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Interview: Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is known for his exacting high standards and music making of irrepressible energy. Following his acclaimed Mendelssohn recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, he has turned his hand to Schumann for his next major project with the orchestra, with recordings to follow later this year on LSO Live.

Listen to our exclusive Sir John Eliot Gardiner playlist on Primephonic.


After your Mendelssohn cycle with the LSO, why come to Schumann next?

Why not? Every opportunity to perform the Schumann symphonies is an opportunity to marvel at their extraordinary profusion of ideas and poetic expression and to explore their kaleidoscopic originality. Each time it gives one a chance to vindicate Schumann as a master of symphonic form and instrumental colour, contrary to the dreary cliché that he couldn’t orchestrate. Schumann and Mendelssohn were colleagues in Leipzig, and despite their differences in personality and upbringing, they became good friends. Schumann was the son of a bookseller, whereas Mendelssohn lived in a rarified world of wealth and prestige. Mendelssohn was urbane and cultivated; Schumann was shy and tongue-tied, yet wonderfully articulate when writing about music and still more so when composing it! What they had in common was a sense of intellectual curiosity and literary awareness, as well as a deep consciousness of their responsibilities as heirs to Beethoven's legacy. There can be no doubt that Schumann owed a lot to Mendelssohn - first for encouraging him in his abrupt switch to symphonic writing in the late 1830s and then for conducting the premiere of his Spring symphony which was a resounding success in 1841. Not so his symphony in D minor (his second, yet confusingly numbered his fourth) only six months later! Unfortunately Mendelssohn was out of town and Ferdinand David, the Gewandhaus concert-master, took over the baton. That wasn't the only problem. Schumann's brand new symphony and his Overture, Scherzo and Finale were eclipsed at their first outing by the presence of two superstar pianists - Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt duetting in the same programme. Schumann's reputation as a symphonist suffered another setback when he himself conducted the premiere of his Third and last symphony, the Rhenish, in Düsseldorf in 1851 with an orchestra that was not in the same league as the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and it was damaged still further when the revised version of his Fourth was performed two years later. That started a trend for successive generations of conductors who complained that his orchestration was inept and clunky, and it opened the window to fiddling with or 're-touching' his symphonies. Was there genuinely any need for it? Brahms, for one, certainly felt there wasn't - and thereby caused a huge rift with Clara whom he adored by championing the early version of Schumann's Fourth which she dismissed as a mere sketch for the 1851 revision.

What I find so winning, say, about the Spring Symphony is its irresistible élan and the way its pulsating rhythms are defined so bracingly by the individual instruments. Debutant or not, Schumann was already pushing symphonic form in a new direction. The manuscript score is fascinating in this regard; for besides Schumann’s original notation you can see clearly interventions by Clara (whose restraining comments are not always for the best), and by Mendelssohn, which are always practical as well as refined when it comes to details of instrumentation. Quite apart from his prodigious fluency of invention Mendelssohn had a cultured sense of how to combine and balance the instruments of an orchestra. One can hear the way Schumann acquired many of these skills both here and in the first version of his D minor symphony. Similar to the way Mendelssohn binds all the movements of his Scottish symphony together, Schumann links the movements of his Fourth symphony without a break as though they were in effect a single creation made up of four vividly contrasted moods. When he revised this symphony a decade later Mendelssohn was no longer at his side. That's when Schumann decided to beef up his orchestration and double up instrumental lines - possibly as an insurance mechanism to disguise the Düsseldorf orchestra's technical frailties but also his own insecurities and shortcomings as a conductor. Despite the wonderful thematic recalls in the finale which occurred to Schumann as he was revising it, I find the second version of the Fourth symphony less spontaneous, less transparent and a bit dingy in instrumental colour compared to the original 1841 version - something that Brahms recognised right away, but which Clara refused to countenance.

Do you feel Schumann’s orchestral music is overlooked?

Well, compared to Mendelssohn's Italian and Scottish symphonies and three out of Brahms's four that followed, I'd have to say yes. Inexplicably, Schumann's symphonies and overtures are still often overlooked and generally undervalued. Yet along with Berlioz's mould-breaking symphonic creations, they are the most important and original symphonies to have appeared between Beethoven's and Brahms's. Despite the fact that there's been at least two generations of passionate Schumann aficionados, a plethora of recent recordings, and several conductors active today who believe that there is a unique depth to Schumann's orchestral writing, it’s taking time for orchestral managements to be bold enough to feature these wonderful works on a regular basis, and for audiences, therefore, to become familiar with their marvels. But things are definitely changing and the signs are promising.

You are a pioneer of historically informed performance. Why did you decide to re-approach Schumann with a modern instrument orchestra?

I remember there was a real buzz in the air back in the late '90s when we in the Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique embarked on a comprehensive exploration of Schumann's orchestral and choral works. It was a fascinating, experimental time, and there was a heartfelt directness to the whole enterprise. I learned a huge amount from the experience of trying to recapture Schumann's sound-world - "the joyful recovery of forgotten lore", as somebody put it. In my mind there was no doubt then - nor is there now - that there are significant insights to be gained from performing Schumann with a medium-sized orchestra playing on instruments of his period. But it's not all plain sailing and players can sometimes struggle to meet the technical and expressive demands of Schumann's material. The usual problems of balance and texture still need carefully managing in rehearsal; but in general the defined attack and swift decay of the instruments help to bring his richly imagined palette of timbral colours into focus. But that doesn't mean that things should stop there. My aim has always been to give a new context to music that is either familiar or been partially neglected: to make something new from something very old, and to encourage audiences to listen to music of the past with fresh ears.

Yet if one had set out with that approach to complete a Schumann symphony cycle twenty or thirty years ago with a modern instrument orchestra, I'm sure one would have come a cropper! Many leading British and German symphony orchestras would have strongly resisted such an approach and been reluctant to abandon their default positions of playing pretty well all 18th and 19th century music with a characteristic, uninflected sonority and with continuous string vibrato. Nowadays symphony orchestras are much more discerning and curious! This may be due in part to the fact that a number of their members have by now experimented with period instruments, or if they've not actually played them, are ready to acknowledge the different insights that they can bring.

The whole aesthetic climate has changed for the better. A critical watershed came around twelve years ago when the LSO board came to me and requested that I did a Beethoven cycle with them. Much as I had enjoyed working with the LSO in late 19th and 20th century repertoire, to be perfectly honest I was reluctant at first to commit to this. I was concerned that a radical reappraisal of Beethoven, such as they seem to be hoping for, might lead to an uneasy compromise, one that neither they nor I would find wholly satisfying. It was bound to be a risky endeavour, and I could understand why some of their regular members preferred not to take part. But the majority bravely took the plunge with me. I was amazed and touched by the patience they showed, their openness and willingness to experiment. Any initial misgivings any of us had soon began to fade and it gradually turned into a thoroughly worthwhile experience, creating a level of trust and complicity between us and laying the foundations for our subsequent Mendelssohn cycle and then for this Schumann project.

To interpret Schumann's orchestral works, some of which are still unfamiliar, you need to come to terms with his unique musical language. It requires a special kind of empathy and the patience to meet a whole bunch of different challenges, both technical and stylistic. The LSO is a brilliant, chameleon-like orchestra with the ability to switch styles and approaches, if not at the twitch of a baton, then in the course of the concentrated period of rehearsal prior to being crystallised in performance. This does not imply that they are in any sense 'neutral' as an orchestra, simply absorbing like blotting paper whatever the conductor in front of them demands. On the contrary, they have a very distinctive collective musical personality. The fascination and delight for me working with them as a guest conductor comes from attempting to synthesise my ideas about sound and phrasing with theirs. The LSO bring to the party phenomenal technical virtuosity (of course!), a rich palette of blended instrumental timbres, remarkable flexibility and an amazing speed of response. They are wonderful generous and committed musicians who give their all in concerts. Even after the most punishing anti-social travel day, you can always rely on them to come up with the goods!

Working with the LSO on Schumann I may be bringing forty years' experience of conducting period instrument orchestras; but my aim with them has never been to create a pastiche of HIP style nor to demand a simulacrum of period manners. Music making at this level entails adjustment and collaboration. It's not an act of exhumation. For things to work properly there is a need to establish certain stylistic parameters at the outset. But it's not a matter of dogma or a rigid insistence that ‘ye shall never vibrate!’ It's more a question of allowing a synergy to emerge from the exchange of my proposals and their answers. Occasionally I might say to the wind principals, ‘look, you are the soloists in this passage: please would you lead at this point' - and they'll respond instantly. During rehearsals I encourage them to see how close Schumann's phrasing is to speech and the need to give distinctive shape to the melodic arc of his individual lines, each one with a clearly defined beginning and an end. Schumann's instrumental discourse is not made up of pure vowel sounds: it requires you to 'pronounce' each phrase as though it's poetic verse - which, in a sense, it is, of course. So I urge the woodwinds and brass to use their embouchures to place (as it were) consonants of varying degrees of emphasis and intensity on the front of a melodic phrase, and the strings to use their bows as the principal means of expression, and to vary the speed and weight of their strokes.

