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Interview, Paavo Järvi on Franz Schmidt and Tchaikovsky

Paavo Järvi Winter catch-ups with Paavo Järvi have become something of an annual Presto tradition, and though we had to connect via Zoom this year rather than over tea in London as usual the Estonian conductor was as insightful and energetic as ever on the subject of his two most recent recordings: the first instalment of a projected Tchaikovsky cycle with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich on Alpha Classics, and Franz Schmidt’s four symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon.

How long have the Tchaikovsky symphonies been in your repertoire, and which interpreters influenced and inspired you in this music?

I have a very complicated relationship with Tchaikovsky because I grew up in an Estonia that was effectively under Soviet rule, and if there is one composer that was played it was Tchaikovsky; all our musical education revolved around Russia, and the best Estonian musicians all studied in St Petersburg or Moscow. And there was a kind of golden standard in Tchaikovsky, which was set by Yvgeny Mravinsky’s performances – he was presiding over the greatest Russian orchestras of that time, most notably the Leningrad Philharmonic, which was sort of beaten into playing perfectly. Everything was unbelievably precise: he would do five or six rehearsals of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth every single time he conducted it (and he conducted it 300 times!). Their repertoire was extremely narrow, and there were no subscriptions: he would rehearse the orchestra and when he felt the piece was ready he’d announce the concert. (These days it doesn’t matter if you’re doing Turangalîla or a Haydn symphony: you have three rehearsals and a concert, and in London you only have one!). They toured the world doing these perfect but ultimately automatic performances of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, and I always thought that there was more to this music.

At one point I stopped conducting the symphonies altogether because I found it so hard to set aside that obsession with speed, perfection and balance and unlock the real emotions at the core of the music…but then I heard Leonard Bernstein at very end of his life conducting a performance with the Wiener Philharmoniker that was so unbelievably over-the-top that I didn’t recognise the piece! I thought ‘Wow, this is exactly how the story should be told’: not hidden behind a symphonic façade (although structurally the Fifth is a perfect symphony), but more as you would treat a tone poem. That was my ticket back to wanting to do these symphonies again, and after I heard the Tonhalle for the first time (in Schumann 3) I knew they were the orchestra to record them with: they have this old-world, beautiful, rich, warm string sound, which is exactly what you need in this music.

And the danger is that lots of the little string details often get covered quite brutally by the brass – on the one hand you get this epic feeling, but on the other you don’t hear what’s actually in the score. You don’t want to compromise on the emotional impact, but at the same time I think we also need to respect Tchaikovsky’s attention to detail: let’s not forget that his favourite composer was Mozart. So it was quite an delicate balancing-act, and listening to it now I’m very happy!

Will you be pairing each of the symphonies with a symphonic poem or overture, as on this recording of the Fifth and Francesca da Rimini?

The original idea was to record the complete cycle and release it as a boxed set, but the pandemic put paid to that: somebody in the orchestra tested positive on the day of the last concert, so we still have two symphonies to record. That meant rethinking the couplings, and Francesca ties in rather well with the Fifth because they’re both so preoccupied with the idea of fate. I think Francesca is every bit as great as Romeo and Juliet, if not greater in some respects: it’s just a little longer, and the biggest challenge is that it requires enormous energy which has to be sustained right to the end. It’s a very dramatic work and really bringing out that kind of drama takes a lot of effort, as it’s also extremely technically challenging – for a good orchestra it’s playable, but if you want to do it with the necessary passion it becomes incredibly tiring.

You mentioned the challenge of balance in the Fifth – what are the main difficulties in the less frequently-performed earlier symphonies?

I absolutely love Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and think they deserve much more attention. No. 1 is so sincere and naïve, as Tchaikovsky’s quest for formal perfection and sophistication comes later: the last three symphonies are inarguably great works, but that purity you find in the First Symphony is not matched by the later ones, and I also love that he’s not apologetic about using all these Russian hopak dances and other folk music. The Second is a gem too, but it needs to be played so that the finale works: the finales are a problem in both of these symphonies, because if they aren’t taken at the right speed and with the right understanding of proportion it becomes too much of the same thing. That may seem like a youthful lack of ideas, but actually it’s just about how you organise it – at the end of the day one needs to have the courage to take the last movements at the right speed, which is basically ‘very fast’!

How did your enthusiasm for the music of Franz Schmidt begin?

Everything that I know about neglected composers – and in fact about the famous ones too! - started through my father in one way or another. Growing up in a house of a conductor, especially one that’s as curious about unknown repertoire as he is, was a huge privilege: he’s still discovering new things to this day, while he’s cooped up at home because of the pandemic. He’s an avid reader of history and biographies, and the more he reads the more he comes across figures who were respected in their own time and are now forgotten: investigating them further has become a kind of a hobby of his, and somehow that’s carried over to me.

Franz Schmidt is just one of these great composers that people just don’t appreciate enough: it’s something we’d talked about at home for a long time, and it was through my father’s performances that I really fell in love with the music. (The same is true of other rarely performed works, like Max Reger’s orchestral music and Hans Rott’s Symphony, as well as more standard repertoire like the Sibelius symphonies). I got to a point in Frankfurt where we wanted to do something a little bit off the beaten track, and that felt like the right moment to do the four symphonies myself for the first time: it was a wonderful, super-productive period, and we had a great team in-house for the recording itself.

Which composers do you feel influenced Schmidt’s approach to orchestral writing most strongly?

I think pretty much the entire German-speaking world was influenced by the same greats: a lot of these composers at the turn of the century were also pedagogues who knew the history of Western music inside-out, so we hear the influence of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms from the perspective of people who’d spent decades studying and teaching their techniques very rigorously. They all knew and revered Bruckner, so all of that is in the mix; Schmidt had also spent part of his career playing in the Wiener Staatsoper as a cellist under Gustav Mahler, which meant that he was in direct contact with an extremely original and important contemporary composer at the same time as playing a Wagner or Strauss or Mozart opera every night.

I find this period at the end of Romanticism so fascinating, because you’ve reached the point where tonality really can’t be pushed any further: some people branched off in the direction of the Second Viennese School, and everybody else was dismissed as has-beens with no originality. (Sibelius was ignored and looked down upon, as were Rachmaninov and Nielsen). That's partly what makes Schmidt’s music so attractive to me: there’s tonality, for sure, but the chromaticism is so unbelievably destabilising and ambiguous. Everything is constantly shifting, so that you feel like you’re walking on quicksand: it has this incredible harmonic language which I find totally irresistible, and yet in something like the Fourth Symphony he also pairs that with this tried-and-tested theme-and-variations technique which harks back to Brahms or Mozart. Of course there are people who find it all a bit aimless and meandering, and at the end of the day it’s a matter of taste - but for me he’s one of the really great voices of German Romantic music.

Do you think there’s also a political dimension to the neglect of Schmidt’s music?

A lot of Schmidt scholars have said it would have been better for his legacy if he’d died two years earlier than he did: he was living and working in Austria when the Nazis came to power, and it’s very easy for us to sit here today and point the finger at people like him who remained in the country and continued to do their thing. But his colleagues and contemporaries have proved beyond doubt that he was not a Nazi: if you look at the photograph of him that was taken in the late 1930s, it shows an old-school professor whose brain is entirely occupied with teaching students and writing music. And there are so many examples of composers in similar situations who haven’t been treated so harshly by posterity: if we espouse the theory that staying in a country where there is a fascist regime in power automatically means collaborating, then we wouldn’t be playing the music of Shostakovich, or Prokofiev who went back and studied in Russia. Would we ever play even one note of Wagner if we took this to its logical conclusion? Or of Berlioz, who made some extremely anti-Semitic comments in his published writings? The question of separating the art from the artist is an immensely sensitive and difficult one, but there has to be consistency: anybody who has a problem with Franz Schmidt staying in Austria should also boycott Wagner altogether.

The other issue is that up until very recently we were taught to appreciate clarity and directness in music above pretty much everything else: if you look at Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, it’s structurally impeccable and the harmonic directions are all very clear. Then you look at people like Reger and Schmidt and even Mahler, who simply didn’t fit that profile and were patronised well into the twentieth century: even when I was a student, I remember my then-90-year-old teacher Max Rudolf declaring that Mahler was ‘a great conductor, and an amateur composer’! Nothing he wrote made any sense according to contemporary standards of what a symphony was supposed to be: it was dismissed as too kitsch and banal, with too many wedding-marches and cowbells and posthorns and god knows what else! That perspective was very prevalent throughout Austria for a long, long time: it was really Leonard Bernstein who brought Mahler back to Vienna, and perhaps Schmidt still needs that same sort of advocacy…

How have you been spending your time in lockdown?

I’ve actually been conducting quite a lot: there were some concerts with the Philharmonia from Battersea Arts Centre, a filmed performance of Mozart, Ravel and Shostakovich with the London Symphony Orchestra for the Proms, and I just got back from doing the Eroica Symphony and Sibelius’s Karelia Suite in Munich (which was also filmed). There was also an interesting French programme in Hamburg, and if nothing changes I’m hopefully heading off to Bremen shortly for a Beethoven cycle. [This project was subsequently cancelled due to lockdown restrictions].

I try to do something productive every day, and that includes exploring a lot of new music: there’s a whole list of composers I’m getting into for various projects, including Julia Wolfe and Caroline Shaw. I’m also trying to convince myself about a few mainstream pieces which don’t come easily to me, such as some of the Brahms choral music which I’ve always wanted to like more than I do…it’s growing on me!

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Paavo Järvi

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC