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Last update:
Feb 8, 2020

Composers and Works

My repertoire is like a train to which cars are added or from which they are disconnected. Age and experiences change it continuously. Today I am more interested in the timbre and expression of music than in technical performance.
For a long time during my childhood and my early youth, Mozart was the only composer I accepted. Mozart’s D minor piano concerto recorded by Sviatoslav Richter had a significant impact on me. I was on fire inside. Especially the stormy part in the middle of the romance in the slow movement shook the ground beneath me.Even now, the incredible drama of Mozart impresses me. Just as many pianists think that the grand piano has too much volume for his music, it is difficult to achieve the smallest nuances of Mozart with a large orchestra. I have tried to tell orchestras that during Mozart’s time the power hierarchy was not questioned. In contrast, Beethoven started a rebellion against the princes and emperors. In Mozart’s music, there’s a massive amount of energy. It lacks, however, the forceful power which is typical of Beethoven, and so it translates more naturally to period instruments. Though the relationship between Mozart and the modern symphony orchestra is sometimes problematic, I would however not want to have Mozart played only by period instruments.

In the end, grand music-making is natural and simple. I recently happened to see Arthur Rubinstein in a televised concert. He performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, in which the main theme is presented with a few chords at the beginning. This is a most simple concept: a couple of rhythmic motives and 3 chords. Some pianists interpret the beginning as if it contained some supernatural effort. In contrast, Rubinstein simply puts his fingers on the keys with extremely minor gestures. I believe that simple things can be presented naturally without damaging the greatness of the music.

The quality of Beethoven’s music could be described as the moral urge of the individual to struggle and discover things. The same quality is present in Mahler’s music, for example in the Third and Ninth symphonies. The Ninth Symphony deals with the Christian concept of life after death, and even though Mahler gives up in the end, the whole work is a monumental attempt to believe in the immortality of the soul. One could say the same about the Finale of the Third Symphony, in which the chorale of love is repeated and pounded with different nuances. Amidst this, there’s a strange accent which reflects doubt and is related to the ending of the Ninth Symphony.

For me, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has for a long time been the most significant of his works with its endless energy, groove and speed. Its appealing frenzy takes and pushes the listener helplessly toward the ending. The same happens at the end of the slow movement where one’s heart almost stops. The war-like sections of this work march relentlessly with energy toward destruction.

How hard it is to describe the meanings of music with words! Especially in German culture, they often attempt to reach musical essence by verbal means. I have read countless books analysing works without getting any closer to the essence of these works. The road to understanding music is the music itself, a receptive person needs no explanations.

Some works can be explained through that which keeps them together. For example, one theme may support a large piece, just like in Feria by Magnus Lindberg. A hummable melody was a rarity at that time in his oeuvre. Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto begins with the expressive remark “indifférente”, rather indifferently. The soloist starts with a short “dut dut”. This simple idea, which is the binding element throughout the concerto, supports the entire work. One cannot and need not explain it further.

How about the beginning of the Eighth Symphony by Bruckner? It is based on the same rhythmic motive as the theme in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But the theme is a chromatic lament with two superimposed worlds, Beethoven’s declaration combined with elegiac sadness. In masterworks, there are human messages in such forms that need no explanations. We recognize and understand them each in our own way, whether or not we are familiar with the composer’s background or the ideological history of the works’ composition. These messages awaken ambiguous emotions and moods in us.

Ein Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, who was known as an atheist or agnostic, fascinates me. It is based on the everyday atmosphere of the Lutheran world, “alles Fleisch ist wie Gras”. Both Bruckner and Mahler, in their own way, deal with their religious beliefs. What Bruckner might take for granted, Mahler sees as a possibility, to which he struggles through conviction and efforts. The characteristic dualism of Bruckner’s emotional world is fascinating. Religious humility and monumental willpower are often simultaneously present in his music. It’s no wonder Bruckner impressed even Sibelius the way he did. The two first movements of Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony are primarily inspired by Bruckner.

Sibelius’ Fourth! Even now, I cannot understand how it came to be, not just in his output, but at all. It has a very contradictive way of treating themes, which is characteristic of Beethoven. In the background, there is vast emptiness and scarceness. In 1930’s Sibelius told his son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, that no note can be taken from the Fourth Symphony, nor can a note be added to it.

What was the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius about? I believe he did not know it himself, at least he didn’t want to reveal it. There are many different messages in the first seven bars of the theme of the Finale: it is simultaneously convincing, light-hearted, empty, fearless. I conducted Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony in London a few years ago, and more recently in Paris. I noticed once more that the audience understands Sibelius without extensive knowledge about Finland, or references to cranes and pine bread. The greatness of a musical work is in the abstraction which the audience can intuitively receive.

Many have admired Schönberg’s works composed with the twelve-note technique. They consider that they are his most notable output, without reaching the nationalistic Viennese elements in the background. Schönberg’s fascination is based on his ability to exploit musical continuance. This is also true of Alban Berg, who has stronger ties to tradition despite his new technique.

I had a problematic relationship with Shostakovich for a long time. It is clear that under political pressure after his Fourth Symphony, he was unable to write the kind of music he wanted. My opinion about the Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad”, however, did not change despite Volkov’s interpretation of the long march sequence as a presentation of Stalin’s crushing dictatorship rather than the sound of Hitler’s approaching troops. The Fourth Symphony proved to be the key which unlocked his other works for me. It was Paavo Berglund who revealed the meaning of the work and brought out its genius when I was playing the violin in RSO. The symphony is actually a collage in which elements follow one another without any particular reason. It depicts a life lived – a life on which the poor human has no influence. After that, I studied Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, among others. It deals with death, its vocal scores using texts by Apollinaire, Lorca and Rilke. It is a powerful work, and through it, I tried to reach his other works, which I have included in my repertoire.

In music, I am fascinated by the fanaticism of expressionism and post-romanticism and how it all suddenly exploded. Modernism was introduced. There are works which are compatible with my being, such as Sibelius’ Fourth and Mahler’s Sixth. What might they have in common? Perhaps an emotional contradiction which I feel I’m able to control. For a long time, I misunderstood Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, I didn’t understand its Beethovenian willpower. Brahms was also upside down when I was 30. I could not bring the right kind of liveliness to the works, and I felt the performances had too many compromises in them. In the last few years, I have started conducting Brahms again, and I’ve begun to understand and search for its internal movements.

Lately, Mahler’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony have grown more significant for me. The latest great experience I had with was with Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, which the composer compiled from the themes and the material of his opera, The Fiery Angel. The work represents a completely unique world. It depicts the vast complexity of the human mind. Prokofiev expands the various aspects of human emotion into chaotic madness, almost crossing the border to insanity in a touching way.

Taken from the book by Pekka Tarkka & Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Kapellimestari, published by Siltala 2009

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