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2.11.2015 Blog


ZIMMERMANN: Photoptosis
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

Stephen Hough, piano


Photoptosis is like a psychiatry session


Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Photoptosis has lots of musical quotations. What do you think they signify?

Quotation technique seems to be very much a 1960s phenomenon; the best-known example is probably Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968). Music at the time was in transition, and the cupboard was bare: composers felt a need to look back over the whole history of music, and especially the stylistic trends of the 20th century – its pared-down, endlessly theorised musical phenomena, modern simply for the sake of it. I believe that through Photoptosis, Zimmermann is rebelling against the Modernist shadows that must certainly have been hounding many composers in the latter half of last century.

There was, of course, nothing new about using quotations. It was perfectly normal practice in the Baroque, for example, when many composers, some of them even great ones, had recourse to ‘parody technique’. But from the late 18th century onwards, originality began to be the keyword in music: compositions became their composers’ personal, somehow hallowed property, and quoting came to be regarded as stealing. I nevertheless feel that the quotations in Photoptosis are well-motivated. The work makes me think of a psychiatry session: Zimmermann goes through the burden of tradition that every artist, regardless of era, comes up against.

Zimmermann said Photoptosis was inspired by the monochrome murals in the foyer of the Revier-Theater Gelsenkirchen. Does this background information tell you, the performer, anything important?

I haven’t felt any need to go and see the paintings. I view Photoptosis as a more general statement. A good score reveals itself without visual images. Zimmermann’s music is exceptionally rich in colour. I can see and hear in it a musical synthesis of colours and lights, like continuing from where the Impressionists and Scriabin left off. Photoptosis is a study of the way sounds and motifs change when they are instrumented in different ways.

Photoptosis is exceptional in that it does not play about with tempo at all. The conductor marks off the seconds and the orchestra operates within the given framework, colouring in the timeline. The fact that it lacks all the virtuoso conducting phenomena typical of 20th-century music, their changing metres and shifting tempos, has a calming effect of its own.

What fascinates me more than Yves Klein and his murals is that Photoptosis was commissioned by the Gelsenkirchen Sparkasse. I don’t expect savings banks nowadays commission musical avant-garde.

You mentioned that all three works in the concert come from Germany. Why did you choose them?

I’m not particularly keen on national themes. They are indeed an easy solution, but it doesn’t work unless the programme has sufficient stylistic variety. I’ve been wanting to do Photoptosis for a long time, and taking that as my starting point, I had to ask myself what else could go with it. Which direction to take, whether to keep to the 20th century or not, and if not, then what? Because of the quotations used by Zimmermann, Beethoven and German seemed obvious. This programme presents three ways of addressing tradition, of coping with it, rejecting it and at the same time creating something new.

One could try to be clever and think that the idea of light in Photoptosis continues in the Beethoven piano concerto, in the bright key of C major.

Yes, and the same light, brightness continues in Brahms Two. Beethoven’s first piano concerto really does have the same ease of expression as the sonatas and piano trios of his early period; his first symphony already has more restraint in its material.

The cheerful, carefree nature and smoothness may make it seem shorter than it is. I’m always astonished to find that it lasts nearly 40 minutes, and depending on how long the cadenza is, it may even be the longest of all the five Beethoven piano concertos.

You haven’t conducted much Brahms in the Helsinki region. What role do the Brahms symphonies occupy in your repertoire?

I’ve actually conducted them quite a lot elsewhere. They’re a basic symphonic literature textbook when conductors are still students, and you find yourself coming back to them again and again. But experience doesn’t necessarily make them any easier.

Musicians always welcome Brahms, because in his music you have to keep exceptionally faithful to the score. There are fewer mobile movements in the Brahms symphonies than there are in, say, Beethoven’s, performances of which can be very fierce, detached and subjectively different. Brahms does not lend himself to extremes; his music plays more with quality and careful balancing. In terms of tempo, they cover a far narrower range.

The problem with Brahms is preventing his familiar music from getting bogged down in the obvious and reminding ourselves that the work is still unique.

Is that what you meant when you said Brahms does not get any easier?

I meant that Brahms is exacting when it comes to creating continuity. Take, for example, the Adagio non troppo movement of the second symphony. Its main theme goes on and on, like a sort of Gregorian chant; so how do you shape it convincingly? Few stop to think how much Brahms studied early music. It was through Renaissance music that he learnt to obliterate metre. His melodic motifs often begin before a bar line, yet not really on an up-beat.

Brahms takes a bit of balancing: the extent to which he doubles things in his orchestration is nothing short of frustrating. All the woodwinds, for example, often play the same things, usually a third apart. Musicians, too, often regard Brahms as heavy – I’m afraid this is partly because they still have a picture of Brahms they formed in their music lessons at school, of a fat guy with a beard, and from Hamburg into the bargain.

But Brahms expressly wanted his second symphony to be a sunny one. He had his own established way of working: he composed in summer, and in winter just organised what he had produced in the summer and proof-read scores for the printer’s. He composed the second symphony on the shores of the Wörthersee, the same lake as the one where Alban Berg later composed his violin concerto on the opposite shore.

