For most listeners the spotlight will be on Anne-Sophie Mutter during the next round of BSO subscription concerts, but some know that there is an interesting conductor onstage as well: Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony through 2020. His early experience as violinist and violist in the Vienna Philharmonic exposed him to numerous important conductors, whom he watched “like an eagle.” Honeck has no little wisdom to impart about conducting, conductors, and style. BMInt recently spoke with him at length.
F.L.E.: Please start by telling us about your memories of Von Karajan from when you were playing.
M.H.: It is a special memory, because when I jumped in as a substitute violinist in Salzburg for Rosenkavalier, it was amazing. We had one or two rehearsals, then a general rehearsal, and then a second general rehearsal, and that’s it. Then we gave the first performance.
Of course I was completely occupied with the music, first time playing first violin in the Vienna Philharmonic. It was incredibly touching for me, but to see Karajan with his weak body, he came on and then his hands on every shoulder and he went on to the next desk, and the next, right up to the podium. But once he was there, it looked like he was not so much involved. I’ll tell you one story: when Karajan was music director of Wiener Staatsoper in the ’60s, he performed Rosenkavalier there, and there’s a place in the third act, in the scene with Baron Ochs, where he asks the whole orchestra to join with their own voices—so not playing only, but the voice also—and they did “whoo,” the whole orchestra. He wanted to have an effect.
This isn’t in the score.
Not in the score, no. And so when I played it in Vienna, I was always laughing, because suddenly the orchestra started and there’d be all men, not a single woman except harp, and all of them “whoo” on a big crescendo, and the whole 100 people in the pit they started to do a crescendo.
Since then, every time when they performed Rosenkavalier they did it. In Salzburg they decided not to do it one time, in a performance. Secretly everybody agreed, please don’t do it, and we were a bit afraid Karajan would react angrily. And it came to the place, Karajan was always closing his eyes and had the fingers just so, and it came to this place and suddenly he missed this singing of the vocal part of the orchestra, and he looked about—what happened? what was the problem? you know—and he saw that the musicians were starting to laugh, and then he started also to laugh. We were relieved. For me it showed this guy was with every bar in the score, even as he had the feeling he might have lost contact with the singers and the orchestra. But he was always present with his concentration. It remained a funny story with us.
But you were a little afraid of him.
No, actually Karajan treated the orchestra in a very friendly way. Like a father, actually, I must say. In the earlier times, people told me, he was a dictator. But when I joined the orchestra people told me that he changed, he became more friendly and more welcoming and more positive and spreading of a great atmosphere. That’s when I met him.
When was the scandal about his appointing the first woman?
That was Sabine Meyer, in the clarinet section. It’s not a scandal, actually.
But that’s a democratic orchestra, isn’t it?
Yes, but it was probably more a question of letting any woman into the Berlin Philharmonic, not this particular one.
Now Berlin has a number of women, more than Vienna.
Yes, but not at that time.
Yet Berlin admitted women before Vienna did.
That’s right. But once again I would say Karajan was always one of the conductors who were ahead of the time. Not only was he interested in the best new equipment, the best technology, but he also knew that socially things were changing; the orchestral world has to change, we have to allow women to come in, both Berlin Philharmonic and also the Vienna Philharmonic. We were all a little surprised he advocated that, he really supported it. We thought Karajan was more old-school, wanting to keep things the same.
The players your age didn’t resist, did they? It was the older players?
I joined the Vienna Phil only after this happened. It was the older players, butI know the thinking behind it. We should never forget that for more than 100 years, the Vienna Philharmonic played only with males. They didn’t know anything else.
It is a club.
Exactly. It’s a Verein, an institution which has grown and nobody could believe it somehow would be changed. But it did, and [all] those in the orchestra are very good.
By the time you had three or four years with Karajan conducting, at that point in his life, could he teach you anything about conducting.
I tell you, I was watching every conductor like an eagle.
Which ones in particular?
