s Beethoven Prize, and in gratitude, he wrote this piece – Festival Music for the City of Vienna – for 19 brass instruments and timpani. From the bombastic introduction of the lower brass to the shimmering cascades of trumpet fanfares, it radiates pride and joy, although Strauss’s bittersweet major-minor harmonies are never far away.

Echoes of Richard Wagner’s music – from heroic triplet motifs to lilting, romantic idylls – should come as no surprise: having conducted several of the composer’s operas earlier in his career, Strauss increasingly immersed himself in Wagner-lore as a refuge from the war. But Wagnerism and politics aside, the Festmusik der Stadt Wien is, above all, a celebratory work, and following a brief foray into more menacing territory, with harsh stabs of diminished chords, it concludes with a jubilant fanfare. Vienna emerges, a city in splendour, as does the spirit of Strauss, weary but defiant.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1807)

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Rondo vivace

Those acquainted with Beethoven’s most famous works will know that he didn’t shy away from bold opening statements. From the Fifth Symphony, with its so-called ‘fate’ motif pounding at the door, to the ostentatious grandeur of the ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, he used every device at his disposal to grab the attention of the rowdy concert audiences of the early 18th century – which makes the start of the Fourth Piano Concerto all the more remarkable.

Instead of providing what was expected (an orchestral overview of the work’s main themes), Beethoven gives us the unaccompanied piano. The melody, which is elegant and measured, is almost embarrassingly unshowy, as if the pianist had wandered onto the stage and begun improvising on a tune that they’d heard earlier that day, rather than embarking an orchestral concerto. Again, flouting convention, the strings immediately respond to the soloist’s enquiry with a musical echo – but one that is transposed to an entirely different key, moving from G to the unlikely realm of B major. This sense of extemporisation, of a conversation spontaneously unfolding between soloist and ensemble, pervades the entire work, from the close-knit interaction of its musical forces to the shimmering trills and giddy, chromatic harmonies of the first cadenza.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1804–5 (public domain)

More surprises await in the second movement, which has been interpreted as a musical representation of the Orpheus myth, with the piano’s so-called ‘taming’ of the orchestra. The strings lay down an imposing, jagged theme in the minor key (Furies, perhaps?), but the piano’s reply (Orpheus with his lyre?) is timid, as if cowering in the shadow of what has come before. As the exchange intensifies the soloist takes over and, for a fleeting moment, the mood of muted, collective grief sears to raw, individual pain before retreating into frozen introspection. All seems lost, but then there is a glimmer of hope: a march-like rhythm in the strings that leads us galloping into the exuberant Rondo vivace. Here, we glimpse Beethoven the showman, but the soloist’s virtuosity always remains perfectly poised.

If only the composer’s limbs had been as well controlled at the Concerto’s infamous premiere! According to one eyewitness account, he stood up at the keyboard and began conducting the orchestra with such vigour that he knocked over the lamps on his music stand. Then, upon restarting the performance, he proceeded to accidentally (accidentally?) slap the young boy that had been recruited as a replacement lamp-holder. As a result, the entire first movement, with its astonishing opening phrases, was lost to the “bacchanalian roar” of the audience, which had descended into hysterics.

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976): Suite from Death in Venice (arr. Steuart Bedford, 1984)

  1. Summons to Venice
  2. Overture to Venice
  3. First Beach Scene
  4. Tadzio
  5. I love you
  6. Pursuit
  7. Second Beach Scene and Death

In May 1911, the German writer Thomas Mann travelled to Venice with his family, intending to write an essay on Wagner, who had died in the same city in 1888. While he was there, Mann became obsessed with a Polish boy nicknamed Adzio who was staying in the same hotel, and wrote a novella – Death in Venice – inspired by the experience. At first glance, the fictional account does not go far from the truth: an ageing writer named Aschenbach comes to Venice seeking creative inspiration, but becomes fixated on a young, beautiful man named Tadzio (see what he did there?). But whereas Thomas Mann escaped Venice with his marriage and health more-or-less intact, the fictional writer succumbs both to his infatuation and to the cholera epidemic gripping the city, expiring alone on the beach with a doomed declaration of love for Tadzio.

An early image of Thomas Mann (New York Public Library Archives, public domain)

The uneasy parallels between life and art continued with Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of Mann’s text. As Alex Ross writes: “Venice had been the scene of Britten’s embarrassing infatuation with [12-year-old treble singer] David Hemmings, during the rehearsals for The Turn of the Screw”, his 1954 opera based on Henry James’s Gothic novel. Not only that, Britten risked damaging his health, postponing a heart operation to complete Death in Venice – much to the consternation of his partner, Peter Pears.

The conductor Steuart Bedford, who died earlier this year, worked closely with Benjamin Britten during the composer’s final years. It is a testament to their collaboration that Bedford was entrusted with conducting the world premiere of Death in Venice at Aldeburgh in 1973. Bedford recalled how Pears suggested he arrange an orchestral suite based on the work’s dance music, but that “what actually emerged some ten years later was not a selection of individual numbers but a kind of operatic symphony which flows logically and continuously through the action of the opera.”

