Riccardo Chailly, busy in rehearsals with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, found time to speak with Jens F. Laurson about the ensemble's upcoming trip to the United States, programming choices, and other musical matters.
On its nine-concert tour of seven U.S. cities (starting in Los Angeles on February 17th, ending in New York on the 28th), the program features four romantic warhorses—two concertos and two symphonies by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Seemingly predictable stuff—especially for a conductor like Chailly, who is known for an element of surprise in his programming.
I asked Chailly why, for the third time in a row after 2004 (all Brahms) and 2007 (Strauss & Liszt), the LGO toured with a comparatively tame program.
“It’s a good point… but we gave a variety of possibilities [to Columbia Artists Management], including a program with adventurous stuff, but Beethoven-Brahms-Mendelssohn is what they wanted. I’m thinking the same way as you, in terms of conventional programs. They don’t exactly identify my character as a conductor and what our achievements this winter season in Leipzig are.
“But you can understand, too” he continues, “that the LGO, which is in a way the mother of all German orchestras, the very founder of the concert- and repertoire tradition, is demanded to be heard in its ‘Fach repertoire’… [which is to say] the music it is most famous for and has shaped over the last 230-some years. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms are unescapable with this orchestra. This is the orchestra and place where Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was premiered. Where the Mendelssohn, and the Brahms Violin Concertos were premiered, where three Schumann symphonies and Schubert’s Ninth were premiered.”
Together with pianist Nelson Freire and violinist Nikolaj Znaider, connoisseur’s choice soloists, both, the LGO will try to live up to it by playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, his Emperor Piano Concerto, Brahms’ Second Symphony, and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto on tour. “And if we don’t surprise with the works we play,” Chailly continues, “at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations. We’ve just finished three seasons with complete Beethoven cycles—symphonies and concertos—and our Beethoven has come a long way and has shook up things a little, here in Leizpig. And after the initial surprise, the players saw the musical reasons behind it and followed with great believe and courage.”
New as the LGO’s Beethoven interpretation might be, it will still be the “sound that stems from the tradition of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, going all the way back to Beethoven’s time and the first complete symphony cycle Mendelssohn performed in 1825/26," promises Chailly. “Testimony to that will be a box of the symphonies on Decca that will come out next year. Now to do the great and difficult Seventh Symphony in L.A. and San Francisco is a wonderful challenge; we’ll try to show what a virtuoso orchestra—and a very confident orchestra—can realize. Beyond that, I’m just happy to be in California again. I have great memories of California, including a pretty unforgettable 1977 Turandot at the San Francisco Opera with Montserrat Caballй, Luciano Pavarotti, and Leona Mitchell in a Pierre Ponnelle production. Very emotional.”
Riccardo Chailly’s rise as a conductor was, for pre-Dudamel times, meteoric and abrupt. At twenty he was Claudio Abbado’s assistant at La Scala, at 29 he headed the Berlin RSO, and in 1988, at 35, he became the chief conductor of one of the three most reputable orchestras in the world, the magnificent Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Since 2005 he has been the music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he followed in the footsteps of predecessors like Mendelssohn, of course, as well as Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwдngler, Bruno Walter, Vбclav Neumann, and Kurt Masur.
Having spent his last 22 years not only leading two of the best European orchestra, but also two particularly distinctive sounding ones, I asked him if he felt spoiled at all. “Yes”, he laughs, “spoiled is the right word for it. Yes, deeply spoiled. When you think of the implications of the two orchestras history… the Concertgebouw with its 120 years and especially its links to composers like Mahler… and now the Gewandhaus, which has more than twice that history… When you think of early German romantic music, you think of Leipzig. From Nils Gade to Robert Schumann to Brahms, who never could get his b-minor Piano Concerto appreciated until Clara Schumann lifted it to triumph… there are endless anecdotes in music related to the LGO. You are spoiled—and there is a sense of obligation. But I like that… I really do. Think of the great sound tradition of both orchestras. The skin by which to identify an orchestra is its sound.
“Taking to stages in the U.S. means that we have a reason to do so—and that reason lies in the personality of the orchestra’s sound. It’s really what justifies why you are touring; to bring to the world your own identity. If you know what to listen for, especially live, it’s an immediately identifiably sound. The LGO, like the Concertgebouw, have incredible transparency, which helps you read through symphonic texture in concert. And what we aim for is the ‘emergence of sound’. That’s one of the great experiences with both orchestras. To balance everything so that you don’t know when a phrase begins and when it ends, and still be precise. It’s not that easy, with orchestras this size.
What, apart from its history and uniquely dark sound makes the Leipzig Orchestra so special?
“The sense of civic involvement with the orchestra, because it always has been a burgher’s orchestra, a community, not a court institution, is tremendous, to this day. It’s almost become a habit… people expect there will be a performance in the Gewandhaus. And in the Thomaskirche. And at the opera house, where the LGO plays, too. And they attend. Sometimes they respond with enthusiasm, sometimes they don’t. Bu they are always committed. They’re really a wonderful, a fabulously disciplined audience. Bruno Walter once said that he will never forget the intense silence of the Leipzig audience as the conductor gives the upbeat. It’s part of their system of living. The whole city promotes itself through music and the politicians are very sensitive to our activities… and the ticket prices reflect that.”
Recent and future recording projects for Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzigers include Mendelssohn, naturally… but unknown versions of the famous works or of lesser known repertoire. “There have been so many discoveries in my research since I’ve been here, either unpublished works or different version of published works”, Chailly exclaims with notable enthusiasm. I have done all the symphonies… and all in completely unknown versions. We just did the world premiere performance of the original version of the Reformation [5th] Symphony with a newly discovered fourth movement. And there is the London version of the Hebrides overture everyone knows… but there is also a Rome version that is substantially different. And when I played the Italian Symphony last season, it was amazing… such an interesting opportunity for confrontation.”
But are these versions, often early drafts that had been discarded by Mendelssohn, necessarily an improvement over the original?
“Well, it is wonderful to have them so you can compare, so you can discuss. These are alternative versions; I am not saying they are necessarily better. Of course I can look back and say: Mendelssohn revised this for a reason. But at least we have the opportunity to compare and decide.” The results, in any case, mute that question: The performances, easily the most spirited and gutsy Mendelssohn since Karajan and Dohnanyi, assure that the different text—the differences being minimal to the casual ear—becomes secondary at best.
We talk about his orchestra, its unique, ingrained Bach-tradition, and the Bach recordings he makes with the orchestra which, on the face of it, fly in the face of the strict Historical Performance Practice of baroque music having become the near exclusive domain of small groups playing period instruments. “They play Bach every Sunday for the last 200 years. My players have an unparalleled ease and artlessness of playing baroque music with modern instruments. A local critic as termed as a ‘Third Way’ Bach performance style… I hope you can hear those recordings when they come out.”
When we hang up, he is late for his rehearsal...
Click here for the official tour info and itinerary.
By Jens F. Laurson