How has the orchestra’s approach to the Beethoven symphonies evolved over the years?
This is a discussion that is very much alive in the orchestra: when we first started, we had no repertoire. So, with every piece that we were approaching we had to work and to discuss, in the old-fashioned way. For years we worked like this, never doing more than one Beethoven symphony in a year – and then we played it over and over again. So, it took us twelve years before we completed the cycle with the Ninth. If you play such pieces again after so many years, things start to change: tempi have changed and whereas we had always been arrogant about all those conductors, who after a certain period of time, decided to rerecord pieces, we – the orchestra members and me personally – now think that it is a good idea to do it again. Frans Brüggen, though, is not convinced yet, but we are putting up the pressure on him to create circumstances where we can rerecord them all. And in the meantime there is the brilliant new Bärenreiter edition of the Beethoven Symphonies by the musicologist Jonathan Del Mar. He did what no one had done before (and it has been one of the greatest criticisms of Frans toward the modern jet-set conductors) and went to the libraries and studied those scores. There are so many mistakes in previous editions. Of course it is about details, but if you add all those details together, there are a lot of small rhetorical signs and dynamics, signs and sometimes notes which had been incorrect in previous editions. Now these are rectified to a certain higher level of perfection.
How does Frans Brüggen now approach these symphonies?
What I notice is that there is a constant process of growing into these scores and that really makes a recording of the works from twenty years ago different to what happens now. It is like growing older: if you tell a story when you are twenty, forty and then sixty years old you will always get different approaches to the story that you are trying to tell. It is also to do with knowledge. Frans is a studying conductor: you never see him at a dinner or a party. He just sits and studies. He has a limited range of scores that he feels professionally capable of conducting (from 1730 to 1830). But he really made his choice about where he feels at home and where he wants to know as much as can be known about some music. It is a strange mixture about being a great musician yourself, knowing and studying a lot and working and working…
For a forthcoming release of the Mozart Violin Concertos, how did the collaboration with Thomas Zehetmair come about?
It started with Thomas – he and Frans had first met at the Tonhalle in Zurich and have been playing together for 15 years – telling Brüggen that everybody thinks that he was only interested in contemporary music and that was not true at all. Frans invited to him to perform and record the Beethoven concerto (released a long time ago on Philips) and this was a sensation for us, full of sheer excitement. Thomas is a great player: he never talks, he just stands there, but it works between Frans and him. Occasionally, we feel the desire to work with somebody else – and Frans has always been stimulating this – and for a tour of South America (Frans isn’t too keen on flying) Thomas accepted our invitation to act as guest conductor and played a Mozart Violin Concerto. This was a great joy and slowly we decided to record these concertos for Glossa. We did one in Brazil then two in Holland and have built up the cycle of five concertos: three of them with Thomas as konzertmeister, two of them we recorded with Frans plus the Sinfonia concerante – which has been recently set down, with Thomas being joined by his wife, Ruth Killius. To me, these performances differ from standard interpretations in being more transparent, using no vibrato, different tempi and a different role of the soloist. Maybe we listen better to each other more successfully. A result of a deeply-considered and intensive process of friendship and collaboration.
How does the orchestra maintain its sense of creative energy after all these years?
Frans Brüggen and I started the orchestra in 1981 (I am a musicologist) and from the beginning we intended it to be a kind of family band: we do not have auditions, we do not try to become younger than we are, the average age increases every year. Since Frans is the eldest we just decided that we would go on for as long as possible. When Frans stops, we stop and we are all history from that moment onwards. So it is a very close circle of friends (we are from twenty-three) countries. We gather only four or five times annually: we all come to Amsterdam, we rehearse, and then go on tour. We then all go home and do our own things, so it never becomes boring – and it always feels like a surprise, even a miracle, if we see each other after two months of separation. I think that the secrets behind our glorious feeling are threefold. Firstly, of course, the repertoire (we have to be modest – it is much easier to travel around with that than with Brian Ferneyhough or Sciarrino). Secondly, it is Frans. If after 27 years you still adore and still get inspired by your maestro, then he must have the quality of a magician because usually you get very irritated by conductors. The third pillar in our existence is this structure of not playing all the year round, but being very well prepared; the players know long in advance when they should make time for the orchestra. We are a strange society: we all earn the same, I pay the airplanes, hotels and dinners and the remainder is divided into 50 equal parts. So even Frans, or Thomas Zehetmair, or Simon Rattle (who once worked with us) they always get the same.
Mark Wiggins © 2008 Diverdi / Glossa Music