Venice in 1910 (public domain)

There is a dream-like quality to the Suite’s seven sections: ‘Summons to Venice’ – ‘Overture to Venice’ – ‘First Beach Scene’ – ‘Tadzio’ – ‘I love you’ – ‘Pursuit’ – ‘Second Beach Scene and Death’. Venice is evoked with gondola music, the tolling of St Mark’s bells and brass fanfares, while Tadzio is associated with the sounds of Balinese gamelan, the distinctive cymbals and non-Western harmonies of which lend an atmosphere of exotic ‘otherness’.

"... a kind of operatic symphony which flows logically and continuously through the action of the opera.” Steuart Bedford on the Suite from Death in Venice

Mann’s novel was written in the shadow of two great composers’ deaths – Richard Wagner in 1888 and Gustav Mahler in Vienna, mere days before the writer’s arrival in Venice – and their ghosts haunt the pages of Britten’s score. Mahlerian violins surge and intertwine, while Aschenbach’s ecstatic, hallucinatory death could be seen as an echo of the Liebestod – or ‘love-death’ – conclusion to Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. As the sun sets on Venice and the ailing Aschenbach, Britten conjures the spirit of Tadzio, a mirage of desire as unsettling as it is beautiful.

Notes by Sophie Rashbrook © Philharmonia Orchestra/Sophie Rashbrook

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

Meet Steven Osborne

How did you find your way into music?

From very early on I was obsessed with the piano. The moment I woke up – which unfortunately for my parents was very early – I would go straight down to the piano. I’d start playing and my dad would pull me back to bed. I just loved playing, loved learning repertoire.

I was very lucky that I had a piano teacher that really looked out for me in terms of thinking where I should go next, and she suggested that I did a couple of piano competitions. I won one of those and began to get concerts from that, so that’s how it started.

"Beethoven has always been the composer I’ve felt closest to – his music has a wide range of emotion and there’s an incredible intellectual engagement in what he does, but it’s never to be clever, it’s always in service of what the piece of music is saying."

What’s your relationship with Beethoven’s music?

Beethoven was the first composer that I fell in love with and that was very early on. I obsessively listened to the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony and the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. And still the ‘Pastoral’ is the happiest thing in music – which is funny because my wife is a clarinettist and it’s always in orchestral auditions, so for her it has a very different meaning.

I think Beethoven has always been the composer I’ve felt closest to – his music has a wide range of emotion and there’s an incredible intellectual engagement in what he does, but it’s never to be clever, it’s always in service of what the piece of music is saying. To take the cliché, in the way he puts different movements together, the sum of it all is always greater than the individual parts; he has an amazing structural instinct, which seems like something abstract but for him it’s such a passionate thing – and it’s that passion that lights me up.

What are the challenges in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4?

This piece reminds me of an ice-skating routine: near the beginning of the first movement there are three really difficult things in fairly close succession, and it reminds me of these triple Salchow jumps that skaters have to fit into their routines; they generally get them out of the way pretty early so that they can forget about them and get on with the rest. They are like tongue-twisters for the fingers.

What do you look forward to coming back to play with the Philharmonia?

It’s wonderful to be back with the Philharmonia: it’s been a few years since I’ve been in, I’ve got a few friends in the orchestra and I have wonderful memories – one of them of playing Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy in the Royal Festival Hall. It’s going to be great.

Martyn Brabbins © Benjamin Ealovega

Martyn Brabbins

Martyn Brabbins is Music Director of the English National Opera. An inspirational force in British music, Brabbins has had a busy opera career since his early days at the Kirov and more recently at La Scala, the Bayerische Staatsoper, and regularly in Lyon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Antwerp.

He guests with top international orchestras such as the Philharmonia, Royal Concertgebouw, San Francisco Symphony, DSO Berlin and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony, as well as the BBC Symphony and most of the other leading UK orchestras. He is a popular figure at the BBC Proms, who in 2019 commissioned 14 living composers to write a birthday tribute to him. Known for his advocacy of British composers, he has conducted hundreds of world premieres across the globe. He has recorded over 120 CDs to date, including prize-winning discs of operas by Korngold, Birtwistle and Harvey. He was Associate Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1994–2005, Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic 2009–2015, Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic 2012–2016, and Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music 2005–2007. He is Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Music and Artistic Advisor to the Huddersfield Choral Society alongside his duties at ENO, and has for many years supported professional, student and amateur music-making at the highest level in the UK.

To open the 19/20 season Brabbins conducted a new production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus at English National Opera – the first London staging since its debut 30 years ago, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. Symphonic highlights included the continuation of his acclaimed Vaughan Williams cycle with the BBC Symphony at the Barbican; Elgar oratorios at the Edinburgh Festival (Hallé Orchestra) and Southbank (London Philharmonic); and the Japan premiere of Macmillan’s Trombone Concerto at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall (Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony).

His discography ranges from Romantic to contemporary repertoire, with over 50 recordings for Hyperion Records alone, notably of Elgar, Walton and Tippett. He received a Gramophone Award for Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus with the BBC Symphony (NMC), the Cannes Opera Award for Korngold’s Die Kathrin with the BBC Concert Orchestra (CPO), and the Grand Prix du Disque for Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream.

