Austrian Manfred Honeck, who conducted memorably with the BSO at Symphony Hall last season, including an arresting Eroica, is about to make a last-minute debut at Tanglewood to cover for Christoph von Dohnányi, taking the latter’s programs intact. Friday night is Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and then Mozart Piano Concerto 12 with Paul Lewis before concluding with the Mendelssohn Italian Symphony. On Saturday it will be Mahler’s Second. BMInt had a long and interesting conversation with Honeck:
FLE: You work a lot with our mutual friend Till Fellner, but do you have an ongoing collaboration with that other Brendel protégé Paul Lewis?
MH: I have never worked with Paul Lewis, but he was on my radar, and he’s a very serious and eloquent and clear and pure pianist with a fantastic reputation and recordings of Beethoven. And now to do Mozart with him: I’m really looking forward. I know what commitment Brendel had for all his students, and Till Fellner is for me one of the best Viennese classical players, and I expect the same from Lewis. Knowing that he is in a musical environment around Alfred Brendel gives me a good feeling that it will be a wonderful collaboration.
Tanglewood will probably not be the first time you’ve conducted out of doors. Do you conduct any differently when you’re playing outside for 10,000 people from when you’re in a wonderful concert hall with beautiful acoustics?
Actually no, I don’t conduct differently, but it might be that the environment would not allow the audience to concentrate as strongly as they would inside of the hall. And because much of the Shed is open, there might be some birds competing with what Mahler wrote for the flutes. There might be that these kind of unexpected things could change the evening in unexpected direction—hopefully toward the positive.
Do you think patrons should wear hats because there are birds flying overhead?
And better birds than mosquitoes?
Exactly. It depends on what kind of flying bloodsucker it is; there are some a very big ones in Mexico [laughter]. But I do hope that if the birds come inside, that will they will enter on cue and follow my beat.
Now before we get to the Mahler, because that’s Saturday, let’s talk about the Mendelssohn Italian Symphony, which you will be conducting Friday. Am I imagining that it is one of his few works that don’t refer to the Old 100th hymn? Do you think it’s a throwback to his earlier days? Of course he didn’t have any late days, but somehow it seems that it goes with the earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, having some of that lightness. The Reformation Symphony seems much more dramatic and heavy.
Well, we also have to know that the Italian Symphony was actually not 4. Mendelssohn wrote it before the Third. On the other hand, in Mendelssohn’s time, when somebody comes back from a tour of Italy, he brings back all kinds of impressions. He was right to bring this Italian flair into his idiom. He experienced a lot of wonderful and nasty things around that country, so it’s not a surprise that he dramatized that sunny light in the first movement, but remember that the second movement, it is a short movement, a Lied ohne Worte, a Canzonetta so to speak. The symphony certainly carries images from his explorations; at the same time he felt that some of the new music of his time was confused. He was actually quite disappointed about that, but what he was extremely interested in was studying the old scores, and he got a lot of feedback, and of course the third movement is also a Menuetto, on the short side, which doesn’t surprise me, because he could not do a Scherzo, which was quite usual in that time; but we remember there is only one string quartet where Mendelssohn uses as a third movement a slow Menuetto and not a Scherzo. All the others have quick Scherzos. Yet in the case of the Fourth symphony a Scherzo was not fitting after the fresh first movement; but this Menuetto is very light music. The first movement, there’s no question it’s Bella Italia, but the last movement, if you do it in the same style as the first movement, in lightness, it might be a little bit wrong, because the Salterello is quick dance. He was probably experiencing it when he was there looking at the girls dancing. It’s a really wild dance. And therefore out of the last movement we have a more substantial and dramatic movement. It’s actually a little bit demonic.
There is a combination; we know he was in Scotland when he was writing the piece. I’m not sure, if had he been in Russia, what kind of style he would have brought out. I believe that Mendelssohn was one of these composers who needed imagination to compose. He was so educated and was so interested in visual architecture that this kept him musically extremely creative. And all these things he saw in Italy, in Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan, Naples, or Pompeii, were a journey. I think he brought this out and the result is that it must be a light, it must be a typical Italian organized and experienced music. And by the way he used not only the Salterello but also the Tarantella in the first movement.
