Riccardo Chailly in London

Written by: Colin Anderson

When Riccardo Chailly brings his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to London’s Royal Festival Hall next Friday for a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, he will do so without apology. “I believe in what Cooke and Goldschmidt have done – this is the last masterpiece of Mahler. I take it with conviction having conducted the whole universe of Mahler – the Tenth really belongs to Mahler until the last bar.”

When Mahler died in 1911 he left his Tenth Symphony unfinished but complete from first bar to last in short score, sometimes just one line. Despite there being, according to Chailly, fourteen different versions of Mahler 10 (four by the late Deryck Cooke himself), Chailly clarifies that “the one we are performing now has all the amendments that Maestro Goldschmidt wanted included”. The also late Berthold Goldschmidt conducted the premiere of Cooke’s First Performing Version in the ’sixties, and his views have been incorporated into Cooke’s final version by Colin Matthews.

For Chailly, the Tenth’s “process of development, getting clearer, simpler and the most unglamorous orchestration is absolutely fascinating.”

Chailly first conducted Mahler’s Tenth in the eighties, and made a recording with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (recently re-issued on a single CD by Decca). This, it should be noted, is texturally different to the ’definitive’ one he’s now playing (which Chailly hopes to record in a few years time after the cycle proper has been completed – Symphonies 2, 3, 8 & 9 and Das Lied von der Erde to come). Chailly says that in the latest version some percussion has been deleted and there are a number of harmonic corrections and orchestration changes. Incidentally, Chailly feels no need to make any emendations of his own to this Cooke/Goldschmidt/Matthews collaborative edition.

Chailly cites the “richness of parts, the scrupulous attention to detail from Cooke” and particularly praises Cooke’s “non-ego in this process,” appreciating the “simplicity and spontaneity” of Cooke’s approach. Where might Mahler have gone had he lived to complete the Tenth? “I think the answer is given by the famous vertical cluster of ten pitches [in the outer movements], which makes it clear he was getting close to the twelve-tone system.”

Chailly’s recent Mahler 4 (like all his recordings, for Decca) was notable for the conductor opting for antiphonal violins. For the Tenth also? “No! We use it for the Mahler Symphonies except for the Tenth because this did not belong at the time of Willem Mengelberg, to the performing practice of Mahler in Amsterdam. We perform the classical stuff from Bach to Beethoven and the Mahler Symphonies like this but not the Tenth; the normal setting of the Concertgebouw is not with divided violins.”

Given the huge Mahler tradition of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, I wondered if there had been any opposition from players about performing music that was not wholly from Mahler’s hand. Although Chailly acknowledges that the Tenth is “only now becoming part of our new tradition… there is complete conviction from the orchestra that this music is so great… it’s too much of a great piece to be discussed”. They play it again next season; the third consecutive season the Tenth has been included. In any case Chailly feels that discussion on Mahler 10 is “out of place because of Mahler’s detailed orchestration and the construction of the piece from A-Z is very clear – written through by himself.”

I ask Chailly if he’s ever discussed with a Mahler colleague who doesn’t conduct the whole Tenth as to why. He hasn’t but speculates that “the general attitude is fear… too much unknown and also the complexity: let’s not forget the second movement is a struggle, it’s a neurotic movement where the Landler is cut into uneven beats… very difficult, it gets close to The Rite of Spring.”

As for other versions of Mahler 10 – for example those of Clinton Carpenter and Remo Mazzetti, both recorded – Chailly feels there is “too much embellishment” and again praises Cooke for providing “the basics to help the score to be playable.” Or, as I term it, just doing enough.

I suggest that the flute melody in the last movement is among Mahler’s most sublime inventions. “That’s one of the simplest melodies and one of the highest points of spirituality of the finale”. Chailly describes the closing bars as “the last shout against destiny”. A quote of the Liebestod from Tristan I suggest. “I never thought of that… maybe, but my perception is that the melody brings us more to a redemption than is in Tristan, more a farewell, a last look to life before the end. But the scream, that glissando in the strings… of course, Wagner is always in the shadows especially in the first movement Adagio. Another thing that is alarming is in the second scherzo when Mahler quotes himself – the great theme from the first song of Das Lied – a literal quotation in violas and cellos which is screaming through this scherzo… a heathen signature of himself.”

Mahler links to Chailly’s other orchestra, the Milan Symphony Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi. It was Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (No.2) that opened the new Milan concert hall recently, Chailly conducting of course, with an orchestra “now in its eighth year of life… I’m the Music Director”. The Milan Symphony Orchestra… Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi (either or both titles seem acceptable) has 120 musicians, “all professionals, we have fifteen nationalities, so its open to all communities” – but consists mostly of Italians Chailly says – “and I believe this can become for the Italian symphonic tradition a major presence.”
“Milan has waited for half-a-century for an auditorium for symphonic music… now in our home we are working daily on our identity”. The MSOGV has its own chorus under Romano Gandolfi, “a well-known figure from La Scala,” and the Orchestra plays 32 programmes between October and July. Chailly has appointed Yutaka Sado and Vladimir Jurowski as Principal Guest Conductors, has invited Luciano Berio to conduct concerts of his own music and has named as Laureate Conductor none other than Carlo Maria Giulini – “a privilege… an unique chance for the orchestra to work with this great conductor”. Chailly informs that Giulini only conducts rehearsals now “since he fainted two years ago. He likes to be close to us just to have contact with the music… he makes rehearsals of great repertoire a few days every month, a major symphony – Beethoven, Franck, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and now he’s thinking of bringing some Mahler, which will be fantastic. He likes to do this in a totally closed rehearsal, supervised by his son and doctor… to be sure there are no surprises! He’s in good shape the maestro.”

His two orchestras make for Chailly “a very interesting combination,” conceding that “you cannot be called Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi if you do not dig-in a special Verdi programme to try and master the complexity of Verdi’s style and the tradition of his music”. Naturally we turn to the Milan Symphony’s debut CD ’Verdi Heroines’ with Angela Gheorghiu. “This album is a great start and because Gheorghiu is a spectacular singer” – he praises her understanding of different Verdi characteristics – “but for the orchestra it’s difficult because every opera has its own identity.”

I mention to Chailly my concern about people underestimating Verdi by pitting him against Wagner. “The greatest Wagner conductors were also great Verdi conductors, Toscanini, Victor de Sabata – genius conductors. I do exactly the same – I adore both composers and believe in the Italian tradition of including both. It’s stimulating to conduct these composers who seem so far apart but have so much in common – in Aida, Don Carlos and Otello the Wagnerian influence is very strong”. I mention Verdi’s genius for being able to say and suggest so much with so little. “That’s always been his characteristic even to the end of his life, even in Falstaff which is such a highly intellectual score with a spectacular text. He goes for the simplest result in the way he orchestrates but with such incredible intellectual knowledge to get to the point with simplicity”. I mention that Falstaff is orchestrated with Stravinskian clarity… “Then you see why Stravinsky quotes from Falstaff in Dumbarton Oaks, the bassoon (Chailly sings a phrase from Falstaff, then the Stravinsky – too close to call), he parodies Falstaff because he adored the score – he recognised neo-Stravinsky transparency.”

Chailly is keen to stress how Verdi created his own sound to accompany a melody. “There was always a misunderstanding about the simplicity of the rhythms which have been too much accused. Verdi’s greatest influence was Rossini who was born a genius like Mozart. Verdi was the opposite and started a long process of development, so you should judge Verdi with integrity to his long cycle. It’s too easy to say that Il Corsaro or La Battaglia di Legnano is banal – I can partly agree with that but behind apparent banality there is a direction he’s moving for all the time. In Giovanna d’Arco there are signals of what Verdi would become in Aida.”

Chailly talks about Verdi’s “masterpieces of orchestration. I’ve just done Aida in Amsterdam and the orchestra was amazed at the darkness of sound in the last Act – charcoal colour, a thick, black sound like a funeral march… unbelievable!” Chailly tells that late Verdi was a fascination for Mahler – “a great Verdi conductor, Aida, Otello and Falstaff were among his favourite operas. When Mahler orchestrated the Fourth Symphony he was conducting Falstaff – there are many ideas for colouring that are common between the two things.”

Chailly’s, Gheorghiu’s and Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi’s ’Verdi Heroines’ CD is a nomination in the Recital category of this year’s Gramophone Awards. “It’s nice! For the orchestra this is a great step forward. These are specific awards, which point not only to you but they compare you with the major recordings of the year; it’s a real international affair and important because it’s the selection of very specialised people. It puts some order to this ocean of recordings, an accent on what is valuable and what is not… an indication to people who want to know where to invest their time and money to listen. To be a nominee of the Gramophone Awards is great; whatever happens at the prize we will see but I’m very pleased with that!”

