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Interview: Edward Gardner

Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, and erstwhile Music Director of the English National Opera, Edward Gardner is a conductor of great versatility. We spoke to Edward about his recent Walton trilogy on Chandos, artistic life in Norway, and different aspects of the English repertoire. 

Listen to Edward Gardner's recordings on Primephonic.


Let's talk about your recent Walton concerto recordings. Is there a reason the Viola Concerto came out last?

The strange thing is that we programmed the Cello Concerto first because it's probably one of his best known pieces, and perfectly packaged – almost in a Brittenesque way – but the other two interested me a lot more in the process of doing them. However, I’m not sure I would do it again in the same order. There is a hinterland with the other two pieces which I find even more interesting. The Viola Concerto feels like you’re in the depths of his soul – it’s quite dark. And there's something wistful and of a lost world in the Violin Concerto. As I did it, I thought Britten must have used it as a model, and there’s Berg floating around with all of these pieces.

Is there a big difference between these three concerti? Do you think his voice changes between them?


It feels like they’re sort of postcards of his life, and what happened to him in different eras. I think they are all brilliantly written and they speak through a particular part of an instrument. There’s a big myth about the Viola Concerto being too heavily scored for the player, but for a start if you have James [Ehnes] playing like he does, it’s not too much of a problem! There’s something about the connection between Elgar and Walton which is about one voice often being enveloped by the orchestra. During the rehearsals with the orchestra really they got the essence of it: something veiled, a bit lazy, and it was really lovely.

Does James Ehnes play differently on the viola?

I shouldn't answer for him, but it feels like he can change his personality very easily between the two. Sometimes he talks about the quality of the vibrato, wishing it to sound more contralto on the viola and more soprano on the violin, but I don’t think he has any difficulty shifting between the two. He recorded the Walton on viola, and then we went to Bergen and recorded the Bartok violin concerto the week after! His brain is so brilliant, and his facility so effortless that he can seemingly quite easily switch between the two.

Do the recording projects come directly from you? How does your relationship with the label work?


I’m exclusive with Chandos at the moment and they've been incredibly generous to me, and they have such a good range of artists. We liked the idea of having a concerto with a symphonic work – we did that with both Szymanowski and Lutosławski. In a way, it turns a disk recording into a concert program – you can really vary the music and get different sides within one composer’s oeuvre. And doing those three Walton’s concerti was a huge luxury. But it's also a good place to put a full stop with Walton.


What about the Elgar? There’s a lot to explore there. Or would you like to record the Enigma Variations?

Enigma is an enigma to me. I’ve had wonderful times playing it with British orchestras, but the best times I’ve had were actually with orchestras outside the UK, who don’t have the kind of associations British orchestras can – which I think are pretty false anyway. A favourite was with the Milan Opera Orchestra (Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala): they threw themselves at it like it was Puccini’s greatest orchestral work, but also found a refinement and the wistfulness in it. It's a piece which is doubly difficult, firstly because of it's overexposure, but also it is just very difficult. You have to rehearse the clichés out of the music sometimes as well, especially with Nimrod. I said to the BBC Symphony Orchestra last time we did it, ‘What I want us to feel when we play this piece is Elgar’s second favourite pursuit, which was listening to him and Jaeger in his drawing room playing each other slow movements of Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas, and saying, ‘why can’t music be like this’. This is the essence of this music, not a funeral. If you get that right, maybe you can go on to Dorabella without 4 minutes of audience coughing. It’s a work in progress – ask me again in 30 years.

Having recorded both Elgar symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, do you have a preference between the two?


I knew the first symphony much better when I recorded it, because I did it a long time ago, and I loved it. But the second has something under its surface – it won’t let you sleep, it won’t let you go. The difficulty with it is how you project the opening. There’s that kind of sweep of a noble melody, but written quite quickly. If you let it surge, you’re lost within the first few bars, and you haven’t even gotten to the Mahler in the second movement, which is definitely there. I think the second theme in the second movement is one of the most haunting things he ever wrote – that funeral march with the trumpet, the bass drum and the strings. But the thing that I never recover from is that ending where you feel like you’re building up towards this grandeur – and then the music just seeps away, and you’re left resigned – the music just disappears. It’s heartbreaking. 

Is there anything in the recording process that brings out certain elements as opposed to doing it in the concert situation?

With the BBC Symphony Orchestra we've got into a nice rhythm now, where we do full performances of the movements, and then they get a big break while I go and listen back. They've got to be performances, because recording sessions can easily get very focused and unmusical, and I try to stop myself from doing that and make it a living performance. The time is very different in recording sessions too – you will always have time to make it correct, but you won't necessarily have time to find the essence of all the pieces. So the more I do it, the more I shut my brain down, and let the engineer and producer in the box do what they do.

Is there a difference in the way that you prepare for a recording session versus a concert?

There's something that happens to everyone when the audience is there in the way you lift yourselves and how you project. I suppose, a part of my preparation for the recording is to get that same thing in the recordings. It means that I need to be more definitive in the recording sessions. In concerts you can wait and see what happens: set it up, so you can free it up. Whereas in the recording there is a little bit of that, but you want to be putting down the best version you can, somehow.

Do you ever worry that once you're recording is out there, people will say "Oh, this is Gardner's Elgar", and you can't do anything different?

Do people say that anymore? I think that's changed with streaming, and thank god! The idea of putting something down as the 'definitive document' is a complete anathema to me – I can't see how that's even possible. I just want to be of my best in the recording, and feel honest about the music making we are doing. But I love the process, and I find out so much more about myself while doing it.

How are things going in Bergen? Are you happy there?

I’m very happy in Bergen. It’s funny to go from one extreme to the other – London of course suffers from having to put on stuff incredibly quickly with musicians who are often exhausted, and can't even live in town because it is so expensive! The London music scene is gold, and it amazes me what people are capable of, but I don't know how they do it! Bergen is the other extreme – they have loads of time – maybe too much time – but crucially they have time to think about the music, and that's wonderful. You can have a conversation with the 8th double bass player about one bar of pizzicato, and how he's been obsessing about it. I love that. In my mind there is a utopia that combines those two worlds - the survivalism of London and the comfort of Bergen – but maybe that's not possible.

Who else do you work with these days? Are there any dream concerts that you would like to do?

Now I have found orchestras who trust me, I feel incredibly lucky with that. I'm not doing a lot of debuts, and it's much more about trying to develop my musicality than it is about standing in front of another orchestra. It is actually quite scary to work with a new orchestra for the first time. I used to have a lot of ambition about that, but now it's all about the development of myself as a musician. 

Listen to Edward Gardner's recordings on Primephonic.