Prophet Without UK Honour – Jonathan Nott Interview

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

British-born Jonathan Nott is Principal Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain. With the Bamberg Symphony he records for Tudor, and will lead the orchestra to a five-concert residency at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival. Nott’s considerable reputation in Europe is now being discovered in the country of his birth…

At a hotel table overlooking the Thames, the evening before his debut with the London Philharmonic in music by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Strauss, Jonathan Nott reflects on the changing face of the capital that always surprises him on his visits. “I’m constantly taken aback at the new developments, almost as if I’d never set foot in London before. But I’m always hearing about the amazing acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and haven’t yet managed to attend a performance there!”

Not surprising, perhaps, when one considers just how much Nott has made Western Europe his base since the late 1980s. Born in Solihull in 1963, he moved to Worcester four years later and began his musical life as a cathedral chorister. Along with the flute, singing remained Nott’s main focus during his years at Clare College, Cambridge, from where he embarked on postgraduate vocal studies at the National Opera Studio in London. Already, however, conducting was starting to absorb his time. “There’s an aspect to singing where it pays to understand what’s happening on the other side – or, rather, down in the pit. I learnt opera scores between vocal sessions – initially for the sake of context, but it was the bigger picture that soon began to fascinate me. Maybe there was also a growing sense that I just wasn’t cut out for professional singing, and that it would make sense to have a career back-up. At any rate, the shift in emphasis went ahead quite rapidly once it started.”

After Nott had made his conducting debut at the Opera Festival in Battignano in 1988, events proceeded apace. The following year, he was appointed Kapellmeister at Frankfurt Opera and, in 1991, First Kapellmeister at the Hessian National Theater, Wiesbaden – becoming interim Chief Music Director for the 1995-96 season. The range of opera he conducted during that time is typical of the training that the Austro-German system has long provided, and culminated with a “Ring” cycle in 1996. “It’s daunting to take on this most ambitious work in Western musical culture, but equally good to have got it behind you. And the time I’d spent translating the text and learning the vocal score when a postgraduate student certainly stood me in good stead.”

In 1997, Nott became Music Director of the Lucerne Theatre and Principal Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, enabling him to build a similar expertise in concert repertoire and involve himself with the annual music festival there. “The Lucerne Festival is a little like that in Edinburgh in its inclusiveness, with contemporary music seen as a necessary continuation of what went before and not just ‘bolted on’ out of a sense of duty”. Lucerne remains his home base and a city close to his heart, though his conducting activities soon shifted westwards. In August 2000, he succeeded David Robertson as Principal Conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and from the current season is the ensemble’s Chief Guest Conductor. “As in my work with the ASKO Ensemble during the early ‘90s, I’ve tried to strike a balance between avant-garde classics and music that comes after the ‘high noon’ of Modernism, as well as continuing the policy of commissions that has to be the raison d’être of all new music groups.”

The most significant event in Nott’s career thus far came in January 2000 – with his taking up the post of Principal Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. “I arrived at a difficult time in that Horst Stein, the orchestra’s previous Principal Conductor, had been increasingly kept from his duties through ill health. And though Ingo Metzmacher oversaw several major tours and recordings in his four years as Principal Guest Conductor, he wasn’t involved in the day to day decision-making that’s required of a Principal Conductor if he’s to pursue the artistic direction he believes necessary. The last few years have been hard financially, but we’ve now come to an agreement with the Bavarian authorities that should ensure long-term stability. The new title, Bavarian State Philharmonic, indicates the orchestra’s status in the region, and gives us a basis from which to develop artistically.”

While London has yet to hear the Nott/Bamberg partnership in action, Edinburgh responded enthusiastically to their two concerts at the 2003 International Festival – where wonderfully cohesive and insightful performances of Strauss and Bruckner rubbed shoulders with the UK premiere of Helmut Lachenmann’s Nun. “Lachenmann isn’t a composer much known in the UK but, having performed several major works and given the premiere of Nun at Cologne in 1999, I’m convinced his music is very much in the lineage of the Austro-German tradition. Time will hopefully bear me out on that, but I was gratified at the positive response that Nun received in Edinburgh, while the warmth which greeted our concerts overall felt like a vindication of everything that we’d been working towards over the previous three years.”

