Sunday 22 March

After Romanticism

Tonight's programme

Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Bartók Viola Concerto
Bruckner Symphony No 4

François-Xavier Roth  conductor
Antoine Tamestit  viola
London Symphony Orchestra

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune


Debussy preferred the company of poets and painters to musicians, and as a young man he was an enthusiastic devotee of the Tuesday evening gatherings held by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Dedicated to creating a poetry of pure suggestion, floating free from the banality of everyday functional language, Mallarmé envied music’s ability to move the sensibilities without recourse to any literal or prosaic meanings, and his poetry aspires to do the same.

Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune was published, after years of tinkering, in 1876. In an obscure but powerful and hyper-sensitive evocation of fleeting erotic sensation, a faun (half-man, half-goat), waking in an idyllic Arcadian landscape, languidly recalls flirting with and chasing after two delectable but timid and elusive nymphs before sinking back into sleep. Is this memory or fantasy? In 1892, Debussy resolved to write music for a staged reading of the poem, initially planning a prelude, several interludes and a final paraphrase, before eventually deciding that his prelude needed no sequel.

Premiered in Brussels in December 1894, Debussy’s work is as ground-breaking and unconventional as Mallarmé’s poem, yet it caught the audience’s imagination from the very opening bars; they applauded rapturously and immediately demanded an encore. Mallarmé himself was wary of the project, feeling that his words were already music enough. However, after hearing the Prélude he was deeply moved, writing to the composer, ‘your illustration of L’après-midi departs from my text only by going even further into nostalgia and light, with real finesse, sensuality and richness’.

The flute’s voluptuous opening melody immediately conjures a world of luxurious fantasy, weaving through the music’s changing scenes with effortless spontaneity. Every instrument adds something unique and unforgettable, from the neverland harps and horns unveiled by the flute at the opening, to the final exquisite chime of two tiny antique cymbals. The whole work appears to float entirely free of form and convention, and perfectly realises Debussy’s long-held dream of a music governed only by pleasure.

Note by Jeremy Thurlow
Jeremy Thurlow is a composer whose music ranges from chamber and orchestral to video-opera. Author of a book on Dutilleux and a frequent broadcaster on Radio 3, Jeremy is a Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.

Image: Faun by Hugo Vogel, 1907

Claude Debussy

Despite an insecure family background (his father was imprisoned as a revolutionary in 1871), Debussy took piano lessons and was accepted as a pupil of the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, but failed to make the grade as a concert pianist. The gifted musician directed his talents towards composition, eventually winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1884 and spending two years in Italy. During the 1890s, he lived in poverty with his mistress Gabrielle Dupont, eventually marrying the Rosalie (Lily) Texier in 1899.

His Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, although regarded as a revolutionary work at the time of its premiere in December 1894, soon found favour with concertgoers and the habitually conservative French press. Late in the summer of the previous year he had begun work on the only opera he completed, Pelléas et Mélisande, which was inspired by Mæterlinck’s play. It was an immediate success after its first production in April 1902.

In 1904, he met Emma Bardac, the former wife of a successful financier, and moved into an apartment with her; his wife, Lily Texier, attempted suicide following their separation. Debussy and Bardac had a daughter and were subsequently married in January 1908. The composer’s troubled domestic life did not affect the quality of his work, with such magnificent scores as La mer for large orchestra and the first set of Images for piano produced during this period.

Debussy’s ballet Jeux was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in May 1913, a fortnight before the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Although suffering from cancer, he managed to complete the first three of a projected set of six instrumental sonatas. He died at his Paris home and was buried at Passy Cemetery.

The Ballets Russes is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Based in Paris and active from 1909 to 1929, the Ballets Russes reinvigorated the art of performative dance, and many of its dancers went on to found ballet traditions in the US and the UK.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.

Béla Bartók
Viola Concerto Sz 120

1945, arr Tibor Serly 1950, rev Péter Bartók and Nelson Dellamaggiore 1995 & 2003)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Lento
3. Finale: Allegretto

Antoine Tamestit viola

The mid-1930s were particularly satisfying for Bartók. From 1934, he was able to devote himself to Hungarian, Turkish and Southern Slavic folk music when he gained a position in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His career as a concert pianist was also looking up, with recitals at home and in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy. His activities as a composer blossomed, resulting in a string of masterpieces, including the Fifth and Sixth String Quartets, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a second Violin Concerto and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

By contrast, 1939 and 1940 proved far more difficult. Political circumstances and the inevitability of war overshadowed his creativity. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and annexation of Austria deepened the gloom. Thoughts of moving abroad (as with many intellectuals at the time, Turkey was a favoured destination) were complicated by Bartók's reluctance to abandon Hungary while his aging mother was still alive. Her death at the end of 1939 meant that Bartók and his wife could leave with an easy conscience. In October 1940, the couple left for the US, where earlier that year he had enjoyed a successful concert tour.

