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DW Festival Concerts features concerts performed at various concerts in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Evans/OKAPIA
MusicGermany

'Temperaments' at the Beethovenfest

Anastassia Boutsko
January 24, 2023

In this episode of DW Festival Concerts, listen to works by Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Shostakovich in a concert titled "Temperaments."

https://p.dw.com/p/4MaKi

'Temperaments' at the Beethovenfest

Did you know that if you describe someone as melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic or choleric, you're actually drawing on ancient medical theory?

Starting in the 5th century BCE, it was thought that a person's health, fundamental personality, as well as temperament, were determined by the balance of four bodily fluids: black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile. This system, known as the four humors, was only finally scientifically disproved in the 19th century.

The idea, however, was carried on in music.

In 1940, the German composer Paul Hindemith wrote a piece of ballet music for strings and solo piano titled "The Four Temperaments." It had been commissioned by the Russian choreographer Leonide Massine, but he couldn't really make heads or tails of Hindemith's music, so it was his famous colleague George Balanchine, who ended up choreographing the piece in 1946, to middling success.

In this episode, we'll listen to pianist Alexander Melnikov performing the piece with the Ensemble Resonanz at the 2022 Beethoven Festival in Bonn.

Beethovenfest Bonn

A new festival director

2022 marked Steven Walter's debut as the festival's new artistic director. The mid-30-year-old was born in Germany to a German-American family and studied cello before becoming an esteemed cultural manager. Walter brought his own unique vision to the music festival that takes place over several weeks in the city where Beethoven was born and grew up.

One of Walter's ideas was to host soloists and ensembles for several events during the festival, instead of just having them drop by to give a single concert.

"Normally an ensemble or an artist comes to a concert and maybe even the same night they would go to the next city or early next morning," Walter said, explaining that the artists were very stressed as a result and could not connect with each other.

"And here, if they stay a week, you will play three or four concerts. Then you really have the opportunity to connect to audiences in diverse ways. The third aspect is also sustainability. We need to think about our footprint, and it just makes a big difference if an artist or a group comes for a whole week and three or four concerts as opposed to just coming and going and having all this travel," he added.

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Beethoven's last composition

Pianist Alexander Melnikov also got a chance to share the stage at the Beethoven Festival with his colleague, star violinist Isabelle Faust. The two musicians — really, the two friends — performed three Beethoven violin sonatas, including the 10th, opus 96.

This was the last piece Beethoven composed for this combination of instruments. The premiere took place in Vienna in 1812, in the house of Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven's patrons. The performance by French violinist Pierre Rode left Beethoven less than thrilled, which wasn't an uncommon reaction for the extremely perfectionistic and demanding composer.

At the festival, Isabelle Faust performs on a Stradivarius violin that bears the name "Sleeping Beauty." Built in 1704, the instrument disappeared for almost one and a half centuries before it was rediscovered. It was restored in the 90s, and Isabelle Faust has been playing it since 1996.

You'll be able to hear the instrument's rich, colorful tone as we listen to her perform Beethoven's Violin Sonata No 10, accompanied by Alexander Melnikov on piano, in a studio recording that was made the same year the duo performed at the 2022 Beethoven Festival.

Shostakovich's Opus 35

The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his opus 35, a concerto, in 1933, and it's been known by two different names. Today, it's often referred to as his Piano Concerto No 1.

However, before Shostakovich wrote his second piano concerto in 1956, it was known as the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra. The use of the trumpet as a second solo instrument really makes this work stand out. It's not quite an equal partner to the piano, but it is constantly commenting on and responding to the piano, often throwing in a dash of humor and irony.

The entire composition is imbued with a type of unsettled melancholy, which brings us back to the title of the Beethoven Festival concert it was featured in: "Temperaments." 

The Ensemble Resonanz

The festival featured various artists and ensembles in residence, one of which was the Ensemble Resonanz. Its co-founder and violinist, Tobias Rempe, tells us a bit more about the group:

"The Ensemble Resonanz is the resident ensemble in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. It's a chamber orchestra. The musicians founded the ensemble with the idea to present classical music as a contemporary art form. So that means the ensemble plays a lot of contemporary music but also is always reaching out for new ideas for presenting classical music, for communicating our music, to find new formats and new ways to build programs."

The Ensemble also played Prokofiev's Piano Sonata no 9 in C Major, not exactly a piece that instantly became part of the standard repertoire.

How Music Drives Our Emotions

It's a rather unusual composition for Prokofiev — quiet, introverted, unemotional. It was the last piano sonata he ever wrote, and he completed it in 1947. Whoever has visited the Prokofiev Museum in Moscow will be immediately reminded of the small, narrow room where the composer spent the last six years of his life along with his wife, Mira. This sonata can be seen as a kind of self-reflection, a summary of his life.

And that rounds off this episode of DW Festival Concert with Cristina Burack. Thanks to sound engineer Christian Stäter and producer Anastassia Boutsko. We love feedback, so drop us a line at music@dw.com if there is something you'd like to share. 

This text was originally written in German.

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