Interview: Andris Nelsons on Bruckner and Shostakovich

James Jolly Mon 16th April 2018

James Jolly talks to the newly appointed Leipzig Gewandhausorchester Kapellmeister and the Music Director of the Boston Symphony

Andris Nelsons (Photo: DG/Marco Borggreve)

Andris Nelsons (Photo: DG/Marco Borggreve)

Andris, you’re currently engaged on two symphony cycles with your two orchestras: Shostakovich in Boston and Bruckner in Leipzig. How did you match composer to orchestra? Is there, for example, a strong Bruckner tradition in Leipzig.

The influence of early music, of Bach and the transparency of Bach strikes me so clearly when they play Bruckner. They approach it from that early tradition and there are so many moments in Bruckner which sound almost like Renaissance music. Obviously, you can play it in a full-bodied, ultra-rich way but I feel there moments that are so religious, so pure or so naïve - he writes three pianos – that it just feels like music from centuries earlier. And the Gewandhausorchester’s ability to play this music is very special and they have so much to say about Bruckner: there a sensitivity and intimacy that I like very much. Also, I’m trying to look into Bruckner’s heart and trying to show Bruckner the human being with all his doubts, obsessions and so on as well as Bruckner the man who is very religious, and lives according to certain strong rules, and how that sometimes conflicts and sometimes fulfils his approach in his music. Of course, there’s the Mendelssohn influence too - you can’t play Mendelssohn in a heavy way - it’s lighter, almost sensual. And it sounds very fresh if you bring that aspect to Bruckner too.

But there’s a Shostakovich tradition in Leipzig too …

Yes. Historically and politically, because East Germany was very influenced by the Soviet Union. And of course Kurt Masur famously did a cycle in which he paired Beethoven with Shostakovich. With Boston, it’s interesting because Koussevitzky of course as Music Director [1924-49] brought a lot of Slavonic and Russian music to Boston but he was a great champion of so many composers. But there are several Shostakovich symphonies which the orchestra has never played - like No 11 which we've just recorded. The idea to do a cycle came about because not many of the music directors in Boston played much Shostakovich except the Fifth and Tenth. (Jimmy Levine didn’t do any of them, and Seiji did only No 10.)   

When one thinks of Boston, one thinks of French repertoire…

Yes, and the French tradition is very strong. But when we performed the Tenth, I had never experience his music played with such precision, intensity and also depth of sound. It wasn’t about loud or soft, or fast and very fast, it was music with guts. And with Shostakovich you need to have that the power and concentration of sound. It’s technically challenging too - and I’ve never experienced that kind of musical satisfaction. I know every orchestra is different, and it’s often very satisfying, but with Boston there’s something very special. They caught the spirit of that music very well. And Boston also has a strong Mahler tradition as well, and we know of Shostakovich’s interest in and influence from Mahler. 

I get the feeling that of the great 20th-century composers, Shostakovich’s music makes an incredible impact on audiences because it uses a language that we’re used to, largely from films and TV …

I think I would agree. There is something in his music that creates an enormous audience reaction - I don’t just mean from the applause but really enjoying it. In concert, we paired Shostakovich and Gubaidulina and we thought ‘It's a tough programme’ but the audience loved the Gubaidulina and they loved the Shostakovich. And they’d never heard those pieces before. Shostakovich’s music speaks to every audience: for its Russian-ness or for its more political, orientated angle, or simply because of its sound world. Sometimes it gives you goose-bumps that you simply can’t explain - you feel somehow connected to the music. And of course, Shostakovich had to deal with such a challenging life being accused of Formalism after Lady Macbeth and being one of, if not the most talented composers of the Soviet Union at such a young age. He was one of the most forward composers of his time and then the next day he was the biggest enemy of music in the Soviet Union. It must have been a terrible shock for him and he had to survive, still writing music. So, he developed this double or triple life, with so many ways of fooling the authorities. There are so many layers in his music and because of that you find sarcasm, grotesque, irony, humour, drama, exaggeration … there’s always this double or triple meaning. At the same time it’s about him expressing his own feelings about love or hate or what he feels about life or tyranny or about beauty or about his memories of childhood. And he always wanted to support his country because I think he was also a very patriotic citizen.

How important is it for a conductor of music like Shostakovich’s to know what was happening at the time of composition, or is what’s in the score enough?

I always think that with any composer - Beethoven, or Shostakovich, or Mahler, or Bruckner –it’s very important to read and listen to as much as possible. To find out as much as possible what was happening, what was the background because, even though there are two dimensions to every piece of music, it does help to understand the music better and, in Shostakovich, try to understand why, for example, the Ninth Symphony is how it is. Why, when everyone was expecting something like Beethoven’s Ninth, maybe with a chorus, he just delivered this joke. So, if you don’t know the background you hear a symphony that’s a little Haydnish. At the same time, it’s important not to become too politicised - he was not the only one who was accused of Formalism but we don’t talk so much about the others. Shostakovich was a genius composer and even if you don’t know anything about the political background when you listen to this music it still speaks to you - maybe differently to everyone, but it immediately speaks to you. This might be too strong to say, but to me Shostakovich is like a Russian Mozart in that everything he writes is wonderful across all the genres and even when he was writing propaganda music for the movies it’s still wonderfully written. I think the symphonies are very consistent - I wouldn’t say that one or two are weaker than the others. They are so very different and I couldn’t say which is my favourite. Everything he writes, independent of any political background is writing of genius. 

Are there any similarities, beyond their status as symphonists, between Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Neither of these composers, it seems to me when we perform them, is an egotistical composer. You don't feel at any point that the composer is complaining about himself or his life, or that ‘It’s all about me’. There’s no ego-centricity. Take Mahler, another genius, and it’s all about himself! 

