Guerrero Conducts Duruflé, Walton, and Grime
Saturday, October 10, 2020
Giancarlo Guerrero leads the BSO in Helen Grime's Limina, Walton's Cello Concerto with soloist Johannes Moser, and Duruflé's Requiem, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children's Chorus.
This concert is no longer available on demand.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Children's Choir
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
James Burton, choral conductor
Johannes Moser, cello
Helen GRIME Limina (BSO commission)
WALTON Cello Concerto
Johannes Moser talks with WCRB's Brian McCreath about the rare qualities of Walton's Cello Concerto and why it's less commonly performed as other pieces for his instrument, as well as what it takes to be ready to perform an astonishing number of concertos through the course of a given season:
Brian I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB at Symphony Hall with Johannes Moser. He's back in Boston, I think for the third time now, this time with the Walton cello concerto. Johannes, thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.
Johannes It's wonderful to be back here and to talk to you.
Brian Well, the last time that you were here, it was Dvorák. So it was one of the really core staples of the cello repertoire. Fantastic performance. But this time it's not really a staple, I don't think, the Walton concerto, not well-known. So I wonder whether it's something that young cellists sort of encounter on a regular basis or what your story is of when you found this piece and what your first experience of it was.
Johannes I came to Walton relatively late in life, shall we say. I think it was in my mid twenties. A colleague of mine had just recorded it. And out of curiosity, I listened to it and I was just blown away that this fantastic piece of music is not known more, you know. And Walton, like so many pieces in the 20th century, kind of fell between the cracks. And I think it is because when people think of English repertoire, they might gravitate towards the Elgar. And anyways, there is not so many cello concertos in the season. So the heavy rotation that you have with a masterpieces like Dvorák, Elgar, Schumann, Haydn. You don't necessarily get to the Waltons and, let's say, the Martinus and the Hindemiths of the cello repertoire that much, which I think is a shame. And, you know, I'm sort of making my life extra hard with this passion for this repertoire, because in these two months alone, in February and March, I'm playing eight different cello concertos. Two of them are new to me. One is a world premiere. One is a piece by Saariaho, which I'm learning at the moment frantically after rehearsals. So, you know, if you don't just want to play the five top cello concertos, but you want to broaden not only your own view on the cello repertoire, but also the view of the public and just enrich the concert programs with great music like the Walton, then you have to pay the price for it and just sit down and practice the whole day.
Brian [Laughin] You're practicing is incredibly well-documented on Twitter, so maybe we'll come back to that. But I am curious, though, as a piece that was performed for the first time here in Boston with Piatigorsky and Munch conducting, is that part of the reason you wanted to bring it to Boston or was there more involved with your conversation with the BSO in what concerto to do and arriving at the Walton.
Johannes No, that was precisely the reason. After Saint-Saëns and Dvorák, I was looking for the next thing that I would present here in Boston. And Walton seemed like such an obvious choice. I had done the Walton two years prior for the first time. Actually, I learned that relatively late and I absolutely fell in love with it. And it is so interesting. I first did it in Portugal and then I went to the UK with the piece. And you can really feel that Walton is mother's milk for for these people. And I experienced the same thing here in Boston. There is something in the DNA of the piece that relates to this place and relates to the playing of this orchestra. And so, you know, we are all obsessed with source material and with urtext and going back to the original. And, yeah, it doesn't get more original than this.
Brian And I had not thought about that, that the character of the piece related to the character of this orchestra. It's an unusual piece. I mean, you look at it on paper, OK, it's three movements like a concerto usually is. It's about the same length as a lot of these other major concertos. But the way it unfolds is almost unlike any other concerto that I'm aware of anyway. And yet the language of it does have that quality that the BSO so excels at, its sweeping power and really intricate work in the middle movement. And so I had not really given that a lot of thought before. But it does seem like this piece does reflect something of the BSO.
Johannes You're absolutely right. It's very unusual in its form with the last movement of being split up into several cadenzas, two cadenzas for the cello, one cadenza for the orchestra alone. It's almost like a Meistersinger situation where we're trying to outdo each other in the audacity and the cadenzas. But of course, his compositional language is rather traditional and rooted in late 19th, early 20th century. I would see parallels in Zemlinsky, and certainly Elgar was one of his heroes. But there is something about the harmonic language that is very Old World-ly, and that, of course, leads to Piatigorsky, who himself was the embodiment of Old World sound. And, you know, his colleague Jascha Heifetz had concerto from Walton and then, you know, he had to have one, too. So of course, he approaches Walton.
