During your orchestra rehearsals I noticed that you continually
asked your players for a more modern response to the musical score. How
would you define modernism?
Chailly: To me it means that the search for timbre and colour and the identity of sound in the score should be translated properly. In the past, because of the glorious sound of this orchestra, there was a tendency to highlight everything with one sound character or identity. And this I found selfish and inflexible. I really made it very clear. Because of its outstanding muscial ability, the orchestra needed to match each composer's personality with the sound the composer required. This has happened and is an achievement. If we consider last night's programme, the "Rembrandt-gold sound" is still there. You could feel it in the Wagner Wesendonck-Lieder and the Bruckner Ninth. It is only a matter of using this glorious sound tradition when required. And in some instances, with modern composers or even Mahler, it is essential to bring some aspects of his music into the twentieth century rather than into the previous century.
JR: How does your understanding of modernism affect your interpretive decisions in the Mahler Fifth which you now program regularly and recorded recently as well as in the music of Edgard Varèse, notably in terms of instrumentation, compositional innovation such as brass and percussion and finally the social values understood by these composers at the time of composition?
Chailly: A score like the Mahler Fifth is a masterly way of demonstrating transparency in orchestral playing. I hate with all my inner power to read what I cannot hear. I repeat it everyday and it is a fundamental principle. I grew up with contemporary music which required attention to overall balance in order to make the score speak. In Mahler this is crucial. Before my time, Mahler was played with a much more late romantic approach - sometimes impossibly late romantic! I could not bear it! Often I would say Mahler is not the brother of Bruckner. He sounds like it, but this is not the case. But here, as in Italy, they would say, "it has been glorious thus far. It has always functioned, so why change it?" This is a matter of style. We are almost into the twenty-first century in music. Must we remain so old-fashioned mentally and musically? Mahler was a pioneer, a kind of pre-Varèse in his own concept of orchestral sound and the modernity of the orchestration and the intuition of new musical horizons. That's what I want to emphasize and I do and sometimes with big surprises. When I first started here, my Mahler Sixth was regarded as a "monster" interpretation in terms of modernity and daring and non-respect for the past. Critics and public qualified it as "abrasive, out-of-place modernism". Today, in retrospect, they realise that this was a turning point. I was much younger and more radical in my thinking than today. Now, we are much further along and less emotional about modernism in interpretation.
JR: If one takes an overview of your work, Rossini's Gugliemo Tell, Mahler, and more recently Zemlinksy's Eine florentinsche Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy), there seems to be an interest in narrative. In some ways it brings to mind modern writers such as Proust, James, Mann and Joyce and their narrative experiments with memory, stream of consciousness, decadence or language.
Chailly: That is an interesting approach. I have never thought of that. But a writer, to add to a list of writers, who could give me a feeling of what I am trying to achieve aesthetically would be Gabriel D'Annunzio in the narrative sense, notably in "Il fuoco" as a history of Italian art from humanism until his time. In a similar direction, I am trying to define and build a bridge to composers in a historical sense, or simply filling a gap. The passion I had for Zemlinsky for a number of years was not only because of his value as a composer but also stemmed from a historical need we had to profile him in Vienna between Brahms and Mahler. Until a few years ago, musicians did not realise how important this man was, if only in terms of teaching.
JR: As musicians and audiences become better acquainted with Mahler, Varèse and Zelimsky, how does this redefine our understanding of modernism and improve performance practices within a given sound tradition such as the Concertgebouw Orchestra?
Chailly: Well, Zemlinsky was almost unknown before my time in this orchestra and I think I played a major role not only as a conductor but also by inviting guest conductors to perform Zemlinsky's music. I think he should be regarded a little bit like Mahler, not so much in musical value because this is a very strong comparison, but because of what Zemlinsky represented as a conductor during his lifetime. Otto Klemperer took him to Berlin as his erste Kappelmeister. For many years he was close to important musicians like Kurt Weill, conducting almost all of his operas, and to Schoenberg both as family member and performer. Let's not forget that Zemlinsky gave the première of Gurrelieder in Prague. At that time, what could have been the public opinion of a piece like Gurrelieder, the gigantic form and the highly emotional content of the piece and the modernity of the third part, for instance. So, Zemlinsky for me - like Mahler - needs to be regarded as a great teacher, a great conductor, one of the best conductors of his time.
JR: Rossini has been a significant thread in your career from your early work with Gugliemo Tell to the most recent recording of Il Turco in Italia. How has your approach changed over the years?
Chailly: He is one of the most outstanding composers in terms of genius who apparently was born a century too late. Behind the appearances was a unique personality whose sense of humour I always find irresistable. Although it is rare, I find the way he highlights emotions quite interesting - the way he tries to open the doors of the heart - the catharsis. Even pieces such as his Cantatas, considered today as pastiche which means using pre-exisiting music from other operas with a change of text, recitative, etc. in order to produce a cantata for a religious or political event in Italy. Those are pieces of value. We know basically the opus of Rossini's operas but there is more to learn in the Cantatas. This is currently a four-year recording project with Decca.
JR: Twenty years ago, at the start of your career, you conducted some impressive opera casts, with Pavarotti, Caballé, Freni, etc. but you were not the motor force behind these events, which is no longer true today, where in the industry's eyes you now possess as much star quality as - for example - Bartoli in Il Turco. Does this give you more say in the overall artistic product, from casting on down?
Chailly: Basically we follow my choice of repertoire. Normally, I prefer to record an opera after a run of performances. That was the case with La Cerentola with Bartoli in Bologna and Il Turco in Italia at La Scala. My forthcoming recording of La Bohème is an exception because of a new critical edition which was prepared in advance at La Scala with sufficient rehearsal time. In terms of recording, nothing is forced between me and Decca. Sometimes they propose something such as the new Shostakovitch film music album. I made a selection of almost 3,000 pages of music written for film. Many are world première recordings and I found it very challenging. It was a Decca project that I participated in with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Normally, it's the reverse. They see what I'm doing during the winter season and we combine projects.
Photo : Top - Paul Huf / Decca