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Chailly's New Way for Bach

Riccardo Chailly
Gert Mothes
Riccardo Chailly

On The Bach Hour, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra channel the best of modern and historically informed performance ideas into the composer's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.

On the program:

Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548, "The Wedge" (trans. Feinberg) - Martin Roscoe, piano

Cantata BWV 129 Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (translation) - Ruth Holton, soprano;  Daniel Taylor, alto;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, BWV 1051 - Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor

To hear a 2010 interview in which Riccardo Chailly describes his approach to Bach's music and how it is informed by the rich history of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I heard the orchestra on your opening night in September of 2008, you conducted a suite from [Mendelssohn's] Midsummer Night's Dream and the complete Daphnis and Chloe [by Ravel]. And I think what everybody was struck by that night was really two things. First, the joy that they saw in you as you conducted.

Riccardo Chailly I appreciate that.

Brian McCreath It just seemed like you were having the time of your life, which with music like that, it's hard not to be bored. But I think the other thing that we noticed at that time and we also noticed at the next night when there was another concert that was rained out, it was supposed to be an outdoor concert.

Riccardo Chailly Oh, yes, yes.

Brian McCreath And we moved it inside.

Riccardo Chailly Yes, and it was Brahms.

Brian McCreath It was Brahms. And [violinist] Vadim Repin was there.

Riccardo Chailly Yeah, Vadim Repin.

Brian McCreath And [cellist] Truls Mørk, they did the Double [Concerto for Violin and Cello] together.

Riccardo Chailly Exactly.

Brian McCreath What we all noticed is the way in which the audience in Leipzig just had this enthusiasm about them. They seemed to love the orchestra. I wonder if you could say something about your observation of the relationship between this orchestra and this city and how it compares with the relationship of other orchestras in cities that you've been involved in?

Riccardo Chailly Well, the integration of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the society of the people living in Leipzig is absolutely an unmissable one. The subscription concert in Leipzig is part of the week of a citizen of Leipzig and the politic of the mayor of Leipzig, not only the last mayor - I've already seen two generations of mayors - which has a priority for music. Absolutely. Plus, number one, to identify the city itself. That means also that the costs of the tickets are affordable. It's a politic of the city of Leipzig, you know, a hall where everybody can go in. And I think it's important because they in the history of this city has so much to do with figures like Bach, like Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, of course, Wagner, which they always and still they call it "the neglected son," which he is. But I think basically you can say that you have felt what the truth is. The public has a very strong belief and passion for this orchestra, and they won't let it miss for one week, certainly.

Brian McCreath To what degree was that strengthened or weakened during Communist rule?

Riccardo Chailly Well, I think as you know, in those years, I was not present there, although my debut with the Gewandhaus Orchestra was in 1986, so still under the, let's say, the Iron ....

Brian McCreath Iron Curtain.

Riccardo Chailly Iron Curtain, yes. This was a concert in Salzburg wished by Maestro [Herbert von] Karajan to happen. And Maestro Karajan had a very, very special admiration for the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He spoke a great deal to me when he invited me to conduct this orchestra why had the admiration because he found that, from these orchestra, all the roots up to today of the greatest German orchestras are connected with the Gewandhaus Orchestra tradition. Certainly the fact that, for instance, during the war years, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven would always be played on the Sylvester [New Year's] Eve proves enough that even against bombing and against the greatest wars, music should have a privilege of still being alive, tangible, existing for the society, for the people in Leipzig. And I think this made this orchestra a unique instrument, fighting and surviving through those difficult years. And last but not least, their own strong personality, sound wise, which today is very much tangible and recognizable.

Brian McCreath Well, and that's a great way to get to my next question, because then this gets to Bach as well. The quality that I noticed about the Gewandhaus Orchestra was, the word that sticks with me is elegant. The Gewandhaus Orchestra has a very elegant sound, a clear, beautiful, elegant sound that maybe isn't as robust, but rather is very beautiful. Very, very crafted. I hope I'm reflecting your own thoughts

Yes. Absolutely. Well, sometimes they are even too esthetical for what my extremes sometimes push me. I have a great predilection for poetical sound, esthetical sound, as much as for temperamental sound. And therefore, here and there, sometimes I want from them a little more for what they have in terms of their own sound, also, in temperamental spots.

We are touring in the States nowadays, with encores of Beethoven like Egmont [Overture]. And the power of this orchestra when it's required by the piece, like the opening of Egmont, a monolithic dramatic statement, just given by, not melodies, armonia, harmonies, the way they should be played, marcato [forcefully] to everybody, not only forte [loud]. What does marcato in Beethoven mean, how a statement should be, in terms of temperament played but always without brutalizing the sound, with the sense of esthetic also in the forte fortissimo. This is really what I think is one of the many challenges to work with Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Brian McCreath So that leads me then to ask about Bach. Members of the orchestra play every week at the Thomaskirche [St. Thomas Church]. So it's already in their blood. They're steeped in Bach as almost no other orchestra is. Why did you want to bring this orchestra to Bach and record these pieces?

