We would like to invite you to a discussion with conductor François-Xavier Roth and violist Tabea Zimmermann from 6.30 pm in the Rieger Lounge of the Municipal House. Admission is free with a ticket for this concert.
The Gürzenich Orchestra from Cologne has a remarkable and celebrated history. “They premiered the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, two symphonies by Gustav Mahler and the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss,” says Prague Spring Programme Director Josef Třeštík. It is still one of the finest and most intriguing orchestras on the scene today. “Under the guidance of its Chief Conductor François-Xavier Roth it has built up a fascinating repertoire spanning the Baroque to the present day and it works with some of the world’s top soloists, such as violist Tabea Zimmermann,” Třeštík adds.
“The knowledge that Paul Hindemith himself stood on the podium in Prague is a great inspiration for me for my performance of the piece with my musical companion Tabea Zimmermann,” Roth states. “The Gürzenich Orchestra has Richard Strauss in its DNA, and we included music by the wonderful Czech composer Leoš Janáček on the programme in honour of our host,” concludes the French conductor, who will make his Czech debut at the festival with two concerts. A day before this concert with the German orchestra he will conduct Les Siècles, a French orchestra performing on period instruments which he founded almost twenty years ago; the programme in this instance will combine works by César Franck and Claude Debussy.
The French conductor François-Xavier Roth (* 1971) is one of the most prominent artists of his generation. According to Neil Fisher, critic for The Times, “If he hasn’t already got the nickname Special FX, then Roth should adopt it”, praising his “empathetic musicality and flair for colour, sometimes conjuring up such startling touches that the players look stunned.”
The son of the acclaimed organist Daniel Roth, he is sought after for his exciting charisma, inventive programming, and profundity of interpretation. At the 77th annual Prague Spring Festival, he is making his very first appearance in the Czech Republic, and he will perform on two concert programmes. First he will be at the helm of the period instrument orchestra Les Siècles at the Rudolifinum’s Dvořák Hall (31 May), then he will lead the Gürzenich-Orchester from Cologne in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House (1 June).
“I regard Roth as a model conductor for the 21st century”, says Prague Spring Festival programming director Josef Třeštík. The conductor’s interest in the broadest repertoire ranges from the Baroque to works by Classical and Romantic composer and even into the 20th century. He is also a tireless promoter of contemporary music. “Unlike other conductors, however, Roth is able to combine all this music in incredibly inventive ways on individual programmes. And the interpretations themselves, whether he is conducting Rameau, Beethoven, Stravinsky, or a premiere of a work by a contemporary composer, are anything but routine”, adds Třeštík.
In 2003 Roth founded the period instrument orchestra Les Siècles. This, however, is no ordinary historically informed interpretation ensemble that focuses on one period. Its members change instruments depending on the music they happen to be playing. “I ask the musicians to present programs of Mozart combined with Lachenmann, Debussy with Boulez, Rameau with Ravel. The virtuosity of the players of our time is not to play fantastically fast, but to change instruments, like an actor changing his costume”, says the conductor in an interview for the New York Times. Although he strives for the greatest possible historical fidelity, he sees something else as being most important. “So it’s not a question of which year, but more a question of what the composer wanted, or what the composer expected music to sound like”, he told the American newspaper in describing his philosophy. The headline called him “The Conductor Transforming Period Performance.”
Since 2015, Roth has held the post as Cologne’s Generalmusikdirektor, meaning that he is simultaneously the chief conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester and of the Cologne Opera. As part of the 2020 worldwide celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, Roth prepared a series of concerts in Cologne titled “Allein Freyheit” (Freedom Alone), at which he presented a modern version of Beethoven’s concerts called “academies”. The idea, however, was not historical reconstructions, but rather the resurrection of the spirit of Beethoven’s concerts. According to Roth, they were very avant-garde, and people had no idea in advance of what music they would be hearing on the programmes. “For our ‘new academy’, we employed this aspect”, he explained. So they did not in fact announce the programme in advance. The audience was surprised by combinations of music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Helmut Lachenamann, special choreography, and world premieres of works by Isabel Mundra and Francesco Filidei, who worked with elements from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, played by the world-famous pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
François-Xavier Roth is also the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and he regularly conducts the world’s top orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, with which he joined the violist Tabea Zimmermann this season in performing Hindemith’s concerto Der Schwanendreher. The two artists will also be presenting that work to the Prague Spring public.
In 2018 the French state conferred on Roth its highest award, the Order of the Legion of Honour.
With its pioneering performances and innovative programming the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, comprising approximately 130 members, is one of Germany’s leading ensembles. It performs symphonic music and operas and, since the opening of the Kölner Philharmonie in 1986, it has been one of the two orchestras resident at this venue. Each year it offers around fifty concerts, attended by more than 100,000 people.
The orchestra’s roots go back to the town bands of medieval times (known as Ratsmusik) and to the first permanent ensembles active at Cologne cathedral. In 1857 the orchestra began giving concerts in the Gürzenich concert hall, from which it derived its current name. It has been the orchestra of the City of Cologne since 1888. Throughout its long history it has always attracted the leading composers and conductors of its time. It performed the premieres of important works by the likes of Johannes Brahms (Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra), Richard Strauss (Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche) and Gustav Mahler (Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5), a tradition that endures to this day: each season the orchestra presents several world premieres of pieces by renowned contemporary composers.
Tabea Zimmermann is one of the world’s most respected contemporary artists. “The sound of her viola is so intense and sensual that you, as a listener, are almost saturated with it. Unconsciously, the whole body seems to absorb the music,” wrote Stefan Arndt from the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung. “When Zimmermann plays, one also hears with the stomach, the toes, and the hair.” Holder of the Ernst von Siemens prize (2020), soloist-in-residence with the Concertgebouw orchestra (2019/2020) and the Berlin Philharmonic (2020/2021), she is in demand as a first-rate performer both as a soloist and a chamber musician. She regularly works with leading orchestras such as Orchestre de Paris, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic.
She has premiered a number of works by contemporary composers, often written expressly for her. In 1994 she gave the first performance of Sonata for Solo Viola by György Ligeti. More recent premieres include Recitanto for viola and orchestra by Heinz Holliger, the viola concerto Über die Linie IV by Wolfgang Rihm, Georges Lentz’s Monh, Frank Michael Beyer’s Notte di pasqua, Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra by Bruno Mantovani (with Antoine Tamestit), the viola concertos of Michael Jarrell and York Höller, or Rihm’s Stabat Mater for baritone and viola (with Christian Gerhaher), premiered in 2020 at Berlin’s Musikfest.
In 2013 Tabea Zimmermann made a critically acclaimed recording of Hindemith’s complete viola works for the myrios classics label (to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death). She released successful recordings of solo pieces by Max Reger and Johann Sebastian Bach, for which she received the Echo Klassik award, followed by three albums made with Kirill Gerstein and Thomas Hopp. She has recorded more than 50 CDs for various labels, including harmonia mundi, EMI, Teldec and Deutsche Grammophon. She has received a number of awards and distinctions during the course of her career, among them the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Frankfurter Musikpreis, Hessian Cultural Prize, Rheingau Music Prize, the International Accademia Musicale Chigiana Prize in Siena, the Paul Hindemith Prize in Hanau, and in 2017 she was named Artist of the Year at the ICMA – International Classical Music Awards. She has been a member of the Hindemith Foundation Council since 2013. In the years 2013–2020 she was Chairman of the Board of Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, whose endeavours culminated in 2020 with a three-week festival which showcased virtually the entire scope of Beethoven’s chamber oeuvre. Tabea Zimmermann studied in Freiburg and Salzburg. As the winner of the Maurice Vieux Competition in Paris (1983) she was the recipient of a viola crafted by Étienne Vatelot. She has been playing since 2019 on an instrument made for her by Patrick Robin. From 1987 she regularly performed with her husband, conductor David Shallon, until his death in 2000. In 2002 she was appointed professor of the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin.
