»I don’t regard classical music and jazz as separate entities. In my eyes, they both belong to a cultural category called music.« Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala makes no secret of his artistic credo. And in keeping with it, he actually studied both genres, he is a successful performer of both classical and jazz music, and he unites the two in his concerts.
In the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Rantala has found a truly flexible partner with a love of experiment. Together they have garnered regular audience acclaim with their readings of Mozart, and this concert again features one of Mozart’s piano concertos, followed by the Poulenc Sinfonietta, which dances fleet of foot between different styles. To round off the evening, Rantala does justice to his reputation as a musician without boundaries with a humorous »Best of Beethoven« medley. On the rostrum: the Finnish violinist and conductor Jaakko Kuusisto, who gives his debut at the Elbphilharmonie.
Teaser »Best of Beethoven«
»I'd like to tear down every boundary still dividing jazz from classical music.«
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Iiro Rantala piano
violin and conductor Jaakko Kuusisto
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sinfonietta FP 141 (1948)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto in A Major, KV 488 (1786)
Iiro Rantala (*1970)
Best of Beethoven / arrangement: Iiro Rantala, Jaakko Kuusisto (2019)
Concert introduction :with Anja Manthey
About the programme
A monk and a rascal :Francis Poulenc: Sinfonietta
»Don’t analyse my music – love it!« This exclamation from French composer Francis Poulenc is symbolic of his direct and forthright approach to music. Born in 1899, a Parisian bon vivant of the first order, Poulenc is now regarded as one of the most important French composers of the 20th century.
In retrospect one might say that Poulenc’s music came at the right time: there was growing unrest in the Parisian art and cultural scene in the 1920s. Many people found the classical music of the time to be stifling and far removed from real life. They rejected Wagner’s metaphysically charged operas as much as they did the ambiguous soundscapes from Debussy’s pen. Simple and down-to-earth were the new buzz words.
Thus a loose group of composers formed in 1918 with poet Jean Cocteau as their spokesman. Poulenc was one of their number, alongside Eric Satie, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud: they called themselves »Les Six«. Their credo was that music should be ordinary and easy to understand; they provoked listeners in their works by incorporating excerpts from jazz, music hall and circus music.
This provided the breeding ground on which Poulenc developed his own style. Many of his pieces are surprisingly short, catchy and dance-like. Poulenc only made use of complicated techniques in order to ridicule them – there are plenty of ironic and weird moments in his music. He was particularly fond of imitating the styles of previous centuries.
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has placed a prime example of this on its concert programme: the Sinfonietta. The background to its composition is typical of Poulenc’s aversion to everything monumental or cerebral. Two years after the end of the Second World War, the BBC commissioned him to write a »symphonic work«. But the composer didn’t deliver a symphony – a genre which had been regarded since Beethoven at the latest as one of the most complex and weighty of all musical forms: instead, he produced a »Sinfonietta«. Like its big sister, the work consists of four movements. But instead of linking the separate parts to form a musical whole, Poulenc throws one new idea and style after another into the ring.
»Two souls dwell in Poulenc’s breast: the soul of a monk and that of a rascal.«
The first movement sets the tone with one lyrical melody hot on the heels of its predecessor, changes of tempo included – apparently Poulenc didn’t want to do without a lush Romantic orchestral sound (a nod in Tchaikovsky’s direction) entirely. Baroque dances inspire the second movement, which combines a brisk 6/8 time with modern harmonies. The adagio is all delicate and mellifluous, then the finale serves a wild, intoxicating mix of styles: beneath nice little dance tunes such as were usual in the 18th century, we hear rumbling rhythms à la Stravinsky, plucked double basses and bursts of brass that could be straight out of the music hall. Music critic Claude Rostand wrote in Poulenc’s time that two souls dwelt in the composer’s breast: the soul of a monk and that of a rascal. The Sinfonietta shows just how right he was.