Warmth that will no doubt be repeated when the orchestra assumes its week-long residency at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. A concert performance of “Tristan und Isolde” is planned, and with works ranging from Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, the repertoire looks to be varied and intriguing. “I’ve tried to programme these concerts as an overall sequence, highlighting some significant aspects of Western music over the last 250 years – and not forgetting the orchestra’s performance strengths in the process. Hopefully, questions will emerge such as what constitutes the barrier between music and noise, if indeed one exists, and how we hear the music of the past from the vantage of the present. Can we get back to the music of Mozart, Beethoven et al by means of performance practice and, were this so, isn’t it going against the spirit of the music in terms of what makes it relevant to musicians and audiences today?”

Nott’s discography takes in an equally wide range. How many conductors, for instance, have recorded Ferneyhough and Finzi? Nott gave the premiere of Brian Ferneyhough’s Terrain in 1992, and a subsequent performance can be found on a disc devoted to his music, as can Riti neurali by Luca Francesoni on a disc similarly focussed on this important composer of the middle generation. Both works feature the inimitable virtuosity of violinist Irvine Arditti, and the collaboration continued on a disc of Berio, Xenakis and Rafáel Mira-Fornés with the Moscow Philharmonic. His work with the Lucerne Symphony has so far resulted in two discs: clarinettist Dmitri Ashkenazy joins them in concertos by Copland, Finzi and Eugene Bozza, while violinist Stefan Tönz features in Weill, Egon Wellesz and Rudi Stefan. The premiere of Lachenmann’s Nun, which Nott admits was exacting to rehearse but a joy when it came together in performance, features the West German Radio Symphony. The Ensemble Intercontemporain association can be sampled on a DVD that includes the likely best and worst of John Adams, alongside pieces by Steve Reich and Conlon Nancarrow.

Most significant, however, is Nott’s contribution to “The Ligeti Project” on Teldec. Volume 2 features the four orchestral works that define much about the composer’s development during 1959-74, together with the nonchalant Concert Românesc banned by the Hungarian authorities in 1951 and only latterly revived. “That piece has been a hit wherever I’ve played it and, were it not so uncharacteristic of the composer Ligeti was to become, I’d say it should be a mainstay of the modern repertoire. Of the other pieces, only Apparitions is a studio recording; all the others are live performances, and I’m particularly pleased that we did Lontano in this way, as it has an intensity and concentration that would have been impossible to recapture under studio conditions”. Volume 4 features the Requiem – one of Ligeti’s seminal works, in only its second appearance on disc. “We took the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Dies irae’ from live performances, then recorded the ‘Requiem aeternam’ and ‘Lachrymosa’ in the studio. While the extreme quietness of the outer sections doesn’t respond to audience presence, the electricity elsewhere makes me regret that recording them live wasn’t an option”. Nott has no doubt as to Ligeti’s importance in the present era. “I can’t imagine not programming his work; it’s central to my understanding of what music is about on a number of levels.”

An agreement with the Swiss label Tudor recently brought Nott and the Bamberg Symphony into the studio for a major series of recordings. Of the discs so far released, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was a featured work in the first Bamberg Symphony Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition held last year, while attendees of the Edinburgh Festival concerts will recall hearing Bruckner’s Third Symphony – as performed in its original 1873 version. Two discs of Schubert symphonies respectively couple the Second and Fourth, and the First, Third and ‘Seventh’ – as the Unfinished is numbered in German-speaking countries. With the latter, Nott elected to record the fully-scored opening bars of the aborted scherzo: “It’s 20 seconds of music which listeners can programme out if desired, but discovering the quality of what Schubert wrote has altered my perceptions of the symphony’s incompleteness, and I thought it was worth giving others the chance to hear it too.”

The remaining disc furthers the Schubert theme with ‘inspired by’ pieces from several contemporary composers – including Luciano Berio, whose Rendering is an imaginative treatment of sketches intended for the Viennese master’s putative ‘Tenth Symphony’. “This goes back to my feelings about authenticity. In the context of our Schubert cycle, it might have made sense to record a more straightforward realisation of these sketches, but I can’t help thinking that if we’re to come to an understanding of this music, then we need to approach it from a ‘turn of the 21st century’ perspective. Berio does this in unequivocal yet compelling terms, and shows the Mahlerian pre-echoes of this music in the most constructive light. I think Rendering is one of his major achievements, and I hope our recording makes a positive contribution to its wider recognition”. Further recordings, scheduled for later this year, will include a second disc of Schubert-inspired works, a collection of Stravinsky’s orchestral music, and a Janáček disc featuring the Sinfonietta and a little-heard Second Suite from “The Cunning Little Vixen” – as well as the two remaining instalments of the Schubert cycle. Tudor is soon to be distributed in the United Kingdom by Codaex UK, and the discs are obtainable directly from Tudor via its website. Those who value thoughtful and provocative music-making are urged to seek then out.