So the last movement shouldn’t be fairy music?
Right. But we know that the original meaning of the Tarantella is that those who got a bite from a tarantula went to the doctor and then called in musicians, because they wanted the poisoned person to dance all the time that the poisons were leaving the body. That’s the reason it is more than just quick; it’s also extremely staccato and accented. So it would be wrong to play too joyfully. When you understand Mendelssohn’s meaning, you try to find a balance between a light and a dramatic stance.
I look forward to it, on the radio. And now onto Saturday. I know that you have very strong feelings about Mahler and there’s probably not enough time to transcribe everything you want to tell us about the Mahler Second. The last time we conversed [here], you were very interesting on the subject of how rustic funeral marches were part of the almost daily experience of the Viennese and such movements should sound in Mahler. Without singing your “Bim-bam” over the telephone, [laughter] what can you tell us about the performance? Will some of your tempi be superslow?
I would say that you should probably expect a performance which has two elements emphasized. The first is the folk music, the tunes of what he experienced himself when he composed the piece, when he got to know the different styles and music groups in the countryside but also around the capital in Vienna. So this is one of the things, for example in the second movement where you have very elegant but clear Ländler, and we know that especially in Mahler’s times it is written that he might sometimes do the second beat a little bit earlier and do the upbeat fairly short, but the elegance is never lost, it will never be stiff. I will use the rubato playing, which was also a tradition in that time. It was so much fun, the rubato, that he was forced to write it down in the score. He was actually super-clear, because he was a conductor and because he knows what he expected, what he could offer when you first go through: it is very clear. When he writes, “Not too early but not too late…” and the famous quote that you have to play not what was written but between the barline. Or when he, for example in the third movement, writes above the E-flat clarinet, lustig, “Play it funny.” How do you explain that? And then he puts this upbeat to 16.I know how it is still played today, it is a very heavy rubato ritando upbeat. He could also write ritardando; why didn’t he do that? Because then that would probably have been too much weight. So he writes Let’s be funny and keep it open. And I think these are things I’ve never heard, so I really emphasize them.
The second line of course is of enormous importance, the content itself and the spiritual aspect of this symphony. There is no doubt that Mahler was extremely impressed with his sense of life and all of the big questions. Why are we here? Where do we go, and what happens after death? He does great thinking in this symphony It’s clear that also in the score he goes to the very clear spiritual aspects: he has three movements, which, for me, are played first to illustrate a struggle about the questions: is it really true? What should I believe? Life is very hard and every day there is not sunshine when we expect there will be sunshine. For example, the second theme of the first movement, where it goes up and where it opens the sound, but also behind the hammer of the human being already the first bars—this shouldn’t be a scary skeleton dance, maybe something more like a ghost funeral. But everything happens on the Earth, it is the Earthly movement.
The second movement is also very dancy and the third is characterful, but the real center of the Mahler Second, where everything turns around, is actually the fourth movement, the Urlicht. It’s the shortest movement but we get the contents where it goes clearly in another direction. This Urlicht is placed in the symphony in the right place. It would be wrong to put it as the second movement or as the third movement, because after this movement, what can happen? He brings everything, like the development of a sonata, back somehow in a crueler place: go back to the struggle and the fight where humans have a lot of questions. Before the apocalyptic horn is arriving, and he puts this offstage. It is something that only Mahler could have done. There is no composer before him that took something so grandiose into the symphony. In fact, this is clear why Johannes Brahms at one time regarded Mahler as the king of the revolutions.
And that for me was clear in the first symphony. What type of a first symphony is it? No other composer had written such a radical or revolutionary first symphony. Now you would expect that in the Second symphony he would continue in the way he did the first. Not at all, there is one movement more. He expands the instrumentation. He brings two solo voices. He brings a big choir in. So to take this already in the second movement to expand and experiment; it says something.