And my relationship with Piatigorsky and my view on his work, of course, first, I'm incredibly admiring of his tone and and I am very grateful that he approached Walton to have this piece written. But I'm a bit critical in the sense that he tried to alter the piece quite substantially and he asked for a different ending because the concerto ends very quietly, very intimate on the low C string, just sort of fading out. And there is an alternative ending by the request of Piatigorsky, which is very loud and spectacular, shall we say. I think Piatigorsky was hoping for the concerto to have a better career, so to speak, by having a loud, pompous ending. And that is so contrary to what this concerto is, right? I mean, there's such an emphasis on intimacy and on a little bit of ambiguity in the harmony. And, you know, I commission a lot of pieces myself. In fact, next week I'm performing a world premiere by Austrian composer Bernd Richard Deutsch. And we're doing this premiere in the Vienna Musikverein. And through my work with composers, I can see the temptation that as a performer, you're trying to make these pieces maybe more playable or you try to make them more to your liking. But in my experience and also history has shown that in zero percent of the cases, the pieces were improved. I mean, absolute zero.
We look at the Dvorák concerto, Hanus Wihan tried to convince Dvorák to put a big cadenza at the end of the third movement. He changed whole passages, some of which Dvorák actually agreed to. Then we look at the Schumann Concerto where Mr. Bockmül tried to convince him to actually cut the tempo in half. And the list goes on and on and on. And so this is, in a way, a good lesson for me, is to just back off and just let the composers do what they do best. I of course, when I do a world premiere, I offer my services in a way that I say, well, send me material. I will try it out. I will send you a video back of what is possible, what is not so possible, what could be improved cellistically. But I'm certainly not going to impose myself on the compositional structure. And in Walton's case, I feel it's the same. I think Walton is perfect as it is.
Brian Well, you've also now drawn a distinction. I think that, not to overgeneralize, but this is maybe a little bit of difference between you and your generation and that generation of Piatigorsky who were much more bold about saying, "Oh, no, no, no, this is what's going to suit me best as a soloist." And so maybe he just didn't have that worry about Walton, you know, taking anything from him as criticism. He just said, "OK, sure, Mr. Piatigorsky, here's the flashy ending you wanted."
Johannes This is a very interesting point, because the relationship between composer and performer has changed radically over time. And you see it especially in the Russian tradition, that this is still ongoing. Heinrich Schiff, the wonderful cellist, told me a story, that in the Schnittke Sonata, there are two versions. And he approached Alfred Schnittke and he said, "Well, Mr. Schnittke, which is the version that one should do and what is the right version?" And Schnittke looked at Heinrich Schiff, and said, "Well, what does Natalia Gutman do?" So actually, even Schnittke didn't trust his own opinion, but he wanted to give the last word to the performer. So even from a composer's point of view, that was something that had sort of a tradition. Of course, the most prominent example is the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, because there is an original version, which I recorded. But then there was the Fitzenhagen version, which turns all the variations around. And famously, Tchaikovsky was so upset about this change. But he said, "Well, you know, now the piece has a career. I'm just going to let it run." And now nobody plays the original anymore, you know, except for for a few crazy cellists like myself. [laughs]
Brian Okay, but in the Walton, none of that is to say that you don't have your own interpretive way of doing it. And maybe the part that makes me most curious is the way that Walton titled that last movement: Theme and Improvisations. Now, you're not literally improvising here, but there's clearly, I want to say that Walton has in mind a quality of your playing. How do you convey the thought of improvisation, that quality of improvisation while you're actually playing what Walton literally wrote on the page?
Johannes Right. So this is something that takes a lot of work and you have to go full circle. What I mean by that is that you have to know what is on the page so inside out that you can convince yourself and the audience that you are making this up as you go. But actually, it is exactly what is on the page. There is a wonderful example of Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, which is a piece that he's played a gazillion times. And then there is this recording when he was 70 years old, with Zubin Mehta. And they play this at the New York Philharmonic. And it sounds as if he's making it up in that moment, right? He's creating the music as we go. And, you know, that goes for general music making, but especially for that third movement of the Walton, where you're trying to fool yourself and others that this is just something you've come up with, but yeah, actually, it's on the page.
Brian And this is the thing, that it certainly has the potential to be something that might be a little different with the BSO than it might be with Cleveland or Chicago or anybody else, I mean, your improvisatory quality may change in a different hall or with a different orchestra. Do you find that that's the case as you play the Walton in places?
Johannes Oh, I find that with every piece of music, actually. Yeah. You know, people ask me, "Doesn't it get boring to play the Dvorák concerto, doesn't it get boring to play the Haydn concerto?" And I say, well, each Dvorák concerto is different because you have a different conductor, you have a different orchestra, you have a different breakfast. You have, you know, a different mood in the different sections. And so how can you say that? It's the same piece. It is not. It is just, again, an improvisation over a DNA that comes from a very distinct writing. But you are recreating something new each time. So I would say that a sort of, you know, one of my my things that I'm trying to attain as a musician is to always have a fresh approach. And, you know, with all the crazy travels that we have to do, it's not always easy to keep an open mind and each week to start afresh from zero and just, okay, we're going to create something new. Because, of course, the temptation that you fall back onto things that have sort of worked in the past, that temptation is huge. But you need to do a fresh start each time. And what is so nice about playing the Walton, because it is a piece that is not overplayed, and it's something that is rarely done, I mean, it was done here the last time in nineteen ninety seven, so actually most of the players have not done this piece here. Everybody approaches this piece of music with an open mind. And I had so many reactions saying, "This is so beautiful. Why is this not done more?" Well, you know, we're working on it! So we're trying to make this a piece that should be played more, and I'm so happy that I'm getting such a good reaction from the orchestra. And I hope from the audience as well.
Brian Yeah. One more question, which is that, you know, if anybody goes on Twitter and finds your account, they're gonna find a lot of videos of you practicing. And you're very explicit about, okay, I'm practicing this concerto for this orchestra coming up. And it's really cool to watch because what it unpacks for me is just how incredibly organized you've got to be in your life to know in seven weeks you're gonna be at this orchestra, in three weeks you're gonna be at this orchestra, and the demands of those are gonna be very different. So given what you just said about the way that you interact and you have a fresh start with each week, are those, you know, maybe three weeks ago when you were practicing the Walton, was that a matter of just sort of, "Here are the basics, and I'm going to get it under my fingers," and then you let your imagination fly when you arrive on stage with the orchestra, or is there a little bit more to it than just that?
Johannes It's a very difficult choice to make because if you make too many interpretation choices at home, then you deprive yourself of the spontaneity onstage. However, if you don't make any choices at home, chances are that it's just going to be bland. Right? So what I try to do is I try to make many versions at home so that if I have a lack of inspiration on stage, I can fall on to something that I've worked on at home. So in a way, I'm creating a catalog of possibility. And that is something that then I can sort of reach out to.
You know, I'm teaching now. I've been having a professorship now for the last six years. And it's so interesting to me. Students will come into the class and they'll play something. And then I'll point to some things that, you know, are apparent to me that should be better. And then they ask me, "Well, how am I supposed to play this?" You know, as if there was one version. And I think that's probably the biggest thing that I have to get out of the way with every new student that I work with, is that music is not a one way street and it's not a one version situation. And, you know, it's very tough to subscribe to this mode of thinking because obviously you put yourself in a huge position of possibility and also of a vulnerability, because suddenly, if everything is possible, well, maybe nothing is possible anymore, right? And so, you know, to answer your question, it is trying to get as deep of a view into the DNA of the piece and then trying to go from that nucleus into something bigger.
For example, when I work on the Dvorák concerto, I love to study the autograph because that is is now available on Barenreiter as a facsimile. And there you really come to the DNA of the writing. Not only what notes he wrote, but how he wrote the notes. There was an amazing exhibition in Berlin of Franz Kafka's Der Prozess, which, what is that in English? The Trial. And they had the whole manuscript laid out in in a circle. So you could read the whole book. And in some passages, his writing was absolutely clean. And, you know, when he was just describing things and when it got emotional and when it got to the point that the person was killed, he wrote like only two or three notes on each page because he got so excited about what he was writing. And I was in tears because this was an emotional message, not only through the words, but how the words were written on the page. And that is exactly what I'm looking for when I study a facsimile and when I study handwriting, is that you get to the essence of the composer, also through the picture.
Brian Wow, that is fascinating. I mean, that's a lot. And just as a general round number, I mean, how many concertos are you holding in your mind and and maybe practicing at any given moment during the course of a season?
Johannes So this season it's 15 different concertos, which honestly is, I think, 10 too many! [laughs] But, you know, you have to be incredibly organized. And actually, I put in my calendar when I'm going to practice what piece. So I have a date in the calendar when the performances are and I calculate back two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, what do I have to practice when? It just doesn't go any other way. That is the fate of a cellist. You have to have, you know, the possibility to play as many pieces as you can because the request is seldomly, "We would like to invite you. What do you want to play?" But it is, "We have an opening for Elgar. Do you have time?" That is just how it is, because there is only two or three cellists a season, whilst you have, you know, 12 pianists and 10 violinists, right? So, of course, they can say, "Well, I want to play this piece. Or this season I limit myself to two concertos" and, you know, you want it or not. But that's not a cello life. The cello life is sitting down and working.
Brian Not that you're bitter or anything like that.
Johannes No, no, I love it. I love it. And I love the variety. And coming here to Boston with Walton is a blessing.
Brian Yeah. No, it was very clear how much you love doing this. And the organized creativity, if I can just coin that phrase, is really astonishing. So I'm so happy we get to hear the results right here on the stage. So thanks a lot, Johannes Moser, I appreciate your time today.
Johannes Thank you very much. Thank you.