I was assistant to Abbado, and I met Riccardo Muti, Lorin Maazel, and James Levine, but at that time I had no courage to go to Karajan. I was too young. Also, people were always around him, so I did not want to bother him. The same with Carlos Kleiber, actually. But I learned immensely from them. From Karajan I learned mostly his rehearsal technique and the way he created and treated the orchestra. What are the tricks, how can you produce with a lot of people a certain unique sound; I remember the way he insisted on doing things. The second movement of the Jupiter Symphony—he worked nearly 10 minutes with the first violins and polished everything. It was amazing.
The whole section, or just the concertmaster?
The whole section, which is very unusual for the Vienna Philharmonic, you know. And then we didn’t rehearse the rest at all. Just these 10 minutes, to polish the sound.
Did he talk, did he sing, how did he express himself?
He talked. You must not crescendo, or use more elegance, no attack, no accent….
More legato. Definitely legato—he was the very master of legato, which might be good for Karajan, but stylistically correct is another question. For me it was really sensational.
So there was a Karajan sound regardless of composer or orchestra.
Definitely. One thing I will never forget, we played the 39th Symphony of Mozart, which starts with full orchestra, the forte, the whole orchestra there [sings here], and Harnoncourt was asking us always to make a bell-like tone, no tenuto, the half-notes always relaxed. It was new for the Vienna Philharmonic, and it was amazing how the orchestra followed—they had no idea about this historical authentic interpretation, and yet did everything he asked. The next week, Karajan had the same symphony, and already after the first bar Karajan stopped. “No, mein Damen und herren, das muss klingen wie eine Orgel.” It must sound like an organ. I started to smile, realizing there are two worlds now. Then we started to create the sound he wanted to have. And I must tell you one thing, I was surprised. Harnoncourt’s way was completely new and he was regarded at that time as a modern, with a fresh way of interpretation. And Karajan’s legato and vibrato were regarded as traditional, as old and so on. In the end, I loved both. I loved both. Why? Because Karajan did it the same from the first note until the end. He brought a certain style to it, a certain way that was right for that moment. We know it’s not musically historically right, but we all were somehow impressed by the beauty of the sound that came out, in the second movement, really so wonderfully, and the orchestra played great. Or so I thought, you know. Very polished, everything. No accents, no attacks, and exactly the opposite of Harnoncourt. And both were a success within weeks.
One says detached, one says connect.
But the orchestra could do both.
Well, because of the personalities, the orchestra was very willing to do that.
We have to know how the music might have been played in that time, so I think it’s good that you have the experience to play a violin with the old strings, with the old bow, just to know that. What I discover very often is that we go into music with technical questions and I personally don’t want at all to be occupied to think about Baroque bowing or classic bowing or the old strings. I don’t want to do this. I want to know why these things are happening. Now, there are instruction books from earlier times, from Quantz, Bach, Leopold Mozart, we can all study that, but I like to keep in mind one sentence Leopold Mozart writes in his Methode: “Everything has to be with taste, alles must mit Geschmack gemacht habe.” It’s such a simple sentence, but we speak about taste, we speak about appoggiaturas, tenutos, we speak about vibrato. Now listen, I’m absolutely not against vibrato in playing Mozart. It just has to make sense. But it has to make sense in Stravinsky, or in Richard Strauss the same. It has to have sense. I don’t want just to use vibrato because, well, it’s beautiful music, so do vibrato. I work very often with the orchestra in this repertoire in talking about the deployment of the vibrato, we have the finger vibrato, hand vibrato, arm vibrato, you can start the notes without vibrato and then go into a vibrato, what I call the stringendo vibrato, so you can produce with the vibrato different atmospheres, different sounds, but use it in a way that it has taste. So when for example I do the Mozart Requiem and the text refers to Hell, Confutatus maledictus, why should they use a vibrato? There is no reason for it, it’s the opposite. I want to have a metallic sound and that brings me the most important question: with all the knowledge of history, we play for our current audiences. It’s 2014, and you want the people to understand the Mozart Requiem and the repertoire now in our time.
