Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra

Digital Music Festival: Opening Concert

2021 festival: The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and Kent Nagano with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a William Blank premiere performed by a top line-up kick off this year’s festival.

The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and its chief conductor Kent Nagano open the digital music festival with what is probably the best-known symphony in the classical music repertoire: »This is fate knocking on the door«, Beethoven is believed to have said about the famous »knocking motif« in his Fifth Symphony. The Hamburg-based orchestra precedes this monumental hit from the early 19th century with the premiere of a work by Swiss composer William Blank: for his triple concerto »Alisma«, three outstanding soloists return to the Elbphilharmonie – Viennese clarinettist Daniel Ottensamer and the congenial duo of cellist Jan Vogler and violinist Mira Wang.

Der Stream von William Blanks Tripelkonzert »Alisma« steht ab dem 6. Juni als separates Video zur Verfügung.


Please note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.

»For me, Beethoven’s music means courage and optimism, vitality and energy, richness and movement.«

Kent Nagano

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Jan Vogler Jan Vogler © Claudia Höhne
Mira Wang Mira Wang © Claudia Höhne
Daniel Ottensamer Daniel Ottensamer © Claudia Höhne
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert © Claudia Höhne
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert © Claudia Höhne
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert Philharmonisches Staatsorchester / Eröffnungskonzert © Claudia Höhne


Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra

Jan Vogler cello
Mira Wang violin
Daniel Ottensamer clarinet

conductor Kent Nagano


William Blank
Alisma / Triple Concerto for violin, violoncello, clarinet and orchestra (world premiere)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

total duration: approx. 60 minutes

The Artists

Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra

Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra © Felix Broede

Kent Nagano – Conductor

Kent Nagano
Kent Nagano © Felix Broede

Jan Vogler – Violoncello

Jan Vogler
Jan Vogler © Marco Grob

Mira Wang – Violin

Mira Wang
Mira Wang © Peter Rigaud

Daniel Ottensamer – Clarinet

Daniel Ottensamer
Daniel Ottensamer © Julia Stix

About the music

William Blank: »Alisma« / Triple Concerto

Where triple concertos are concerned, there is no way to avoid Beethoven – after all, he was the first composer to write for this format. Piano trios already existed, likewise solo concertos where one or two soloists are accompanied by an orchestra – but a trio with orchestral accompaniment was new. So it came as no surprise that some of Beethoven’s audience in 1804 was unable to cope with the complexity and density of the Triple Concerto: »Too many passages where all three play at the same time gradually become tiring for the audience and the musicians alike«, one reviewer complained four years later.

Despite its difficult start, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto went on to gain a firm place in the concert repertoire, which it retains to this day. And rightly so, in the opinion of Swiss composer William Blank: »The music is fascinating and Beethoven’s style is quite unique«, he enthuses, adding that that didn’t make it easy for him to tackle the commission to write a triple concerto of his own.

William Blank
William Blank © Eddy Mottaz

With his work »Alisma«, he picks up the basic idea of a trio with orchestral accompaniment, but substitutes a clarinet for the piano. A look at the score conveys an idea of his unusual and virtuoso use of the different sounds of the three solo instruments. Both the soloists and the members of the orchestra have to switch to and fro between different modern-day playing techniques to produce a lively new sound – »sometimes,« the composer says, »things happen that I hadn’t reckoned with at all«. In the classic concerto model, the soloist and the orchestra engage in a dialogue, but Blank breaks away from this tradition by blending the orchestral sound with that of the trio.

To understand the choice of title, a little botanical knowledge is useful: the alisma is an aquatic plant whose flower consists of three petals – three soloists. In addition, the plant produces six stamens within each flower: Blank structures his composition in three parts, each consisting of six sections. Numerical correspondences aside, the composer also sees the long-stemmed plant as an attractive symbol of his concerto, »with solo parts that seem to float above the orchestra, which in turn supplies them with fertile soil to grow on«.

On Beethoven and Flower Petals
William Blank about his new Triple Concerto »Alisma«

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

»That’s the sound of Fate knocking on the door!« – This sentence was recorded for posterity by Beethoven’s amanuensis and biographer Anton Schindler. And although no one knows on what occasion he picked it up, or whether he may even have invented it himself, it left a lasting mark on our picture of Beethoven and of his Fifth Symphony, which thus became known as the »Fate Symphony«. It fits so well into the image of the grim genius struggling with encroaching deafness who wanted to »grab Fate by the throat«. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking the trouble to scrape off the patina and the pathos and explore with the music and the famous »knocking motif« in more depth.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven © Joseph Karl Stieler / Wikimedia Commons

What really accounts for Beethoven’s genius? The motif made up of three quavers and a semitone is nothing special in itself: Haydn already used it in his Symphony No. 28 in 1765. No, the stroke of genius lay in evolving an entire movement solely from this motif: it can be heard in nearly every one of the 500 bars. Beethoven composed here the way children build things from Lego bricks: he creates the first »melody«, for example, by just stringing together versions of the motif at different pitches. He even uses the opening motif as the accompaniment for the simple countersubject. Only once is the movement’s driving momentum interrupted: just before the end, the oboe takes the opportunity to play a little cadenza. This is the only »round« feature of the rectangular Lego construction. It anticipates the atmosphere of the second movement, which is reminiscent of a gentle stroll with its heartfelt melody.

The third movement treads water for a while. The strings seem restless, searching and questioning. The »answer« is heard in the shape of an angular fanfare whose rhythm refers once again to the »knocking motif«. The middle section is a fugue, and here Beethoven plays a little trick by having the gruff theme in the low strings come to a sudden halt several times, as if the musicians had played a wrong note.

No less brilliant than the opening movement is the transition to the finale. The music fades away to pianissimo, paws at the ground and seems to be just waiting for the right moment to burst out in a radiant fortissimo. It also switches from the dark minor mode to a bright major – something that has turned into one of the most important aesthetic concepts in the western world under the heading »per aspera ad astra« (literally: »though hardship to the stars«). It is no coincidence that the spirited music here has its predecessors in the liberation songs of the French Revolution that struck a chord with Beethoven as an ardent Republican. Beethoven also uses some typical military instruments hitherto unknown in the concert hall as a special effect in reference to this connection. He proudly noted in the score: »The last movement features a piccolo and three trombones – not three timpani, it’s true, but they will make more noise than six timpani, and better noise to boot.«

Text: Clemens Matuschek

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

Last updated: 26 Apr 2021
Translation: Clive Williams

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