Bartók’s fortunes in America were mixed. While he extended his folk song research with work at Columbia University, his career as a solo pianist faltered. He was also dogged by serious ill-health. Nevertheless, Bartók continued to compose and completed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943, a work which had immediate appeal for American audiences. In 1945, the year of his death, Bartók was working on two more concertos: the Piano Concerto No 3, and one for viola on commission from William Primrose, the most prominent viola soloist of his day.

William Primrose (1904–82) was born in Glasgow and educated in London. But his career as a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra (with Arturo Toscanini), as a teacher and as a soloist was built and based in the United States. For his contributions to the recording industry, Primrose received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Primrose’s reminiscences indicate that Bartók was reluctant to venture on a concerto for an instrument with which he was unfamiliar. A powerful stimulus came in the shape of a broadcast performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto. Although work was halting, Bartók reported to Primrose in early August that the work was to be in four movements and a month later that it was ‘ready in draft’. At his death on 26 September 1945, the concerto existed in outline, though clearly in three movements. The viola solo part was more or less complete, as was the draft of the first movement, but the slow movement and finale were barely more than sketches and throughout there was little to indicate the instrumentation, although Bartók had stated that it was to be ‘transparent’.

‘The sombre, more masculine character of your instrument executed some influence on the general character of the work.’
Bartók in his final letter to William Primrose

Tibor Serly, a composer, viola player and devoted friend of Bartók, made a completion of the work which Primrose premiered in 1949. Thi performance is a revision of Serly’s completion made by the composer’s son Péter and Nelson Dellamaggiore in 1995, further revised in 2003. This reverts to Bartók’s original viola line, adding further sketch-based bars to the second movement and giving more body to the orchestral tuttis, while lightening the accompaniment of the soloist. This performance also has further revisions to the solo part, mainly affecting articulation and phrasing, made by soloist, Antoine Tamestit.

The first movement, the broadest of the three, begins arrestingly with a duet between solo viola and timpani. Though predominantly lyrical and often reflective, there are passages of excitable counterpoint between the soloist and wind instruments. A section marked Ritornello, comprising austere chords for bassoons and horns before a brilliant cadenza for the viola, leads straight into the slow movement, which is structured in two parts: a sweetly reflective, modally-inflected first section dominated by the solo viola dashes precipitously into a vigorous scherzo, which in turn plunges headlong into the finale. Two excitable and fiercely virtuosic outer sections frame a more relaxed and lyrical central episode.

Note by Jan Smaczny
Jan Smaczny is the Sir Hamilton Harty Professor of Music at Queen’s University, Belfast. A well-known writer and broadcaster, he specialises in the life and works of Dvořák and Czech opera, and has published books on the repertoire of the Prague Provisional Theatre and Dvořák's Cello Concerto.

Béla Bartók

Born in 1881 in Hungary, Bartók began piano lessons with his mother at the age of five. He studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where he created a number of works that echoed the style of Brahms and Richard Strauss. After graduating he discovered Austro-Hungarian and Slavic folk music, travelling extensively with his friend Zoltán Kodály and recording countless ethnic songs and dances which began to influence his own compositions. Kodály also introduced him to the works of Debussy in 1907, the year in which he became Professor of Piano at the Budapest Conservatory.

Bartók established his mature style with such scores as the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin and his opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. He revived his career as a concert pianist in 1927 when he gave the premiere of his First Piano Concerto in Mannheim.

Bartók detested the rise of Fascism and in October 1940 he quit Budapest and travelled to the US. At first he concentrated on ethno-musicological researches, but eventually returned to composition and created a significant group of ‘American’ works, including the Concerto for Orchestra and his Third Piano Concerto.

