Talking Heads: Christian Gerhaher

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Interview with Ben Hogwood

Arcana is fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to talk with Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has been singing in Salzburg with friends when we speak. It is the morning after, and in spite of a gruelling concert including major song cycles by Berlioz and Schoeck, he sounds invigorated on the other end of the telephone. “It was a very difficult program, but with some fantastic works”, he enthuses. “We did a new string sextet version of the Berlioz cycle Les nuits d’été, arranged by David Matthews, which was really wonderful. I was performing with the best musicians imaginable – Isabelle Faust, Anna Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

The composer bringing us together for this conversation, however, is Robert Schumann. Together with his long-term musical partner, pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has completed a mammoth project recording the composer’s songs (or ‘Lieder’) for voice and piano. The result is an 11-CD set released this month by Sony Classical, the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication. Christian receives my congratulations on the pair’s achievement with characteristic warmth. “Thank you very much. Yesterday I got the box, and it was touching because we have worked for such a long time, and so intensely, to achieve this!”

Gerhaher is an engaging interviewee, generous with his answers. We begin by casting his mind back to see if he can recall his very first encounter with the Lieder of Schumann? “Yes – it was a recital by the baritone Hermann Prey. He was performing Dichterliebe, and the Kerner songs. I was especially touched by Dichterliebe, which was a kind of upbeat for my work with Gerold in the Lieder repertoire.”

What was it about the composer’s music that drew him in? “Schumann is very well known now, with titles like Dichterliebe or the Eichendorff cycle, the Heine cycle Liederkreis Op.24, and the Kerner songs, maybe Myrthen, the Op.25”, he recounts, “but I discovered that there are so many songs, 299 in all! I got so completely involved in Schumann singing. I was always addicted to his piano music when I was young, but then I found out that every song, when Gerold and I did them for the first time, was amazing and so full of possible meaning. It would have been so sad to leave these songs undiscovered. We make our repertoire bigger and bigger, if possible, but then came this opportunity of recording, and we thought it was the perfect way to get to know Schumann as well as possible. I must say apart from one or two songs I love them all. I can’t say there is one weak song. In the first ‘Liederjahr’ (Schumann’s first ‘Year of Song’) in 1840, where he happened to deliver 140 masterworks from nothing, there is no song there that is boring, bad or strange. It’s just incredible what a pianist like him could deliver out of no development, from the beginning it was perfect. The 1850 songs are the same. It’s amazing.”

His wonder at Schumann is only enhanced by these lesser-known songs, and our conversation alights on the set of six Gesänge published as Op.107, an intimate and emotional set. “They are”, he agrees. “What I thought quite early on with Gerold is that there is a cyclic idea behind each of Schumann’s opus numbers. Altogether there are 45 separate lieder opuses. Two of them are complete opuses with one song only (Der Handschuh and Belsatzar) but the rest are cycles. We had a very interesting idea concerning these cycles, which is that the form of each is always different. You have so many different ways of completing a song cycle, in the narrative. You have the Kerner songs, and you have the fantastic wedding gift of Myrthen, which speaks for itself as a song cycle, but there are also cycles which are conceived just for one work. The four books of Myrthen always end with two songs by the same poet, like two people standing together at the end of a book – a loving couple.”

He finds another example. “You also have the Op.83, which is an opus reflecting the number ‘3’. There are three songs, and the last song for example, which is a perfect strophic song, is reflecting the trinity of God. You have the three forms of songs – a strophic strong, a very strophic song, and a through composed song, which is the first one. Then you have the number three in people – a loving couple who decide to have a child in the middle of no.2. These go on and on, it is astonishing.”

Gerhaher’s partnership with Gerold Huber (above) exists on wholly equal terms. “Certainly, it is never a case of piano accompaniment. Gerold is a ‘Lied pianist’, not an accompanist. For me it is one of the major achievements of my life, like having a wife that I love, to have Gerold as my best friend. We have been working together for 33 years now!”

It must have been special for the two embarking on this particular voyage of discovery together. “Yes. It was demanding, though,” he says with understatement, “and you have to decide which songs you would add to the recording and those where you think do not match what you were expecting to record. When we had to choose other singers to do the work you can’t do yourself it was really a big mountain to climb, but it was one of the major achievements of my life.”

The guest singers tend to appear on the songs where more than one vocalist is required, or where the range goes beyond that of a baritone. How were they chosen? “By sympathy and by professional admiration,” he says, “but what I like very much is not to choose singers for a quartet or trio that have very similar voices. That is a very important thing to think about, getting the ensemble right. I like to have very different voices, like a light tenor or a soprano, and an alto which is darker. Having different voices is very important in an ensemble because the identity of a voice and person with a sung role is important, to keep this identity as strong as possible. It vanishes in comparison with a solo song, but I did not want a perfect unity in the quartet songs.”

When preparing their interpretations, Gerhaher was mindful of the lives of the poets whose text Schumann was setting. “Yes, certainly”, he says warmly. “How could I not be? Some of the poets are quite unknown, so it was a curiosity that led to nothing because the information did not always give me any advantage. The other thing is that Schumann as an artist didn’t, in my eyes, try to perfectly match the possible meaning of the text he was putting into music. That means he never tries to understand a poem entirely, in the way of noting down the certain meaning. I understand literary lyricism as an open field of thoughts and associations which are not strictly written. There are many possible meanings coming together and not being nailed down with a solution. This is what Schumann does, and he even adds something to the lyricism by obliterating some possible meanings, or bending the meaning of a poem to make it more complicated than it is. He does this not only by putting a poem into music but sometimes by combining poems into his cycles, as combinations which have no relation to each other.”

