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Czech Philharmonic • Franz Welser-Möst


Exactly 10 years since his last appearance, the Czech Philharmonic is welcoming the legendary American pianist Emanuel Ax. At the invitation of the conductor Franz Welser-Möst, he will be playing the Piano Concerto No. 25 by his beloved Mozart. On his third visit with the orchestra, Welser-Möst will conduct two symphonic works by Jean Sibelius.

Subscription series C | Duration of the programme 1 hour 40 minutes

Programme

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K 503 (39')

— Intermission —

Jean Sibelius
Finlandia, symphonic poem, Op. 26 (9')

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (32')

Performers

Emanuel Ax piano

Franz Welser-Möst conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Franz Welser-Möst

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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from 11 September 2024, 10.00

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Performers

Emanuel Ax   piano

Emanuel Ax

“Within minutes, we are totally captured by his intensity and pianistic achievement,” wrote the Los Angeles Times about the 74-year-old pianist Emanuel Ax. “Manny”, as he is sometimes called, is regarded as one of today’s most sincere and modest artists despite having been in the limelight of the worldwide music scene since 1974, when he won the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. He even has a fan club, “Manny Ax Maniacs”, the members of which wear t-shirts bearing the club’s name to his concerts.

Emanuel Ax was born in Poland, but as a young child he moved with his parents first to Canada, then to New York. There, he studied at the Juilliard School, where he now teaches, and he gave his concert debut as part of the Young Concert Artists Series. Victory at the Rubenstein Competition along with the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists and the Avery Fischer Prize catapulted him onto the concert stage, where he achieved success of the highest order as a soloist and in chamber music.

Also of importance to his career was his partnership with the Sony Classical label, for which he has been recording exclusively since 1987. He even won a Grammy for his second and third albums in a series of Haydn piano sonatas. He also won this most prestigious of recording prizes for albums of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano, which he recorded with Yo-Yo Ma, his long-time artistic partner. Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leonidas Kavakos also recently launched an ambitious project to play all of Beethoven’s piano trios as well as his symphonies arranged for those forces. They are now promoting the project, known as “Beethoven for Three”, with live concert performances. So far, they have recorded symphonies nos. 2, 5, and 6 along with the Op. 1 piano trios.

Besides the traditional repertoire (or arrangements of it), he also devotes himself very intensively to premiering new works by contemporary composers. For example, he has been the first to play new works by such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki and John Adams; in October 2023 he gave the premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “The MAX Concerto”, written by that contemporary Swedish composer on commission for the San Francisco Symphony led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. In addition, this season has featured a European tour (mainly with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Bavarian State Orchestra) and a series of Beethoven-Schoenberg recitals around the USA, where Ax lives (in New York) with his wife, the pianist Yoko Nozaki. 

Franz Welser-Möst  conductor

Franz Welser-Möst

For 22 years, Franz Welser-Möst has been cultivating the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra as its music director. That sound is being praised not only by music critics, but also by much of the diverse public, to which many members of the younger generation have been added thanks to Welser-Möst’s programming. Besides performing the traditional concert repertoire, this laureate of the Kennedy Center Gold Medal in the Arts gives world premieres of compositions written on commission and of opera productions. On contract until 2027, he is becoming the music director with the longest tenure in the orchestra’s history. 

Welser-Möst did not have an easy journey towards the perfect professional realisation that the Cleveland Orchestra now offers him. The conductor describes it all in his book Als ich die Stille fand. Ein Plädoyer gegen den Lärm der Welt (From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World), which appeared in 2020 (and in an English translation in 2021). As an example, already as a student, his chances at a career as a violin virtuoso were ruined by a serious automobile accident, and that turned him definitively in the direction of conducting. He has memories of some difficult times early in his conducting career, especially during his six-year tenure at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra where a rather unhospitable atmosphere prevailed. After that, however, his career moved steadily upwards from the Zurich Opera to Cleveland.