His character was distinguished by a firm, almost stubborn refusal to compromise or be diverted from his musical instincts by money or position. Throughout his working life, Bartók collected, transcribed and annotated the folk-songs of many countries, a commitment that brought little financial return or recognition but one which he regarded as his most important contribution to music.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart

Anton Bruckner
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major

1874, second version of 1877/78 Nowak edition, published 1953, with 1880 Finale)

1. Bewegt, nicht zu schnell
2. Andante, quasi allegretto
3. Scherzo: Bewegt – Trio: Nicht zu schnell
4. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

This symphony’s epithet, ‘Romantic’, is Bruckner’s own, and although they may seem like programmatic wisdom after the event, the charming descriptions he gave to each of the movements, while engaged on his several revisions of the work, make it quite clear what kind of Romanticism this is.

The programme is of medieval towns flanked by enchanted woodland, knights and huntsmen, noonday dancing in forest clearings: such is the substance of that amiable early Romantic painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel rather than his awe-inducing contemporary Caspar David Friedrich (note that the heyday of both artists came nearly half a century before Bruckner began work on the Fourth Symphony in 1874). In other words, the moodier imaginings and the fantastical subjectivity of the artist we think of as the archetypal Romantic are nowhere in sight.

Not that the long-discredited image of Bruckner the simple, unsophisticated countryman has anything to do with the essence of the Fourth Symphony. His record of nature, dominated in every movement by the sound of the horn, is often expressed in clean, bright colours and straightforward progressions; those well-meaning but conventionally minded colleagues Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Loewe were wrong to clothe Bruckner’s thought in darker, more Wagnerian hues when they made revisions to the work in the late 1880s. But there are times, too, when a paler cast of thought registers in an altogether more complex use of harmony: this, if anything, comes closer to our image of a ‘Romantic’ symphony. The tension between the two is sustained successfully for the first time in Bruckner’s work, and that is surely why he took so long to shape it to his liking. That done, the path was clear for the kind of symphony he now knew he wanted to write; only the genesis of the Eighth was to cause anything like the same trouble.

After the first draft of 1874, Bruckner revised the Fourth Symphony in 1877–78, providing a new scherzo and finale along with the picturesque programme; the ‘Popular Festival’ title he gave the fourth movement is obviously quite inappropriate to the titanic spirit of the re-thought finale from 1880. That year also saw the successful Vienna premiere under Hans Richter. In 1886, Bruckner made a number of relatively minor modifications for a New York performance conducted by Anton Seidl. It is Nowak’s publication of this version that François-Xavier Roth has chosen for this performance.

Image: Castle by the River by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1820

First Movement

The easy luminosity of Bruckner’s un-improvable orchestration shines out in the symphony’s opening. The string mists that usher in the magical horn call, like many a Brucknerian beginning, owe much to the inspiration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; but the key is major, not minor, for the first time in Bruckner’s output, and the stillness is effortlessly held over 35 bars before the faintest hint of a crescendo. As the light grows, a new figure emerges – first ascending, then descending – in Bruckner’s favourite rhythmic pattern of two notes in a common-time bar followed by a group of three; it comes in useful as a dominant force later, en route to the inspired chorale climax of the development. So useful, in fact, that only when we hear the initial horn call blazing out in full E-flat major glory in the movement’s coda for the first time do we realise that Bruckner the master has saved the trump card until the last, breathtaking minute.

By way of rustic repose after the first powerful orchestral statements, the second subject group enters on strings alone – surprisingly in D-flat major – with a simple pattern on violins that Bruckner referred to as the chirping of a forest tom-tit, with the nature-lover’s response countering in the viola melody; that, at least, was no programmatic afterthought. These forest murmurs, soon tempered by experience, provide the atmospheric food for reflection between the movement’s shining glories.

Second Movement

Bruckner’s Andante looks simple on paper but proves no less the fruit of subtle thought: a restrained parade of elementary C minor funeral march (tenderly voiced at first by cellos and ripe for increasingly assertive major-key transformations in development and coda), chorale for strings (straightforwardly presented only once, in the exposition) and the striking contrast of a long, tonally restless melody for violas with pizzicato accompaniment.

Third Movement

Confined here to the role of eloquent observers, the horns again take centre stage in the scherzo, their simple hunting-call (again, note, in that mixed rhythm of two notes and a group of three) suddenly amazing us at the climax by resounding in a foreign key – though answering trumpets hold doggedly to the movement’s home key of B-flat major. Developments shadow another, reflective treatment of the rhythmic pattern on strings; the trio is pure, bucolic repose – though, again, not as simple as its flowing oboe and clarinet song at first suggests.