But it is also clear that like Beethoven he didn’t say he could not express himself only with the instruments, which is only partly true, I believe. Anyway, I think to build up a symphony and then top it in the entrance of the choir, I think this alone shows it is a masterpiece. When would you bring in the choir? You could start in the beginning of the last movement already, but now it’s only in the last section of the symphony, and I think this is right, because here Mahler had something much more and the way he is doing it is not with this great … there will be a resurrection. No. He prepares it offstage with the great horn, in an apocalyptic element. Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a friend of Mahler, said these bars sound like dead birds and somehow he makes everything empty and has some element of the Earth but looks forward to another world and the moment where it dies away; there comes the word Auferstehung. That’s one of the greatest moment in the music history, in my opinion, because after that actually keeps the choir mostly a cappella and very quiet, not loud. To wait for the effect to be very hymnlike, with a glorious finale, with the security we will live after death.
That was his belief, which he got when he was reading the poem Auferstehung by Klopstock. And he didn’t know what he should write in the last movement until he was at a funeral, and then somebody read that poem and he thought this is what I want to compose. He waited. It seems almost an accident that he thought that. He knew already in his mind what he wanted but didn’t know what direction in which to go, but then immediately after hearing the poem, then the whole symphony is a whole in the way he conceived it. I think it’s one the great examples of a great composers, and that’s the reason why I think everything in the context is meant to be as he felt, as he was thinking, and we see his musical way of composing, where he goes to the deepest deeps and the highest highs. I think this is the symphony which brings Mahler’s whole world out.
We can’t ask for more than that. Then what about the five-minute break after movement one. Is that something that doesn’t make sense when you’re outside?
You can be sure I won’t take my watch with me. I think that we know from Mahler himself that the circumstances are more important than just counting second by second when to continue. It must be about five minutes, and we also have to know: the audience nowadays changes and the venues change. Let’s remind ourselves too how many times Gustav Mahler himself had to change, from one venue to another, dynamics and even phrases he took out, how many times he rewrote things because of the acoustics. He actually encouraged conductors of the later generation like me to do the same if it’s necessary, if the context and expression need it. And I see the five minutes in this context. You can be sure it will be not 10 seconds or 20 seconds. I will do a long break. I don’t believe it is necessary to look at a watch. After this big strong statement from the first movement, Mahler wanted the audience to get rid of all of the things they had just heard. He wanted to prepare for a relaxed and contemplative second and third movement, because he knew how much more would come after that.
Your publicist said to ask about your two latest CDs: one from the Pittsburgh with the Dvořák 8 and a Janacek Jenufa Suite, and a new Vienna Symphony disc. Is there anything you want to say about them other than encourage people to buy lots of copies?
[laughter] Well, I believe in free choice. It’s for me a very positive development that people write more and more about these recordings, and of course I like recordings, otherwise I would not do them for nothing. But we also know there are a lot of recordings of the Dvořák 8. Just yesterday I read two reviews which pointed out very clearly that it’s very good that going back to the Czech way of playing this repertoire with folkloristic elements to bring this out in a symphony which is the most Czech symphony of all the Dvořáks. That the critics could understand this makes me very happy. In this symphony, which is much connected with nature, you hear birdsongs, you hear of folkloristic bands, you hear a Slavonic march, or you hear a polka, even a stretta, which I put in the last section of the first movement. He worked at nearly the same time on the Slavonic Dances, and mostly every dance has a stretta at the end. He didn’t write it in the symphony, and I agree with that, but he meant to do it, because the Czech musicians at that time played it.
And also I took some things which were strictly forbidden in the last 30-40 years, some slides in the strings, because it was the habit in that time. And speaking about Mahler, he was the one to specify when to slide from one note to another: portamento.