Brahms wanted to make sure that news of the symphony’s sunny nature would spread before the premiere. He gleefully misled one of his admirers, Frau von Herzogenberg, pulling her leg when she asked him about his new work by saying: “You have only to sit down at the piano, put your small feet on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass. I have never written anything so sad, so minorish, and the score must appear with a black border.” There is, of course, not a single F-minor chord in the whole symphony.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo


16.10.2015 Blog


WEBERN: Six Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24
SCHOENBERG: Five pieces for Orchestra Op. 16
BEETHOVEN: Piano concerto No. 4

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

Murray Perahia, piano



The Pieces for Orchestra by Schönberg and Webern are compact miniatures a few minutes long. Do you feel that in conducting them, you have to scale down your own expression, too?

The vast expression packed into the small format is what makes these pieces so fascinating. Every little phrase in Webern has as much intensity as a whole act of Parsifal; it’s just squashed into a matchbox, as it were. Though the Second Viennese School does represent the final death throes of Romanticism, these composers could do nothing about the fact that this was precisely where their music had its spiritual roots.

When we were studying these pieces years ago at the Academy, we admired and analysed their technical details: where is the row, its inversion or retro-inversion? Since then, however, I’ve noticed that such music should be thought of in the traditional manner, as phrases. Recently, when I started learning Wozzeck by a pupil of Schönberg’s, Alban Berg, I saw only a wearisome number of details. But when I tried distancing myself from its construction and thinking in broader spans, I realised that it actually has the very same elements as the great Romantic works. From the performer’s point of view, the problem with music like this is that you cannot for a moment give yourself up to it and let the music just carry you along. You have to be in control of every bit of the bar. These works are, however, infinitely fine experiences once they begin to function collectively.

The orchestral works by Schönberg and Webern may be short – each movement lasts from one to at most five minutes – but they require a tremendous amount of polishing. You can often hear performances that have not been properly rehearsed. The pieces lurch frantically along from beginning to end, and it’s impossible to form a picture of their structure or logic. Each of the six Webern pieces, from the first bar to the last, in fact traces a whole arch. If you haven’t had time to work out this arch, if you’ve got stuck at the level of individual gestures, all you achieve is a performance devoid of expression. However hard you’ve analysed the works, you can’t make them breathe if you haven’t found a natural way of phrasing. The rests are particularly important.

How, in your opinion, do Schönberg and Webern differ as composers?

There’s quite a lot that’s still post-Wagnerian in Schönberg’s idiom; the sound has, as it were, just been passed through Sigmund Freud’s consultation room. Schönberg’s stylistic development was enormous: if you compare, say, Pelleas or Verklärte Nacht with his streamlined late works, they have virtually nothing in common. In this sense he did a lot spadework not only for Webern but for many later 20th-century composers as well. The music of Ligeti, for example, owes much to the Farben movement of the Five Pieces for Orchestra. Apart from a few early exercises, Webern didn’t need to make Romanticism his point of departure; he was able to work on Schönberg’s ideas.

I respect Schönberg as a theorist. He knew everything about how harmony influences form, and his technical skills were dazzling. Everything he composed for the most part resonates well, even if it’s sometimes slightly clogged, but he’s not always a practical musician. His performance instructions, for example, are often totally impossible and you constantly have to keep adjusting them. In his scores he regrettably often indicated something that could only result in tempo chaos. Although Berg and Webern worshiped their teacher (you can see this on every page of Berg’s Wozzeck), they were more musician-oriented than he was and expressed what they wanted the performer to do in terms easier to understand.

I have often been amazed at Webern’s infinitely fine ability to condense. Partly this must be because he bothered about each note and where it went. This doesn’t prove anything, of course: we have loads and loads of, say, serially-constructed pieces with notes honed to within an inch of their lives, but the result is quite frankly thoroughly unmusical and tastes of paper. You have to be an ultra-talented and musical composer to create vibrant, compelling phrases with such minimal gestures.

One thing the four composers in this concert have in common is Vienna. Knowing you, I nevertheless suspect it’s not the only factor behind the programme.

This concert may seem as if an idea in the first half is, for want of a better one, repeated in the second, but the two halves are in fact radically different. I’ve always felt that Schönberg has something of the same gravity as Beethoven, and Webern the same lightness and transparency of expression as Mozart. So we here have two pairs that fit together in my mind for musical, not geographical reasons.

Beethoven came after Mozart and was influenced by him, just as Webern was by Schönberg. In both pairs, the age difference was roughly the same, just over 20 years. It is interesting to see how music changed direction in a hundred years. Whereas at the beginning of the 19th century music began to get more complex and intensive, a century later the trend was in the opposite direction: towards music of greater structural transparency.

Then the brooding, dramatic C-minor is the most Beethovenian of all the Mozart concertos, while the Beethoven concerto in G major represents the soulful, noble quality that was typical of Mozart and that is found only in the works of Beethoven’s middle period.