He gives an example. “In the Op.96 the second song, called Schneeglöckchen, is about one of the first flowers coming out after winter. They are tiny, white flowers, with a small green line on the end of the blossoms. The song is about a winter storm coming in and saying to the Schneeglöckchen, ‘Look, you have to vanish – the storm is coming, and you can’t survive here. The song says, you have such a strange uniform, white with this green strip. The poet is anonymous, and you don’t really know what the whole song is about – it’s a total mystery.” He has a solution. “It’s not about springtime, or the end of winter, but I thought about the colours of the flower in uniforms of old soldiers. I found one uniform of a Hanover group of soldiers, fighting alongside England in the seven-year war of the 1750s. There was one battle in the East of Germany where the Austrians were pushing them away from south to north. They had to flee, and I assume there was a soldier, one of them wounded, and they told him ‘Come with us, we can’t stay here’. He couldn’t, because he was wounded, and was like this strange Schneeglöckchen which couldn’t flee to the north. Why should a Schneeglöckchen flee to the north? If anything it should flee to the south. It’s so complicated, so strange, and so full of mystery and even nonsense. This is what I love with Schumann’s songs and understanding of poetry. He doesn’t deliver a solution – he makes it complicated.”

Gerhaher is a compelling speaker. With Schumann’s music so wholly absorbed in his own consciousness, does he think the approach he described appeals to audiences? “Yes, though you can’t always explain the complications by words, or even explain the meaning. You just show them how complicated music, art and poetry is. There’s nothing to be understood easily in coming to one meaning, like in opera maybe. It’s not a concrete art, it is more abstract.”

He trained with one of the greatest Lieder singers of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This great German baritone recorded much of Schumann’s Lieder output for Deutsche Grammophon, though Gerhaher did not spend too much time listening to his mentor’s interpretations. “Certainly I had some different ideas. He was on one hand my hero, but our purpose was different. The cyclic intention of Schumann is what we think is important to us. Dietrich was taking songs out of opuses that he thought he could sing well, and others he neglected, which is against the cyclic idea. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we are right, it’s just our idea of how to perform them.”

He cites another set of the complete songs, curated by Graham Johnson for Hyperion. “He did the entire songs, but he was choosing different singers for song cycles. For my eyes I would rather cast them with one singer to keep the identity of thought. We have our own ideas, and I think they are important to ourselves, not to the truth as such.”

As they recorded more of Schumann’s work, how did their feelings towards the composer develop – and in particular the struggles he experienced with his mental health? “Schumann was always in my eyes a perfect artist, or the image of an artist. An idea which I got later on is that you have these two different groups of songs – the songs with one person singing, and the songs with different people singing. I think the illusion of a voice representing the lyrical ego of singing a song, which is an illusion of a story going on, on a stage, that is easily understood by everyone as an illusion, this disappears immediately when several people are singing together. The singularity of one fabric is vanishing, so you have two different possibilities of song. You have the songs I recorded and sing for one person, which are in Schumann’s case representing his world of emotion, his difficult world of depression where he was getting sicker and sicker. The other world, with these many people singing together, has a very special sweetness sometimes – you could say it’s on the border of being kitschy. This made me think of Schumann conceiving these song cycles as a perfect and unproblematic world which he doesn’t live in, but which he wishes for himself. It’s two layers of life, very differently handled by him. This is my idea, I can’t prove it!”

In Christian’s view, what are the qualities required to be a successful Schumann singer? “I would say everyone can do it as they want, as they feel. Certainly for me, being a good singer with my own purposes would mean to have a lot of colour. This is the advantage of singing alone as opposed to other people at the same time. The other thing is the pronunciation of the German language in Schumann songs is especially important. I would say all these layers of colour add to the occasion, to the author as a kind of painting with many colours. You can only deliver them if the pronunciation, as a first instance of colourisation, is done in a perfect way. That means the pronunciation and the understanding of sung words in German is very much depending on the right vowel.”

Finally, as Gerhaher moves towards his next interview, what are his favourite instrumental pieces by our chosen composer? “I admire EVERYTHING by Schumann,” he says warmly, “but there are some pieces without which I can’t imagine a meaningful life: Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the Violin Concerto, and of course the piano works. I think especially of the Symphonische Etüden, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen, Intermezzi, 7 Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Gesänge der Frühe, and the Geistervariationen.” With that he moves on – leaving us with a remarkable legacy of Lieder recordings to enjoy.

Alle Lieder, the box set of Schumann’s complete songs, is out now on Sony Classical – and you can listen to any of the 299 songs on Spotify here:

You can also watch Christian Gerhaher singing his Salzburg program of Berlioz and Schoeck in this concert stream from the Wigmore Hall in London, which also includes a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht:

Igor Levit plays the Adagio from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata

As part of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Igor Levit has recorded the 32 piano sonatas, a highly acclaimed set released on Sony Classical late last year.

They are sure to form an integral part of our listening as Arcana navigates Beethoven’s complete output, but for now you can enjoy the timeless Adagio from the Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, known as the Pathétique, which Sony have released today:

Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here

On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)

Summary

Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify