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16.10.2015 Feed


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