And you can imagine that every dissonance, and every accord that was a little bit dissonant, was shocking for the people. We know it from the reviews. People didn’t understand Beethoven’s Seventh, or the Eroica, they didn’t understand his first symphony very much because he started with a septachord. So people were shocked; Beethoven was a master of shocking. Now 200 years later we are used to having CDs, we are used to having music all around. For us it is not a shock at all that the symphony starts with the septachord, that there are dissonances. I’m just now working now with the Eroica, and the development of the first movement, the section where the climax in the end where the hemiola is written, at the end he puts a clusterlike harmony in it where the first violins play the F, the second violins play the E and C. So F, E, and C. That’s the climax. When people first heard the symphony, in 1805, it was a shock. Now for us, I have to get this to be as shocking as possible. So I ask for the second violin to play the open string, not on the A string, open string. It must be as sharp as possible that we get physically disturbed by the dissonance. And that’s the way we have to achieve this.
So this is the opposite of Von Karajan, who would have said “I have a sound, I’d like this to be smooth and always beautiful” and he didn’t want to shock.
Exactly. He didn’t, he wanted to have the heroic element, but heroic in the sense of tenuto and espressivo. So everything there is espressivo. And I say no, read the context of the music and look at it. I don’t want to be better than Karajan, please don’t misunderstand me. That’s one of the things I’ve learned in the last 15 years, to really find my own way. But we will talk about things like about with the BSO.
But to continue with this subject, at the end of the second movement there comes this theme [sings here], you say the coda, of the second movement. And there are carets or shifts on the notes and everybody plays short, short [sings here]. Then comes the melody, the bowing, the thirds with the first and second violin. I told them one story; this is the reason I think it is so good to get rid of the technical and music-historical. I told them how a funeral happened in Austria at that time, 200 years ago, and still, by the way, in today in some villages in Austria. The coffin was in the house where the person lived, and the priests with their sacristani came to the house and picked up the coffin and the priest was behind and then the relatives with the children and then all visitors and friends of the village. So they went from the house to the graveyard. During this, the church bell was ringing. And that’s exactly that [sings here] — it’s a procession. And then the friends and family are singing [sings here], and then the oboe is coming in, it’s the child, because it’s the only one in A-flat, he describes then with the thirds, it’s a tierce, and I told this today to the orchestra, you don’t play short notes just because it’s written, let’s feel it. It’s a procession which Beethoven experienced nearly every day, a procession to the graveyard. And the funny thing, two bars before, it’s very hidden, in the third horn [sings here], only in the third one. I can show you. You see here, here you see the bells, he put bells, the timpani already, and here the third horn; it was already regarded as a fate thing. And here’s the first violin, and the oboe is coming in, when they have a lot of sobbing [sings], and they still have the bells of the church.
So do you think the balance is going to be different in your interpretation as well as the quality of the lines?
Oh yes. I want at that moment that the people understand what I am talking about; I cannot explain it.
By telling stories, it’s almost more effective than making specific musical requests. Because they can imagine what you imagine too, and they can hear it based on this visual image.
Exactly. I came to this because you talked about Karajan. One of my favorite conductors was Carlos Kleiber. He talked only in pictures. He was not interested in talking about quick, slow—he was interested in feeling for the atmosphere. Typical of an opera conductor. And I think it is so important—I really learned this in the Vienna Philharmonic—we can play all these [standards], we don’t need to rehearse a Brahms symphony or a Beethoven symphony. But we don’t want just to play through and go home; no, we want to know what is the conductor coming to with the piece, is there something you can really understand more? And there are a lot of surprises, you know. If you really deeply think on the music, it is fascinating how you can change even a very familiar piece.