Riccardo Chailly Because I've performed since 20 years the [St. John and St. Matthew] Passions regularly, every year, generally. I started in Amsterdam, in Italy, and so on, but also I started since five years in Leipzig to alternate to the Matthäus Passion and the Johannes Passion in alternation with the Thomaskantor [Music Director] in the Thomas Church. So the year we do the St. Matthew in the Gewandhaus, Mr. Biller will do the Johannes in the church and vice versa the following year.

And the understanding was so special with this orchestra in terms of interpretation, style, but also wish for different views out of stereotype provisional way, you know, "We've always done it this way should always be like that." And the understanding was very, very strong, very special with this orchestra. Therefore, I spoke to Decca and said, I see that my way of doing Bach with this orchestra goes very deep into a direction which in the years, for instance, the Leipzig Volkszeitung music critic described it as the "third way.".

I mean, in simple words, I have been studying and reading and preparing myself as much as I could in the last 20, 25 years about the Baroque renaissance and also the lessons of great masters like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Maestro [John Eliot] Gardiner and so on. And I have a feeling that without that amount of documentation of the last 30 years, we would not be today in the position with the modern orchestra, even with cultivated orchestra like the Gewandhaus with music by Bach, be ready to find a new way. New does not mean to be new at any rate, but certainly in the way as a clear principle of the Baroque style translated with modern instruments. And therefore to allow you a new direction for the interpretation.

Brian McCreath Well, and it is the case that more than a few wonderful recordings of the Brandenburgs have come out in just the last couple of years. And so to have this one now, but those are all mostly Baroque instruments with specialists, and now on modern instruments from this orchestra, from this city, you come with a third way of doing this.

Riccardo Chailly But you hear, for instance, the Bach culture of the Concertmaster, Mr. Breuninger, the way he plays, how knowledgeable his style for Bach music is, but with an amount of freedom. General principle: no vibrato. Good. But that does not mean abolishment forever of vibrato. Use the vibrato properly, with care and the sense of limit, only because of interpretational intentions. That's a very important point. You know, how the flutist, Ms. Grossman, the way she plays on wooden flute, for instance, in the slow movements, like the Fifth Concerto, and the use of or not of vibrato. I mean, those are very delicate issues, which then balance the overall vision of the interpretation.

Brian McCreath And in taking on this particular project, the Brandenburgs with the orchestra, this is very much often played as chamber music. What was your role? Did you stand there and conduct them in this?

Riccardo Chailly Very much. I did not pretend to be too democratic in these Brandenburg Concertos. No, I know there are sometimes conductors coming, without podium, using just the left finger of the left hand, just casually or just a smile, just a head sign and that's it, and smiling and enjoying listening. No, this was not my role.

Like it or not, I wanted to give a clear imprint of my way of thinking in these concertos. And all what you hear in terms of dynamic phrasing, speed, directions and so on, caesuran, that is a comma in the first movement of the third, which can be very personal, people might hate it or love it, I don't know, but it certainly is personal... It's before the final reprise [sings]. And therefore, no, this was not a complimentary presence. No, definitely I took and take with pride all the pluses and minuses of these Brandenburg Concertos. The same would be in the next issue with the Matthäus Passion, which in a few months will appear, and in December with the Weihnachts [Christmas] Oratorio.

Brian McCreath And will there be more to come?

Riccardo Chailly Well, we are in the middle of recording all the piano concertos with the Steinway piano, with Ramin Bahrami, a very interesting pianist who has devoted so far all his life playing only Bach's music. And we are halfway through with this project, and this will be also for Decca in the next months.

Brian McCreath Just to wrap up, if it's possible, is there one word, or maybe a better way to put it is, what's the first word that pops into your mind upon hearing the name J.S. Bach?

Riccardo Chailly Well, the music. He is the absolute. You know, nothing has being greater than the St. Matthew Passion. Since that piece has been written, all in music has been written, all what follows is a replica of something that Bach already did compose in that piece. By all I mean all, from the harmonic possibilities to the 12-tone system to what oratorios, what the cantata genre, opera, opera seria, recitativo accompagnati [accompanied songs], arias, everything. I mean, there is nothing more universal than the St. Matthew Passion. That's my clear conviction. And therefore this is more than a statement because in a way it's the piece which reflects the history of music.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. Thank you very much, Maestro Chailly.

Riccardo Chailly A pleasure to talk to you.