← Back to main site


19.1.2016 Blog



John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a work of the minimalist period that was very much a 1980s phenomenon. How has it withstood the passage of time?

I’m not altogether a minimalism fan, and I’ve only really discovered the music of Adams since he partially abandoned it. Because the problem with minimalism is that the music doesn’t assign the performer the traditional role of interpreter, and even the conductor often finds himself being just a policeman on point-duty. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is above all an interesting intellectual exercise. The first time I saw the score, I was astonished at how complicated it looked, because the music sounds very simple.

It doesn’t necessarily offer vast room for interpretation, but there’s something very interesting about the way the material transforms. The performers have to concentrate very hard on the rhythms, otherwise the whole machine stalls and crashes into a wall.

Adams violin concerto and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony share the theme of persecution and violence. The programme was, of course, planned ages ago, but it’s difficult not to interpret it as a comment on the disturbing events in recent history.

Each season, there are one or two programmes that turn out to be surprisingly topical. It was, for example, quite by chance that I programmed Strauss’s Metamorphosen for the very day the USA-led Allied forces launched their attack on Iraq. Symphony concerts are not necessarily designed to comment on current events, but if they do, the programme planning has done its job in the best possible way. Right now, both Russia and the Islamic world are in turmoil, so the message of both the great works in the concert could not be more topical.

Admittedly any feelings the concert may arouse will not necessarily have a very lasting impact in this disparate world of ours, full of disturbing factors. But then nor did the music of Shostakovich cause any revolutions. In their own way, the performances of the fifth symphony were nevertheless important in Soviet Russia, and maybe they gave people strength to struggle on.

Though the world has changed since the days of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, it nevertheless seems to carry a very special aura. Is this real or just a figment of the imagination?

It’s difficult to say whether it’s because we know the story around the work, or whether it would impress us in any case. The end of the finale to the fifth symphony has a strong, ceremonial feel, and I can well imagine how the astounded audience listening to it at the first performance rose to its feet as if in a trance. The overwhelming power of the music would possibly not be any less even if we didn’t know the background, because the best music always has a built-in force.

There’s an amusing story attached to the performances that followed the premiere. When Moscow heard about the audience hysteria the symphony had caused in Leningrad, the party sent two officials along to the next performances. Their names were even recorded: they were comrades Surin and Yarustovsky. Night after night they observed the clearly-moved audience and reckoned the listeners had been carefully chosen to achieve the effect the composer wished for. A test performance was held to which only confirmed Bolsheviks were invited, but the result was exactly the same: they, too, were absolutely astounded. The deflated comrades made their way home.

Why does John Adams call his Scheherezade.2 a symphony for violin and orchestra and not a concerto?

The reason presumably lies above all in the size. Because a concerto is seldom so capacious. If Brahms had called his piano concertos symphonies for piano and orchestra, I’d have bought that too: one feature of a symphony is length. Adams’s designation underlines the fact that the orchestra has an enormous role; it’s much more than a traditional concerto accompaniment. Maybe it’s also a reciprocation to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade: there, too, the violin is cast as the narrator.

In what way does the work comment on the world today?

An American might address the problems of Islam from a slightly different perspective from a European. Of course here, too, people are aware that the status of women is one of the biggest and most pressing problems.

A week ago the concerto soloist Leila Josefowicz sent me an email with some musical instructions and also a link to an article in the New York Times about the murder of the Afghan Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old student who was tortured and killed by an angry mob under the very eyes of the police for desecrating a copy of the Koran. She was tossed off a roof and trampled to death. Social media are full of phone videos made by bystanders. In actual fact she was innocent. No one has been punished.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo


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