Brabbins studied composition in London and conducting with Ilya Musin in Leningrad, subsequently winning first prize at the 1988 Leeds Conductors’ Competition which launched his international career.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

Steven Osborne

“This recording [Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas] contains the full dynamic range of Osborne’s playing without compressing or distancing for safety. The volatility and dangerous edge to it comes through undiminished. This is Beethoven with no safety net, thrillingly alive. The cover – Rodin’s Hand of God – seems the perfect fit for the music and the musicianship.” BBC Radio 3 Record Review, Disc of the Week, 18 May 2019

Steven Osborne is one of Britain’s most treasured musicians whose numerous awards include the RPS Instrumentalist of the Year, two Gramophone Awards and a BBC Music Magazine Award. Concerto performances take Osborne to leading orchestras worldwide including recent performances with the Sydney Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Finnish Radio Symphony, Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin and 14 performances at the BBC Proms. His carefully crafted recital programmes are performed in prestigious venues around the world including regular appearances at both New York’s Lincoln Center and Wigmore Hall.

Described by The Observer as “always a player in absolute service to the composer”, Steven Osborne recently released his 30th recording for Hyperion, Prokofiev’s War Sonatas, which was shortlisted for a Gramophone Award and won a BBC Music Magazine Award. His residences at Wigmore Hall, Antwerp’s deSingel, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are a testament to the respect he commands.

March 2021 saw Steven Osborne release French duet repertoire with colleague Paul Lewis, again on Hyperion. A label artist since 1998, his recordings have accumulated numerous awards in the UK, France, Germany and the USA including two Gramophone Awards, three Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik Awards and a Choc in Classica magazine in addition to a clutch of Editor’s Choices in Gramophone magazine and Recordings of the Year from The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times.

His recordings span a wide range of repertoire including Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Medtner, Messiaen, Britten, Tippett, Crumb and Feldman. Steven Osborne won first prizes at the prestigious Clara Haskil Competition (1991) and the Naumburg International Competition (1997).

Born in Scotland, he studied with Richard Beauchamp at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh and Renna Kellaway at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He is Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, Patron of the Lammermuir Festival and in 2014 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The Orchestra

First Violins

  • Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay
  • Rebecca Chan
  • Karin Tilch
  • Adrián Varela
  • Soong Choo
  • Eunsley Park – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
  • Victoria Irish
  • Cassandra Hamilton
  • Lulu Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously

Second Violins

  • Emily Davis – No. 2 Second Violin Chair is endowed by Nick and Camilla Bishop
  • Fiona Cornall – No. 3 Second Violin Chair is endowed anonymously
  • Sophie Cameron
  • Julian Milone – Chair endowed by Julia Zilberman
  • Susan Hedger
  • Paula Clifton-Everest
  • Gideon Robinson

Violas

  • 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
  • Linda Kidwell – Chair endowed by AgCo Tech Pte Ltd
  • Cheremie Hamilton-Miller – The Philharmonia Orchestra Deputy President’s Chair is endowed by The Fernside Trust
  • Stephanie Edmundson

Cellos

  • 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
  • Richard Birchall
  • Anne Baker
  • Deirdre Cooper
  • Alexander Rolton – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
  • Yaroslava Trofymchuk – Chair endowed by Manuela Ribadeneira

Double Basses

  • 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
  • Samuel Rice

Flutes

  • Thomas Hancox – The Principal Flute Chair is endowed by Norbert and Sabine Reis
  • June Scott

Oboes

  • Timothy Rundle – The Principal Oboe Chair is endowed by Elizabeth Aitken
  • Alex Hilton

Clarinets

  • Mark van de Wiel
  • Laurent Ben Slimane – The Principal Bass Clarinet Chair is endowed by Philip and Judy Green

Bassoons

  • Meyrick Alexander – The Principal Bassoon Chair is endowed by Penny and Nigel Turnbull
  • Shelly Organ – No. 2 Bassoon Chair is endowed by John Abramson

Horns

  • Laurence Davies – 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

Trumpets

  • Aaron Akugbo – The Principal Trumpet Chair is endowed by Daan and Maggie Knottenbelt
  • Toby Street
  • Adam Wright
  • Catherine Knight
  • David Geoghegan
  • Adam Wood
  • Sebastian Philpott
  • Emily Mitchell
  • Rebecca Crawshaw
  • Paul Sharp
  • Will Morley
  • Katie Smith

Alto Trombones

  • Becky Smith
  • Robert Moseley

Trombones

  • Byron Fulcher – The Principal Trombone Chair is endowed by the National Friends Council
  • Philip White
  • Ryan Hume

Bass Trombones

  • James Buckle
  • Barry Clements

Tubas

  • Peter Smith
  • Stuart Beard

Timpani

  • Dominic Hackett

Percussion

  • The Percussion Section is endowed by Patrick and Sule Dewilde
  • Paul Stoneman
  • Tom Edwards
  • Richard Cartlidge
  • Owen Gunnell
  • Karen Hutt

Harp

  • Heidi Krutzen

Piano

  • Catherine Edwards