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23.2.2017 Feed


The orchestral Debussy transcriptions by Colin Matthews are even “too good”


This concert begins with Colin Matthews’ transcriptions of the Debussy Preludes and ends with Ravel’s transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. How would you describe a good transcription: one that could have been the composer’s own, or even something more?

Matthews’ transcriptions are even a tad “too good”. He did them with such precision that they are more Debussyan than Debussy himself. Every note, timbre and articulation is carefully premeditated – Debussy himself would have been a little more perfunctory. Piano pieces seldom contain textures of the kind you commonly find in orchestral ones. Which is why, for example, it’s hopeless trying to orchestrate any Beethoven piano sonata, and why the piano transcriptions of orchestral works often sound jam-packed and artificial.

The most important thing is for the orchestrator to know how to allow for the effect of the piano’s sustain pedal; this applies especially in the case of Debussy. To some extent this is maybe precisely why Matthews has taken quite a few liberties with the tempos; according to the metronome marking, La fille aux cheveux de lin, for example, is now much slower than Debussy’s original for piano. This radically alters the character of the piece but gives the impression of a piano pedal pressed right down.

As for Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition transcription: it has tended to be criticised as a matter of course, but in my opinion it likewise works extremely well most of the time. If we compare Matthews and Ravel, we must also remember how greatly the original piano textures differ. The Pictures at an Exhibition are character pieces, as are Debussy’s Preludes, but Mussorgsky’s material is more like a block, like a plank hewn with an axe. The orchestrator of Debussy must be familiar with Debussy’s own style of orchestration, but with Mussorgsky, all instrumentation devices are permissible. The music of Mussorgsky is, on the other hand, so colourful and provides so much food for the imagination that maybe no transcription can be totally satisfactory. Its strength lies in its Beethovenian, untamed ruggedness. And it is precisely because it is rugged that many well-meaning composers wish to fiddle and meddle with his music. This persistent mania partly explains the vast number of transcriptions, from pure orchestral versions right up to ones for four tubas, 44 pianos or a military choir. Ravel nevertheless succeeded extremely well in his orchestration, because he possessed an exceptional understanding of Mussorgsky’s Russian soul and combined it with his own masterly command of instrumentation. It is generally thought that Russia took Paris by storm in the 1910s with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, but it had actually done so long before that, and the relations between France and Tsarist Russia were in fact very close. Ravel was personally acquainted with Rimsky-Korsakov, and he had a clear conception of the Russian orchestral world. Ravel may have been a refined, reserved aristocrat and a collector of clocks, but he felt a closer affinity for the emotional Russian world than might be imagined.


This concert also features a visualisation by Riitta Nelimarkka of the Debussy Preludes. What are your feelings about combining visualisation and music?

No way is it an easy combination. In itself, music always evokes strong visual associations. But what happens when we are specifically served a visual stimulus? Can the viewer/listener perceive both equally, or, as is often the case in things like crossover projects, does one genre consume the other? How do you balance these elements? In this concert we are trying to seek some answers. There will probably be as many answers as there are people in the hall. Riitta’s art often incorporates veiled references to art history, and thought-provoking layers and themes just as in Debussy’s Preludes. For the visual artist, the Debussy Preludes are especially rewarding in that the titles are somewhat ambiguous.

Some of the paintings by Viktor Hartmann on which the Pictures are based still exist. Listening to the music of Mussorgsky, one might expect to see huge frescoes, but the original paintings are not. They are actually quite humble drawings but they fired Mussorgsky’s astonishingly modern imagination. “Baba Yaga”, for example, is a quaint clock with a pointed roof, a stylisation of the hut on fowl’s legs where Baba Yaga lived in the Russian fairytale. But Mussorgsky the composer immediately had visions of the heated chase to catch the poor witch.

The suite ends with the splendid Great Gate of Kiev, in which the promenade theme tying the work together is finally transformed into a mighty veneration of friendship, life and art. This work is yet another reminder of the enormous impression art made on people in the 19th century; like Mussorgsky, they might often be utterly overwhelmed by visions aroused by, say, an art exhibition or a book.


Why is the fifth piano concerto by Serge Prokofiev so seldom performed?

Some time ago, when I opened the score, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard the concerto, to say nothing of conducting it. It is, I have to say, not readily accessible. The form of the movements is, on closer inspection, in fact very balanced and carefully thought out, but the first impression is to some extent chaotic. I think the tempos are too fast, so the musical material and its meaning remain unclear to the listener. A calmer tempo may help us to understand that the music is nevertheless not altogether without head or tail. For me at least, the fifth concerto has proved to be a fascinating pointillist-futuristic journey.

As a young man Prokofiev was, like Stravinsky, charming and clever but crazy. I’m not quite sure what then happened to him. Stravinsky always adopted a new style on entering a new stage in his life, but Prokofiev never gave his musical grammar a clean sweep; he just went on paring it down and down. The fifth concerto is not even a very late work, but it already reveals a much more enigmatic composer than one might expect from the works of his early period.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo

21.4.2016 Feed


Judaism unites with Christianity in Elijah

Each season the FRSO performs one large-scale choral work. How did you arrive this time at Mendelssohn’s Elijah?