How do you envisage your role when you’re conducting Viennese Classical piano concertos?

I’ve never had any problem conducting the Beethoven concertos; they’re so symphonic that I can approach them in my normal capacity as a conductor. The Mozart concertos may sometimes be more problematic, but I’ve been fortunate to play them with soloists who have a firm vision of their own but who are also ready to include the conductor in the process and to accept that there is a third party present in addition to the soloist and the orchestra. I’ve gradually begun to feel more at home in Mozart, too, and tried to establish a role of my own as regards when a conductor can be of assistance and when he can’t.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo

29.9.2015 Blog

Interview with Hannu Lintu regarding the FRSO’s programme on the 2nd of August 2015

SIBELIUS: The Oceanides (Original version)
SIBELIUS: Violin concerto (Original version)
AHO: Symphony No. 16 (Premiere)

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

Elina Vähälä, violin
Virpi Räisänen, mezzosoprano



Sibelius made some radical changes to the first version of his Violin Concerto after its premiere. Isn’t it a bit mean to present an audience with a work that does not bear the composer’s final stamp of approval?

The original version has been included in Breitkopf & Härtel’s new critical edition of the complete Sibelius works, so in a way it’s officially recognised as standing on its own two feet. Elina Vähälä and I both agree that the first movement, particularly, has some magnificently beautiful moments. If we didn’t give our audience a chance to hear this unique music now and then, our picture of Sibelius would not be complete. The character of the third movement became far more shamanistic in its final form. This feature is not so strong in the first version, but there are, by contrast, some lighter passages, rather like in the Humoresques.

The first movement is unusually expansive. In the end Sibelius decided to tighten it up and make it more symphonic –though even in its final form, the movement is a remarkable construct. But I like imagining what would have happened if he’d gone in the opposite direction, further enhancing the movement’s expansive form. I see the first movement of the original version as a sort of enchanting, possible world.

How would you compare the different versions of The Oceanides?

There are, to my mind, quite definitely two Sibelius Oceanides. People have no compunction about playing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture in three different versions, and this is just the same. There are lots of other works we accept in two different versions without turning a hair: Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Schumann’s fourth symphony, and goodness knows how many Stravinsky ballets. I find it fascinating that a masterpiece can lead two lives. Above all, the different versions provide an invaluable window on the creative artist’s mind.

True, the final version of The Oceanides came about because Sibelius began making revisions. Shifting the key from the original D-flat major to the D major of the final version radically changed the nature of the piece. Sibelius was a synesthete, and he, if anyone, was aware of the enormous change brought about by raising the key a semitone. It is no coincidence that, for example, much of Debussy’s La Mer is in D flat: it has a certain depth, darkness and greenness. To me, it’s almost as if the D-flat major version is, so to say, under water and the D-major version above water. D major distances the music in a more Classical direction, whereas the original D-flat version is more modern: its rhythms and his handling of the orchestra once again show that Sibelius could have become a true Expressionist.

Did you have a finger in the pie over Kalevi Aho’s sixteenth symphony?

I’ve conducted Kalevi Aho’s concertos, particularly, in the past few years. The idea of a piece scored for strings and percussion occurred to me almost by chance while I was in Switzerland rehearsing the orchestra for the Clarinet Concerto before the soloist arrived. I was taking the strings slowly through their part, and all of a sudden I realised that Aho writes for strings in a way that is fantastically rich and vibrant. And it sprang to mind that Kalevi could compose something for the FRSO – something with an orchestration similar to that of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I put this orchestration idea to him with a request for a concert curtain raiser lasting twenty minutes at most. In due course, Kalevi delivered a score that turned out to be a fifty-minute symphony, and one with a mezzo-soprano into the bargain.

I like the powerful emotions in Kalevi’s music. It is very deeply expressive; it speaks to the listener and is gratifyingly challenging. Added to which, his orchestrations always have some unusual instrumental timbres. Enriching the string texture in this symphony is a host of special percussion instruments: things like a binsasara, dobaci, darabuka and moon gong. Many of Kalevi’s big orchestral works have textures operating at many levels. But just recently, I’ve noticed a novel tendency towards clarity in his music. In this work, this clarity is born specifically of the marriage between strings and percussions. But Symphony No. 16 is technically difficult to play.

What thoughts does the fact that a composer in the present day and age – Kalevi Aho – is still a consummate symphonist arouse in you?

I must say I always prick up my ears when I hear a new symphony is being played somewhere, because the symphonic tradition means a lot to me. The “symphony” is a format affording endless different options while at the same time providing a strong sense of form. And it still has infinite potential to explore. Was the symphony ousted because of its name or because of its structure? Debussy, Schönberg and others placed it in a questionable light, but while many 20th-century composers were rejecting it, there were those who chose otherwise: Sibelius, Nielsen, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams, and so on. And we still have composers here in Finland today – Aho and, say, Kaipainen and Rautavaara – who are specifically great symphonists.

Interview with Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo