From the Archive: Riccardo Chailly on Beethoven and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Nothing Concrete text
29 Jul 2020
23 min listen

From our classical music archive - an interview with Riccardo Chailly, former principal conductor of Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, from October 2011, talking about his approach to performing the odyssey of the Beethoven symphony cycle at the Barbican.

It’s one of our golden international cards, to go around the world and play music is the sound of the Gewandhausorchester, recognisable after two bars.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This week we look back to October 2011 and revisit an interview with Riccardo Chailly, talking about his approach to performing the odyssey of the Beethoven symphony cycle at the Barbican.

Riccardo Chailly: I regard the complete cycle more as an entity in 36 movements.

BE: The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig can proudly claim the title as the world’s oldest symphony orchestra and boast a prestigious rollcall of conductors, including from 2005-2016, Ricardo Chailly.

RC: It’s one of our golden international cards, to go around the world and play music is the sound of the Gewandhausorchester, recognisable after two bars.

BE: Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson talked to the conductor about the journey bringing all of Beethoven’s symphonies to London. 

ES: Riccardo, you are the 19th Principal Conductor, or Conductor Kappelmeister is the word they use in Germany, of the legendary Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Legendary because it’s the oldest – 230 years old. Legendary because of its history, it’s connections – with J S Bach, with Mendelssohn. Indeed, Beethoven as well, because it was the first orchestra in history to perform all nine symphonies in the composer’s lifetime. This is an incredible legacy. What does this legacy, this tradition, mean to many of the younger players who’ve come into the orchestra and indeed to you, who must look to its future now?

RC: Well first of all, it did inspire me to undertake the responsibility of the complete cycle of the symphonies gradually. It was a progress which came to me spontaneously by doing every year the Ninth Symphony, which as you know is an old tradition of Maestro Arthur Nikisch and since the time of Maestro Nikisch, never interrupted. Even during wartime and this was the carte blanche for me, to get my own way of doing Beethoven with the Gewandhauorchester and move it into new directions. And this was for me a very important experience, because by doing it for five years now, this is the seventh season already, I could find more and more my way moving on. Which is of course a delicate matter, a delicate subject, given the length of the tradition of Beethoven in Leipzig. What I think is important is just to remember that this is the fifth cycle on record. In a way, people can compare Abendroth, Konwitschny, two times Masur from the ‘70s and the late ‘80s, and nowadays. There you get the answer of what you asked me – the younger generation of course are aware in which kind of old tradition they are coming to participate but the idea of the interpretation has somehow to move forward.

ES: When you arrived, what aspects of the sound and style of the orchestra did you say ‘well I would like to move this in a different direction perhaps for certain repertoire’ – I’m not just talking about Beethoven but Mahler and repertoire into the future. Were there aspects to the sound that you wanted to develop or change in any way? 

RC: Change, absolute not. It is I think one of our gold international cards to go around the world to play music is the sound of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Recognisable after two bars, which has this typical Germanic connotate of darkness of the strings, especially the middle/lower register, on which the German woodwind school sound very appropriate, with a tendency of the same colour. As we say ‘old gold’. And the brass of the Germanic school belong to the same party now, to the same colour. The sound identity is a treasure and I try to maintain it as much as possible.

ES: It’s precious, isn’t it? Having orchestras sound different from one another, because there was a time more recently when many orchestras began to sound the same, kind of middle-European sound. This is precious, these chracteristics.

RC: But the transparency is a process which I wanted to pursue in all composers, from the classics up to the contemporary music. And this in seven years has been developing I think, and I found the orchestra in excellent shape from Maestro Blomstedt, it’s fair to say, and prepare also to move in this direction. So it’s a long and slow process, but still always as much as possible keeping the beauty and unicity of the sound.

ES: The Gewandhausorchester now has a home in London, it’s ongoing residency at the Barbican. You are an international associate they call you. Why is that important to the orchestra do you think?

RC: We can bring to London something which particularly belongs for a long time to the history of the orchestra. The fact that the Barbican two years ago invited us for a triple appearance, with triple choral repertoire – St Matthew Passion of Bach, Messe Solennelle of Rossini and then the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. This was let’s say the spontaneous step forwards number one which encouraged the Barbican to think forwards, to think more of a complete cycle of an identity project. And of course, Beethoven came along, and this is the more hazardous as they say, always the rise to the Himalayas, because you never know if you will make it. Because the strength, the difficulty, the demands of Beethoven are so impossibly extreme that every time you undertake such a project, you have to be not only in your best conditions but associated with the best companion, which is the orchestra, that you can find for such a long ride.