It was the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s Artistic Director Jorma Silvasti who suggested it. I’m very pleased we’ve had a chance to do it with precisely the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir. Elijah is a long work requiring a vast battery of performers, and in this respect there is none better than an opera choir. The choir has a big role, and extreme dynamic effects are required of it. The orchestra, too, is roughly the same size as that of a mid-19th century opera. I only knew bits of Elijah beforehand.

I once heard it right through when I was a student, and though I’m not the sort who easily gets bored, I found it hard going. I tried to listen to it without knowing a thing about what was going on. Consequently, I was in danger of losing my way in the endless Biedermeier forest. Added to which, I seem to recall that it was a church concert, and churches are, unfortunately, not the best possible places for the performance of oratorio: the details, nuances and intimacy get lost. It’s like immersing Rembrandt in a bath.

Elijah is highly reminiscent of an opera: the listener needs to be familiar with the plot. The melodic invention is amazing, the music is fantastically beautiful and cleverly written. At the Helsinki Music Centre we have the advantage that the audience can sit comfortably in a modern hall, read the libretto at the same time and fortify themselves with extortionately-priced refreshments in the interval.

Elijah can also be performed in the language of its premiere, English, but I decided to do it in German because the music of Mendelssohn is sometimes so rounded at the corners that German does it good – a few consonants go a long way to giving it a bit of grit.


As you said, Elijah is often likened to an opera. In what respect is it an operatic work?

Richard Wagner scoffed at Mendelssohn for failing to produce a single decent opera. But to my mind, Elijah sometimes comes strangely close to Wagner’s own Lohengrin – you only need to add a couple of swans. Elijah and Lohengrin were products of the same era, and there are lots of similarities in their orchestral and choral textures. In many ways the part of Elijah is even reminiscent of the Herald in Lohengrin. Added to which, the Old Testament characters are a bit obscure to us, just as remote and difficult to relate to as the characters of Wagner.

True, Elijah does differ from an opera in that it doesn’t have a coherent plot. No opera could survive having a dramatic structure in which the events are totally isolated from one another. And there isn’t a single episode in Elijah that would be sufficient as the plot of an opera.

You can hear, in Elijah, that Mendelssohn respected his Jewish lineage. So it’s a little surprising that at the end, he quotes the Old Testament prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. One cannot help thinking that he wanted to stress that the prophet Elijah was, like John the Baptist, paving the way for Jesus. Though his family had converted to Christianity, Mendelssohn here wanted to reflect on the relationship with God important in Judaism and not the future redemption of mankind. So presumably he gave way to his librettist and the demands of the place where the work was to be premiered.


Mendelssohn raised Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from oblivion in the early 19th century. How is the influence of Bach reflected in Elijah?

There is actually something touching in the way Mendelssohn imitates the St. Matthew Passion. Some of the dramaturgical devices, such as the crowd’s death threats, were inspired by Bach, and the aria Elijah sings before he is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire is almost a copy of the bass aria Ich will Jesum selbst begraben in the St. Matthew Passion. As with Bach, the arias serve to raise the work to a higher philosophical level, whereas the recitatives and choral numbers carry the action forwards. The fact that there is no real narrator, no Evangelist, is a legacy of Handel’s oratorios.

Stravinsky said that good composers don’t borrow, they steal. In this case Mendelssohn stole a functional concept, but it is, of course, also a sincere and neat tribute to Bach and Handel.

Mendelssohn had read his Matthew Passion when he was 14 and was given the manuscript of it as a Christmas present from his grandmother. No mean gift – not many teenagers can sit at home reading the manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion! Sometimes things turn out well for the preservation of a work of art: for where might the St. Matthew Passion have ended up if the original document had been sold to the wrong person?


What are your thoughts on Wagner’s attitude to Mendelssohn?

Wagner did a tremendous amount of damage to Mendelssohn’s reputation. Instead of harping on about Wagner and National Socialism, it would be better to ask whether the fact that Mendelssohn is still not a very popular composer can be attributed to Wagner.

Wagner did say later, in the 1870s, that he had nothing against Jews, but in his opinion the Jews became Germans too soon: despite being hard-working, they were not “spiritually ready”.

Mendelssohn was a typical Jewish artist in the German environment of the early 19th century: he was desperate to assimilate with the German heritage and to feel he was another link in that long tradition.

In other words, Mendelssohn did not choose the same road as many other Jewish composers, headed by Meyerbeer and Offenbach, who did not wish to be part of German culture and moved to France. Mendelssohn was never in his lifetime held in any esteem in France, but all the more greatly in England: the certain Handel-like monumentality of his music appealed to the English of the Victorian era.

Mendelssohn did not correspond to Wagner’s concept of an artist to be taken seriously: he came from a good, educated family and he had no financial worries. He remained calmly above all political upheaval and revolutions. And unlike, say, Berlioz, Liszt or Wagner, he was by nature always extremely cautious and conservative. There was only a few years’ difference in age between Mendelssohn and Wagner, but unlike Wagner, Mendelssohn was a star even as a young man. At the age of thirty, Wagner sent him the score of his early symphony in C major but Mendelssohn never replied. One reason for Wagner’s anti-Semitism was that he felt the success of many composers of Jewish background was his loss. Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn were far more famous and they got well paid. No one knew Wagner, and nowhere did anyone write about his works.

Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo


19.1.2016 Feed



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