The progamme for their Prague Spring concert consists of Leoš Janáček’s ballad The Fiddler’s Child, the symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and the viola concerto Der Schwanendreher by Paul Hindemith, who stood on the conductor’s rostrum for the first and, as yet, the last performance of the piece at the Prague Spring in 1961.
During his career Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) turned to the literary legacy of Svatopluk Čech on several occasions, most notably in his opera The Excursions of Mr. Brouček. In 1912, while he was working on the first part of the opera, he wrote the symphonic poem The Fiddler’s Child, based on Čech’s ballad of the same name first published in 1873 in Lumír magazine.
Čech’s gloomy tale tells of a poor itinerant musician who dies in his hut leaving behind only his fiddle and his child. The mayor entrusts the orphan to the care of an old woman. During the night she sees an apparition of the dead fiddler above the cradle trying with his violin playing to lure the infant to a better world, where there is no more hunger or wretchedness. In the morning the mayor arrives to find the old woman rocking the “dead Infant Jesus”; there is no sign of the fiddle.
Janáček treated the story loosely, endeavouring to support the strong social implications of the poem through his music. In an analysis of the work printed in Hudební revue magazine in 1914, he pointed out the connections drawing together the characteristics of each musical motif with a specific instrument. For example, via the four-part viola figure that weaves its way through the piece, he sought to convey “an expression of the soul of these people, who live their bitter lives in rundown huts scattered about our villages”; the solo violin is a projection of “the fiddler’s life and his death, his sorrow and his joy. […] Several moans from the ailing child are heard only in the oboe.” The figure of the mayor – merely episodic in Čech’s poem – is a powerful presence in the musical narrative: “He is all over the village; wherever he casts his gaze, everything succumbs to his will. If his footsteps are measured by the cellos and double basses, the fear he instils is heightened by the bass clarinet playing the same motif; the harshness of his decisions is borne by the trombones.” The subtle instrumental mesh of organically woven, characteristic motifs gave rise to a score which, in comparison with other orchestral works by Janáček, sounds unusually like a chamber piece.
The premiere of The Fiddler’s Child was to have been given in 1914 by the Czech Philharmonic with Janáček standing on the rostrum. For reasons that cannot be ascertained today, perhaps an insufficient number of rehearsals for what was an unusual and challenging work (officially, however, due to the “indisposition of the conducting composer”), the performance never went ahead. After the score was published Otakar Ostrčil requested it with a plan to perform the work with his Prague Orchestral Association. The Association ceased to function during the war, however, thus the piece was, in fact, premiered by the Czech Philharmonic after all, at a concert conducted by Ostrčil on 14 November 1917. Janáček was clearly delighted with the result, a fact he conveyed in a letter to Ostrčil soon after the premiere: “Highly esteemed friend! After the suspense I experienced in Prague I am now coming to my senses. I was aware of the importance of the performance of The Fiddler’s Child. Through your outstanding execution you helped steer the work towards victory […] From our very first meeting I thought you agreeable; now I have a great fondness for you: you penetrated deep into my soul, since this piece lay deep within it as well. It was not easy to grasp.”
Before the Second World War Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) had become the most significant composer in Germany. Nevertheless, with his internationally recognised, pacifist compositional and organisational endeavours, he was at the same time a thorn in the side for the Nazi regime, which considered him one of the chief symbols of Entartete Musik (degenerate music). His name was erased from the regulated German cultural scene; the persecution against Hindemith was not even averted by a defence published by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler who – without success – used his authority to attempt to exonerate the composer in the eyes of the regime. Hindemith retreated to the seclusion of Lenzkirch, a mountain village in the Black Forest of Baden-Württemberg, to work on his magnum opus, the opera Mathis der Maler, set in medieval times. It was this creative atmosphere which also gave rise to his concerto for viola and chamber orchestra Der Schwanendreher (1935–1936), named after the old German folk song “Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher”, whose melody provides the main theme of the concerto’s final variation movement.
