Alban's Blog

Nine Days in the UK

The last nine days brought me back to the UK, old and new collaborations were waiting for me: After playing the Schumann Concerto in Swansea with the BBC Wales and their conductor Thierry Fischer and a recital the day after in Cardiff with Bach-Suites and the Ligeti-Solosonata I drove with my little rental car to Liverpool to play my “debut” with the Royal Liverpool Phiharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko, Don Quixotte was on the program. A quick train-journey later I was granted by really spectacular Vladimir Jurowski the longest Dvorak rehearsal ever, in London with his London Philharmonic: 2 hours and twenty minutes for a piece everybody knows, every orchestra plays it every other year.

In an interview right before the rehearsal at LSO St.Lukes (a former church ruin which has been transformed in an amazing performance and rehearsal space on Old Street) I expressed my frustration about the way this great piece is being played over and over again in more or less the same way, comfortably using a tradition, established in the last 40 years, which expresses itself in blatant disregard of what the composer has indicated in his score: anything “slow” is being played in half speed, which results in the necessity of speeding up to the quick passages – accelerandi (getting faster) and ritardandi (slowing down) all over the place without real musical justification except “going for the obvious”.

And most of the times it all starts already in the orchestra introduction: slow start, huge accelerando followed by an enormous ritardando in order to play the famous second theme, played by the French horn, at half speed. And actually Dvorak doesn’t indicate anything but a slight “poco meno mosso” for the horn passage, which generally means a couple of clicks less on the metronom, not a completely different pulse, but the beginning is “a tempo”, disrupted by the small little pauses which are much more dramatic when being approached without slowing down before them at the end of each phrase.

First thing Vladimir Jurowski mentioned to me before we met twenty minutes prior to the rehearsal that he had listened to the recording with Casals and George Szell which he found very compelling; oh, I was so happy when he said that because it meant he was going to go for “it”, for Dvorak, for some kind of different “truth” than the general tradition; Szell takes the orchestra introduction almost a minute (!) faster than Karajan and all the latest interpretations, and that sets the tone for a different piece. There is much less “heart-on-one’s-sleeve” melodrama, but an urgency and a sincerity which fits much more to that noble but very homesick Czech guy across the ocean in the USA.

And he wasn’t only talking, Jurowski that is, he delivered the in my eyes most exciting orchestra intro I have heard so far (there have been many nice ones, but not like that), setting the tone and the mood to something very deep and dark, very passionate without the hint of self-pity or public desperation. The excellent first hornplayer even managed to play the entire second theme on one single breath. I could not believe my ears, and no, it didn’t sound rushed whatsoever, it was incredibly tender and longing, an inside-expression and emotion which is so rare to come across nowadays where everything has to be as obvious and into one’s face as possible.

Friends of mine have been even told by a renowned German music journalist to perform a certain passage in a Brahms piece like sexual intercourse. Sensuality, yes, passion and love, most certainly, but sex? In Brahms’ music? Neither in Dvorak’s music – and yes, there is longing, despair, hope, but I don’t know any place in any given piece of music where I feel reminded of sex as a separated thing. Emotions, passion and love which leads to a more physical love, maybe at times, but I get so very turned off when I hear anything as shallow as “sexy” playing.

But back to Dvorak: yes, we took the time needed for some transitions, Jurowski never just beats the bar, but he formed the music without doing the common “stop-and-go” (waiting at every end of a phrase), keeping it in flow, as Casals and Szell were doing in their interpretation. And certainly nor did we copy what these two greats were doing: I haven’t listened to that performance since many years, but I remember that Casals hardly slowed down when getting to the gorgeous second theme himself, keeping it very quiet and noble, yes, unsentimental would be the word, but by doing so creating so much more sentiment than it normally carries. This is what we were aiming at, I guess: sentiment and not sentimentality. Not the big Hollywood-Romance where you end up crying because they use certain tricks of the big Hollywood-playbook (like the long-lost love found again, the father forgiving his daughter and blessing her union with his former ennemy, kids meeting their parents after a decade of turmoil – actually like the stuff on TV when people propose to one another live in tearful ceremonies), tricks musicians can use as well and which I surprises me again and again how easily people fall for it, but keeping it “simple” enough for the real message of this divine piece of music to present itself.

A young conductor asked me afterwards, as he had never heard the Dvorak like that, if this was “my” or Jurowski’s interpretation, and I told him, no, it was actually Dvorak’s – we didn’t do much else but to completely ignore the “tradition” of the past half century and trying to do what the score tells us. The beauty about a talking score is that it actually talks to everybody in his or her own language, and that’s why we actually should have a much wider variety of different interpretations; I am not claiming to know the truth as there is no truth, but yesterday was definitely a rather original approach to a work which deserves many different points of view. In life one often has to do many compromises, and as a travelling soloist it is no different – but yesterday felt like a day without compromises, and it continued in a fabulous rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony which had me on the edge of my seat. For me musicmaking needs to have some kind of urgency to it, there must be a reason why we perform, otherwise I don’t see the justification for our metier.

Actually the Schumann Concerto in Swansea last week went towards the same direction: Thierry Fischer agreed to feel the opening already much rather in two than in four, which gives a complete different feel and flow to the first few minutes of the work, much more uplifting than depressing, the piano-like accompaniment of the strings suddenly makes much more sense, and as always it was a real pleasure working with the BBC Wales, a band with which I have recorded already three concertos (Bridge, Berkeley and Honegger) and who give a lot of their personality while performing. When several members of the orchestra told me after the concert they were looking forward to my solorecital the next day in Cardiff, I was scared, because I find it always the hardest to play for fellow musicians, as I somehow have the greatest respect for their opinion. And as there was also a microphone in front of me I was really nervous. Started out rather well with the Prelude of the first suite, keeping it very free and improvisatory, I suddenly had a tiny black-out which fell sooo stupid, because I thought I was letting down these orchestra musicians who had sacrificed their Sunday afternoon, shlepping themselves to that hall they spend in most of their days, while outside it was maybe the most beautiful day of the year so far.

I lost my confidence in my memory and more or less in every single movement of that Bachsuite I had to play around certain passages which I didn’t remember as clearly, somehow deeply embarrassed because in some Strad interview this month (I made it on the title :)) I claimed that I am not afraid of playing wrong notes – well, maybe not afraid, but I HATE it! ๐Ÿ™‚ and suddenly I thought it was a cheap excuse of actually playing wrong notes. But as embarrassed as I was, my colleagues who came afterwards were very forgiving and sweet, and the review in the Guardian didn’t talk about wrong notes but about the freedom in that interpretation, which was very euphemist of this very generous reviewer, thank you so much! ๐Ÿ™‚

Now I am in the plane back home to Berlin, three days trying to clean up certain things in my private life and also physically in the apartment before going to Seoul for only three days for the Asian premier of the Unsuk Chin Celloconcerto.


  • Michael Chen

    Oh my. I beg you Alban not to do these pieces as intended by the composer here in the US! Otherwise the audience will feel so short changed by the lack of emotional milking ( I have to refrain from using another less genial word that also starts with “m” ), superficial excitement and exuberance that would allow us to break into applause after each movement – if not during – and burst into “Bravo” the microsecond after the last note has been played even in the most profound and serene musical context – if not before! Let’s give what the audience obvious want! Let the free market for superficiality reign! Instant gratification rules. What thoughtfulness!!!!:)))

  • Michelle

    We saw you yesterday in London and it was totally amazing. Come back to London soon – please.



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