’Verdi Heroines’ is a selection of arias from nine operas. Does it matter about the arias’ place in the operas themselves? “I’ve conducted all the operas in the theatre so I know where [the arias] are coming from. In rehearsal I conveyed the sense of the music to the singer and to the orchestra. In the Otello Willow Song the greatest danger is monotony – you repeat the same words with the same notes; each repetition should mean a different accentuation in terms of emotion. This is what we tried to achieve and, frankly, I feel we did achieve it.”

While Chailly believes that his Milan ensemble has “the potential for a high-category symphony orchestra” he also believes his players “should prove their culture”. So Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi’s second CD is of… Verdi! “We’ve just recorded unpublished sacred music in which you really hear the influence of Rossini”. Verdi’s youthful pieces are all first recordings, “the orchestra had to solve the difficulty of so many scores that have such simplicity – the orchestra must translate those dangers into interpretation.”

The MSOGV isn’t the first symphonic orchestra in Milan. “There was one before but the crazy government ten years ago cut it. Three out of the four RAI orchestras in Napoli, Rome and Milan have gone; only the Turin survived. For fifty years Milan had an orchestra and now has been mutilated from this presence… and in need of a symphony orchestra – this is what makes this orchestra such a challenge for me.”

With a new concert hall as well, symphonic music in Milan is obviously a presence once more. When Chailly brings Mahler 10 to the Royal Festival Hall he’ll be playing it in a hall that has been severely criticised in some quarters and which will be undergoing an acoustical refurbishment in a couple of years time. I tell Chailly that I’m rather fond of the old place, prizing its tonal clarity. “We’ve always enjoyed it,” says Chailly while reminding me that the Concertgebouw has one of the finest acoustics, which spoils them wherever they might be playing in the world. Nevertheless Chailly admits to finding the Royal Festival Hall’s “clarity and transparency rewarding on stage because [the musicians] can listen to each other,” and feels “playing with more presence or playing longer” can compensate for the (relatively) dry acoustic. (Just a tad more warmth then please planners; don’t let music be played in a sea of reverberation. Horrible!)

At the RFH concert on October 6 Mahler 10 is accompanied by his Ruckert-Lieder sung by Matthias Goerne. “I wanted to start Mahler songs with Matthias who I regard as one of the greatest Lieder singers in the world; and a lyric piece like this, not particularly dramatic, is very idiomatic with the style of the Tenth”. Chailly and Goerne will be recording all Mahler’s song-cycles in time.

Imminent Decca recordings with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra include Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci “with the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing in a stunning idiomatic way – you’ll be surprised!” (Chailly laughs). Also out soon are the Eighth Symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, the former in Nowak’s edition – “the short version!” Mahler leads to Shostakovich but Chailly finds the connection “very rarely; I do see much more a Britten connection to Mahler”. Having released Shostakovich CDs of Dance, Jazz and Film music, Chailly is now planning a Theatre disc, but no symphonies – “I’m happy to stay with the alternative music; I find it even more surprising than the symphonies.”

Chailly is looking to concentrate more on Britten over the coming years and says that William Walton’s Façade “is a miracle I love to conduct occasionally”. (And I did check he meant the original version with megaphones – he does!) Chailly is committed to contemporary music but feels a “non-service” is done if a living composer is not combined with a romantic or a baroque composer – “there should be a link between composers to bring [audiences] together; there should also be a high standard of performance, not a read-through”. Webern and Brahms are in Chailly’s next RCO London concert – “Masterpieces” would appear to be the link here.

I suggest to Chailly that he must regard his 2-CD Amsterdam set of Edgard Varese’s (almost) complete music as a notable achievement. He does, together with the to-come Mahler 8 “the next greatest satisfaction in terms of orchestral playing. This gives me an enormous pleasure, another reference point, at least to me, for what we have done together.”

For anyone who finds Varese a tough nut to crack, Chailly suggests Ameriques – Varese’s official Opus One – is the place to start, “a new language but with routes to Stravinsky and Debussy”. I say I also hear a route to Harrison Birtwistle – Chailly agrees – but this is a composer he doesn’t conduct I think. “Earth Dances is a masterpiece, extremely complex, which I admire very much… but there’s many composers I admire who I don’t conduct.”

In London’s Royal Festival Hall Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra play Mahler on Friday 6 October; on 19 March 2001 it’s Webern and Brahms The Gramophone Awards are also in the Royal Festival Hall – on Monday 9 October.

Riccardo Chailly’s CD ’Verdi Heroines’ (reviewed by Classical Source’s Geoff Allen) with Angela Gheorghiu and the Milan Symphony Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi is nominated in the Recital category.

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