The word Schwanendreher, literally “swan turner”, was used in the Middle Ages to denote a cook’s assistant who would turn the handle of a spit on which swans were roasting. Nevertheless, Hindemith chiefly had in mind a different meaning for the term, referring to the culture of medieval wandering minstrels who played the barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy, whose cranks were shaped like a swan’s neck. The concerto thus suggests an image of a folk musician who, in convivial society, performs the songs he encountered on his travels. By escaping to the distant past Hindemith was shielding himself from the fearful reality of the present; at the same time, however, he felt compelled to reflect this in his composition, expressing his sorrow most fervently in the intensely melancholic middle movement.
Der Schwanendreher was first performed in Amsterdam on 14 November 1935. The composer himself undertook the solo part, accompanied by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Willem Mengelberg; he then presented the piece in other parts of Europe (though, naturally, not in Germany) and in America. The Prague Spring programmed the work in 1961; on this occasion Hindemith himself stood on the rostrum, conducting violist Jaroslav Karlovský and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Today Der Schwanendreher is a pillar of the modern viola repertoire. Tabea Zimmermann performs it regularly with some of the world’s finest orchestras, as she did in 2021 with the Berlin Philharmonic under François-Xavier Roth.
Among the symphonic poems written by Richard Strauss (1864–1949), his fortieth opus, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), completed in December 1898, is quite exceptional. Not only is it intended for the largest orchestral ensemble Strauss had used to date (he considerably reinforced the woodwind and brass sections and required two harps on this occasion), but it also represents the culmination of the composer’s endeavour to project himself into his own works.
In his previous symphonic poems, Strauss had achieved this aim through the figures of Eulenspiegel, Don Juan or Macbeth, into whose musical images he had partly cast his own personality as well. Yet in Ein Heldenleben he no longer concealed himself behind anyone and created “a grandiose sound backdrop of an era intoxicated by its exploits, in whose midst he placed the creative artist, embodied by himself,” as Ernst Krause wrote in his monograph of the composer.
The premiere of Ein Heldenleben was held in Frankfurt in 1899, performed – as in the case of the Hindemith piece – by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam conducted by Willem Mengelberg. The opulent orchestral sound, a superb example of late Romantic instrumentation, reveals the confident, creative power of the hero as he fights a caricatured army of “adversaries”, as he admires and courts his “companion”, as he again enters into battle with his adversaries, and then seeks the meaning of existence in his “works of peace” (quotations from Strauss’s earlier opuses Tod und Verklärung and Don Juan, among others); finally the hero amicably “retires from this world”. The final “completion”, in the form of fanfares and an extension of the hero’s theme, reinforces the artist’s victory and the sense of fulfilment his work has brought him.
“Let us consider this hero. […] Now that he has proved his power by victory,” wrote Romain Rolland in 1904, “his pride knows no limit; he is elated and is unable to see that his lofty visions have become realities. But the people whose spirit he reflects see it. There are germs of morbidity in Germany today, a frenzy of pride, a belief in self, and a scorn for others. […] Germany had hardly attained the position of empire of the world when she found Nietzsche’s voice and […] the Secession. Now there is the grandiose music of Richard Strauss.”
We are now able to look upon this, Strauss’s most subjective and rarely performed work with a sense of detachment and the benefit of hindsight. The image of the contradictory nature of its creator speaks to us through the singular fervour, the monumental, sumptuous symphonic current, and also through the highly distinctive introspection, based – perhaps consciously, perhaps only intuitively – in Freudian psychoanalysis, as François-Xavier Roth notes: “Strauss wrote this music at the time he was discovering psychoanalysis, and it is – perhaps inadvertently – Freudian music,” he considers. “The symphonic poem tells us much about the role of women, the role of the father, and also about the subconscious mind; Strauss develops a multi-layered, autobiographical weave, thus creating his own story.”