Nott, meanwhile, is busier than ever – with guest appearances planned in Amsterdam and Munich and a US tour with the Bamberg Symphony that took place in early May … and, of course, their Edinburgh residency. His contract with the orchestra currently extends until 2007, “and may run beyond that. Now that the most pressing economic issues have been settled, I can’t imagine wanting to pursue a relationship with the orchestra other than in the long term”. Would he like the opportunity to conduct more concerts in the UK? “Certainly. Rehearsals with the London Philharmonic have gone well, and I’m sure the concert will turn out successfully. These days, I’ve a curious sense of ‘just visiting’ when I return to the UK, which no doubt reflects how much of an overseas resident I’ve become. That said, it would be good to return for professional as well as family reasons.”

Indeed, there can be little doubt that, from the current crop of British conductors, Jonathan Nott is a prophet without honour in his own country. Hopefully the coming months will reverse this, with his UK appearances becoming anticipated fixtures on the concert calendar. Just announced is a BBC Symphony Orchestra date on 18 February 2006 at the Barbican – symphonies by Haydn and Schubert, a piece by Henze, and a premiere from Simon Holt.

Jonathan Nott Discography:

Ferneyhough: Terrain [with Arditti/ASKO Ens]

Auvidis Montaigne MO 782029 (September 1993)

Francesconi: Riti neurali [with Arditti/ASKO Ens]

Auvidis Montaigne MO 782032 (September 1993)

Berio: Corale / Mira-Fornés: Desde Tan Tien / Xenakis: Dox-Orkh [with Arditti/Moscow PO]

BIS BIS-CD-772 (March 11 & 14, 1996)

Bozza/Copland/Finzi: Clarinet Concertos [with Ashkenazy/Lucerne SO]
Pan Classics 510 107 (February 1998)

Stephan: Music for Violin and Orchestra / Wellesz: Suite for Violin and Chamber Orchestra / Weill: Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra [with Tönz/Lucerne SO]

Pan Classics 510 109 (March 1999)

Lachenmann: Nun [with Riet/Svoboda/Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart/WDR SO Cologne]

Kairos 0012142KAI (15-20 October 15-20)

Adams: Gnarly Buttons; Chamber Symphony / Nancarrow: Two Studies / Reich: Eight Lines [with Trouttet/Ens Intercontemporain]

Arthaus Musik 100 322 (2000) [DVD]

Ligeti: Concert Românesc / Apparitions / Atmosphères / Lontano / San Francisco Polyphony [with Berlin PO]

Teldec 8573-88261-2 (13-16 December 2001)

Ligeti: Requiem [with Stein/Van Reisen/London Voices/Berlin PO]

Teldec 8573-88263-2 (8-11 November 2002)

“Schubert Epilog” – Works by Berio / Henze / Reimann / Schwertsik / Zender [with Süss/Bamberg Chor/Bamberg SO]

Tudor 7131 (18-19 July 2002; 2-3 January, 28 February & 19 March, 2003)

Mahler: Symphony No.5 [with Bamberg SO]

Tudor 7126 (15-19 September 2003)

Bruckner: Symphony No.3 (1873 version) [with Bamberg SO]

Tudor CD 7133 (2-4 December 2003)

Schubert: Symphonies Nos.1, 3 & ‘7’ [with Bamberg SO]

Tudor CD 7141 (24-25 & 27-28 March & 15-16 December 2003)

Schubert: Symphonies Nos.2 & 4 [with Bamberg SO]

Tudor CD 7142 (25-26 March & 18-19 December 2003)

1 thought on “Prophet Without UK Honour – Jonathan Nott Interview”

  1. A message from someone who like yourself started musically as a coral chorister (Winchester Cathedral) but whose later career took to the stage and tv instead as an actor. Having just watched your taking the OSR through Stravinsky’s ‘Sacre’ I am completely foxed why nor name is not written in lights in the country of your birth.
    Could there have been a more committed performance? I doubt it. In any event, you are now strongly on my musical radar, and I extend my best wishes both to yourself and to Ansermet’s orchestra that I grew up with on 12″ discs all those years ago.
    JOHN DUCKER aka ‘John Leeson’ in terms of my profession.

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