An interview with Heinz Holliger

Alan Blyth Sat 1st November 2014

Alan Blyth talks to Heinz Holliger, November 1972

Heinz Holliger, just about the most reticent and shy player or composer I have ever met, also has one of the most searching minds among the present school of musicians. In both of his spheres, he has achieved his position by his own talents and hard work. His parents were not very musical, although his father was an amateur violinist. 'I began to play the recorder when I was only four and the piano when I was six. I should like to have begun the oboe about then, but there was nobody to teach me in our village, so I could not start until I was 11, when I went to a teacher in Berne. I was always fascinated by the timbre of the instrument, even when I heard it badly played in our local orchestra. Oddly enough, once I took up the oboe I became more interested than I had been before in the piano, and I studied both instruments side by side. Even now, I still sometimes play duos for harp and piano with my wife'. 

At Berne, Holliger attended the Berne Conservatoire while going to the grammar school there. 'During the holidays I used to go to Paris and when I had finished school I studied for a year at the Conservatoire Nationale. I was disappointed in the oboe teaching there – I just had to play a lot of scales – but I learned a lot about the piano. I also met Messiaen, but I wasn't sufficiently knowledgeable to benefit from his music, having been brought up in a conservative atmosphere. At that time I was already writing music – in fact, I had been "composing" since I was six. I suppose I wrote in a kind of impressionistic style, very imitative. 

'As I only got the second prize for oboe playing at the Conservatoire, I got angry and left. Two months later, I won the first prize at the Geneva competition – and the French students who had done well in Paris got nothing, much to their annoyance. After Geneva, I began to get engagements. I also became an oboe player in the Basle orchestra. Then when I had won the Munich competition in 1961, naturally my solo playing began to expand. I also started to record – although I'd like to forget my recording debut with a small company. In 1964, however, I made my first serious record, for DG – a Mozart Concerto. My connection with Philips started in 1966 when I made several records with I Musici. 

'Sometimes I like recording because you can work out something that corresponds to your ideas of what you want to get out of a piece. But occasionally you simply have to record when you're in a bad frame of mind. Certainly, I'm more nervous before a microphone than in front of an audience. An audience relaxes me, although I must say I'm not specially interested in communicating with them. My own personal state affects my performance much more than the reaction of those in front of me'. 

Holliger has recorded quite a bit of the usual baroque repertory, which he knows is popular, but he is much more interested in other things. 'I'm at last going to be able to record Zelenka, a Czech contemporary of Bach, all his trio sonatas for two oboes, bassoon, and continuo. For me, this is the most fascinating music ever written for oboe. He was – and is – almost unknown: he was forbidden to publish his works by the Archbishop of Dresden because of intrigues against Hasse. I would call his music baroque-experimental, the extreme to which that style could go, very complex in harmony and counterpoint.

Then I would like to record some of François Couperin's concertos from Les Goutsréunis, many of which I have done in broadcasts in Switzerland. There is also a sonata I have played in London by Bach – an early manuscript of the B minor Flute Sonata. It comes from the Cöthen period, written 20 years before the other and in G minor, without the solo instrument. It wasn't possible on a traverso flute because it only went down to low D, and this work goes down to G, only reached by a baroque oboe'. 

Has he any favourites among his many recordings? 'I sometimes find it depressing that records I don't care for so much have much greater success than those I myself prefer. I think my best disc is one on which my name doesn't even appear – the Op 9 of Albinoni (Philips, 3/67), solo and double concertos with I Musici, and theirs is the only name on the label. Then I like the new complete Handel concertos with the ECO. I used only to play the G minor because I thought the others were uninteresting; now I realise how mistaken I was'. 

Several composers have written works for Holliger, among them a concerto by Richard Rodney Bennett. 'That's very brilliant. I like too the Berio Sequenza. Then Penderecki, the Italian composer, Castiglione, and Globokar have written very interesting pieces for me; so have the Russian composer, Denisov, and Jolivet. Britten has promised me a piece but that's delayed by his new opera. Then there are the works written for me and my wife – the double concertos by Martin, Henze and most recently Krenek. Paul Sacher, who has commissioned the Britten work, has also asked Lutosławski to write a double concerto for us'. 

Holliger and his wife Ursula, the harpist were married in 1962 and have one daughter. Their home is in Basle. 'My wife and I have independent careers, but we also play together quite often. Sadly for the child we can be away from home for three months at a time. My mother-in-law then looks after her. Nor do I like travelling all that much, but if you live in Switzerland what else can you do? This year I've tried to concentrate my engagements in order to have more free periods – but that can be very tiring. Strangely enough I've not been to America very much: foreign wind instrumentalists are not really "in" there, and they're hardly ever engaged with orchestras. They always choose their own players. And baroque music is not nearly so popular there. When they do tackle it, the style is usually wrong, except in the universities. Besides when you get there, you find the managements take all the money and you're squeezed out like an orange. Japan is another matter and we now go there every year'. 

With all his travelling, like other executant composers, he finds it difficult to find time to write. 'Lately I've been playing many modern programmes. That means a great deal of practice, which also makes it hard to sit down and compose. Then sometimes when I do have the time, I have no ideas! But I find the oboe repertory restricting and so I must write as well. I also do a lot of research to discover old music – such as the Zelenka. I have hundreds of unpublished works for oboe at home. But it takes time to sort them out and find the good ones. I'm constantly going through museum catalogues and libraries looking for works. There are many from the 19th century to be re-discovered too, for instance Rimsky-Korsakov's variations for oboe and wind band, and a piece by Ponchielli. There is even the possibility of a Beethoven concerto – the sketches for this are known, and it's mentioned in one of Haydn's letters and in an inventory of Diabelli's music shop in 1820 he still had a copy. Now a collector in Germany says he has some of the orchestral parts. Then of course there's that Mozart concerto many scholars considered an oboe work. Now it has been proved by some sketches that the first version was definitely for oboe. I think it will soon be published by Baerenreiter'. 

Holliger teaches at Freiburg, not far from his home. 'I have 10 pupils there, and I should teach about 18 hours a week. Although I have very good pupils, I don't care much for teaching. At my present age, I don't find I have enough contact with them. Maybe, when I'm older'. 

After that digression, we got back to talking about his compositions. His last piece to be performed when we had our conversation was the Dona Nobis Pacem for 12 singers, written for the Schola Gantorum of Stuttgart and done for the 1971 Graz Festival. 'Another piece for myself involves me playing while I have a microphone on my heart and the heartbeats are played back over a loudspeaker. Then there is my re-writing of Siebengesang, on a Trakl text for the BBC, using a solo soprano, small choir, a big choir and three instrumental groups. I think it may be too complicated'. Since I spoke to Holliger I have found out that the piece is not yet completed, but Boulez and the BBC will give the premiere as soon as it is finished. 

In his compositions, as can be seen-and heard – he tries to get right away from traditional sounds. 'That is the only way I can be true to myself and it reflects my uncertain attitude to life itself. I used to write more conventionally and I don't say that my latest pieces are better than my earlier ones – which I will never disown – but they use the only method I am happy with today'. 

He disputes the view that his sort of music creates no contact with audiences. In fact, the reverse. 'Experimental music often brings audiences into much closer contact with composers and executants. Berio and Stockhausen now have much more success in reaching the younger generation than they did with their earlier pieces. And in a conventional concert you often feel that the event is a ritual – there is no real cooperation between audience and performers'.

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