Who Is Afraid of the Present?

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

A problem concerning many of the best German conductors over the last half-century has been that few of them can regularly be heard away from their bases. Hans Rosbaud, Ernest Bour, Hans Zender – we know of their prowess almost entirely through recordings and broadcasts. Even Michael Gielen, doyen of repertoire-based conductors in the modern era, is known here mainly for his brief but fruitful period as a Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the turn of the 1980s. So it is good that Ingo Metzmacher, his profile raised through an exclusive contract with EMI, has made London part of his regular itinerary and built a rapport with the London Philharmonic. “I come to London every season now, and enjoy working here. However, I have only eight to ten weeks during the season for guest conducting.”

Indeed, talking to him over lunch after the final rehearsal for his latest LPO concert on 21 April – an engaging combination of Thomas Ades’s Asyla, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (with the original ending to jolt audience expectations), it is clear that his schedule is geared around his post of General Director of Music of the City of Hamburg, which entails responsibility for both orchestra and opera seasons. “Hamburg is very much my base. With the orchestra, I do ten subscription concerts – which are all repeated – and four ’special’ concerts each season. Remember that they are in the pit five, often six evenings a week, with Sunday mornings devoted to concerts, so its a tough schedule”. And Metzmacher’s repertoire extends right up to the present. “Its important that orchestras play an extensive range of music from the twentieth century. The more frequently they play the music, the more convincing the performances, and the more usual the experience becomes for listeners. Its vital to break down the feeling that ’classical music’ ends somewhere around 1950 or even earlier.”

Dominating a varied discography to date are recordings of the symphonic works by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a composer still little heard – even inside Germany (though admirers of John McCabe will recall his orchestral Variations on the theme which opens Hartmann’s Fourth Symphony). “Hartmann is an important link across the two halves of the last century, and has been sadly underestimated. Apart from the Gesangsszene and the Concerto funebre, his music fell into neglect after his death in 1963. I’ve performed his symphonies now throughout Europe and America, to very favourable response. Hopefully it will be possible to do something significant for his centenary in 2005.”

Hartmann is that rarity among composers working in the second half of the last century – a symphonist whose symphonies are intrinsically symphonic. “Unlike many twentieth-century composers, who merely labelled their works ’symphonies’, Hartmann’s have a genuinely symphonic feel to them. Innovative too, in the way that he took what had traditionally been the symphony’s middle movements, the ’adagio’ and ’scherzo’, and expanded them so that they became the whole symphony; a process which I believe is an important basis for symphonic writing in the future.”

Talk of Hartmann inevitably touches on his self-imposed ’internal exile’ in Germany during the Third Reich era. “At a time when he could have been building his reputation he remained isolated and ’underground’ in Munich, his music unable to be played. There’s an integrity there that I respond to, and which I think can be heard in his musical thinking. I’m very glad that there’s a composer like Hartmann, who can be revived to today’s audiences – inside and outside of Germany.”

Metzmacher has become adept at working his ’specialities’ into concerts so they fit naturally into context, while shedding new light on the works around them. Not a few punters at an LPO concert late in 1999 were clearly disconcerted by Photoptosis by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70). “I think Zimmermann is a very powerful and original composer. His misfortune was to be caught between generations, so that he couldn’t accept the German Romantic tradition without question, but equally couldn’t accept the serial orthodoxies of the composers who emerged after the Second World War. Die Soldaten is one of the great operas of the twentieth century, though I’m not sure how well it would travel outside German-speaking countries”. (My pleasure, then, to tell him of the successful run of performances put on by English National Opera back in 1997.) “The Royal Albert Hall would a marvellous venue at which to do the Requiem [for a Young Poet], as the spatial possibilities there would really further its impact. Zimmermann’s music always provokes a reaction. When I performed the Requiem in New York recently, the audience response was overwhelming. When I played Photoptosis in Berlin, during the silence at the end, someone booed and then a whole number of people cheered in support. It’s so good to get a spontaneous response from the public.”

Another composer close to Metzmacher, and one with whom he collaborated in performance, is Luigi Nono (1924-90) – “an enigmatic figure to work with, so often preoccupied with getting the sound of the acoustic right. No two performances of a late Nono work, such as Prometeo, can be the same because of differences in the performing acoustic, and the impact that the use of live electronics has within a specific acoustic; how the often lengthy fermatas (musical pauses) in the scores are conveyed in real-time. On such matters, he would raise many questions, but provide few answers. Yet he took amazing risks to take music forward as a creative medium. He was true visionary and a great man, from whom I learnt a lot, and to whom I feel a responsibility – not only to perform his work, but also to continue the dedication of his approach to music”.