You have a kind of connection to Shostakovich as you studied with both Mariss Jansons and Neeme Järvi and they both were at the Leningrad Conservatory when Mravinsky was there. So, it’s not too many steps away back to Shostakovich …

Yes. I was very lucky because on the one hand it was the Soviet Union when I started to study and I also spent three years in St Petersburg studying conducting and of course Mariss and the other teachers from that time who knew Shostakovich. And not just the conducting teachers. I remember a lesson about string technique and my teacher was a former concertmaster of Mravinsky’s orchestra and he told me about all about the bowing and what Mravinskly did. It was so interesting. And the tradition seems so close because of the historical influence. And Shostakovich was played a lot during my student years in Latvia. At that time - the Soviet era – all the books gave the Party line about what the symphonies were all about. Just as they said what Beethoven’s Ninth was all about. It was all propaganda but still the music spoke to people. You can't change how people react. And music, thank God, is a universal language. And Bruckner also has this lack of ego. You feel he is dedicated to God or that he’s happy about beautiful things, or he’s sad but he’s not complaining. (Not that there’s anything wrong with complaining! As I said, I love Mahler!) Also I think the personalities of Bruckner and Shostakovich are similar: both were very shy, both insecure and nervous … When you see and hear Shostakovich talking you would never think this is the composer who wrote the Fourth Symphony. 

With Bruckner the insecurity caused unbelievable complications with all the versions of many of the symphonies. Do you have a general rule of thumb for which editions you opt for? Or is there a Leipzig approach?

It’s an ongoing question generally - certainly within me. What should be the right approach? I haven’t a correct answer. Generally, we’re opting for the Novak editions, so mostly the established versions. There are many stories of his students egotistically using Bruckner’s symphonies to show off and demonstrate how it should be done! After reading some of the things they said about Bruckner’s symphonies it’s difficult for me to perform their versions. I know Bruckner approved them because he was very insecure and he was struggling with the form and wasn’t sure how to resolve his problem. Sometimes, of course, the suggestions were very helpful. Sometimes, it’s very interesting to go back to the very original version and then think back to when I was a trumpeter - I’d never want the first performance to be recorded and it’s the same with a new score. So, for now, it’s Novak and the more established, traditional, middle way perhaps. 

And Bruckner’s Ninth?

I’m not yet convinced that the fourth movement should be performed. It’s interesting to know it but for me …

…it’s a bit like the Schubert Unfinished. It’s one of those works that’s complete in its incompleteness! 

I agree. I don't feel it’s lacking anything. 

And is there a method to the order you’ve chosen to perform and record them in? With the Bruckners you’ve done Nos 3, 4 and 7 - are you saving the big challenges for later?

Of course, we wanted to start with one that’s not done so often but is already very Brucknerian, and I’ve great sympathy for the Third. It’s already very much presenting the Bruckner style. Then we thought we’d follow them with two of the most popular ones, Nos 4 and 7, and also logistically it worked because my inauguration concert was to include the Seventh which the Gewandhausorchester premiered. We try to mix the better-known works with the rarer ones. So that’s why we’re spreading them out. And we’re pairing nearly all of them with Wagner because not only haver I a great love for Wagner’s music but so did Bruckner. And Wagner was born in Leipzig too! There is also a big influence from Wagner to Bruckner even though they sound very different. You could never say that Bruckner is in the shadow of Wagner, or copying Wagner. This modesty of Bruckner and admiration for so many composers, including Wagner …

… who, as a character was the complete opposite!

Yes, Wagner said awful things about Bruckner’s symphonies - like they were long snakes! So, basically, Wagner thought Bruckner was a rather dim countryman, but I do have huge sympathies for him as a man. It's all based on what I’ve read and what my intuition tells me - and what the music says to me, and my own emotional connection to the music …

… but that is basically what your role, as conductor, is all about… 

No conductor can claim to be truly authentic  - you can never know 100 per cent how Bruckner felt. Of course you can do your reading, but at the end it’s subjective. If Bruckner writes ppp and you take the view, ‘Let’s play it just one p and molto espressivo’ because you think it sounds better then it’s not interpretation …

…it’s imposing. 

But if you look the score and try to make it live through your emotional response - your heart and your vision - that’s how it should be.

And of course, classical music would die if there was just one standard way of performing every piece of music, and every conductor and orchestra’s performances would be identical. But your Bruckner sounds very different from X’s Bruckner - and that’s what keeps classical alive …

And people sometime ask me why we record Bruckner when there are so many good recordings already there. I would never claim to record a great or definitive recording of Bruckner; we with the Gewandhausorchester want to perform, and record and share our vision of this great genius composer and show his humanity to a new generation. Of course it’s subjective but I think after ten, 20 years there should be another recording and people would see it from a different perspective. It’s the same with Beethoven. It’s not because we’re saying ‘Now, somebody finally got the Fifth!’. There shouldn’t be a competitive feeling because it’s not possible - we’re not here to beat Karajan or Bernstein! It’s great music and for every age it’s actual.  And with Shostakovich, whatever’s happening in the world seems to be reflected in the music. You can almost heal listening to that music, and with Bruckner it’s maybe even stronger. Here was a man who fought inside himself, full of doubts. It’s so interesting to show him as a human being who chose this way. It’s not like a museum piece, for me it’s still actual. These people speak to us all these years later. 

Andris Nelsons’s DG release of Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 has just been reviewed, with No 7 just out too. His recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 won Gramophone’s Orchestral Award in 2016. (Photos: DG/Marco Borggreve)

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