Be Not Afraid – Ingo Metzmacher

Written by: Colin Anderson

The title is a spin on concerts that Ingo Metzmacher and the Hamburg Philharmonic have been performing at each year-end for several seasons now: Who is Afraid of 20th Century Music? “We can have fun with 20th-century music,” says Ingo. Four related CDs have been issued and a fifth is imminent. Distribution is, unfortunately, limited, but are listing these releases. Or try or fax Hamburg Opera’s CD shop (+49 40 35 68 532).

Ingo Metzmacher’s in London for a Festival Hall concert on Saturday the 24th with the London Philharmonic. “I love coming back to them. Last time it was another Shostakovich symphony, number four. Four plus four makes eight!” Yes, this time Ingo is conducting Shostakovich No.8, a big, demonstrative wartime piece. “I approach it as a symphony, but it has a particular meaning. I do not want to detach myself from that.” And so apposite now given wars and terrorism are omnipresent? “It was written for its time. I would hesitate to transport it to any other context. It’s the deeper meaning of music that has consolation in the end.”

Such sentiments link to the concert’s first work, …but all shall be well, by Thomas Adès, which, like the Shostakovich, suggests optimism at its close. “The title says it. Sometimes you programme pieces and only later realise how good it was!” Metzmacher has previously conducted Adès’s imaginative Asyla in London and has recorded his These Premises are Alarmed on one of those Who’s Afraid? CDs. “Adès really knows what he’s doing. There’s not a note that is not meaningful. It’s always challenging to do pieces by him because you have to really work it out, otherwise the right colours and effects don’t come out.” (NB Adès’s Covent Garden commission, The Tempest, premieres on February 10. And there’s an EMI Adès CD, 5568182, which includes Asyla and …but all shall be well.)

Ingo Metzmacher is an adventurous conductor who believes in being accessible; his championing of 20th-century music includes both the fun side and the more challenging stuff. His programmes mix mainstream and new repertoire. And, he’s not a showman; his emphasis is on the music – “that’s it exactly. I will not change my mind on this!” That defiant statement is delivered with a slight if telling crescendo! Thus Metzmacher continues the line of his conducting heroes, not least Otto Klemperer and Michael Gielen – the latter is long overdue a return to London.

The LPO concert continues time-honoured Mahler and Shostakovich connections. “I think Shostakovich learnt quite a bit from Mahler, the concept of a symphony as a big statement; of course the language is completely different. The music contains their very personal experiences.” I suggest that Shostakovich perhaps put too much of his circumstances into his music. “Actually I can’t have enough Shostakovich. It has tremendous power, and the language touches me – motoric, violent and, on the other side, very lonely.” Such descriptions sum-up his eighth symphony. The Mahler here is several Wunderhorn songs with baritone Matthias Goerne. “He’s very impressive. These songs really move you a lot; they’ve lost none of their original force.” If you like Mahler’s symphonies, do seek out the eight of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, which Metzmacher has recorded on EMI 5569112 (3 CDs).

One of Ingo Metzmacher’s aims is to expand the repertoire, to make so-thought difficult music something regular and accepted – “to the widest public you can reach, otherwise it’s a dead-end street.” I compliment Metzmacher on his ability to align seemingly diverse music – to sugar the pill, which gets a laugh. “I think it’s more about seducing, making people curious. People should, as long as they are alive, be curious; you just have to make them curious to experience something they haven’t experienced before, and hope that they trust you to lead this experience.”

The resolute Metzmacher certainly has my vote: his concerts are always interesting and satisfying, inviting and thoughtful, his repertoire choices extensive and focussed. More please!

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