Vasily Petrenko meets me in the press lounge at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Although he’s just finished a gruelling afternoon of rehearsals for Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, he appears energetic and eager to talk about his newly released recording of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote with the Oslo Philharmonic.
We begin by marvelling at the score’s staggering inventiveness in terms of form – an amalgam of symphonic poem, theme and variations, and sinfonia concertante – in addition to its orchestral legerdemain and vivid characterisations. ‘And remember that Strauss was only in his early thirties when he wrote it,’ Petrenko says. ‘He wrote it at the same time as Ein Heldenleben. Did you know he even insisted on performing the two works side by side in concert? Nobody does it, of course, because the orchestra would probably die.’ We both laugh, but actually Petrenko doesn’t think the idea is so outlandish. ‘I think it would be fascinating for an audience to have these two visions of the hero – one an ideal in the style of Beethoven, and one who’s, shall we say, a bit more quirky.’ But which hero is the more sympathetic? I myself admit that I find the portrayal of Cervantes’s Don the more likeable. With a wry smile, Petrenko dodges the choice. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘even Strauss himself said that he wasn’t sure which one was closer to his nature – the dreamer or the one who did the deeds.’
A lot of things in Strauss’s tone poems are cinematographic in terms of how one cut goes into another. For me, he laid the groundwork for Hollywood musicVasily Petrenko
There are less philosophical issues to consider, however, and as we open the densely notated score, Petrenko tells me that the technical challenges begin straight away. He points to the first full bar where the strings must join their pizzicatos to the last note of the flute’s demisemiquaver run. ‘Because it’s so fast, it’s really difficult. And then to immediately place the entrance of clarinets and bassoons so they’re in tempo and not rushed – there really needs to be a sense of flexibility. After that come the phrases of the second fiddles, marked grazioso, which need to feel light and dreamy on the one hand, but also clear, and it’s really quite tricky to play. We’re framing the picture here, giving the sense of the room where Quixote is sitting and reading his book.’
Petrenko notices that I’ve written ‘Mahler 6 & 7’ in my score at rehearsal number 3 (on the recording at 2'03" on track 1). I explain that I find it astounding that Strauss wrote this Mahlerian-sounding passage before Mahler had even completed his First Symphony. ‘Yes, using the muted trumpets together with all those low instruments, it is very much that Mahler sound – and particularly of the Seventh Symphony where he added some mysterious colours for his night sentinel theme.’
He turns the page and taps on the solo violin’s line (at 3'06"). ‘Here you can imagine Quixote reading his book about knights, and thinking of Dulcinea, and it seems to go into the clouds with the solo violin, which sounds as if it’s playing in a different key. One can feel the Don’s consciousness drifting away from his reading into a wider territory. He’s no longer following the story in the book but his own story. He’s daydreaming, and how Strauss illustrates this is just incredible.’ Indeed, as we keep turning the pages and the music becomes increasingly complex and dissonant, pulled this way and that by thematic fragments and opposing keys, I ask if it’s even possible to hear all that’s going on, if it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees, as it were. ‘One of the things I’ve discovered in making this series of Strauss recordings in Oslo is that it is very easy to make his music sound spectacular if you can achieve transparency, but that alone won’t give enough of the texture. You really need a sense of both foreground and background. To do this requires a great orchestra, obviously, and it’s important to tell them what the priority is from moment to moment.’
When we get past the introduction to the presentation of Quixote’s ‘theme’, Petrenko reminds me that Strauss originally wanted the solo cellist to be drawn from the orchestra. ‘We’re so lucky to have Louisa Tuck as principal in Oslo. And also our principal violist Catherine Bullock, and our leader Elise Båtnes – they all do an incredible job. Here it’s essential that the cello conveys nobility, and at the same time there should not be even a hint of arrogance. Louisa and I spoke a lot about this. Quixote is not arrogant at all. That’s why we’re so sympathetic to him. Even if he’s doing stupid things like fighting with sheep or monks, he’s humble and, most important of all, he’s sincere. If you start’ – he sings the opening cello solo in a pompous tone – ‘then you’ve lost all that. His theme needs to touch the heart – that’s what we’re aiming for.’
Petrenko has tender feelings towards Sancho Panza, too. ‘It’s important to portray his character not just as a servant but as a friend. He’s certainly more practical than Quixote, and he’s not stupid – he’s wise, in fact. He saves his knight from many things, and clearly loves him so much that he’ll never leave him. So Sancho needs to be presented as very real, which is why I asked the viola and bass clarinet and other instruments who give us his character not to overplay it, not to make him hysterical, even if Sancho does get hysterical in some places!’
We proceed through the variations. The conductor stops to admire Strauss’s genius in evoking the sound of sheep in Variation 2. Other composers have captured the sound of the pasture, he says, but never to this extent. ‘It’s not just a sound from nature here. For Don Quixote, the sheep represent evil, and Strauss shows that through the music with the brass playing frullato’ (flutter-tonguing). Then comes Quixote’s impassioned conversation with Sancho in Var 3, and in particular the glorious passage that suddenly slips into a radiant F sharp major to represent the Don’s dream of knighthood (at 3'57"). ‘Here, again, it’s very tempting to tell most of the orchestra to shut up and listen to the melody, but that won’t work. You need support from the other instruments – a light accompaniment, yes, but still with presence. The listener needs to be able to see the whole picture, otherwise it’s like someone singing a song with an empty background.’
Petrenko discusses some of the conductor’s challenges in Var 5, notably how to evoke the sudden refreshing breeze (at 1'51"), written quasi cadenza in the score. ‘Just how to beat it is difficult, as it’s in 12.’ And on either side of this aero-oasis the orchestra is required to do a lot of waiting and counting while the cello pours out its melancholy soliloquy. ‘It’s really tricky for the soloist, of course, but also for the orchestra, so when you come to Var 6 everybody has a sense of relief. This always gets smiles from the players, actually, but then we’re moving into emotionally easier territory, too. Here, again, you see Strauss looking towards the 20th century in his use of two different keys at once.’
Quixote’s ride through the air in Var 7 is exhausting for whoever is turning the huge crank of the wind machine, I’m told – and especially when multiple takes are required in a recording session. And then we come to the barcarolle-like Var 8. I’m particularly struck by the quick transition Strauss concocts between the two, like a quick fade from one scene to another in a film. ‘Exactly,’ Petrenko says. ‘Obviously, this work predates cinema, but a lot of things in Strauss’s tone poems are cinematographic in terms of how one cut goes into another. For me, he laid the groundwork for Hollywood music. From him came Korngold and later Max Steiner and on to John Williams, ultimately.’ The conductor notes, too, that nearly all of the transitions in this work are quick except for the one from Var 10 to the finale, where Quixote takes the long trip home.
I tell him how affecting I find his performance of the finale, and that the way Tuck shapes its opening phrases makes me melt every time I hear it. ‘These 10 or 12 bars are probably the most difficult of all for both the conductor and the soloist. It needs to feel right. It’s not so much a matter of fast or slow, because every night it can be different. But if it feels right then what follows will flow naturally. Strangely enough, I think these bars, this return journey (and not the battles with his adversaries), are the key to the whole piece. There needs to be an acknowledgement of what has happened. The loud moments in Don Quixote are impressive, yes, but the quiet moments – those are the defining ones.’
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!