Text: Laura Etspüler
Translation: Clive Williams
Summit of his art :Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto in A Major, KV 488
1786 – what a year! In Berlin, the construction of Schloss Bellevue was completed and Frederick the Great died; Carl Maria von Weber was born, the first mechanical loom was invented, and two Frenchmen became the first people to climb Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc. Meanwhile in Austria, a young composer reached the pinnacle of his career: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
A couple of years after he had been famously dismissed from the service of Archbishop Colloredo von Salzburg with a kick in the pants, Mozart was now leading the Bohemian life of a freelance artist in Vienna: he was giving piano lessons, playing concerts and composing like mad to satisfy the demand for his works. In springtime, Mozart put on subscription concerts and academies that were attended by wealthy and respected citizens, and these events were a huge success, both artistically and financially. In these golden years, Mozart earned so much money that he could afford a large apartment, a horse-drawn carriage, musical instruments and even a billiard table.
Inspired by all this success, Mozart not only gave the first performance of his opera »Le nozze di Figaro« in Vienna; he also knocked off not one but two piano concertos in the space of a month, and we hear one of these in this concert – the Concerto in A Major.
»I won’t forget his piano playing as long as I live; it really touched my heart.«
Joseph Haydn about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
As an erstwhile child prodigy and virtuoso, Mozart had a close bond with his instrument, the piano. Many critics see his 23 piano concertos as »the summit of his instrumental music« (Alfred Einstein). And the A major work is one of Mozart’s most frequently-played solo concertos, if not one of the most popular works he wrote. Its special quality lies in the tension between entertainment and expression – one might call it a portrait of the composer himself, who fluctuated between a cheerful mood and deep melancholy.
»The adagio: one of the most touching and sad movements in the composer’s entire oeuvre.«
The music is light and poetic in style: this much is clear in the first movement, when the bright first subject and the lyrical second subject join up in the middle section. The second movement was really meant to be played with slow solemnity, as revealed by the marking »Adagio« – an exception among Mozart’s middle movements, where he often calls for brisker tempos like »Andante«, »Allegretto« or »Larghetto«. The adagio here is one of the most touching and sad movements in the composer’s entire oeuvre. In swaying siciliano rhythm, the piano and the orchestra treat a melody of sad resignation – a clear contrast to the sunny opening movement. The final rondo returns to high spirits with a happy and optimistic main theme, virtuosity and imaginative effects: a third movement that is reminiscent of the end of an opera buffa.
Text: Elisabeth Reda
Translation: Clive Williams
The A major work is one of only three piano concertos where Mozart makes uses of his beloved clarinets. The new instrument was still under development in Mozart’s time, and he followed its progress with great interest – all the moreso as he was friends with Anton Stadler, the outstanding clarinettist of the day. Alongside the orchestra and the piano, the composer allocated individual roles to the woodwind instruments in general in all his piano concertos.
Best of Beethoven :Arr. Jaakko Kuusisto / Iiro Rantala
The affinity for classical music is noticeable not only in Iiro Rantala as an interpreter, but also in his compositions. Listening to jazz pieces from his pen, we find him making reference to several centuries of music history, with echoes of the restless kinetic energy of Bach’s keyboard works and equally of the playfulness with which Haydn and Mozart bent the musical conventions of their time to suit their will.
Rantala’s own work as heard in this concert reflects his comprehensive understanding of music and his ability to stroll fleet of foot through different periods. In medley form, »Best of Beethoven« combines ten well-known tunes from the composer’s piano sonatas, piano concertos and symphonies, starting with the Piano Concerto No. 5 and ending with – well, you’re sure to recognise it…
»This ›Beethoven’s Greatest Hits‹ also shows the composer’s humorous side«, Rantala explains with a mischievous grin, »at least, I hope so.« The good-humoured birthday serenade written to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020 was first performed earlier that year at a private concert given by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Schloss Bellevue.
Text: Stephan Schwarz-Peters
Translation: Clive Williams
Last updated: 1 April 2021