He was briefly intensively engaged with the Vienna Philharmonic, with which he still maintains especially close, productive ties as a guest conductor. He has conducted the orchestra twice at its popular New Year’s Concerts, and he appears with them regularly for concerts at the Musikverein in Vienna and on tours around the world, including commemorative concerts in Sarajevo and Versailles. We also often see him at the Salzburg Festival, which awarded Welser-Möst an important honour (the Festival Brooch with Rubies) in 2020. Besides productions like Rusalka, Der Rosenkavalier, or Fidelio, he has had triumphant success there with a new production of Richard Strauss’s opera Die Liebe der Danae and in 2017 with Lear by Aribert Reimann. He received enthusiastic acclaim in 2018 for Salome by Richard Strauss and a year later for Elektra by the same composer. The latter production celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opera’s premiere and earned Welser-Möst the Austrian Music Theatre Prize.

There are also several CD and DVD recordings from the Salzburg Festival that further enhance Welser-Möst’s already vast, award-winning discography. In addition, his recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra (recent examples include works by Richard Strauss and the American composer George Walker issued on the orchestra’s own label) have been available since 2020 for viewing on the orchestra’s own streaming platform Adella.live.

Prague also got to hear the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst’s baton in September 2022. The programme consisting solely of works by Richard Strauss thrilled the Dvořák Prague Festival public. The Austrian conductor is making his third appearance at the Rudolfinum with the Czech Philharmonic.

Compositions

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K 503

In the latter half of the 1780s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was at the height of his creative powers. Beginning in 1785, he wrote his most famous operas, the symphonies numbered 38 “Prague Symphony”, 39 in E flat Major, 40 in G minor, and 41 “Jupiter”, the string quartets numbered 19 and higher, the popular Serenade No. 13 for string quartet and double bass (Eine kleine Nachtmusik), the Requiem, and a series of piano concertos. Mozart understood the piano very well from his childhood, and he became a master of the instrument. He introduced himself as a wonderful pianist capable of elaborate improvisation in January 1787 while visiting Prague, where he conducted works including his opera The Marriage of Figaro at the Nostitz Theatre and his Symphony in D major (“Prague”, K 504). He got an enthusiastic reception. The completion of the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major (K 503) in December 1786 came just before Mozart’s stay in Prague, a city where, as he himself said, he was “showered with all possible courtesies and honours”. Might he also have played excerpts from his newest piano work here, even if just for a private audience?

The Concerto in C major was written for an orchestra with flute, oboes, bassoons, French horns, trumpets, tympany, and strings, of course, and in terms of its length and symphonic character, it is one of Mozart’s key works in the genre. The concerto’s first movement (Allegro maestoso) in sonata form has a motif that suggests La Marseillaise and even hints at the opening “fate” motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808). The second movement (Andante), also in sonata form, flows along with calm lyricism that contrasts sharply with the concerto’s outer movements. The final movement (Allegretto) is laid out as a rondo in the light and playful rhythm of a gavotte. Of course, as one expects with Mozart, the whole concerto exudes a spirit of harmonic inventiveness (and alternation between the major and minor modes), pianistic virtuosity, and melodic beauty. The work was composed in Vienna for one of the Advent concerts, and we know it was played at a concert on 7 March 1787, but it did not appear in print until after Mozart’s death, moreover under complicated circumstances after setbacks in negotiations between the composer’s widow Constanze and several publishers.

Jean Sibelius
Finlandia, symphonic poem & Symphony No. 5

Jean Sibelius, given the name Johan Julius Christian by his parents and known as Janne, was born in Hämeenlinna, a city in southern Finland. In those days, the country belonged to the Russian Empire as a more-or-less autonomous grand duchy. After a long coexistence in a single administrative state with the Kingdom of Sweden, by the 19th century the Finnish people were distancing themselves both from persisting Swedish influence and—later on—from Russification, and the country experienced its national awakening. Culture, language, mythology, and heroic historical events all played an important role. Sibelius himself grew up in a Swedish-speaking environment, and he had to find his way to the Finnish language. He was helped in doing so by the Karelian-Finnish epic poem Kalevala, compiled on the basis of the oral traditions of the Karelians and Finns and published in its definitive version in 1849. The young Sibelius was captivated by the Kalevala, and while not Finland’s first composer, he became the most important. He completed his musical studies at the conservatoire in Helsinki in 1889, then he left for further studies in Berlin and Vienna. Upon his return home (1892), he married Aino Järnefelt from an important family with a “pro-Finnish” orientation.