ES: Now I know you regard these symphonies, the nine, as a single entity, as a great odyssey, a great journey if you like, rather than individual pieces – is that right? 

RC: True, absolutely true. I’ve never done in my life the complete cycle so together. I’ve done as always, for more than 20 years, individual concerts with individual symphonies. This experience brought to me, also to discuss about this, the general opinion has its own independency. Which of course, at first sight it is like this. At closer sight, you can discover a lot of elements in common between each other, even things which are anticipated through. Like, introduction of the Second Symphony anticipating the first movement of the Ninth. The end of the Eroica ‘Marcia funebre’ anticipating the theme of the Fifth Symphony opening of the third horn. I have been stressing things like that, easily recognisable in the recording for instance. So, I regard the complete cycle more as an entity in 36 movements, more than let’s say, individually one by one symphonies.

ES: You have said and if I may quote you, nothing in Beethoven is incidental and absolutely nothing is harmless. This is this great provocateur, I mean it is very dangerous music, isn’t it?

RC: I would have not had myself the energy if not the courage to undertake such a project without the partnership like the Gewandhausorchester. A deep, deeply rooted Beethoven orchestra in the sense of knowing the style, knowing the sound identity and the complexity of Beethoven’s language. Being able to match my extreme demands which, my extreme demands are not an individual search for originality, are only as much as possible, wishes for truth and faith to the text. In this case also, the original metronomes.

ES: There is an extraordinary tension in this music between the Classical and the Romantic. It kind of sits there at the cusp of this change in music. Do you incline more to the Classical or to the Romantic, Riccardo?

RC: Character wise, being naturally attracted to the late Romantic work, I have to focus much more and attentively to the neo-Classical side of Beethoven. I think the late Romantic attitude of interpreters for too long has been proceeding in a way which allowed excesses, extremes.

ES: Like the slow movement of the Eroica, the funeral march.

RC: For instance. At the end ‘Marcia funebre’ – the word ‘marcia’ in Italiano means something which has to have the pulse of walking, not just stand still, that’s already a clear point. Secondly check the metronome mark of the marcia funebre, and Beethoven comes immediately to the point with the answer to that.

ES: Tempo articulation, accenting, dynamics, the musical syntax of Beethoven’s language. How clear and precise was Beethoven in his scores with regard to all these elements?

RC: In spite of the confusing manuscripts which I have seen some, like the Fifth, or the Ninth, which are sometimes scary for the amount of ink on the page where you can barely read through that. The early printing, like in my case the early Peters Ausgabe, which we use in this complete edition, is to my eyes something extraordinarily clear to the mind and specific wish from Beethoven concerning dynamics and articulation. Even some critical editions which are of course very up to date and very interesting, like Jonathan Welmar, to my eyes are sometimes not as clear in comparison with the very early Peters Ausgabe. 

ES: What about those speeds, those metronome markings? Because they’ve often been misunderstood, they have been controversial, are they all achievable? And I think of the finale of the Eighth Symphony, for example.

RC: There are almost completely achievable with extremes of playability from the orchestra. You need to have an orchestra as I say not only incredibly virtuoso that can cope with the extremes and demands of Beethoven, but also needs to understand why and the purpose to do it. When I first started, the First Symphony, first rehearsal, the orchestra couldn’t believe what was going on. As soon as the first allegro of the first movement appeared then I started andante, they couldn’t believe again and they gave me big eyes you know. Then I said ‘I feel as though I have to stop the rehearsal, I have to tell you now why I’m doing this after two movements’, and I explained clearly my wish of faith to the original metronomes and I said we have now planned two symphonies every year for three years. Do you mind to consider what I’m telling you and to prepare yourself in this direction? They prepare themselves and looking for even, stimulating me even to see how far, daring good I be to be really so faithful to the metronomes. And it came more and more spontaneously, still is daily a very very big effort to do and you feel sometimes the stress of doing that.

ES: Riccardo, what adjustments do you need to make with modern instruments in order to achieve a viable balance. Because there are these old traditions of doubling everything which can make the sound very heavy and immobile if you like.

RC: The problem is that as soon as you do double the winds it changes the connotates of the language of Beethoven of the time and I am not in agreement with that at all so I have learned in my early years, in the ‘80s, from the time I was guest [conductor] in Cleveland [Orchestra] regularly, to study the score of George Szell of the Beethoven symphony. And that was a miracle of perfection, done in an incredibly meticulous and visual way, only with pencil colour, never red or blue, just normal pencil. They worked on balancing dynamics and there I documented myself, on my scores, a trace of what Szell did. That was for me very important to discover and later I realised how precious it was, because it works immediately. You can see that Szell was the direct consequence of the school of Klemperer and Gustav Mahler.

ES: Every piece as you’ve said in this cycle represents another stage in the revolution if you like. The Second Symphony for me has always exploded the Classical models, the outer movements particularly and it’s quite shocking. 

RC: You know what I feel conducting every so often this piece? The allegro, first movement, is all a kind of Beethoven meditation on the commendatore scene of Don Giovanni. More, because I tell you why, because it came to me completely irrational, there is no official notice, there is no official trace that this can be true, but on the orchestra playing, especially this part in minor, I sang on it the melody of the commendatore scene. They started laughing. They couldn’t believe their eyes, what I was singing of the commendatore scene, it matched perfectly this first allegro. So I think, the shed of Mozart and obviously Haydn is very present, but all in Beethoven development already, and pointing forward.

ES: The hugely misunderstood No. 4, which you and I both love I know, the slow movement of the Fourth, which again at the swifter tempo, you really get that cantabile feel to it, which again disappears if you take it too slow.

RC: You’re right, you risk to be chopped into a sort of metronomical in that sense, which is against the word metronome. Because the metronome pulse of Beethoven gives you clearly a sign ‘Maestro be courageous and beat it in broad three instead of chopped six’. Then when you take it this way, you get what you say, the horizontal line of this endless melody – melody without an end in this movement, but you have to have the courage to take that, literally.

ES: People don’t realise how you beat something changes the complexion of it.

RC: That’s very important. It took, every time I did it, I did it already as you know several times years ago. Every time I start the first rehearsal of the Fourth, the start of the second movement isn’t easier. Because I also conducting the sort of way - you will see when you come to the concert - I beat two quarter beats, not three, two quarter beats, and on the second I give a division of an eight. That is all on technical purpose. Because in there you have the general broad feeling, plus this vision of the ‘ya ta tim ta tim ta tim’ [sings music], so you see technical language which you have to explain and then give confidence to the orchestra. 

ES: There doesn’t seem to be anyone that Beethoven didn’t influence, the list is endless. As if to emphasise that fact, you’ve commissioned some new pieces to sit alongside the Beethoven Symphonies in this series. That’s a nice idea because it reminds us of just how, even today, this music is paramount.

RC: And the power of Beethoven language still to illuminate new composers of today, with new music into different directions. The idea was to have five different pieces in five different languages from five different countries, and we got it. I’m very proud of that, because they’re very interesting and you cannot see a brighter, bigger variety of different styles.

ES: As part of the residency there’s also an outreach programme, involving the orchestra with the community in London around the Barbican, the Guildhall campus. It’s so important isn’t it, to engage the audience of tomorrow because otherwise we’re going to be playing to nobody.

RC: Very important, and I think as all the medias still are a very important way to contact the new generations, but of course if you can contact the new generations, new association to come to live performances is even stronger. The impact of a Beethoven cycle I think can have incredible powers to the younger generation, the extreme younger generation, no doubt. I mean it still shocks us, people used to perform this music, we are all burnt from the powers of his genius so obviously it should have the charisma and the attraction to the new generation still.

ES: When you return to the Barbican in the future, what can we expect to hear? I believe perhaps Brahms is on the agenda.
RC: You’re right, we are very proud and pleased that Barbican will allow us to bring another of the so called ‘vier Heilige Bs’ – the four sacred Bs – of the tradition of the orchestra. One is Beethoven, the next will be Brahms, the four concertos and the four symphonies. So it’s a major project, we are very happy about that, as you know the other two Bs are Bach and Bruckner.

ES: I always hear a premonition of Bruckner in the beginning of the coda of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

RC: Oh yes, right, when it’s [sings]. Yes, absolutely, you can see that.

ES: Everything is connected. 

RC: It’s like he’s appearing there. Incredible, absolutely right.

BE: You’ve been listening to Riccardo Chailly, talking to Edward Seckerson back in 2014. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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