Mention of the Proms reminded me of his debut there last year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the outstanding Berlin Radio Chorus in the UK premiere of Henze’s powerful Ninth Symphony. “I very much enjoyed conducting at the Proms. The atmosphere was such as you don’t find elsewhere – at least, not with all those people standing at the front of such a huge hall”. The ideal venue, surely, for two of the more elaborate works Metzmacher will soon be performing in Hamburg, part of an American theme ongoing through the new season. “I’m doing Bernstein’s Mass next April [14 and 15], a major work not known at all in Germany, and, in September [16 and 17] and October [9], Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Ives was virtually my introduction to twentieth-century music, and gave me a whole new insight into what music could be. The ’Portrait of Ives’ disc [EMI] was actually my first recording, following on from a concert of almost the same programme with the Ensemble Modern.”

It was as piano-player in the Ensemble Modern that Metzmacher began his musical career, and in which capacity UK audiences first saw him, during the Barbican’s Stockhausen retrospective back in 1985. “I’d always been interested in conducting, but didn’t have the confidence to attempt it as a teenager. That only came through my piano teacher in Hanover. I actually started conducting with the Ensemble Modern; chamber orchestras are the best learning process because you have to be technically precise and sort out problems on an individual basis. It’s much better than to be pitted against a symphony orchestra at 18 or 19, when you can’t cope psychologically with the situation. In Germany, of course, if you want to progress as a conductor, you have to learn your trade through the opera house. I was lucky to get involved with the Frankfurt Opera at the time Michael Gielen was director there, and where I assisted him for two years [1985-7].”

Metzmacher is unstinting in his praise of Gielen as a model for what the role of a ’conductor’ should be about. “As a Jew, Gielen had to leave Germany in the early 1930s and, living in Buenos Aires until the late 1940s, he was able to observe some of the great German conductors, particularly Erich Kleiber, at first hand. When he returned to Germany, he took with him the continuity of the German conducting tradition that had largely been destroyed by 1945. In his approach to tradition, how you can revitalise it through combining it with the new in programme-planning, I continue to admire him immensely. He’s also a link back to those conductors earlier in the century, such as Klemperer, who regarded themselves as cultural politicians rather than simply conductors, with a responsibility to engage the public actively in the process of performance. I firmly believe that music has a significant cultural role in society: its much more than a pastime or a means of easy entertainment, and the public need to be encouraged to engage actively with it.”

The forthcoming opera season in Hamburg, yet to be announced when we spoke, of course has a defining Metzmacher input. “We’re performing Henze’s We Come to the River, a stagework I know the composer considers one of his most important, to mark his 75th birthday. There’s the original ’Paris version’ of Don Carlos, which I feel we have to do in Verdi’s centenary year, as well as Kat’a Kabanova and Der Rosenkavalier”. London audiences will next have a chance to hear him at the Barbican in December [19 and 20] in a concert marking his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s ’Triple’ Concerto and, at long last, a Hartmann symphony – his Fifth.

Good news too that the New Year’s Eve concert, “Who Is Afraid of 20th Century Music?”, will be continuing into its third year, with more to follow. Another opportunity for Metzmacher to redefine the orchestral concert from the perspective of a new century. Indeed, taking his concert schedule for next season as a whole, I can’t be alone in thinking that, were this to form a season’s concert-going in London, I’d be booking my season ticket right now. “There are many works from all periods that I would like to do. But then, I feel I’m still on the outward stretch in terms of investigating the repertoire, and in reviving works that in time should belong to it”.

Metzmacher Select Discography

Hartmann: Symphonies Nos.1-8

Bamberg SO [EMI CDS 5 56911 2, 3 CDs]

Henze: Symphony No.9

Berlin PO [EMI CDC 5 56513 2]

Henze: Requiem

Ensemble Modern [SONY SK 58972]

A Portrait of Charles Ives

Ensemble Modern [EMI CDC 7 54552 2]

Nono: Prometeo

Ensemble Modern [EMI CDS 5 55209 2, 2 CDs]

Who Is Afraid of 20th Century Music?

Volume 1: 1999 [EMI CDC 5 56970 2]

Volume 2: 2000 [EMI CDC 5 57129 2]

Hamburg State PO

Other works mentioned, conductors as specified –

Zimmermann: Die Soldaten

Stuttgart State Theatre / Kontarsky [TELDEC 9031-72775-2]

Zimmermann: Requiem for a Young Poet

South-West German SO / Gielen [SONY SK 61995]

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