← Back to main site


2.11.2015 Feed


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