Nowhere does the mature Bruckner strike out on his own to challenge our received notion of symphonic form more than in his finales. The Fourth’s remains something of a prototype for more perfectly proportioned edifices to come, though it operates in the same way as a kind of crystallisation of the work’s essence rather than the action-packed, rhetorical summing-up that is the provenance of the more conventional ‘Romantic’ symphony.

No advocate of the composer has put it better than the fine symphonist Robert Simpson when he wrote that ‘a Bruckner symphony is, so to speak, an archaeological ‘dig’. The first three movements are like layers removed, revealing the city below, the finale’. Simpson finds fault with the commonplaces and bad timing of this finale’s more reflective subject-matter, and it’s hard not to agree. Yet the bedrock of towering orchestral unisons – reached by way of rhythmic reminders, patterns shared with first movement and scherzo – is undeniably more overwhelming than anything that has gone before, and however lost we may feel in the voids between the masses, the coda sets everything right by surpassing even the symphony’s opening in the radiance and breadth with which it unfurls its fanfare.

Note by David Nice David Nice writes, lectures and broadcasts on music, notably for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Music Magazine. His books include short studies of Richard Strauss, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, and a Prokofiev biography, From Russia to the West 1891–1935.

Image: Landscape with Pilgrim by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1813

Anton Bruckner

Bruckner is still frequently described as a ‘simple’ man, an Austrian peasant with little education and even less grasp of the sophisticated Viennese world in which he tried so desperately to establish both a living and a reputation. The facts tell a different story.

'Myths cling like limpets to great artists, no matter how hard scholars try to scrape them off. And of no composer is this truer than Anton Bruckner.'

Bruckner may have appeared unpolished, at times bizarrely eccentric, especially to self-conscious Viennese sophisticates, but he was far from ill-educated. His father was avillage schoolmaster – a background he shared withseveral of the greatest Austrian and German writersand thinkers. Bruckner went through a rigorous Catholic teacher-training programme, passing his exams first time with distinction (a rare achievement in those days). Close friends and colleagues testify to his lively and enquiring intellect, as well as his friendliness and generosity. Bruckner’s intense Roman Catholic faith certainly marked him out as unworldly. There are stories of him breaking off lectures at the Vienna University to pray; begging God’s forgiveness for unintentionally ‘stealing’ another man’s tune; dedicating his Ninth Symphony ‘to dear God’. However, tensions between the demands of his faith and his lifelong tendency to fall in love with improbably young women reveal a deep rift in his nature. Bruckner could also be alarmingly compulsive in his devotions –especially at times of acute mental crisis (there were plenty of those) – and there are hints he was prone to doubt, especially in his last years.

Equally strange to those who knew him was Bruckner’s almost religious devotion to Wagner –even Wagner himself is said to have been embarrassed by Bruckner’s adoration (which is saying a great deal!). But the way Bruckner as a composer synthesises lush Wagnerian harmonies and intense expression with elements drawn fromSchubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Bach and the Renaissance church master Palestrina is remarkably original. It shows that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Bruckner was far from losing himself in Wagner’s intoxicating soundworld. His obsessions may have caused him terrible problems – particularly his notorious ‘counting mania’. (During one crisis period he was found trying to count the leaves on a tree.)

But paradoxically the same obsessiveness may have helped him keep his bearings as a composer. There’s an old joke that Bruckner ‘wrote the same symphony nine times’, and it’s true that the symphonies tend to be based on the same ground plan, with similar features in similar places. But the same is true of the great Medieval cathedrals, and no one could say that Chartres Cathedral was the same building as Durham or Westminster Abbey. Bruckner planned his cathedral-like symphonic structures in meticulous detail, and at best they function superbly as formal containers for his ecstatic visions and extreme mood swings. Disconcerting simplicity and profound complexity co-exist in the man as in his music. It’s one of the things that makes him so fascinating and, in music, unique.

Composer profile by Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber). He also contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 (Discovering Music), BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.

François-Xavier Roth
LSO Principal Guest Conductor

François-Xavier Roth (born Paris, 1971) is one of today’s most charismatic and enterprising conductors. He has been General Music Director of the City of Cologne since 2015, leading both the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Opera. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and the first-ever Associate Artist of the Philharmonie de Paris and has recently been named Artistic Director of Atelier Lyrique de Tourcoing.

