Acting as Advocate: Ingo Metzmacher and The Rake’s Progress [The Royal Opera, 22 January – 3 February 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the conductor and pianist who has carefully thought through the duties of being a musician…

Ingo Metzmacher. Photograph: Mathias Bothor

On grounds of sensitivity Germany’s role in the two world wars of the 20th-century is not a subject that one chooses to bring up when discussing music with someone who happens to be German. But when I talk to the conductor Ingo Metzmacher, currently at Covent Garden for the first revival of Robert Lepage’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, it is my interviewee who himself raises the subject. “You have to realise that through that Nazi period Germany not only lost a lot of brilliant scientists and philosophers but distinguished people in other spheres too, not least that of music. That field lost a lot of people, and in doing so it lost a tradition. People like Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber were not Jews, but they left because they had a clear vision that they could not work in a country like that. It would be reflected in their music-making and I think that in a broader sense this courage to stand for something was an attitude that got lost in Germany.”

Although these comments represent Ingo Metzmacher’s attitude to the situation he describes he is probably prompted to make them due to his admiration for a man with whom he worked early in his career when he was at the Frankfurt Opera House. “Michael Gielen was crucially important to me because he kept alive that German tradition that people tend to forget, that is the tradition that basically left Germany in 1933. He learnt his trade at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires where Busch, Kleiber and so many big names went. In the process he learnt a lot and after he came back he was an incredible music director in Frankfurt. He would defend the repertoire that he wanted to do and he would defend his theatre and I admired that a lot. It’s still very difficult to work like that in Germany, but I’ve always tried to follow his example, not least in Hamburg after I was appointed General Music Director there in 1997.”

Anne Trulove of the Royal Opera's The Rakes Progress. Photograph: Bill Cooper

Metzmacher’s admiration for these men who took a stand would certainly seem to have affected his own outlook for his attitudes are those of somebody who has given serious thought to the duties that go with being a conductor. This search for the right role to play in the musical world would seem to have started early. Since Ingo Metzmacher is the son of the late cellist Rudolf Metzmacher music played a part in his life from his earliest days. His own instrument was – and remains – the piano, and his father was never his teacher. But Ingo nevertheless learnt a lot from his father, both from the latter’s attitude to music and from overheard remarks when he gave lessons at home. When talking about his father, Metzmacher’s tone is fond indeed, but in the process he evokes an earlier and different world, not surprisingly since Rudolf Metzmacher was born in 1906. “When my father was growing up music was really needed. There was no gramophone or radio but he would play in cinemas and in bars where they would have music in the evening. Just as some people pick up soccer by playing in the street he learnt music by doing it, and he would play at home for fun including string quartets with friends. He would just go for it: there was none of this approach to rehearsing where you hear people saying ‘Three bars before B’ or ‘Bar 24, the upbeat’. No, he’d say ‘Go back a bit and I’ll find it’ because he knew the music and could just find the way to join in.”

Adolescence is frequently a time of rebellion and in an interview a few years ago Ingo Metzmacher referred to the way in which he reacted against his father, an attitude that found him criticising his father for playing music by the likes of Max Reger although today Metzmacher is more open to what he finds. “I did a piece by Reger last year, his Symphonic Prologue for a Tragedy, which I liked very much so I’m slowly finding my way back to that.” In any case if there was a conflict of outlook it was beneficial. “Maybe it was a rebellion but it was a search to find my own way and I discovered this enormous field of modern music and recognised that it was for me.”

The Royal Opera's The Rakes Progress. Photograph: Bill Cooper

There’s no doubt about the importance of 20th-century music to Ingo Metzmacher and he has indeed written a book expressing his passion for such pioneers as Nono, Ives, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Varèse, Stockhausen and Cage. But he is also noted for his enthusiasm for composers who could loosely be called ‘late romantics’. A key moment in his career came in 1988 when he conducted Franz Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) in Brussels and his Covent Garden debut a year ago was its staging of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. However, any attempt to pigeonhole Ingo’s preferred territory is likely to be misleading. His latest book published in Germany surveys four centuries of opera and goes back as far as Monteverdi while also covering fourteen other composers. “As a German I have to say that for me Brahms is very, very important – and I love Schubert.”

Metzmacher’s reference to Schubert is hardly unexpected because a recently released recording finds him accompanying Matthias Goerne in Schubert songs. In point of fact Ingo studied the piano before turning his attention some four or five years later to conducting but, as he explains to me, this is not unusual in Germany. “The professional way to become a Kapellmeister in Germany has always been to start with the piano. People like Furtwängler and Klemperer played the piano and you have to go through the opera – that too is the traditional way. So if you play the piano and do chamber music and accompany songs there is always the possibility of going to an opera house and developing a career as a conductor. Initially I’m not sure that I was so determined to become a conductor, especially since I had the luck to play piano in the Ensemble Modern. But they became a professional group and moved to Frankfurt just when I was offered a post at the Frankfurt Opera which at that time was the most modern company in Europe. So that was very lucky and now I both conduct and play. I never thought of becoming a concert pianist – to play alone on a stage would kill me I think – but I did have a long term dream of working with singers and it was wonderful that Matthias should ask me to accompany him. I would like to do more of that because when you are actually producing music yourself it’s so different from conducting where you depend entirely on the goodwill and trust of the players.”

Franz Konwitschny

As his conducting career progressed Ingo Metzmacher found inspiration not only from Michael Gielen but from the director Peter Konwitschny with whom he worked at the Hamburg Opera. “Being the son of the conductor Franz Konwitschny who was with the Gewandhaus Orchestra made for a very, very close relationship with Peter since we understood each other very well and I loved opera work, that sphere where music connects with theatre”. Ingo’s time in Hamburg from 1997 to 2005 gave him the grand title of General Music Director of the City of Hamburg and his present post with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin finds him the artistic director as well as the principal conductor. Is that extra role important to him? “Yes, because I can programme composers and works not sufficiently heard. I believe that it’s a great responsibility of conductors to do good programmes: they have a lot of influence and should use it. I always like to present music which is neglected or unjustifiably not played and I like to create a context in which ears and minds can be opened. In Moscow recently I paired the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony with Wagner and with Karl Amadeus Hartmann and that introduced them to Hartmann, a composer never heard in Moscow. As for my enthusiasm for modern music, such pieces in the concert hall may mean that the audience has to work harder but I think that we too have to work more to get the pieces across. That’s why I write and why I sometimes use the format of concerts in which I explain music to the public. I try all sorts of things. I believe in the emotion that such music can generate in performance and that’s what I want to achieve. Sometimes that quality is more hidden in modern music and you have to get deeply involved to find it – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”

Several of his comments suggest that in deciding what is involved for him in being a conductor Ingo Metzmacher has taken on the mantle of an advocate as was the case when he recorded all of Hartmann’s symphonies in the 1990s. Stravinsky and his opera The Rake’s Progress are less in need of advocacy, but Ingo’s enthusiasm for this composer (another pioneer one might say) and for this particular work are self-evident. Seeing that this opera derives from Hogarth and utilises a musical style that is both modern (only Stravinsky could have written it) and a reflection of earlier styles (Mozart in particular was an acknowledged influence), one might ponder the extent to which this composition from 1951 links with the neo-classical mode of some of Stravinsky’s orchestral works. Ingo Metzmacher, however sees each composition as its own thing. “Stravinsky himself indicated that for every piece he more or less marked out a field and would then invent some rules for that space, a game-plan you might say. I think that what he had in common with Mozart was an interest in playing with the elements involved in such a way that they would be thrown together and each time it would come out a little different. That makes for incredibly lovely music and I admire him for it. Also he was so economical, with every note set with such conviction and precision.

Ingo Metzmacher. Photograph: Mathias Bothor

“In the case of The Rake you can hear its relationship to Mozart starting with the size of the orchestra and the instrumentation. The recitatives show how he borrows and works on an old language, but it’s never a case of three bars that quote from that language followed by two bars of Stravinsky. Instead the old is woven in, yet it still sounds very much like Stravinsky: he is not rebuilding an old world but inviting you to look back on it through his eyes and that reflection of Mozart and his times is incredibly interesting and refreshing. That was within the field he chose for this work and once he devised a game-plan for a work he would never step out of it. He marks it very clearly and then within those limits he will play in every corner of the field and he will find all kinds of combinations which makes it very rich.”

If the musical idiom reflects different periods, so too does the plot, for if the inspiration came from Hogarth the Faustian pact that the ambitious Tom Rakewell makes with Nick Shadow seems timeless and additionally there’s an element akin to ancient myth that comes into play when on losing out the diabolical Nick evokes magical powers to revenge himself on Tom by making him go mad. Ingo acknowledges these levels but puts his own emphasis on the issue of Tom’s fate. “His madness gives Stravinsky the opportunity to write the most touching music. All his life Stravinsky suffered the criticism that his music was not emotional enough, but when Tom’s girlfriend Anne visits him and he believes that he is Adonis and she is Venus it’s a heartbreaking scene and it completely refutes that criticism.”

In passing we touch on the fact that this Covent Garden production relocates the piece to America. It’s a setting that brings Copland to mind but when we speak Metzmacher has yet to see the full set. Nevertheless he informs me that thus far they have decided not to be influenced in such matters as pronunciation by the Americanisation. We mention too the ending of the work which supports in an unusual way Ingo’s belief that while music can be fun it needs to have a deeper meaning also. Here there is a direct delivery of the opera’s message to the audience from the stage but it comes after the lights have gone up and when you might think that the work is over. “Yes: the idea that the devil finds work for idle hands is said to be ‘for you and you and you’ thus implicating the audience. And then you have a final Hollywood chord at the end: it’s fantastic.”

Finally in discussing The Rake’s Progress and its blend of the ancient and the modern we touch on the role of the harpsichord. “There’s that crucial scene in the graveyard where the cembalo is not used as an accompanying instrument but is allowed to take over the music while the orchestra falls silent. Knowing Stravinsky as I do – or think I do – a very clear decision was taken there.” Arguably inviting the audience to concentrate on one instrument adds to the intensity of this scene and, given the fact that in the earlier recitatives the harpsichord has been used in its traditional mode, there’s the bonus of contrast and surprise while the sound of it is so dramatic that it alters one’s ideas of what the instrument can do. It’s certainly a moment to prompt thought about Stravinsky and his methods. “He’s a composer who when you think you understand him is already in another place. I like that.”


  • Six performances at 7.30 p.m., on January 22, 26, 28 & 30, and February 1 & 3
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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