Stories from the Kalevala and their atmosphere continually found their way into Sibelius’s works, whether his symphonic poems Kullervo, Op. 7, Lemminkäinen, Op. 22 (a cycle of four legends associated with the character Lemminkäinen), or Tapiola, Op. 112 (1924). Sibelius also had a very sensitive awareness of the natural beauty of the north, something to which he always enjoyed returning. In the title of the symphonic poem Finlandia, Op. 26, it is as if his sources of inspiration—the ancient world of bardic singers, the nation’s struggle for freedom, and the grandeur of nature—had merged together, although the work’s genesis is remarkable for a different reason. The music had originally been composed in 1899 as an accompaniment to tableaux vivants that were staged in early November in Helsinki as a protest against press censorship imposed by the Russians. The sixth part (Finland Awakens) and the fifth part (The Great Hostility) provided the musical material for the final version of Finlandia (1900). Understandably, the work’s title also crystalised with the search for politically acceptable variants like Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Spring, A Scandinavian Choral March, La Patrie, or Impromptu, until Axel Carpelan proposed the final title. Finlandia begins with a sorrowful two-note motif, and the whole opening passage (Andante sostenuto) exhibits a spirit of grave pathos. It ends with a rhythmically forceful call to arms (Allegro moderato) that is defiant but not tragic. It is the hymnlike part, however, that gained the greatest popularity; its melody, supplied with a text, has lived a life of its own and even had a chance to become Finland’s national anthem.

The oldest professional orchestra in Helsinki, founded in 1882 by the conductor and composer Robert Kajanus, devoted itself systematically to performing Sibelius’s compositions. A surprising number of Czech musicians, especially wind players, were seated in the orchestra. In 1900, the large orchestra toured Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium on its way to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it gave two concerts presenting a selection of works by Finnish composers including Sibelius, who took part in the tour as the second conductor. Besides Finlandia, the programme also included Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 and the Lemminkäinen legends. The tour was meant to showcase the high level of culture of a country that was facing increased pressure from Russia at the beginning of the new century.

Jean Sibelius’s personality was characterised by a certain restlessness that compelled him to travel and to cling passionately to his many vices. Sometimes this made life for his large family difficult (the last of his six daughters, Heidi, was born in 1911) and led to the incurring of debt. Then on the other hand he was afflicted by periods of loneliness and gloom. He was perceived as the founder of the Finnish nation’s music and also as a composer of serious symphonic works of worldwide importance. With a bit of a stretch, one can even find the magical number of nine symphonies if one includes Kullervo (his first unnumbered symphony) and the Eighth, on which Sibelius was still working in the 1930s without finishing it or even leaving behind substantial sketches. The Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82, is one of his most famous works. Written during the First World War, the first version was premiered in 1915 in connection with celebrations of Sibelius’s 50th birthday, a second version was played a year later, and the final version was premiered in 1919. In each case, the composer conducted. Work on the symphony thus lasted beyond the dramatic wartime period and other historic events—the creation of the independent Finnish state (1917) and the civil war. After the dark Fourth Symphony (1911), Sibelius was taking inspiration mainly from nature, as shown by often quoted entries in his diary: uplifting nature (“One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty!”), but also the coarser side of nature (“I’ve got a beautiful theme for an Adagio – earth, worms and misery, fortissimo and mutes, a lot of mutes! And godlike notes!!! I rejoice and tremble with excitement as my soul is singing.”). The work exhibits Sibelius’s masterful orchestration, his attitude towards musical developments represented, for example, by the Impressionists or Schoenberg, and also his critical approach to his own music, shown in part by his recasting of the symphony from the original four movements into three. Whatever part of the work may speak to us, we shall probably not forget how it ends: six chords separated by silence, opening up an infinity of space. 

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