In 2003, he founded Les Siècles, an innovative orchestra performing contrasting and colourful programmes on modern and period instruments, often within the same concert. With Les Siècles, he has given concerts throughout Europe, regularly appearing at key festivals (Berlin Musikfest, Beethovenfest Bonn, Musica Viva, Gstaad, Berlioz Festival, Santander and George Enescu) and toured to China and Japan. They recreated the original sound of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in its centenary year and, subsequently, with the Pina Bausch and Dominique Brun dance companies in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai and Tokyo. The orchestra has twice been nominated for Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award.

Engagement with new audiences is an essential part of François-Xavier Roth’s work. With the Berlioz Festival and Les Siècles, he founded the Jeune Orchestre Européen Hector Berlioz, an orchestraacademy with its own collection of period instruments. They recently performed the first part of Les Troyens in Berlioz’s birthplace. Roth and Les Siècles devised Presto!, a television series for France 2, attracting weekly audiences of over three million. The Gürzenich Orchestra’s Ohrenauf! youth programme was recipient of a Junge Ohren Produktion Award.

Roth has premiered works by Yann Robin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hèctor Parra and Simon Steen-Andersen, and collaborated with composers like Pierre Boulez, Wolfgang Rihm, Jörg Widmann, Helmut Lachenmann and Philippe Manoury (from whom the Gürzenich Orchestra commissioned the Cologne Trilogy – Ring, Saccades and Lab.Oratorium).

He was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur for achievements as a musician, conductor, music director and teacher.

Image: Marco Borggreve

Antoine Tamestit

Antoine Tamestit is recognised internationally as one of the great violists - soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. In addition to his peerless technique and profound musicianship, he is known for the depth and beauty of his sound with its rich, deep, burnished quality. His repertoire is broad, ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary, and he has performed and recorded several world premieres.

One of the concertos Tamestit commissioned is the concerto by Jörg Widmann. Since giving the world premiere performance in 2015 with the Orchestre de Paris and Paavo Järvi, Tamestit has given performances of the concerto with the co-commissioners, Swedish Radio Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, both under Daniel Harding, again with the Orchestre de Paris, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stavanger Symphony, and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Tamestit’s other world premiere performances and recordings include Thierry Escaich’s La Nuit Des Chants in 2018, the Concerto for Two Violas by Bruno Mantovani written for Tabea Zimmermann and Tamestit, and Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs. Works composed for Tamestit also include Neuwirth’s Weariness Heals Wounds and Gérard Tamestit’s Sakura.

Antoine Tamestit is a founding member of Trio Zimmermann with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Poltera. Together they have recorded a number of acclaimed CDs for BIS Records, most recently Bach’s Goldberg Variations which was released in May 2019, and they have played in Europe’s most famous concert halls and series. Other chamber music partners include Nicholas Angelich, Gautier Capucon, Martin Fröst, Leonidas Kavakos, Nikolai Lugansky, Emmanuel Pahud, Francesco Piemontesi, Christian Tetzlaff, Cédric Tiberghien, Yuja Wang, Jörg Widmann, Shai Wosner and the Ebene and Hagen Quartets.

Together with Nobuko Imai, Antoine Tamestit is co-artistic director of the Viola Space Festival in Japan, focusing on the development of viola repertoire and a wide range of education programmes.

Antoine Tamestit plays on a viola made by Stradivarius in 1672, loaned by the Habisreutinger Foundation.

Image: Julien Mignot

The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.

The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.

Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.

The LSO strives to embrace new digital technologies in order to broaden its reach, and with the formation of its own record label LSO Live in 1999 it pioneered a revolution in recording live orchestral music. With a discography spanning many genres and including some of the most iconic recordings ever made the LSO is now the most recorded and listened to orchestra in the world, regularly reaching over 3,500,000 people worldwide each month on Spotify and beyond. The Orchestra continues to innovate through partnerships with market-leading tech companies, as well as initiatives such as LSO Play. The LSO is a highly successful creative enterprise, with 80% of all funding self-generated.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

Always Playing

While we are unable to perform at the Barbican Centre and our other favourite venues around the world, we are determined to keep playing.

Join us online for a programme of full-length concerts twice a week, artist interviews, playlists to keep you motivated at home, activities to keep young music fans busy and much much more! 

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In the mean time: 

Thursday 26 March 7.30pm
Schumann Symphony No 3

Weber Euryanthe Overture
Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin and Piano
Schumann Symphony No 3

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conductor
Kristian Bezuidenhout piano
 Isabelle Faust violin