It’s a puzzle, isn’t it, this symphony? When we think of Beethoven, we always think of music with great depth and profundity. So is it really possible that, after his Seventh Symphony and before his Ninth – those great, epic works – such a genius could write a ‘little Classical symphony’? It looks and sounds like some kind of a joke and that’s exactly what I think it is. It’s the joke of a great genius. It is Beethoven, after all, but you cannot treat it like those other works, because he is taking an unexpected step in an unexpected direction. It is completely wrong to try and play this piece in the style of the Ninth. I have realised that to apologise in any way for the sudden change of character and quirkiness of this piece would diminish it. There are still so-called Beethoven ‘specialists’ who are trying to find profound, inner meaning in this symphony. So far as the tonality of the piece is concerned, it shares a key signature with the Pastoral Symphony, but, if there is any profound connection between the two works, I cannot find it.
In symphonies such as the Seventh and the Ninth, there can be a certain leeway to hide behind certain Romantic and expansive gestures. Not so with the Eighth. This is a wonderful little gem, but you do encounter in it technical and musical challenges. It’s not a piece that works unless everyone is convinced about the common interpretation. The direction must be agreed. You need an orchestra that possesses extreme virtuosity, which is also convinced about a shared approach and interpretation. Otherwise the piece will appear clumsy, out of breath, endlessly speedy – or just messy. It’s a great challenge and, in my relationship with this symphony, I feel my journey is never complete. Along with Schumann’s Symphony No 3, I find this symphony to be one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire to start. I always ask the musicians to be ready to play when I am still backstage, so we can begin the instant I arrive on the podium. It’s a practical thing. It’s essential to capture as much energy as possible in that first phrase.
‘He was deaf, but he was not stupid. He knew how to work a metronome’
If you study Beethoven’s metronome markings, you learn to treat ‘adagio’ in a less literal, more conceptual, context. In fact, the key to this piece as a whole has been to put trust in Beethoven’s metronome markings. He was deaf, but he was not stupid. He knew how to work a metronome. There are so many interesting and important details and it requires remarkable agility to capture the speed, the nuances and the colours. It then follows that you cannot play this piece with a large symphony orchestra. Even with a smaller group it is difficult, which is why I will conduct this work only with orchestras with whom I have an established relationship. It’s not enough for them to ‘meet me halfway’. If the musicians are unwilling – or, more likely, unable – to play it with the necessary dexterity, the piece simply won’t work. They need a chamber music attitude, and that means adequate rehearsal time is essential too. To achieve the necessary lightness and precision, a shift in mentality is needed. If you focus just on beauty and slow the piece down in the style of music of the mid-20th century, you might gain certain, beautiful moments, but you will lose the piece. This is not about making a beautiful sound, but neither is it a matter of achieving cold precision.
I discovered the type of Beethoven in which I am now involved through Sir Roger Norrington, whom I regard as one of the great musical revolutionaries. None of us are in music because we want to change anything. It is simply that a lot of traditions don’t make sense. For me, the interesting and important process is not setting out to convince other people of anything: it is making the piece work for you, yourself. You must build a coherent form. I grew up in a conductor’s family; and my introduction to the symphonies of Beethoven came from recordings by Bruno Walter, Klemperer and Furtwängler. I first heard this music as incredibly Brahmsian, Romantic and beautiful. Performances by the old masters all treat the slower movements in particular with the ears and mind of someone who has already heard Wagner. There was a historic misunderstanding. The kind of slow movement we tend to expect from someone after Wagner simply didn’t exist in Beethoven’s time. If you listen to Bruckner, under the real Bruckner conductors such as Wand, Jochum or Harnoncourt, those slower movements too make more sense when they are not ritualised. When I first played a recording by Roger Norrington, at the beginning I thought there was something wrong with my machine. I was literally speechless. At first this approach seemed to me absolutely wrong, but at the same time exhilarating. Then I learned about ‘Historically Informed Performance’ and I am glad to say, we are very ‘HIP’ now!
Interview by Michael McManus