You cannot use a slide at every beautiful phrase where you think it’s good. So he gave them some instructions in the score. But it was back then that the Czech musicians who were famously used lots of freedom, to have fun with the music, that they used a lot of slides. So I put some in, not too many, but you will have to hear that. It makes such an impact in the music. It’s a joy when you read that there’s a lot more things to say with this symphony. And I’m very glad to hear that some of the reviewers have picked that out. But there is another piece, a suite from Janacek’s Jenufa, which I put together with the Czech composer Thomas Ille, because I think this music is so great and Janacek himself has unfortunately not given us enough symphonic music. I thought I would like to do an experiment, taking the typical Czech elements of this opera by Janacek, so that they have a good fit with the content of Dvořák’s Eighth. This is a rarity in this form.
Was it difficult for you to get the orchestra to play in that old, maybe schmaltzy style?
Actually it was in the beginning, when I did the first time, in 2008. I had to explain the things very clearly and it got quite good. But now last season we did a recording and it went very very well because the musicians understood, they had already played it this way. Therefore it was a joy to work in this way. Look, we can also ask when this ridiculous horn trio in the polka in the last movement come in, which is so obscure and so radical somehow; I could ask the horn section to do that, and that was amazing to produce a cruel sound, and they understood how to do it.
Was this a special recording session or were these live performances?
Live, everything was live.
Okay, because American orchestras aren’t really doing studio recordings anymore as far as I know.
It’s just financial, but we always book three concerts in and the result is a CD. We have a patch session for half an hour to deal with coughing and noises.
I look forward to listening to that because one of my favorite recordings has Joseph Suk, Dvořák’s son-in-law, playing Dvořák in such a different style from today and it works so well for that music; yet you never hear modern players play that way. So if you even get a quarter of the way to that style, I will be very impressed.
One thing I always say is that I produce what I feel is right at the moment. I would never say that my recording is the best in the world, but it is the way it is. The only thing I can say is I that believe in it; otherwise I would not do it.
And the new recording with Vienna Symphony Orchestra?
It is actually an album by the Strauss brothers: Johann, Josef and Eduard Strauss. It is a CD of around 12 pieces. The main theme is nature. So you have the wonderful waltz from Josef Strauss, “Dorfschwalben aus Österreich” (‘Village Swallows from Austria’); we have “The Dragonfly,” we have “The Bee,” we have “The Roses of Spring,” “Roses from the South,” everything containing cuckoos and birds. So things which are connected with nature. And the reason I did it is, first of all I love this music very much. It is so difficult to make it right, I think. And also the Vienna Symphony, who asked me to do that, they had not, as a Viennese orchestra, done any CDs of these ‘Strausses’ music. And the fact is that we hear a new CD by Johann Strauss from the Wiener Philharmoniker every year, which is very nice, but the Vienna Symphony is also a great orchestra and play this repertoire very very well. And therefore I thought it’s the right thing to do, stylistically perfectly, and I think you would enjoy it.
I’ve also played these Strauss waltzes with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was amazing how they could dig into the style. It was absolutely great. That’s part of the reason why I give on Thanksgiving a concert of the Strauss family, and it was very successful.
Are there any big pieces that you want to tell us about that you’re doing in Pittsburgh next season?
Well, we continue recording. Beethoven 5 & 7 are the pieces probably most recorded, but the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra never had a recording of them. That is ridiculous, so I said we have to have one. We also are going to do a Bruckner 7 recording and a week later Tchaikovsky 6, and this concert is also special because it is the first time I will perform with my brother, Rainer, who is concertmaster of the Wiener Philharmoniker. He will play the Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto at this concert with me and it might be that we will produce that in a recording. Also we are doing a Rusalka Suite and we will continue with the suite from Elektra, which in my opinion was extremely successful because there is not any other Elektra suite by Richard Strauss.
Are you going to do a Messiah again with staging?
Yes, we want to do that, and we have some plans; we might do some other experimental things, which it’s too early to talk about; but I’m very interested to do these other things.
I’m still hoping that those other things will include the Goosens orchestration of Messiah. So maybe next time you do it with staging, or something special.
I know: it’s amazing, and I hope that we can get to it. But first of all we have to get started on other things.