I love the way they respond to the task of reappraising Schumann's orchestral scores, which to my surprise, several of them were playing for the first time. A brilliantly crafted overture like Manfred fires them up: they rise to the multiple challenges - of tempo rubato, judicious string portamento, whacky trills and broken chords, the need to be constantly alert and responsive to Schumann's rapid changes of mood and texture that spring from the restlessness of his mind. I find it encouraging, for example, that several of the second violins led by the wonderful David Alberman, decided to switch to playing on gut strings for this project. The difference this can make is significant as was observed by Gordan Nikolitch, the ex-leader of the LSO who was there at the start of my Beethoven cycle and came to hear us play recently in Rotterdam. He maintains - and I like his phrase - "playing on wire and metal strings is like painting with acrylic, whereas playing on gut strings is like painting with oil."

Aside from the symphonies, which works of Schumann do you feel best showcase his talents? Is there anything you’ve had to leave out of these LSO performances which you wish you hadn’t?

Well, to answer that you have first to decide on how many symphonies did Schumann actually compose! I would argue that he wrote a total of seven separate symphony-like works. I performed and recorded them all with the Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique in 1996/7. These include an early two-movement symphony in G minor (the Zwickau), the Spring symphony, the Overture, Scherzo & Finale (which is a kind of sinfonietta) and the Fourth Symphony in its first version. Then there is the miraculous Second symphony in C minor, the D minor symphony which he revised so heavily in 1851 it's pretty much a separate work; and finally comes the great Rhenish symphony. That makes seven. This time round LSO Live decided that the standard four 'canonical' symphonies were what was required.

I suppose if I had to identify a piece by Schumann that I’m completely and unconditionally passionate about, it’d be his oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri. I came across it quite by chance when browsing in an antiquarian music shop in Leipzig in 1977. I bought it together with a whole pile of music, thinking that when I got the frontier I would whizz through customs with no trouble. But no, the GDR officials imposed tariffs on me and I had to pay through the nose. It was worth it! Back then Das Paradies was almost totally neglected, and the first time I conducted it was in 1985 at the Aix-en-Provence festival with my Lyon Opera orchestra, and then several times subsequently with the Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique. Nowadays it's done quite often. The thing is it manages to survive its rather facile libretto - a tale taken from Lalla-Rookh by Thomas Moore - which boils down to a kind of Thomas Cook’s tour of Africa, the Orient and the Middle East. It's the imaginary journey of a fallen angel who is trying to get back into paradise, but is forced to go through all these incredible hoops and trials, a little bit as with Tamino in the Magic Flute. She has to get a drop of blood from a dying warrior; she has to bring back the last sigh of a young maiden whose lover has died in her arms. It is all a bit fey and slightly preposterous if you read just the script. This doesn't seem to trouble Schumann in the least, and he lavishes music on it that is both exotic in terms of its range of orchestral colours and incredibly touching. Yet at the same time it retains the intimacy of expanded chamber music. It's how I imagine a song-cycle like the Dichterliebe might have sounded had Schumann decided to orchestrate it.

I get the feeling that behind Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri was an unstated yet defiant message: ‘look, as a composer I refuse to be cowed by great literature - by the poetry of Goethe or the novels of Jean Paul, both of whom I revere. But it's now the turn of music to show its worth. Beethoven showed us the way, and Hector Berlioz and I have followed his lead in our different ways. We are the ones to take abstract music onto a different level now: to show that a modern orchestra, sometimes alone, sometimes with singers, can express the range of human feeling just as well as the finest poets, playwrights or novelists can do’. It's a wonderful piece of chutzpah if it's anywhere close to the truth. I also wonder whether Schumann, who wrote admiringly about the Symphonie Fantastique, was inspired by the strategy Berlioz hits upon in his Roméo et Juliette. For the balcony scene Berlioz starts by composing it like a scene from an opera; but then he decides to remove the singers and the words, leaving just the instruments to personify the two lovers and to convey their passionate exchanges. But there's no lack of poignancy. It is so bold, so telling, and unbelievably full of pathos and romanticism. Berlioz compresses into eighteen minutes of sublime music rivalling the whole of Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde.

Listen to our exclusive Sir John Eliot Gardiner playlist on Primephonic.