And it’s not only in Classical music, it can also be Tchaikovsky. In the fourth movement of the Fifth Symphony, you know, when you look on the folkloristic elements, how the Russians were treating that, then you will find things which makes the whole movement—which is a complicated movement, I think, musically—makes really much more sense. Even in Mahler, when you go back to the tradition of how it was actually played. It is written here, one two three, ta ta ta ta, one two three, ta ta ta ta, this is not the tradition, how the funeral band was playing. And I told them, listen, it is 100 years later, Gustav Mahler in his Fifth Symphony wrote in the opening of the trumpet, da da da dun, da da da dee, and he wrote below it “play this quicker” in a style of a funeral trumpet. But it was not Gustav Mahler’s idea, this was a tradition of the time.
It was in his head, in his ears….
Exactly. He’d joined a lot of funerals. Not only in Czechoslovakia but in Austria. It was the way they played this, da da da dum. So I gave them an idea how to do it. You cannot do it as it is marked in the score. And suddenly you get a feeling that of course it’s a march, the melody’s still here. [sings] And that makes me much more convinced. Of course we have to know how they played this at this time, and go also into the tradition of the time and the composer, whoever it is; it can be the 1930s—look at jazz, Gershwin was into it, look at the kind of jazz Gershwin was into, and not this dirty jazz which later on, which we came to believe is American. No, it’s good to look at it.
That’s the same with every composer. And that makes me much happier, when you find a convincing way you believe the composer is connected so very much with the [contemporary] folk music and his own tradition. It helps a lot to get this.
Did you pick this program?
The Dvořák was Anne-Sophie’s wish, so I picked Beethoven Three. You know, when Beethoven wrote this, he had no metronome markings. But 1817, right after Maelzel invented the metronome, he marked all his symphonies again. And we know the problem of Beethoven’s markings: they’re fast! If you conduct it close to what he has written, you might find the reason. For example the first movement of the Eroica, if we do it slow, it has a beautiful sound—that’s okay. But you might lose the dance. It is a dance, you should not forget. I don’t want to use the word minuet in a way that would be wrong, but the reason he didn’t compose a third movement minuetto is very simple—it’s already in the first movement. So he did the third movement scherzo. I think it’s very important to know this distinction. But why did he do this? What was the reason he did the first movement really as a dance, like a waltz, or of a dancy character—why did he do that? The interesting thing is we have to know that in that time the waltz was extremely popular. So … why? The reason is that in that time, still in the 1770s, some particular dances were not allowed. For example, the German dances. The king of Bavaria made it law that it was forbidden to dance. Can you imagine? Because they were too close to women. It was moral.
And Joseph II came to power, and was very liberal, and he said this is nonsense, I want to change this, and he gave a lot of composers then commissions. So you have the German dances from Schubert, from Beethoven, from Mozart, they all composed it. Now we are allowed to dance, and we celebrate together. The welcome of Napoleon, that was the Viennese way to do it, celebrate it. Celebrate with a dance. And of course there are a lot of elements where the trumpets and the timpani go da da da dum.
So this is almost program music?
It is programmatic. I would not compare this to Heldenleben, but I’m convinced that every music has a program. I would like to discuss this with Beethoven and Mozart. I read it and I believe without doubt that they have something in mind—there are symbolic elements, we know that. We just have to discover these things. And I believe very much there are a lot of fantastic things you still can bring out if you consider all the historic context. But still, in two days we will perform this symphony for 2014 for our audience, for our ears, which is really much more trained in music than before.
It’s not going to be as shocking as when it debuted, but you want it to be more shocking than when they heard it last year. You want the audience to know you have made some imprint, this is a different Eroica from they’re used to.
I would never say that it is different. I only would say that it in a way is in a moment, it is just in the moment, I could change my mind in 10 years. It might be, this is nonsense what I said 10 years ago. Could be, you know. But at the moment….
So just wait. Till Fellner said some funny things about Rachmaninoff a few years ago that he might recant in another ten.
If Till changes his mind about Rachmaninoff, I want to be the first conductor.
I have a question I ask probably too often. It goes back to stylistic issues, and you said there are many ways of doing vibrato, a tremendous variety within vibrato. But what about portamento—in Dvořák, in my opinion, there should be portamento, and not just on the part of the soloists, but in the sections. Why is it that you cannot … I don’t know if nobody asks orchestras, or if they can’t do it and make it sound tasteful anymore.
Everything has to be done with Geschmack. In the ’60s and ’70s there was a very interesting movement in the classical world, perhaps typified by the school of Hans Swarowsky, who was the teacher of Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado; he was the one of the principal ones who cleansed, but such tendencies were everywhere. You had to do things exactly as written. Just play the notes. Everything expressive was then somehow forbidden with enormous strictness. And I must say it was good that it went out of fashion. Why? Because what we now call it, dirty playing, based on Swarowsky’s understanding. People had started to get more generous with portamenti in the ’20s, ’30s, and things were regarded as so dirty by the lights of the ’60s. So it was only a question of time until you had to stop it. Playing became superclean this way in the ’60s and ’70s.
But that wasn’t true of vibrato, just portamento.
In my opinion portamento and rubato playing go hand in hand. And as much portamenti disappeared, rubato disappeared also. And when you look at this time, you mentioned Dvořák, they played with a lot of rubato. Gustav Mahler was trying to somehow annotate this, to go forward, to go back, he tried to really write this down from the practical point of view as a conductor. He was a fantastic conductor, and he knew exactly, he wrote this down. But the fact is, rubato playing was extremely popular, the style of that time. Now even in Brahms or Mahler, you don’t do rubato anymore, you don’t do it even in Bruckner—look at the old Bruno Walter recordings, how different they are, they do things we could never do: if it’s not written, you are not allowed to do it. That was not true, in my opinion, 100 years ago. So back to rubato…you will hear a lot of rubato and portamenti in Anne-Sophie’s Dvořák, and I will join them, but with taste; it’s extremely important.
So did you actually ask the orchestra for slides?
Yes. I do it sometimes. I have not rehearsed yet, but I do it sometimes, and I am convinced it has to be done.
Is that something you do with the whole section, or do you take the concertmaster aside and say I’d like portamento here”?
Well, I have my own material with all the pieces, even the Dvorak piece, I have my own material.
They are playing from your parts?
That’s unusual, isn’t it?
Well, but very helpful.
So you have it in the computer and you print the parts out?
No, I have all the parts and marked it myself.
How much does that weigh?
It’s a lot of work.
Is it unusual?
It’s unusual, but some conductors are doing that, even if it’s hard. I like doing it.
Otherwise how do you remember everything that’s been told to you in rehearsal, and what do the scores look like if you mark them for 10 different conductors? Then it’s going to be a mess and you can’t remember.
It is. Let’s look at the situation, let’s say the Eroica, this great orchestra has played it hundreds of times with different conductors, so everyone has his own “play this piano” or “no, play this forte.” In the end you have a mishmash. And I say to myself, I think so much about music and want to have a clear picture of what I want to reach. So it can be one, two years, I think about how to do this phrase. Then I write it in my parts, the bowings, different if you start upbow or downbow….
Do you ever say, “I don’t want uniform bowing”?
Yes, sometimes, I do. And very often actually, you want a legato, and I call this staggered bowings, and you do it different. But it has to make sense in my opinion.
Yet it is generally uniform.
Exactly. So that’s the point: if you have your own parts marked, you have only two days of rehearsals, you have all the things you thought about over a year or two years, the musicians are reading it now and they read it very quickly, especially in America—they see everything, oh, this is fortepiano, or this is sforzato piano, is it forte pianissimo?—everything is written in. And then they can start to do music. I don’t want to have to tell them do this downbow, fortepiano, and so on. I have no time for that. So when I come with my materials, I can start to rehearse music and that’s what I want.
Do you make any corrections in the Eroica, for instance, other than marking it up?
Yes, I did. For example, there is always the big question in the coda of the first movement [sings] in the trumpets, should they follow the whole theme? Some people say they believe the trumpets at that time were not able to play the high notes, which is not true, they could play them, but the whole world discusses why he did he want the trumpets to play the whole Eroica Symphony. It does not make any sense for our ears in our times that suddenly the theme is continuing and finishing with only the woodwinds. We lose the theme somehow, and I’m sure somehow Beethoven would accept letting the trumpets continue. But some say it’s just as obvious he wants the hero to sound broken. At this moment I cannot go with that, so I change these notes, for example.
You buy a set of parts and correct and annotate hundreds of parts, then, without any help.
Well, some of them. Some of the strings, I mark the first desk and then I give it to somebody. But the winds I have to do myself. Once again, it’s really worth doing it. Kleiber was doing that; even Bernstein had his own materials sometimes.
I guess you can’t do that with copyrighted materials. You can’t do it if you have to rent the parts.
In Mahler, there is only rented material, but Universal Edition, for example, were extremely helpful and nice to me, and they have reserved a set for me. They call it the Honeck set. So every time I do Mahler Five, Mahler One, it’s with my parts.
Are other people allowed to use them?
No. I have to be very strict or it doesn’t make any sense.
Is there any music you don’t want to perform now, but maybe later?
Many people ask me to do the Matthew Passion of Bach. But I haven’t done it, not yet. But I feel now in five years I will.
You’ve played it, haven’t you?
I’ve played it, yes, but I want to lead it because I have so much respect of this music.
Do you think it’s music that should be done only in a church?
No. It can be done everywhere.
But does it add something if it’s done in a sacred space?
Not necessarily. Maybe it means the music is so strong that you can feel you can be in a church even if you’re in a concert hall. The most important thing is that you get the context out and that you let the beauty of the music, and the story of the music, you can really tell this. Wherever you are. Even if you’re in a restaurant. And you can bring the atmosphere out wonderfully, and it also depends on the preparedness of the audience, by the way, the audience must also accept it, if the audience just came back from a wedding and are all happy, a Passion is probably not the right thing for them to hear.
But when you hear “Erbarme dich mein gott,” it doesn’t matter what you were doing five minutes before, if you don’t have a tear then, there’s something wrong with you, it’s so profound. You have to be moved by something that deep.
Exactly, and when you prepare to listen to it and are prepared to absorb it, then that’s wonderful. But we interpreters have to make sure to make the experience happen.
Gunther Schuller says the Matthew Passion is the single most transformative moment in Western music. And I don’t know all the reasons why he says that, when he talks about augmented-ninth chords; it’s so different from what came before it, more than any other piece, and I don’t know how many people think of it as sort of Olympus or an Everest.
I can agree with a lot of that. But is the Mozart Requiem also not strong and original? Not strong enough?
It’s very strong, but is it so different from what came before?
Oh, yes, I think in that time, when Mozart wrote his Requiem, tell me any requiem before which was stronger than that. Not one, not a single one. In fact, he give a lot of signals to the future.
By the way, which version? Do you do Robert Levin’s completion of it ever?
No, I do the Sussmayer, but I do my own actually. Probably not to your surprise. I use the Sussmayer version combined with Franz Bayer’s. His is actually the newest version, with some things in it I don’t like, frankly. I want to do it as simply as possible. But in the Dies Irae, for example, there’s definitely a lack of trumpets and timpani. Mozart I’m sure would have used it to illustrate the Last Judgment in a more terrifying way. They need to have the syncopes with the cello bassi.
So anyway, tell us what you’re going to bring us next time you come to the Boston Symphony?
The Matthew Passion. No, I don’t know, actually. I like to do Dvorak, also Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler. I did a Messiah in Pittsburg in a staged version. You might think that entirely wrong from a historical point of view, but it was sensational. So maybe to please you I should do the Goosens/Beecham Messiah in Boston with expensive soloists and a famous stage director.